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Can your paladin use a Vorpal blade to cut the Gordian knot of online teaching? Not quite. But in a new working paper, three college faculty members propose that video gamers could teach college instructors a few lessons.

Humans are hardwired to be social creatures, responding strongly to live stimuli from other people. Studies show that virtual interaction greatly diminishes the effect of these stimuli.

According to Brian Stevens, senior lecturer, and Sean Willems, Ed Boling Faculty Research Fellow and professor, both in the Department of Business Analytics and Statistics in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, and Andrew W. Lo, Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, online gamers have discovered how to approximate live interactions online—even with virtual characters—to keep players glued to their virtual offerings. Professors pressed into virtual teacher-student interaction by the COVID-19 pandemic should embrace the tools and techniques of the online role-playing industry, among others, the authors say.

“If learning requires focus and attention, then in-person instruction will always dominate online instruction for purely biological reasons, other things equal,” the authors write in “World of Edcraft: Challenges and Opportunities in Synchronous Online Teaching.” Pedagogy’s challenge in a virtual environment, then, is ensuring that other things aren’t equal to the learning content offered over the ether. That entails taking cues from the film, advertising, music, and video game industries, using technology to alter students’ realities, and engaging as many senses as possible to make the online learning environment alluring.

Four key elements, the authors suggest, can help transform instructors’ online content into more attention-grabbing presentations:

  1. Narrative: a specific storyline or overarching theme that invigorates the instructional livestream
  2. Continuous flow of action: in sight and sound, ensuring there is never a dull moment except for strategic periodic breaks that provide punctuation for the action
  3. Opportunities for two-way communication: drawing students in as active participants in the narrative to keep them engaged in the learning process
  4. High production values: recognizing that students are creatures of the digital age, expecting and responding to quality digital content

Trying to recommend the best equipment to use for online instruction would be fruitless because technology is updated constantly, the authors say. To give instructors guideposts, however, they exhaustively catalog the technology each uses for online teaching and explain how the equipment they choose suits their delivery: “weatherman” style for Lo, “newscaster” style for Stevens, and “talking head”/lightboard style for Willems. They also offer insightful discussion of unexpected issues they faced teaching online and useful aids that helped them along the way—for example, a tech-savvy teaching assistant is more indispensable than diamond armor. Among the other factors they address:

  • Additional time investment for instructors, assistants, and students, especially at first
  • The importance of maintaining a positive vibe and sense of fun
  • How to manage the level of instructor–student engagement
  • Potential need to review and adjust course content and coverage
  • Student adaptability to the virtual environment
Brian Stevens

Overall, the authors present a positive review of virtual instruction. Years ago, when Stevens first started teaching virtually, he was apprehensive that students would be turned off by the format. To his relief, they liked it.

“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,” Stevens said. “I have to say that I’m proud that neither of these worries have come to pass, based on my course evaluations.”

Sean Willems

Willems notes that one result of engaging in online instruction is the enhancement of his in-person work.

“I am confident that synchronous online teaching will improve my on-campus teaching,” he said. “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.”

Lo says that while doing his course online was time-intensive, if a class is based on a faculty member’s research interests, they probably won’t mind the additional effort.

“If it’s possible to design a course that aligns with a faculty member’s research agenda . . . then faculty can and will devote significantly more time and effort to course development and teaching without hesitation or regret,” he said.

Because many campuses, including UT and MIT, are likely to resume live teaching in the fall, instructors may be less rushed in designing online courses, giving them more time to incorporate new approaches and techniques like those suggested by Stevens, Willems, and Lo.


Scott McNutt (865-974-3589,