University of Tennessee

Conquer the Dread Digital Dragon to Teach Online Successfully

April 26, 2021

Can your paladin use his vorpal blade to cut the Gordian Knot of online teaching? Not quite. But in a new working paper, three college professors 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 virtual interaction greatly diminishes the effect of this stimuli. According to Brian Stevens and Sean Willems of the Department of Business Analytics and Statistics in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, and Andrew W. Lo, a finance professor at MIT, online gamers have discovered how to approximate live interactions online (even with virtual characters) to keep players glued to their virtual offerings. College 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,” they 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 videogame 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, never a dull moment, except for strategic, periodic breaks that provide punctuation for the action
  3. Opportunities for two-way communication: draw students in as active participants in the narrative to keep them engaged in the learning process
  4. High production values: today’s college 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. However, to give instructors guideposts, 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 aides that helped them along the way. (Tip: A tech-savvy TA is more indispensable than diamond armor!) Among the other factors they address are:

  • 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/adjust course content/coverage
  • Student adaptability to the virtual environment

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

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 says. “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 faculty’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 – as was the case for me with 15.482 – then faculty can and will devote significantly more time and effort to course development and teaching without hesitation or regret,” he says.

Because many campuses likely will resume live teaching in the fall (including UT and MIT) and human biology dictates that in-person instruction will (probably) always prove superior to online teaching, college instructors may feel no urgency to amp up their online teaching prowess. However, COVID-19 will not simply go away, and no one can promise that new upheavals will not disrupt in-person teaching again. Exploring “The World of Edcraft” at your leisure rather than when a time-thieving lich king confronts you is probably a good move in this game.

About the Department of Business Analytics and Statistics at UT’s Haslam College of Business

The Department of Business Analytics and Statistics’ mission is to create knowledge through research and to disseminate that knowledge through its degree programs. The faculty uses the results of its application-focused research to educate students on how to effect positive change within organizations by emphasizing soft skills such as communication and team building alongside the targeted and effective use of analytics. The department’s continually evolving curriculum draws upon state-of-the-art theoretical and practical content from the fields of statistics, machine learning and operations research.


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist,