Statistics 201 is the introductory statistics class at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, taught through the Haslam College of Business, that services students from all across the university. Over 1,200 students take it per semester, with backgrounds ranging from nursing to the sciences, as well as business majors. In this article, I describe my approach to teaching this course synchronously in an online format on YouTube via my home studio, and provide a summary of my setup, including all the hardware and software used.
Keywords: online teaching, distance learning, livestreaming, massive online open course (MOOC), gamification
Statistics 201 is the introductory statistics class at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, taught through the Haslam College of Business, that services students from all across the university. Over 1,200 students take it per semester, with backgrounds ranging from nursing to the sciences, as well as business majors. About 70% of the class are sophomores, and we require only calculus as a prerequisite; no statistics background is assumed.
Before the pandemic, the course consisted of about 128 students per section across 10 sections. It currently has 345 students in the online-only section, nearly triple the typical enrollment of in-person sections. Four faculty members currently teach the course, including me; I’m responsible for three sections, including the online-only section, and teach over 700 students.
The online-only class meets in live or synchronous sessions on YouTube—not Zoom—twice a week (Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays) in the early afternoon local time for 75 minutes each, for 15 weeks. This works out to be about 28 or 29 sessions per semester, depending on which days the section meets. Each class has its own unlisted playlist on YouTube (Exhibit 1).
My entry into the world of online teaching was really a stroke of good luck. I started my teaching career as a graduate student in 2011. The department head at that time, Dr. Ken Gilbert, recommended that I be appointed a senior lecturer. Following the retirement of Dr. Ramon Leon, the department gave me a chance to continue and expand its online program.
When I first started teaching online at Haslam, I did it from a mostly empty classroom using Zoom. I brought my computer to the podium facing me while I faced the webcam, which was placed in the midst of a few students who attended in person. I focused on student interactions by looking directly into the camera as much as possible. It helped that I positioned my laptop so it was on the podium just below the camera’s line of sight, hence my looking at the podium computer would be seen by the class as looking at them (Exhibit 2). This allowed me to shift back and forth between using my computer (I used Excel, Stata, and other statistical software packages), which was screen-shared with the students, and lecturing. From these pretty humble beginnings, little by little, I added further refinements to this platform and received very positive feedback for my setup and quirky style (you have to watch one of my lectures to understand what I mean by that).
In 2013, I was asked to design an asynchronous class for Statistics 201 for the Business Online Summer Session program. For that class, I was filmed at a higher level of production quality than the YouTube videos I had previously made at home. This is probably where I caught the video bug. After Haslam built a dedicated studio for online teaching in 2019, it occurred to me that we could use it to make online teaching a much bigger thing. Why not just do all of it live? After all, this is what streamers do all the time on YouTube gaming or Twitch, and include a number of Hollywood-style elements like intros, outros, music, sound effects, and other captivating features (Exhibit 3). So why couldn’t we bring it into the classroom?
With the assistance of my colleagues Mark Collins, a strong proponent of technology-enhanced education at the university, and Jason Greenway (wielding the pink lightsaber in Exhibit 3), who assisted with the graphics—and inspired my use of Adobe After Effects for my online classes—I built my home studio (see Appendix). The only additional piece of equipment I needed was a better microphone, which I received as a Christmas gift.
My goal behind the online version of Stats 201 was to do things you could never do in person, and make the class more fun than you could ever be in person. This obviously keeps student engagement high. A digital native myself—I have fond memories of my family's Texas Instruments computer from 1986, when I was four years old—I was inspired by well-produced shows performed live on popular streaming sites, especially gaming livestreams. I wanted to incorporate the same sort of interaction with the performers, and the chats between different viewers, as key design elements in my online class.
The class requirements include:
10 visualization assignments
20 homework assignments
Class requirements include 10 visualization assignments using the JMP software package, which are graded on clarity and facility in presentation. They cover basic statistical concepts, for example, performing a t test. There are also two projects later in the semester that are more difficult. The first is writing a technical report with a clear executive summary that includes its key findings, using a prewritten report as the starting point. This is basically a ‘gimme’ for the students, mainly to help build confidence at the outset and to get them to think visually. The second project, however, combines the conceptual knowledge gained from the visualization assignments and the executive summary of the first project into writing a full paper.
The class also includes quizzes conducted through Pearson: MyLab & Mastering (the text used is also from Pearson), and three tests conducted through Respondus LockDown Browser. These tests are 90 minutes in length, about 60 questions each, with an average score in the mid-70s. There are 10 regular ‘Canvas1 content’ quizzes, which incorporate questions that are in the question bank for the tests. I also use the Kahoot! game-based platform for review sessions, which incorporate these questions. There are also homework assignments through myPearson, which account for 5% of the grade, which I’ll say more about below.
