• July 24, 2014

'Supersizing' the College Classroom: How One Instructor Teaches 2,670 Students

How One Instructor Teaches 2,670 Students 1

Kyle Green for the Chronicle

John Boyer teaches a megaclass in current events at Virginia Tech in person—and holds online office hours using Ustream.

In October, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, got a quirky request on YouTube. A hyperactive instructor in a plaid jacket posted a video inviting her to do a Skype interview with his "World Regions" geography class at Virginia Tech.

Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate often compared to Nelson Mandela, might have ignored this plea were it not for how the video ended. The camera pivoted from the instructor, John Boyer, to an auditorium filled with some 3,000 students. They leapt from their seats, blew noisemakers, and chanted her name as if the Hokies had scored a touchdown.

It worked. On December 5, Ms. Suu Kyi, who last month won election to Parliament after spending much of the past two decades in detention, took questions from Mr. Boyer's students via Skype. "I cried a little bit," says Alex Depew, a senior. "I'm not gonna lie."

The moment marked the biggest coup yet in Mr. Boyer's experiment with supersizing the classroom. Conventional wisdom deems smaller classes superior. Mr. Boyer, a self-described "Podunk instructor," calls that "poppycock." He's exploring how technology can help engage students in face-to-face courses that enroll from 600 to nearly 3,000 students.

It's a timely project that may suggest tips for others. In a recent survey of financial conditions at state universities, 56 percent of respondents said that budget constraints were causing them to collapse sections into fewer, larger classes, according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. At Virginia Tech, about two dozen classes exceed 300 students.

"They're not going anywhere," says Peter E. Doolittle, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research. "We're better off learning how to teach well in large classes, rather than trying to avoid them."

Boyer describes his course as an "Intro to the Planet" that brings "the average completely uninformed American" up to speed on world issues. His approach? Decentralize the rigid class format by recreating assessment as a gamelike system in which students earn points for completing assignments of their choosing from many options (1,050 points earns an A, and no tasks, not even exams, are required). Saturate students with Facebook and Twitter updates (some online pop quizzes are announced only on social media). Keep the conversation going with online office hours.

And snag big-name visitors by turning the enormous class into a digital hive that swarms them with requests. Other recent guests have included Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen, whose recent movie focuses on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, and Jason Russell, creator of "Kony 2012," a viral video about the brutal Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.

"I'm not sure any of these things would have occurred without a class of 3,000 people," says Mr. Boyer, a senior instructor. "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."

Mr. Boyer's popularity has also brought lessons in the pitfalls of megacourses. Students' biggest complaint is disruptive class members. Some behave like they're watching a TV show rather than a live lecture. Mr. Boyer once kicked out two students who were sitting on the floor in the back, wearing headphones and screening a movie on a computer.

Then there's the pushback from other professors. Can students learn in such a big class? How interactive can it be? Can Mr. Boyer meet all their needs—especially less prepared kids who could fall through the cracks?

"Teaching is an individual personal relationship with a student," says one skeptic, Linda Toth, an associate professor of psychology at California University of Pennsylvania who has studied the relationship between class size and student achievement. "It's not a show. It's not a circus."

Mr. Boyer's "show" begins on a Monday at 7:58 p.m., when his technical assistant, Katie Pritchard, blasts alerts to 9,000 Facebook and Twitter friends: Live online office hours are starting in 5 minutes! Join the fun.

With so many students in his "World Regions" class—2,670 in the fall section and 553 in the spring—these sessions are a key way to extend the classroom conversation. The experience feels like traditional office hours chopped up in a digital blender. Mr. Boyer hosts the sessions from his bottom-floor office in a redbrick building called Major Williams Hall. Some participants attend in person, some online; some are current students, others former ones who like to check in. Hanging out with Mr. Boyer is "more fun than quantum-physics homework," explains one former student, Harry White, who plants himself on the olive-green vinyl couch in the instructor's office. But even here much of the fun is virtual: The few students in the office follow on laptops and iPads as the instructor interacts with a much larger crowd online.

Perched behind his 20-inch screen, wearing one of his trademark plaid jackets, Mr. Boyer fields questions pinged in as instant messages. He responds on Ustream, a free Web platform that lets anyone broadcast a video feed through a Webcam.

"Mcpherson161 up in the hizzle!" Mr. Boyer hollers, reading the computer name of his first questioner. "Dude, what's going on, Mcpherson?"

What goes on, for part of the night, is Mr. Boyer discussing fallout from "Kony 2012." In November, the video's creator, Jason Russell, visited Mr. Boyer's class. This was before "Kony 2012" got more than 87 million YouTube views, and before Mr. Russell went berserk in San Diego, parading naked on the street until the police took him into custody.

