Connecting to the Classroom: A Minerva Faculty Perspective

by Rohan Shekhar, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Computational Sciences | May 3, 2018

I live in India, and this year my students were based in Seoul and then Hyderabad. Though we were in the same time zone, we were still separated by hundreds of miles. And yet, I felt that I got to know the Minerva students I taught this past year more than those students that I taught in person at my former university.

When I first applied to teach at Minerva, I had no idea how virtual classes would work in practice. On one hand, I was intrigued by Minerva’s pedagogy and online platform, the Forum, which are designed to encourage and facilitate effective learning. On the other hand, I had found it difficult to maintain full levels of engagement in a normal classroom, even with a small group of students. So I was understandably skeptical. However, having previously taught at traditional universities, where conventional lectures seemed to me a suboptimal way for students to learn, I decided to keep an open mind.

When I actually started teaching on the platform, I was pleasantly surprised by my students’ level of engagement on the Forum; it far exceeded that of a conventional classroom environment. Moreover, I found that the platform enabled meaningful interactions between my students and me, despite the fact that all of our conversations took place online.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t happen by chance. Building meaningful relationships with my students has taken effort. For example, whenever possible, I log into my classroom a few minutes early to chat informally with students before class starts. This gives me an opportunity to get to know my students: their backgrounds, their ambitions, what they find interesting, and what challenges them. Students also use this time to discuss issues they may have had with the pre-class readings, or suggest resources they found that may be useful for others taking the class in the future. In a couple of my Machine Learning classes, in particular, students sent me resources they believed would help future Minervans with the readings, and, in turn, I plan to implement a number of these the next time the course is run. This continual two-way feedback is one of Minerva’s strengths. It not only helps students learn more effectively, it helps faculty improve the learning experience for future classes.

Students are also able to provide instantaneous feedback during classes by using the Forum’s built-in reactions feature. Similar to emojis, reactions help immediately reveal to me whether or not a student has grasped a concept. It is especially gratifying when I can help nudge a student who is initially confused to arrive at the answer on their own and finally “get it,” resulting in a smiling face or finger snap reaction. In my Optimization Methods course, for instance, many of the concepts can be challenging to understand initially. In fact, most students at other institutions would not encounter the same concepts until graduate school. I had a recent class focusing on semidefinite programs, where students ironed out their confusions by talking them through during a breakout group. Eventually, they helped each other arrive at the correct answer, while getting a better grasp of the concept. As a teacher, I want my students to not merely understand the basics of what I am teaching, but to holistically comprehend and interact with the curriculum. Through the active learning paradigm, I aim to build students’ knowledge in a way that they can put it into practice immediately and, over time, develop their understanding well beyond what I cover in class.

Even outside of classes, I have had many interesting discussions with my students about their passions related to what they are studying. The final project in my Artificial Intelligence class, for example, challenged each student to choose an application of artificial intelligence of interest to them and implement it in code. A third-year student of mine wanted to create a trading bot for cryptocurrency, which also happens to be a hobby of mine. Because of our shared interest, we were able to meet on the Forum to explore the topic of the cryptocurrency market together.

Minerva’s active learning approach is, of course, demanding. Students are required to do a nontrivial amount of pre-class reading and prep work to get the most out of class, and sometimes they struggle with new concepts covered in those readings. To lend a hand in these cases, I make myself available via email and during weekly office hours on the Forum. Recently, a student from my Artificial Intelligence course wanted to walk through some code that she was unable to make functional before the assignment was due. Over a few sessions, we walked through the code together. She was grateful for the chance to work through the problem and I was very pleased that she was able to identify where her code was failing with only a small push on my part. Through these interactions, I’m able to get to know my students as much as, or more than professors at traditional institutions get to know theirs — the only difference is my office is online.

All in all, teaching on a virtual platform has opened up many possibilities to enhance learning and promote positive interaction in a way that would not be possible in a conventional classroom. Next year, I will be offering the same classes — modified with the advice from my previous students on what worked well and which readings could be improved — as well as leading a tutorial for fourth-year students and advising capstone projects. I’m excited to continue engaging with my students, helping them develop their knowledge, and taking part in shaping the future of higher education as a faculty member at Minerva.