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by Tim Calkins, Clinical Professor of Marketing

This spring, Northwestern University classes will be online for at least part of the quarter. Instead of classroom discussions and lectures, courses will unfold on the computer.

I am teaching two sections of my Biomedical Marketing course this spring, so I am in the midst of the transition. I am still thinking through how to best deploy different technology platforms; I’m not certainly precisely what I will do. How much do I rely on Zoom? Should the class be entirely synchronous, or can some of it be asynchronous? How do I ensure that students engage in the material? Fortunately, I have a couple weeks to sort things out.

Still, several things have already become be very clear about the shift. Here are three initial thoughts:

A huge transition

As I learn more about this new world of teaching, I am struck by just how profound the change will be. In a traditional class it is easy to interact with your students. You see how they are responding. You can make eye contact, walk over to them, call on them and hand them things.

In the digital world, things change. You don’t see your students, at least not particularly well. It is harder to call on them. You can’t physically move around the room. Discussions slow down as people try to figure out how to work the mute button.

The implication is that you can’t just move a course online. You have to think carefully about what will work in the new world. Most important, the easy approach, just delivering a lecture with slides through Zoom, will likely be an unsatisfying experience for both instructor and student. It will take creativity to find a new approach.


Many people aren’t too happy about the transition, and are struggling with the shift. One of my colleagues last night concluded, “Well, this just isn’t going to work.”

I have a different view. In some ways, this forced transition is revealing opportunities to teach in a different and more engaging manner. It is opening up new ways to communicate and connect.

In my courses, for example, I’ve transitionally found team meetings to be very useful. They are a chance to get to interact with students in a smaller group and provide specific project feedback.

Setting up these meetings, however, has proven to be a challenge over the years. It is hard to find a time when everyone can get to a meeting space at the Kellogg Global Hub. People get lost and show up late. Many aren’t on campus, so try to join via conference call. With the Zoom technology, everything becomes easier. Students can log into Zoom from anywhere in the world, and the discussion works well.

Guest speakers are easier to manage in this new world, too. In all of my courses, I find there is great value in bringing business executives into class, to share learnings and examples. Scheduling these visits isn’t easy; in some cases, the speaker has to fly across the country to get to the class. Again, everything changes with a digital class. Speakers can participate in many different ways.

One of the unexpected benefits of this sudden university-wide transition is that all the instructors are going through it at the same time. It is a shared experience for students and instructors.

A community together

One of the most heartening parts of this transition is seeing how people are working together and sharing ideas. I’ve had old friends reach out the offer suggestions. I just did a Zoom meeting with colleagues to discuss new approaches; we’ve now set up a weekly discussion group. Northwestern is offering all sorts of courses and coaching opportunities to faculty.

The complete transition to online teaching isn’t something anyone asked for, and it isn’t easy. Ultimately, however, it will accelerate a transition to new, engaging teaching approaches, strengthen relationships and build our community.