In this article, I describe my experience in teaching a synchronous online course, Introduction to Operations Management, at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The challenges and opportunities of this format are unique, and I summarize my approaches to addressing them in the context of a home studio I built for this purpose. I provide a detailed review of my setup—including a complete listing of my hardware and software—and then discuss how I use that setup in a radically redesigned online version of a course I taught for many years in person.
Keywords: online teaching, distance learning, livestreaming, massive online open course (MOOC), gamification
On April 22, 2020, I learned I needed to deliver my summer operations management course, 15.761, fully online. I spent 14 days trying to find studio space, before my family graciously volunteered to give up space in our house. The studio shown in Exhibit 1 was designed and built in 30 days. More specific details appear in the Appendix and Willems (2020). Five experiences most influenced my course design:
In collaboration with Stephen C. Graves, creating two free online courses through MIT’s online platform MITx: 15.762x Supply Chains for Manufacturing: Inventory Analytics and 15.763x Supply Chains for Manufacturing: Capacity Analytics. These 8-week courses have each run multiple times with thousands of participants and hundreds of verified learners;
In the fall of 2019, developing supplemental online content for my on-campus graduate elective BZAN 555 using the Haslam College of Business’ lightboard studio;
Teaching online class sessions in the spring of 2020. I was not the instructor of record for any class but I did lead class sessions for cases I had written;
Watching my college-aged children shift abruptly to online distance learning in the spring of 2020; and
Reading the student feedback the University of Tennessee (UT) and MIT provided faculty regarding the student experience with online learning in the spring of 2020.
Exhibit 1. Sean Willems’s home studio. (a) main view of the lecturer; (b) talking head view with PowerPoint slides; (c) split screen with lecturer on the left and the document camera on the right; and (d) lightboard.
These experiences gave me the opportunity to reflect on the profound differences between asynchronous online courses (i.e., MITx) and synchronous on-campus courses (i.e., MIT and UT). As an operations person, I immediately mapped this to the educational equivalent of the product-process matrix, as shown in Exhibit 2.
For those unfamiliar with the product-process matrix, the core insight is that the main diagonal is an efficient use of resources, and the off diagonal is inefficient. From Exhibit 2, this insight implies that online-synchronous courses are potentially suboptimal in terms of faculty effort and the student experience. Furthermore, my MITx experience convinced me that I could not easily transfer my on-campus course to a synchronous online format.
I have heard my colleagues say our competition is Netflix, TikTok, YouTube, and similar platforms. I disagree. Our competition is our own teaching, reimagined in a world of TED Talks and high-quality talking-head TV productions (e.g., Frontline, 60 Minutes, etc.). For summer 2020, I had the added challenge, relative to the spring semester, that the students had never seen a high-quality, on-campus business school product. Students who have seen us in the classroom understand the mapping from on-campus to online. If they have never seen the on-campus product, they don’t know what they don’t know. For these new students, the production quality really does matter.
In 2018, I was teaching the on-campus equivalents of the MITx courses when I agreed to participate in 15.762x and 15.763x. I remember thinking how great the timing was, because we could videotape the on-campus courses and integrate them into the asynchronous format of MITx. After taping four on-campus classes, I had a discussion with John Liu (February 20, 2018), now MITx Digital Learning Fellow. After reviewing the videos, John said:
These videos are great but we can’t use them. They perfectly capture the on-campus experience. Online learners watching these videos would come away wanting to be on campus at MIT, and they are not on campus at MIT. Learners don’t want to know how great MIT on-campus courses are. They want the content from MIT courses presented in a way that matches how they learn online.
John’s comment had a huge impact on my thinking, because it was so true to my experience. When we design online asynchronous courses for MITx, our major goals are scalability and clarity. Because real-time interaction and shared learning is absent in online asynchronous classes, the goal is somewhat different than for on-campus synchronous courses. The former emphasizes minimal sufficiency—where the minimally sufficient bar is quite high—whereas the latter focuses on deeper comprehension. We try to remove unnecessary ambiguity in the former that, to a certain extent, we often keep in the latter because we can use it to our advantage in creating intellectual tension that gets resolved in classroom discussion.
