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Ideas Made to Matter

Tips for digital teaching from prizewinning professors


Last spring, schools worldwide shifted to remote learning with the surge of COVID-19, a transition that wasn’t always smooth or satisfactory for students or teachers. Now, many instructors are looking to up their digital game as schools in the U.S., both K-12 and higher ed, head into a fall of hybrid or fully online teaching.

While no organization was ready for such an abrupt pivot, MIT Open Learning had something of a leg up: The group’s mission is to transform teaching and learning through the innovative use of digital technologies.

Open Learning is a co-sponsor of the annual student-nominated Teaching with Digital Technology Awards, which celebrate MIT faculty and instructors who deploy innovative, effective use of technology for teaching and learning.

The awards launched in 2016, but they’re particularly relevant this year. Honorees “stepped up at an unusual time, adapting with new tools and practices on little notice,” said Ian Waitz, MIT vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, in a statement. “They demonstrated resilience, ingenuity, and creative problem-solving.”

Specifically, educators were lauded for

  • Ensuring the online versions of their courses were accessible and easy for students to navigate.
  • Going to lengths to preserve the hands-on portion of classwork — for example, by arranging for students to receive hardware lab kits for at-home experiments.
  • Responding to students’ heightened emotional and educational needs with empathy, flexibility, and increased availability.

Following is advice from five of the honorees from MIT Sloan on how to excel in digital teaching. Senior lecturers Kara Blackburn and Ben Shields were also honored.

Minimize technological distractions

professor of operations management, taught course 15.785, Digital Product Management.

“I don’t let technology distract the students or me. I minimize the number of screens I use and ask students to do the same. I have one thing to focus on at a stretch: me talking, or something I’m writing, or each other. In line with this, I really minimize the content on every slide I show to its bare essence. My mental model is that I’m paying a dollar for every word I put on the slide if it’s remote, and I only have so many dollars per class.”

Lean in to current events

professor of accounting, taught course 15.518, Taxes and Business Strategy.

“I talked about current tax legislation, such as the CARES Act. The students loved this because we studied current tax law changes due to the virus almost immediately in real time. It was signed by the president on Friday, and I taught it Tuesday and Thursday of the next week. I think students liked the real-time aspect of the class, and they all said they really learned a lot about how Congress was reacting to the pandemic from that part of the class. It wasn’t lost on them.

“I also used a flipped classroom [where students watch lectures or videos before class]. I think that allowed me to shorten the live or synchronous class time a bit, which may have helped them with ‘Zoom exhaustion,’ as it came to be known, and gave them a bigger break between classes on actual class days.

“I also used breakout rooms. I think the breakout rooms do help quieter students speak up in the smaller groups. I think this helped more than I anticipated.”

Prioritize personal contact

assistant professor of operations research and statistics, taught course 15.071, The Analytics Edge.

“It’s challenging to bring everyone on board during one-size-fits-all lectures. I find [virtual] office hours and e-mails to be instrumental to help students understand methods and go deeper where they want to. Especially as we move toward a more ‘hyflex’ format, I think it’s key to find opportunities to re-create these one-on-one or small-group interactions outside the classroom. Different formats work better for different people.”

Experiment, and keep iterating

senior lecturer in management communications, taught course 15.286, Communicating with Data.

“One of the best and hardest things I did was to take my own advice to students: Treat this like an opportunity to learn, and focus more on trying new things than on fear of failure. The first time I kicked off a class, nearly shouting into a web camera in my home, I realized just how difficult this advice is to follow.

“The one upside of this past semester was that students knew we had no time to prepare, so they were willing to tolerate anything that showed evidence that the teacher was trying. I got to test out every silly green-screen effect I could come up with. Some worked, some didn’t — but even the ones that didn’t work gave us something to talk about. I learned that in times of crisis, people really appreciate the effort that you put in to care for them and to adapt. I hope that’s the spirit I carry forward.

“It’s easy to pull together tricks, but it remains hard, in any medium, to use those moments of surprise and delight to reinforce the content. That’s the challenge I hope to continue working on no matter what the future of our teaching looks like.”

Use every tool in the box

professor of accounting, taught course 15.720, Financial Accounting.

“The main thing I kept in mind was that I had to mimic what I was giving students in the classroom as closely as possible: It was crucial for me to have slides, a blackboard, annotation, and various modalities to switch between — which is something I was able to do with my iPad — to have a more dynamic experience.

“Put yourself in the position of the student, and imagine what it would take in terms of class adjustments to make the online experience as close to the on-campus experience as possible. There is no universal answer to this question, because each class follows a specific format. But what I learned last spring (and many other faculty have been learning as well) is that it can certainly be done.”

For more tips, watch the awards video:

For more info Tracy Mayor Senior Associate Director, Editorial (617) 253-0065