The Learning Nerds Podcast is Smart Sparrow’s new edtech learncast. Our goal is to create interesting, educational episodes for listeners who seek to push the boundaries of education and explore the intersection of design, learning, and technology.

For episode three, we wanted to take a look at a common transition in today’s higher education: taking a face-to-face course and digitalizing all or part of it.

I have worked with many instructors going through this transition of moving content from “offline” to “online”. Typically, they want to take advantage of exciting possibilities afforded by education technology — distance “learning by doing” through simulations, adaptive learning paths that provide personalized experiences for thousands of learners at once, immediate feedback that corrects learner mistakes or misinterpretations instantly.

One instructor I feel particularly inspired by is Professor Peter McHenry, an economist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He has a true passion for ensuring his students benefit from their study of economics.

Peter, like many instructors, knows that large class sizes are unavoidable and that they do not meet all his students’ needs. He has been working on improving student outcomes in large lecture halls, and recently began moving key lessons from his face-to-face course to Smart Sparrow’s learning platform.

In this episode, I talk to Peter about how edtech is helping him improve teaching and learning with large class sizes, and what the process looked like to move content online. Below, I’ve pulled out some of my favorite excerpts, but it was so hard to choose. Read on, or put in your headphones to hear everything Peter wants share with other educators:


And if you missed them, you can listen to episodes one and two of The Learning Nerds Podcast next!

Leveraging teaching resources to personalize learning

Me (Grace): “How can we leverage our resources — which includes technology but is not limited to it — to create more of that “small cohort” feeling with classes that are larger, like your Econ 101 classes with 120 students are all coming from different backgrounds?”

Peter: “I think adaptability or adaptivity goes a long way toward doing that. My favorite moments in teaching are often one-on-one or with a small group of students… But when I have 100 students or 200 students I’m responsible for, I just can’t do that with everybody.

“So when I have the technology to be able to give a student a lesson in an online platform, I can imagine different types of students who might get it this way or get it that way… and then have something ready-made [to help] them.”

Flipped classes: preparing students with ‘Lesson Zero’

Another favorite segment was our discussion on ‘Lesson Zero’ and how he has used online lessons to prepare students prior to arriving to class:

Me (Grace): “So I remember when I was working with you, I used the term “Lesson Zero” because it’s before you even get into class. There’s a lot of groundwork you have to cover before you can even start talking about these these big concepts. So maybe online learning, as you said, is a good unique opportunity for introducing those foundational ideas and vocabulary; essentially the alphabet of economics or of a new topic.

“And as all in class activities or lectures tend to be, [in-class learning] is more one speed. And so [with online learning] that student who feels, ‘Oh, hold up! I can’t follow your story because I don’t even understand the words you’re using to tell the story!’ has the chance to actually learn that vocabulary before. The hope is that they then come to class, and they’re on the same page, and they’re ready to take that next step and go into that engaging activity that does require quite a bit of groundwork to even get there.”

Peter: “That’s right. I think about these lessons sometimes kind of like a textbook but better… And so, I don’t assign a textbook. I tell students, ‘There are a lot of great textbooks out there for this course, and by all means buy one if you want to, but it’s not required. We have these online lessons instead that introduce a lot of what textbooks introduce, but in a way that is adaptive and tailored to multiple types of students with different backgrounds.’ And they might have a quiz at the end of them, so that I can give them a nudge/carrot stick/however you want to think about it — an incentive to do the preparatory exercise.

“I can also tailor [the online lessons]. A textbook author might have an example that I’m not really excited about, but I can put in an example that I’m really excited about, and come into class knowing that all of my students have seen that example — they know the story, they know the names of the people in the story, the same pictures — and I can say, ‘Remember that picture of the pedicab driver in New York City?’ and they all have this picture in their head, the exact same picture, and I can just run with that. I think that’s making my class meetings more fun and engaging.”

Advice for other faculty moving content online

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is Peter’s advice for other educators. Here’s what he has to share if you’re also ready to incorporate digital learning experiences into your teaching.

Me (Grace): “What advice would you give other faculty who are looking to move their own content online?”

Peter: “I think you want to be playing a long game. Incorporating content online in the way that we’ve done it — taking a whole lesson, an activity that might take a student 60 to 90 minutes or something like that, and incorporating that into your course — it’s not as easy as just making a three-minute YouTube clip and posting it up there.

“And I think these lessons can be used over and over and over again. I think they’re very helpful for larger classes. I can imagine them being great for smaller classes too, but my impression is that getting online lessons into a course has the biggest payoff in big classes… where you’re trying to engage a variety of students, with a diverse set of backgrounds and levels of preparation, and in a context where you just can’t have one-on-one office hours with everybody.”

Those are just three of my favorite moments from the conversation, but we talked about a lot more — in fact, we unfortunately had to cut out a lot in order to fit into a single podcast!

Tune in now to hear more about Peter’s experience working with learner-centered design, how we incorporated his personality and preferred teaching style into digital lessons, using Lesson Zero, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, more advice for educators shifting content online, and what he’s excited about next.

If you’re interested in collaborating with the Smart Sparrow Learning Design Studio like Peter did, reach out to us on the Studio Contact Form. We love helping educators explore new ways to use technology and get the most out of their teaching and learning.