Like a talk-radio pontificator, Mr. Boyer offers up a prediction: Mr. Russell's anti-Kony advocacy group, Invisible Children, will fold. But he sympathizes with the activist. In language a radio station would bleep—typical of a salty instructor who includes obscenities in his syllabus—Mr. Boyer argues that he wasn't prepared for the attention.

"He's not the first person that's done this," says Mr. Boyer, wagging a finger. "Isn't it like once every couple of years you see a Hollywood star go [expletive] crazy running through the streets of Hollywood naked? Or jumping out of a car?" He followed up with an even more obscene description of stars' behavior, adding, "People who are under intense public scrutiny crack."

Mr. Boyer, 43, is a self-described "blue-collar guy" whose colorful résumé includes stints working on a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker and researching where to grow wine grapes in Virginia. He originally offered "World Regions" to 50 students. But interest spiked as his small-town fame spread. Undergraduates consider his class a rite of passage, like sneaking into the campus's underground steam tunnels. They can even buy pint glasses emblazoned with "The Plaid Avenger," a cartoon alter ego Mr. Boyer developed to add some flair to his teaching materials.

Mr. Boyer moved his class to a 575-seat lecture hall, but eventually even that space would fill up on the first day of registration, with up to 3,000 additional people still waiting to get in.

So Mr. Boyer conceived an experiment. Find the biggest hall on campus. Teach as many students as possible. And wipe out demand. Three years ago, he moved the class to the 3,000-seat theater in Burruss Hall, where James Brown has played. But droves of students keep enrolling.

"It reminds me of watching a Colbert Report episode," says Yates Jordan, a sophomore. "A 3,000-person class doesn't seem like it should succeed," he adds. But Mr. Boyer's is "the first class I've taken that really takes advantage of all the technological instruments that we can use today."

When class convenes the next day, a giant screen on stage displays a revolving triptych of social technologies. One section shows an international music space Mr. Boyer set up on Turntable.fm, building excitement by filling the hall with a Mariachi tune. Another shows student tweets tagged with the class hashtag, "#wrvt." Another invites students to text their responses to a poll asking what news Mr. Boyer should cover today—the hunt for a French killer? North Korea's "sneaky" satellite launch? Al Qaeda's reactivation?

Underneath that digital glitz, though, Mr. Boyer's biggest skill turns out to be pretty low tech. He breaks down issues in informal language that engages even students who hate news, by highlighting absurdities and hamming it up with jokes.

Take North Korea. Pacing the stage, Mr. Boyer reminds students of a month-old deal in which its government accepted food aid in exchange for a moratorium on missile launches. Now comes news that the country's "wacky leadership" plans to launch a satellite "on a gigantic rocket," Mr. Boyer says. The instructor cocks his torso forward and mimics the international community's exasperated reaction: "Whaaaaaaat? Dudes! It was 30 days ago!"

Students chuckle. One, who had been reading reviews of the new iPad, now actively takes notes. "And the North Koreans are being adamant saying, No, it's not nuclear," Mr. Boyer continues. "It's not a rocket test. It's just a big-ass rocket that has a little satellite on it, all right? That we're trying to get to outer space because the satellite is going to be a commemorative plaque celebrating the 100th anniversary birthday of the leader of our state."

The wide-open nature of Mr. Boyer's class has spawned some headline-grabbing tangles with the broader public. In January, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch followed a fake Twitter account that Mr. Boyer had set up for an assignment that invites students to assume the identity of a world leader and tweet in their names for the semester. In February, a caricature of Muammar el-Qaddafi from the class Web site, plaidavenger.com, was burned by protesters outside the Libyan Embassy in Cairo.

But is all this education, or just entertainment? Mr. Doolittle, of Virginia Tech's research center, offers a study to demonstrate that Mr. Boyer's students are indeed learning. Midway through the semester, the center tested a sampling of 582 students on the ideas, concepts, and people to be covered in the second half of the "World Regions" course. Students took the test again at the end of the term. Average performance improved from 43.4 percent to 74.3 percent.

At the end of the day, much of Mr. Boyer's effect on students seems beyond quantification. But students make it clear that he has inspired them. Like one who joined the Peace Corps because of the class. Or another who went on to work for an NGO in South Africa. Or Jennifer Mikell, a junior who overheard Mr. Boyer talking with a Chronicle reporter over lunch, and ran over to the table to gush about the class.

"Best teacher I've ever had," she said.

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