How to Improve Online Learning: Lessons from the Spring 2020 Quarter at Stanford

Panel discussion by John Mitchell, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University; Maxwell Bigman, PhD Student in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University; and Christina Prkic (moderator), Director at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, at the 2020 Project Ascendance Summit.

In this panel, experts from Stanford and from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco discussed: 

  • Experimenting with synchronous and asynchronous classroom environments, flipped classrooms, and different online tools
  • Helping students meet, network, collaborate, complete meaningful activities, and learn from one another
  • Thinking creatively about using technology and designing online learning specifically for an online setting
  • Staying positive and using what we’re learning now to improve education in the long run
  • Working with and listening to students

Themes that Emerged During a Full Term of Online Instruction in Spring 2020

John Mitchell, a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford, and Maxwell Bigman, a PhD student at Stanford’s GSE, conducted a survey of the online experiences of Stanford’s CS program and revealed those results in a paper, “Teaching Online in 2020: Experiments, Empathy, Discovery.” At Stanford, and so many other universities, Mitchell said, everyone did what they could to adapt to circumstances in the emergency shift to online instruction. It was a seat-of-the-pants-effort. Most faculty spent several times as long as they normally would have to prepare and teach their courses.

They talked to a lot of teachers in the spring term, Bigman said, and were seeing a lot of experimentation with synchronous and asynchronous classroom environments. Instructors were trying to deal with student disruption—the loss of residential resources was very tough on students and highlighted a lot of inequality that was previously mitigated by those resources. They also saw an expansion of the pedagogical toolbox, and instructors being willing to experiment with flipped classrooms and different online tools.

For both synchronous and asynchronous classes, Mitchell said, instructors tried to make more prerecorded videos to reduce Zoom fatigue. Another factor was that students used to be on campus, and then scattered to different situations, so instructors had to become a lot more committed to what was happening with students.

Reducing Zoom Fatigue and Facilitating Student Collaboration

They found that instructors were cutting their prerecorded lectures into much smaller chunks, Bigman said—seven minutes is the magic number they learned from the MOOC (massive open online course) era.
Students are more engaged when you make classes more interactive, he said, and when you ask them to actively participate. Students connecting with other students is important, and breakout rooms allow for an intimate feel that usually isn’t there in a big lecture.

The class meeting is only a portion of the learning experience for students, Mitchell pointed out. They also have readings, problem sets, groups, interaction—instructors have to think about all those things. One question is, how do we support students meeting other students to collaborate for projects, learn from one another, and connect with one another? That’s something students in Stanford’s survey valued very much, he said.

Comparisons with the MOOC Environment

Mitchell mentioned that he built a platform (Stanford CourseWare) that was widely used on campus, and learned over the next five or six years that everyone really wants more education. That’s something he carried over from the MOOC effort. We should aim to provide more education for more people, he said.

They thought if they opened the Stanford lectures to everybody, he said, it would be the equivalent of being a student at Stanford, but part of what they saw in this period is that’s not the case at all. The course meeting is just the tip of the iceberg. If you don’t find ways to support students meeting one another, networking, and doing meaningful activities, you haven’t really provided a successful education.

What it Means to Be “Beyond Being There”

Beyond Being There is a term from the human computer interaction literature, Bigman said, about what you can do uniquely online that you can’t do in person. Rather than trying to replicate how you were teaching on campus and just porting that over, can you think creatively about how to design online learning that takes advantage of things that are possible in an online setting? In a lecture class, usually no one asks questions. Now, in a Zoom chat, people can fire off questions when they please and that creates more interaction.

There are a lot of tools that allow for social engagement, Bigman said, like with reading and adding comments asynchronously, which allows for more lively and informed discussion. It does seem to come back to the relationships among students, the support they get, how they learn with and from one another—that has to be more creatively thought about. Building those relationships in an online environment is incredibly hard.

Using Technology to Measure and Maintain Attention

One basic thing Mitchell sees over and over again is that a tech feature is not the same thing as a pedagogical method. Step back, ask what you’re trying to accomplish, and set some expectations. There are many different ways to work on this, and it depends on the size of the group. Try to create a process that could be effective and set ground rules, but don’t fight human nature.

Mitchell said that teaching assistants are very helpful and don’t need to be used just for grading. You can be creative and let them be your eyes and ears. The key is to be deliberate about what you’re asking students to do and for what purpose; this can help deal with some of that potential overload and drifting of attention.

It’s harder to get everyone engaged in this setting than it is around the table, Bigman said. The in-person elements are missing, so you have to work extra hard in this environment. You have to be attentive to that yourself; if people aren’t engaged it might not be their fault. Overall, the more interaction you have, the better—you can have a side channel, side conversations, and it can be extremely useful for someone to ask for help in chat or some other format.

