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John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman: How can we improve online learning?

A computer scientist and a PhD student in the Graduate School of Education share insights from this singular moment in education history.

A minimalist line sketch of a person looking at a small device screen and having the glow reflect on their face

“We’re in the middle of something really unusual here.” | Unsplash/visuals

Coming off a spring quarter disrupted by a global pandemic, two scholars in modern higher education set out to explore the good and the bad in our global experiment with near-universal online education.

John Mitchell is a noted professor of computer science and former vice provost for teaching and learning at Stanford. Maxwell Bigman is a doctoral candidate in the Stanford Graduate School of Education. The two surveyed the online experiences of Stanford’s Department of Computer Science, home to the university’s largest undergraduate major with over 2,000 declared students.

Their upcoming short paper detailing their study will debut at LWMOOCS, a September conference on online learning originally scheduled in Guatemala but now online. The paper is both a snapshot of a singular moment in education history and a handbook of sorts for educators and students on how to get the most out of online learning. “We’re in the middle of something really unusual here,” Mitchell said. Stanford Engineering recently talked with Mitchell and Bigman about their study and what it means for education.

You speak of online learning that goes “beyond being there.” What does that mean?

Maxwell Bigman: We borrowed the concept from the human-computer interaction world. “Beyond being there” is the notion that, rather than trying to replicate in-person experiences with technology, it’s using the technology to allow for opportunities that aren’t possible in — and in many ways are preferable to — the traditional in-person classroom setup. And so that’s been our lens. There are tools, specifically designed for education, like polling apps, question-and-answer applications, group messaging applications, plus reading apps that help the students to annotate and share thoughts, for instance, that can help in a way that’s not like the in-person classroom.

These tools realize possibilities that can’t be done in-person, but their traditional purpose is to augment the in-person experience. The challenge now is that we need to think about how to replace the in-person experience. We believe that instructors should think about experiences that are uniquely possible online to achieve the same learning goals. Tool designers will need to step in to meet this challenge, and instructors need to get creative about how they use existing tools.

John Mitchell: In the spring, I think we all thought, We just need to get through the quarter; it’ll be a short-term disruption without too many long-term consequences. That was naïve, as it turns out. Instructors tried to replicate as close as possible the campus course in this “everyone scattered to the winds” setting. We need to move beyond that short-term thinking now to make online learning work better for instructors, students, parents — everyone.

Where are the biggest opportunities to improve online learning?

John Mitchell: There are several parts of a course. The first is presenting content — that we kind of know how to do in video. The second part, the interactive, question-and-answer classroom model, has to be done live and Zoom can work for that. Then there’s a third part of many CS classes where students work on problems in small groups, normally outside of class meetings. We have found that for one term in spring, most students just try to study with students they knew before. As we continue into a full year ahead, connecting students with others in the course is more complicated. It’s tricky to make that work smoothly for lots of students who may be scattered across the world — different time zones and all that. Our CS courses also have office hours to answer students’ questions, and that’s a part that needs more attention. Online office hours for big courses have long lines and long wait times, without ways for students to find other students with the same questions. Instructors have struggled with this. We are going to try to improve this coming year.

Maxwell Bigman: More to that point, we think educators need to emphasize better tracking of the well-being of students. That’s actually a big takeaway for instructors. A really simple piece of advice would be to give a questionnaire every week, the same day of the week, the same time. “How are you? How are you doing? Is the course going OK? What things do you not understand? What help do you need?” And just read the responses. See where people are. That I think would really be a help.

Another less widely adopted strategy that goes along with that is rethinking grades. We may have to reimagine how students can show that they’ve achieved proficiency. This largely comes down to allowing students to resubmit work as often as needed until they have the material down. This approach aligns better with a “mastery-based approach,” which I think is a better model for learning and reaching proficiency relative to traditional grades. It also demonstrates a certain level of care and understanding for their personal well-being.

What advice would you give teachers overwhelmed with how to structure their courses for the fall?

John Mitchell: The first thing is to avoid Zoom fatigue. Try to break down your class into some parts that students can do anytime they want, and a lesser number of times that they have to be there at the time the course meets. That seems to work well. You use the interaction time wisely, but it also gives students some flexibility. I would also stress the grading issue that Maxwell mentioned, because I think that’s a huge thorny area. Reflect on what’s really important about grading. These things that cause stress and competition for students — I would encourage simplicity in that.

Maxwell Bigman: I think predictability is really important for the student. Have one source of truth, which is to say, if you’ve got a learning management system, a course website and a Zoom link, make sure that the students know where to go and where everything is getting updated — and what’s required, what’s optional and when things are due. Also, be flexible. The syllabus is not written in stone. In that regard, students have a lot more influence on course structure than in the past. Some professors we talked to had success with short feedback surveys throughout the term where students answer some open-ended questions to explain how they think things are going.

Where do we stand in the longer term? Are we just waiting for the pandemic to pass and then things will go back to what went before, or are we looking at some hybrid model going forward?

John Mitchell: I think it’s too early to say how we’ll feel at the end, because we don’t have any idea how far we are from the end. Most instructors will welcome the chance to be with their students in person again. I think that’s unanimous. So I think there will be a natural inclination to say, “Oh, great — we can go back to the things that we know and love.” But I think we will also have learned a lot that will change education in some permanent ways. We learned a lot in the spring, but we’re going to learn three times as much over the next few quarters.

Maxwell Bigman: I think it depends on the type of student you’re talking about. For undergrads, we have to remember just how much the in-person Stanford experience means to them. Just anecdotally, I was talking to a friend, an undergrad. She’s going to skip the fall quarter and return for the in-person winter quarter. I asked what percentage of her classmates she thought would do the same and she said, “Probably 75%.” But for a graduate student who just wants to get that degree from Stanford to accelerate a career, I think it’s a different story. They want to complete the coursework and move on, so the online environment works for them for the most part.

Programs like the Stanford Center for Professional Development, which does a lot of online, asynchronous/synchronous course delivery, could see a major benefit from the move to a hybrid model where the students get more of the authentic Stanford experience without ever having to come to campus.