COVID-19 has forced a learning model on us that is neither on-campus and synchronous nor online and asynchronous. Instead, it’s an online synchronous class that attempts to replicate the on-campus synchronous experience. My MITx experience was invaluable in helping me realize how hard this transition would be.
The on-campus teaching process cycles between teaching modalities. The instructor walks around the room, facilitates class discussion, writes on the board, and projects applications onto a display. To more closely replicate the on-campus experience using Zoom, I needed to make two changes. First, I used Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) as the command center for the studio, letting it serve as the virtual camera Zoom uses to broadcast content from the studio cameras, the document camera, and any application on the computer. Instead of Zoom using a camera for the video feed, Zoom uses OBS as the video feed, and the instructor’s choices on OBS dictate what is broadcast through Zoom to the audience. Second, I created two camera stations that I moved between, depending on the on-campus teaching modality I was trying to replicate: the talking-head station (Exhibit 1c), which places the instructor behind a standing desk equipped with a document camera and a personal computer, and the lightboard station (Exhibit 1d), which places the instructor behind the lightboard.
The stations engage students differently. The talking-head station is general purpose, while the lightboard station is immersive. The talking-head station allows the instructor to easily converse with students, facilitate class discussion, write with the document camera, and present material from a computer. The station mimics the on-campus student experience by presenting a common image of the instructor across modalities, albeit cropped and sized depending on the modality.
A powerful benefit of the talking-head station is that the single-camera view of the instructor does not change across teaching modalities. The camera image gets cropped, sized, and repositioned, but the perspective remains constant. This exactly mimics the on-campus experience, particularly because all of the camera views keep the instructor large enough for the student to notice the instructor’s mannerisms and movements that are part of any normal classroom session.
The introduction to operations management course, 15.761, is a graduate-level course offered as part of the MBA core curriculum at most top-tier MBA programs. There are 24 class sessions, with each major course themes: process analysis, quality, and supply chain management. Each theme introduces a base mathematical model that is extended in subsequent class sessions. The course has a practical focus, with the intent to demonstrate how these models can be solved, and implemented, in the real world. The core teaching challenge is to properly foster, and then resolve, ambiguity. The students begin the course thinking ‘the math’ underlying the model is the hard part of what they have to learn. They come to realize the model, and its underlying mathematics, is the easy part. The hard part is understanding how to put the model in context and implement it in reality.
Course 15.761 is case-based. A case is 10 to 20 pages that describe facets of a business problem with sufficient detail, allowing the students to apply, and exercise, the model. Successful case teaching requires students to be ‘immersed in the moment.’ That is, they have to take ownership of the case’s problem, and its solution. They have to be committed not only to their own solution, but to each other’s solutions. In this way, the case reflects the real world where one has to get their colleagues on board with their preferred solution. Furthermore, there has to be a receptivity and willingness to bog down in the details of the case. It is these details that are critical to understanding the specific model that will be constructed, and the implementation plan that can be successful in practice.
Teaching 15.761 online required three significant changes to the structure of course, relative to the way I teach the course on campus. In particular, I had to reallocate class time, lead with model discussion, and post solution materials before class.
Exhibit 3 compares a typical online schedule for my course to its on-campus equivalent. While the on-campus course begins with 5 minutes of class administration, the online course requires 10 minutes of class administration. Because we are not all in the same room, I find it necessary to overcommunicate some principles and ensure we have a consistent understanding of the problem. Similarly, I take more time on the mini exercise that begins the class since we will build on it for the entire class session.
Since the students had not yet been on campus at MIT, I broke them into two-person groups that analyzed a problem in three minutes. This gave them the opportunity to get to know one another better, and gently ease into the day’s case. In contrast to the on-campus session, I do more of the talking when identifying the issue of the case; basically, I treat this as plot I advance past. While I would never do this on campus, I think this change is necessary online because it gets us to the core analysis faster.
Exhibit 4a shows a Gantt chart that, on campus, I typically present about 30 minutes into the 65-minute case discussion. At the 50-minute mark, I present Exhibit 4b. By presenting this earlier, the online discussion is more guided, but it still allows students to question if this is the right way to think about the problem. It also ensures we can devote sufficient time to model solution, scenario analysis, and recommendations.
