Oliver Schlake is enthusiastic about the transition to online learning.
“I’m getting much better at the Zoom classes, and at hosting large online events. I’m integrating more tools and some gadgets to improve the look and feel for the students. And I’m actually having more personal interactions with them,” says Schlake, clinical professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “It’s getting to be a lot of fun and that is something to say for someone who absolutely loves the classroom and the face-to-face interaction that comes with it.”
At Maryland Smith, Schlake explains, teaching online has always been more than just delivering lectures from a laptop. It’s more than just hosting discussions on a video-conferencing platform and checking the “chatroom” for submitted questions. When you embark on teaching a course with virtual in mind, you can lean into the technology to make a meaningful impact on the way students learn.
This fall, when Maryland Smith offers a combination of on-campus and online learning, it will make the best of both educational worlds. It always has, Schlake says.
Schlake, whose areas of expertise include innovation strategy and early stages of venture creation, has been teaching for years in Maryland Smith’s Online MBA program, one of the top 10 programs in the United States. But leveraging online for his usual on-campus cohort, he says, was something of a revelation.
His students, he says, are enjoying having increased access to him. He’s dropping in on as many as nine meetings per day with teams of students who are working on class projects. This is not possible with a more regular class schedule. He has logged on for a 5:30 a.m. meeting so students could do a trial run of an important presentation planned for an audience of senior executives. “With remote work, we have that flexibility in our schedules,” he says.
“When this is all over, and we can return to campus and the classroom again,” he says, “there are some things that I will continue to do online.”
Here are three ways the pandemic will forever alter the way he teaches classes:
More industry guests.
With stay-at-home orders in place, and everyone working at home with Zoom, gaining access to successful entrepreneurs and industry experts was suddenly easier than ever. “I love the new world,” Schlake says. “I just call people up and say, ‘Hey, do you have 30 minutes to speak to a class?’ And the response has been incredible.”
Schlake prepares a discussion outline – scenarios the expert might speak to – and students submit questions. For the guest, there’s no presentation to prepare. Plus, the virtual nature means there’s no traffic to contend with, no parking costs. It’s 30 minutes of conversation, right where they are. For students, it’s a chance to learn – and to network more often and with greater variety. A lot of former Terps have agreed to “stop by” even when they reside far away.
“Even after this whole thing is done and we are going back to regular classes on campus, I will definitely reserve days where we won’t meet in class, but instead will meet on Zoom, and have an expert or two in class.”
More student meeting drop-ins.
Most classes are designed around a professor – first a lecture, then questions. Schlake says his best online courses put a student project at its center and revolve the lessons around it.
“When you flip this whole concept and put your assignment in the front, students are engaged with the lecture material; they can see how it helps push a well-designed project forward. The star of the session is not the lecture, it’s the project,” he says.
In the online environment, Schlake says he has more time to drop in on student groups as they progress through a project. He tells his students to invite him to their Zoom meetings, and if he’s free, he’ll drop in for 15 minutes, ask some questions, offer some guidance, help get them unstuck, and then heads to the next one.
“It’s much more personal. And the quality of the projects that I’m receiving now are far better because of it. It’s amazing. It’s something I’m absolutely going to continue doing in the future.”
Even before March, when Maryland Smith transitioned to online learning, Schlake’s home office began a transition of its own. Schlake has always been a bit of a gadget person. “My setup was already pretty cool,” he says. “But the new setup is really getting somewhere. Thanks to YouTube, professional-level equipment is affordable and there are plenty of sources to learn from.”
Professional color-controlled lighting systems from the top and from the back, a three-camera system that includes a 4K camera for recording and a conference call camera that can be remotely switched, a wireless headphone, professional podcast microphone, and a live-stream deck are filling up a small studio space.
Some of the gear, he says, was long-planned. Schlake saw the digitization shift coming; COVID-19 only accelerated it. Some were because he just likes gadgets as the vehicle to learn new things. “I’m geeking out a little bit, to stay ahead,” he says. Next, he’s planning a green screen wall and testing a teleprompter to improve recordings.