Bigman echoed Mitchell, emphasizing that the technology won’t be the pedagogy. It’s important to separate those out. People have been experimenting with creating Slack channels for student communication, and the discussion boards are very active in classes in the CS department. Give people the chance to voice those questions, he said. One professor is using Poll Everywhere while in class: as students complete something, they say they’ve completed it, so if someone’s stuck, you can see that happening. It’s a creative use of the technology. It’s not how it’s intended to be used, but it works in this setting.

Poll Everywhere, Google Forms—they’re a way to ask how it’s going, do you like this, do you not like that, Mitchell said. As people become more experienced with a technology, they use it in one particular way, but then may be able to evolve to a more sophisticated use of the tools. In a teaching environment, it’s all about the culture and expectations of the environment.

How the Online Learning Experience Amplifies DEI

Mitchell made two points on online learning’s experience with DEI. One is that, in his experience with his own enrolled students, he saw much more starkly how different the backgrounds and home environments are. If you ask people to turn on their camera, they might feel embarrassed, so you have to find ways to help people feel comfortable regardless of the circumstances they’re in and the technology they use. There’s research on all these topics, and good research on how to make an inclusive online environment.

Look at what kind of signals you send, he said, and examine if any situations broadcast subliminally or quietly that this is for one kind of person and not another. The more the more you can learn from people who have studied this, the better.

The other point, Mitchell said, is how to scale education at lower cost. Almost everyone in education is trying to survive and get through this period without failure. The Stanford study is one effort to try to compare things among different instructors to see what worked best, and his team is not the only one doing that. Some of the things they’re learning about using tools will help scale education. Higher ed and K-12 will likely be different as a result of the things that practitioners are doing now.
He’s 100% certain that educators aren’t going to decide that all this online stuff is over, that they’re not using it again. The future lies in between campus and fully online, and different institutions will pick different places on that.

Making learning a lot more personal and personalized, Bigman said, and understanding who you’re learning with and who you’re teaching are crucial. He’s seen the importance of a mastery-based approach, where students can resubmit something until they can show they’re proficient; this can make a difference to a student who’s in a rough setting and feeling that pressure. Instructors have realized how important human connections are—that’s the piece that will be really critical going forward.

For these online environments to succeed, Bigman said, there’s going to need to be a lot more opportunities for students to connect with one another, both online and offline.
There could be a lot of places where learning happens, he said, and hopefully it continues to grow so that it’s not isolated to campuses and school buildings, but spread more widely, and gives people a lot more access.

A Call to Action for Teachers and Educators

Let’s be positive, Mitchell said. Let’s get through the challenges and try to learn from it. If we were in this situation ten years ago, we would not have been able to succeed in the way that we have.

He said he would look for what can we take away that’s positive from this forced experience, and for what helps us achieve our long-term goals. If our goals are better educational opportunity for more people in ways that help them become more successful, let’s use what we’re learning now to improve education.

There’s a need for teachers to see if there are things they can let go of, Bigman said, and try to accomplish the same learning goals in new ways. Part of that is listening to the students. Students have a lot to say, and they’ll know their experience better than anyone. Collecting feedback from students, working with them so we can all go through this together, is really important. There’s no shortage of good ideas, but implementation is hard, and that’s where people working together can really go a long way.

Try to listen to your students, Mitchell said. If they’re not interested in turning on their cameras, ask what’s behind that: Are they uncomfortable? Can you make them more comfortable? Reach out to your students, pay attention, and good luck, because this is a tough year for everybody.

To learn more about the Project Ascendance Summit, visit

Additional resources:

  • Three faculty members address myths about remote teaching during COVID
  • The Dean of Engineering at Dartmouth College offers practical tips for creating engaging, affordable online learning experiences
  • Sanjay Sarma, Vice-President for Open Learning at MIT, offers suggestions for how to rethink teaching and learning
  • Strada Education’s ongoing, weekly COVID-19 Work and Education Survey
  • In his new book, Failure to Disrupt, director of the MIT Teaching System Lab Justin Reich provides lessons about the promise of education technology. He offers a candid view of what we learned from MOOCs, realistic expectations for the next hype cycle, and what might be needed for meaningful systems change. Read more about Justin’s perspective about the book in this interview.
  • In his recent book, Grasp, Sanjay Sarma offers perspective and lessons from MIT’s Open Learning project on how change creates opportunities for replacing outdated instructional approaches with new, scientifically backed ones. Read more about Sanjay’s perspective about the book in this interview.


Get our latest updates sent straight to your inbox.


Recent Posts

Sonia Steinway

About the Author

Sonia is a principal at Artemis.