Exhibit 4. The online class presents the session’s model sooner, and in more detail, so that students have time to discuss model solution, scenario analysis, and recommendations in full detail. On campus, (a) is presented 30 minutes into case discussion while (b) is presented 50 minutes into the discussion. Online, both are presented within 5 minutes of the start of the case discussion.
The third change in the online format is that that I posted the solution material in advance. Exhibit 5 shows an analysis that I shared right before class, after students had handed in their analyses.
When I teach on campus, right after class I always post my solution approach and any solution approach we develop in class. I still post any approach we create in class soon after class ends. However, I posted my solution in advance so that students could quickly look at the analysis and resolve any questions they might have. It took some effort, but I did not find this unduly influenced the flow of the session, probably because I would pull up student solutions and have them present the salient details.
In the online setting, the TA is critical. In my on-campus classes, the TA’s presence is good to have because they are available if the students have any administrative issues that can be handled by the TA, the students can build rapport with the TA before or after class, and the TA is better able to answer student questions offline, because the TA has experienced the class with the students. In the online class, I need to have the TA because the TA’s role is not a passive observer but an active manager. The TA is the air traffic controller for the class session. First, the TA arranges who talks next, keeping track of who has already talked and who has not yet talked. Second, the TA is able to handle all sorts of small issues (students saying their Wi-Fi is not working, etc.). If I had to be in charge of these issues, it would take me another 5 or 10 minutes in class and I would not do it nearly as well as the TA. The obvious downside of online learning from the TA’s perspective is they work much harder during the class session. The less obvious downside is they remember virtually no content from the online class itself. They are simply too busy managing the participants to pay any attention to the actual material being covered in the class.
After class, I moved to a separate Zoom room. I did not stay in the class’s Zoom meeting because I found some students felt obligated to stay, even though I told them not to. We did have the TA stay behind under the auspices that he could address any administrative questions students might have. I moved to my personal Zoom room and we told students to treat my movement just like they would treat the time right after class. That is, if they would have wanted to come down after class to tell me something, they should pop over to my Zoom room. And just like on campus, some students stopped by after every class, some students never stopped by, and the majority only stopped by when they had a specific issue they wanted to discuss in more detail.
After eight weeks of teaching, these are the most important lessons I came away with:
Body position directly correlates with teaching energy. The most important learning is also the most obvious learning. I need to teach in the position that matches my on-campus teaching. Since I stand in the classroom, I need to stand in the studio. There is a direct correlation between my posture, when standing, and my energy teaching the class.
Everything takes longer in the online synchronous format. Our on-campus classes are 80 minutes. I cannot teach the same content in the online synchronous format that I teach on campus in the same amount of time. Even with an amazing TA coordinating the student discussion, there are inherent inefficiencies and delays in the online version. We tightly choreograph student dialogue, but it still takes an extra 5 to 10 seconds on each end. We invariably lose 30 seconds each class when someone fails to unmute. That adds up to minutes for each class.
Equally important, the instructor is not able to read the room and speed up if the class is running behind schedule. The ebb and flow of pacing that is so easy to adjust in person is nearly impossible to manage as seamlessly online. I think I really need 95 minutes online to deliver the on-campus content of an 80-minute class, if I would mimic the on-campus format when teaching online.
Content coverage and delivery needs to be reimagined. Related to the previous point, since I am slower in the synchronous online format, I needed to modify my material to achieve the same learning objectives in the same amount of time. While I am as resistant to change as anyone, this was not as hard as it seemed, and I was able to accomplish this without shifting material offline to be completed before class. Instead, I rigorously reevaluated each session’s material to determine what was nice to include but not necessary to include.
I often found myself teaching the session’s material in a different order than I taught it on campus. I started by thinking of the session’s major concepts as items to fit in a knapsack, and then solved the resulting optimization problem to maximize all the items in the knapsack, while still presenting the concepts in a coherent fashion.
Students are resilient and build a terrific culture. The students own the classroom experience and improve it. While I knew this would be true, I did not know exactly how it would manifest itself, especially when the students are not in the same location, with much less personal interaction compared to the typical on-campus experience. Over and over again, the students impressed me with how cohesive a culture they formed.
