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How Technology Helps Keep This 3,000-Student Class Engaged

At Virginia Tech, a savvy professor teaches thousands of students live and in-person.

If you’ve been to college, chance are you’ve taken a big lecture class—as many as 500 students in a huge auditorium taking notes or struggling to stay awake—while a professor talks. Students often end up feeling like they’d be better off watching a video lecture from their dorm room and then just completing whatever papers or exams are required. But at Virginia Tech, “World Regions” instructor John Boyer is using technology to keep as many as 3,000 in-person students engaged.

Boyer told the Chronicle of Higher Education that there was high demand on campus for his class, so three years ago he decided to teach such large numbers as an experiment. But he’s not simply lecturing to his students. Along with having an engaging, progressive teaching style, Boyer has introduced gaming principles into his class. Students can choose their own assignments and rack up points for completing them. If they earn a total of 1,050 points, they receive an A. He also keeps students on their toes by giving them regular updates and asking questions through Facebook and Twitter—announcing online quizzes only through those channels—and he holds online office hours using instant messaging on Ustream so students can ask questions and connect.

Boyer also brings global issues to life by hosting Skype interviews with key players—everyone from Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Kony 2012 creator Jason Russell, to actor Martin Sheen. Boyer is dreaming big about who future interview guests will be. "I totally can now foresee that this time next year we're going to get Barack Obama in the classroom, if not live, via Skype," he said.

Virginia Tech students tend to rave about Boyer; the comments they’ve left on the Chronicle article are glowing. But does this mean every class at every university should be supersized to 3,000 students? Not necessarily. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a small class size, and not every professor has the personality or tech-savvy to teach in this way. But Boyer’s example shows what’s possible when technology is maximized.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user yusunkwon.

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