Before each class, I want students to look at the homework on myPearson. They are allowed an infinite number of attempts on it, so there’s no downside. If a student doesn’t work on it, I’ll send an email to encourage them.
The class uses the online YouTube chat extensively, using its tagging functions to contact specific people, including questions for me. This can occur before the class formally starts. I will usually put on a one-minute countdown timer immediately before class, and a series of timers guide my actions throughout. I have a saying that students know well and have come to appreciate: "We start on time. We end on time.”
The class begins with a short opening video segment on the YouTube livestream, lasting 10 to 15 seconds. I begin immediately afterwards, starting with a five-minute recap to get the students’ mindset realigned with the class, and the upcoming test and assignment schedule.
I use preset video segments and prewritten whiteboards for my lectures, and I monitor the chat for questions. Throughout the class, students are either chatting with me or with each other. What makes Stats 201 really innovative, however, is that during the lecture material, I’ll loosen up the class with techniques taken from gaming—maybe introducing a ‘boss battle’ (Exhibit 4) or a ‘Speed Run’—to keep the lecture from being too static.
A boss battle is a segment designed to prevent the flow of a lecture from becoming tedious. I use it when a test or project is coming up and I tell the students that it’s like the ‘Boss’ in a video game and it taunts you, so I’ll use an evil ‘Voice of God’ special effect via the GoXLR and tell the students “the test is coming, and if you don’t prepare, you’re NOT gonna like your grade, ha ha ha!” I also use the boss battle metaphor when I’m about to cover a difficult topic like Type I versus Type II errors, to get the students prepared: "This is going to be tough, but don't get discouraged—you’re going to beat this boss."
A Speed Run (Exhibit 5) serves a different purpose. This is a timed exercise in which I try to explain a concept as quickly as possible on a clean slate (usually a blank Word document that I bring up next to me), somewhat similar to a game of Pictionary, to energize students about that concept.
Another graphic innovation is “Tiny Brian” (Exhibit 6), a smaller video image of me that students find endearing, and will message “Protect tiny Brian” in the chat and ask, “Can tiny Brian explain this to us?” I try to monitor the emotional reactions of the class to each of these innovations, sometimes relying on skills I developed as a semiserious online poker player (back in my ‘bad ole days’). Other characters include a giant backwards image of me nicknamed “Brawl” (an inside joke stemming from a student’s misspelling of my name in the chat). To mix up the format even more, I often include “Wacky Daily Events” interludes to add further stimulation. My fiancée, Chelsea, assists in the development of these innovations and their associated audio components, such as voiceover work.
I’m also a big user of the program MuBot to carry out other functions within the YouTube chat. This software—using the Streamlabs Chatbot—tracks how much people are interacting in the chat, and assigns them points according to their activity. These programs came out of the gaming community, where they’re used to reward greater participation. Students feel a sense of accomplishment when they rise up the ranks of participation. This measure of participation is also used in the final grade instead of the more common practice of rounding up a student’s grade at the end of the semester if they happened to be an active participant.
Students can ask questions on chat at any time. I wait until I finish discussing a particular point and then turn to their question. This does take some practice and awareness. In one form or another, I’ve been teaching this class online for nearly a decade, so I’ve developed a certain intuition for what students find difficult and easy. If I sense growing frustration with a particular concept, I’ll take a break and switch the format to a brief “Talk With Brian” session where I’ll turn to some nonclass topic (e.g., a new videogame system, or the Vols game last weekend), and if things go too far afield, I may switch to a speed run. It’s really like playing an instrument during a concert—you have to watch the crowd.
After the class ends, I change the visual environment once again, announcing that the class is over with a big sign to give students the cue that there is no more formal instruction. However, I always stay online to answer questions in the chat.
During pre-pandemic days, after the first day of class I would organize field trips to my office for the online students to grab some candy, to create a greater sense of interaction with students. Today, I organize surprise streaming sessions and use email to maintain personal connections. I also monitor a Discord channel for my students (another gift from the gaming industry), which is available for them to use at any time and includes video and voice chat. Exhibit 7 contains a screenshot of the site where students can request a role on the server associated with their assigned section. This limits what they can access on the server to their section only.
Similarly, I used to have regular office hours where between 10 to 40 students would typically show up (eight students in my office at any given time, and overflow in outside cubicles). Discord and YouTube sessions are a partial substitute for this personal interaction. The YouTube office hours sessions are recorded and annotated (which is a big time commitment), and the corresponding chat is also recorded.