For example, I make a big deal about always staying ‘in the moment’ when in class. Now I rely heavily on the hand-raise feature of Zoom to start students asking and answering questions. After the third class, the students adopted an innovation where each student would lower their virtual hand whenever any other hand was selected. This made every raised hand a conscious decision, and it forced students to stay in the moment, versus pulling the class back to a comment that might be 5 minutes old. This is only one of many such innovations the students made as the course progressed.
Making personal connections takes time and effort. Even with all this great technology, the student experience suffers due to the lack of physical interaction. At some point in most classes, the professor has to cut off or redirect a student who is saying something that is off-topic. It is often a great point, just one not made at the right time; or the point has already been made, and the class would benefit from the discussion ending. In the classroom, the professor can recognize whether the student thought this was a big deal or not. If they did, the professor can catch them on the way out, and make clear it was not a big deal. That really can’t happen in the same way online. When students go back on mute, they are lost in the Zoom gallery, and the pictures are too small to see much facial expression. It dehumanizes the interaction a bit, and that difference matters. We address this by overcommunicating with students after class. Again, the TA is an amazing asset here. The TA keeps track of these cases in class so the instructor does not have to go back and look over the video. We can then reach out to the student immediately after class and check in to make sure they are okay.
The instructor cannot fully unplug and focus on teaching. When I teach on campus I turn off all my devices before I begin teaching. When teaching online, I need to keep some communication channel open with the TA so I can be made aware of any technical difficulty that might materialize during the class. The most common example would be if my connection has frozen, or if the audio is out of sync with the video. This is another distraction to monitor during class, and it does take some mental energy that would normally be fully allocated to teaching.
The residential setting causes some anxiety. The reliability of a residential studio is simply not as great as the on-campus infrastructure. This causes anxiety for the instructor and the students. Universities have backup power, and everyone is in the same location, so they all share the same conditions. Having everyone spread apart is a real-world demonstration of Murphy’s Law. Someone is always losing power or suffering from a slow Internet connection. One day, the TA’s apartment building had an electrical fire that took the TA offline for 30 minutes. This does add some anxiety to the teaching process because the delivery system simply is not as robust as the on-campus infrastructure.
Choreography becomes second nature. In the early class sessions, I consciously tried to change screen views every few minutes. Since it was all new to me, I invariably made mistakes. More than once, I spoke to an Excel analysis that was not on the screen. As time went on, I got better and better at managing these transitions and within a few weeks they became second nature. Fluidly moving between modalities replicates the on-campus experience, and it makes each transition much more natural.
The on-campus product will improve as a result of synchronous online teaching. An unexpected benefit of synchronous online teaching is that I am confident this will improve my on-campus teaching. The need to tightly choreograph my timing in this online format has forced me to change and improve content that I thought was already good enough. If the material was only going to be delivered on campus, the cost to improve it would not offset the time required. Teaching online forced this reexamination and improvement.
Examples of student feedback taken verbatim from the Summer 2020 evaluations include:
(instructor’s) virtual set-up should be replicated by every ... professor—it made the virtual classroom feel very personal and very smooth!
(instructor’s) teaching method is awesome. Himself and his class aside, the mechanics of how he runs the course should be a faculty best practice.
amazing job at generating engagement in class.
As one would expect, there is still room for improvement in this online synchronous format:
I think the course did a good job adapting to the digital format although the cases were still not as stimulating as they would have been in person ... Overall excellent course and awesome job and seamless delivery in the digital environment.
Given the effort to reimagine one’s teaching approach, I’m now convinced that many of the benefits of the on-campus course can be achieved in an online-synchronous format.
This document describes the design requirements for a video studio with two camera stations that attempts to recreate the teaching modalities that an instructor employs in a graduate-level business school course. Given the effort to reimagine one’s teaching approach, many of the benefits of the on-campus course can be achieved in an online-synchronous format. The broader implications for online education are discussed in Lo et al. (2022).
I thank Andrew Lo and Brian Stevens for helpful comments and discussion.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors 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
Willems, S. P. (2020). Designing a home studio for online synchronous teaching. https://seanwillems.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Willems_DesigningHomeStudio_Final.pdf
Exhibit A1. Sean Willems’s home studio with labeled components: (a) talking head station; (b) lightboard station.
©2022 Sean P. Willems. 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.