I’m also a big fan of Kahoot! (Exhibit 8), an online interactive quiz game show (available at Kahoot.it) in review sessions, typically on Sunday nights. These quizzes are conducted rather like a tournament, and include questions about major topics covered in each chapter. They include a leaderboard, and the top-ranked students receive prizes with real value in the form of Amazon gift cards. Up to 200 students have been known to participate, but on a typical night, the number is closer to 100 to 150.
Two of my initial concerns about teaching online were that students would have a harder time absorbing the material, and that I wouldn’t be able to cover as much material. I have to say that I’m proud that neither of these worries have come to pass based on my course evaluations (Exhibit 9). My teaching ratings have actually increased slightly with the online-only sections (Exhibit 9b), and the students have done as well if not better on the same exams we use for in-person sections. To my great relief and delight, students really like the online format.
Exhibit 9. (a) Fall 2020 Stats 201 course evaluation for Brian Stevens; (b) trend of ratings for Brian Stevens’s Stats 201 sections, by courses taught for in-person and, after course 75, online versions.
One potential issue with the online format is the potential misuse of the chat function during class, causing disruption and ill will among its participants. I haven’t had more than one or two issues in all my years of online teaching, but when it does happen, it’s important to put a stop to it quickly and decisively. Establishing the right culture in the chat is critical, not only for avoiding these kinds of issues, but also for creating norms that will facilitate more active and supportive interactions.
One way to achieve this elusive goal is to give all students ‘channel moderator’ status. This means that each student has the administrative rights to block another student from the chat, in much the same way that a systems administrator can lock a user’s account. Giving every student such authority may seem like a crazy idea, but being endowed with this elevated status seems to empower students to take greater responsibility for the quality of the chat, and the results speak for themselves in terms of how well the chat window has functioned throughout my years of online teaching.
Another method I’ve come up with for maintaining a positive vibe and a sense of fun is to inspire a group identity. For example, during one semester, the students spontaneously came up with the “Stats Nation” meme, and it stuck. Another semester, the students coined the memorable quote “Vols help Vols” (the students at the University of Tennessee are known as the Volunteers or Vols). I maintain a list of quotable quotes and in-jokes from the chat—in the format of a ‘leaderboard’—that students can access throughout the semester, and it’s surprising how much camaraderie this generates. It will often ‘make [a student's] day’ to see their quote appear on the leaderboard.
Maintaining the right level of connection with students is key to this process. I’ve noticed that some students assume an inappropriately informal attitude in the online student–teacher relationship at the beginning of the course, so I gently correct them. But on the other hand, I also enjoy making a personal connection with my students and try to encourage this. For example, one of my students discovered during office hours that he and I shared an interest in Korean popular music or K-Pop, so he sent me a recent favorite of his and we chatted about this after class. By engaging with students both in and outside of class, we’re able to develop an online rapport that I’m not sure many faculty are able to achieve with their in-class students.
Teaching Stats 201 at the Haslam College of Business in an online synchronous format has been a challenging but extremely rewarding experience. The results from student feedback suggest that for many students, synchronous online instruction may actually be preferred, not just by students, but also from the pedagogical perspective. Students seem to learn as much, if not more, with the current online format of Stats 201, as measured by their performance on problem sets and examinations, which are the same as those used for in-person classes. Broader implications of my experience and home studio are discussed in more detail by Lo et al. (2022). Even after the pandemic is over and we return to the classroom, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville plans to continue offering Stats 201 in the synchronous online format, and I look forward to teaching it.
I thank Andrew Lo and Sean Willems for helpful comments and discussion, and the Haslam College of Business for giving me the opportunity to teach Stats 201.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only, and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any institution or agency, any of their affiliates or employees, or any of the individuals acknowledged above.
Lo, A. W., Stevens, B., & Willems, S. P. (2022). World of EdCraft: Challenges and opportunities in synchronous online teaching. Harvard Data Science Review, 4(2). https://doi.org/10.1162/99608f92.73a1c910
Lo, A. W. (2022). World of Edcraft: Teaching healthcare finance at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Harvard Data Science Review, 4(2). https://doi.org/10.1162/99608f92.5c45c405
Willems, S. (2022). Word of Edcraft: Teaching supply chain management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Harvard Data Science Review, 4(2). https://doi.org/10.1162/99608f92.2b7d0bc7
©2022 Brian Stevens. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) International license, except where otherwise indicated with respect to particular material included in the article.