Bill Bergman taught digital marketing to students at the University of Richmond Robins School of Business. Here, he writes about the unexpected result of an experiment in teaching: 

I feel especially close to the 20 undergraduate students who just completed my five-week summer session marketing class. This close bond wasn’t a result of the usual experiences that bring students and their instructors together, like individual office meetings or vibrant classroom discussions.

The closeness was created digitally, because this was a class delivered entirely online.

In recent years, the traditional college classroom has changed. It is quieter than it used to be. Today, students hide behind their laptops taking notes. They find participating in classroom discussions almost offensive. Verbal expression has been lost in a student culture dominated by technology.

It should have been no surprise that students were much more comfortable expressing themselves in a digital environment than in a classroom.

I created a private Facebook group just for the summer students. During the five-week course, these students made almost 500 individual posts with photos and videos that related to the curriculum. Students also posted hundreds of additional comments to their classmates’ posts.

Unlike today’s formal classroom where getting students to speak has become more challenging, the vibrant student participation in our Facebook group gave me the opportunity to quickly see whether they understood the material.

I commented on each of their posts and used the interchange as an opportunity to teach. It was as if I had a direct line of communication to each student that was visible to the entire class.

When other students would join in and add their own thoughts, the learning experience became almost electric. Not only was I teaching but other students were empirically demonstrating knowledge and contributing at the same time.

What made this so exciting was that this interchange was happening every day (Monday to Friday) during all hours of the day and night. Of course, the 10:30 p.m. to midnight time period was most active, but there were phenomenal digital conversations throughout the day as well. This daily interaction helped me build strong relationships with the students.

I didn’t really need to require weekly exams to tell me what they had learned. I witnessed their knowledge and learning in real time. It created a sense of intellectual connection that is rarely found in today’s classroom.

Many in higher education don’t want to talk about online learning. It can be very intimidating. The irony is that it is much easier to execute than expected.

In February of this year, all I had was the encouragement of my department chair and some thoughts from the school’s technology consultant on what steps to take to create the online course.

Fearful that I was in way over my skill set, I turned to three of my current students for advice. They had taken a few other online classes and were very opinionated about ways to improve delivery. They immediately nixed my idea of simply videotaping the class lectures I was giving during the spring semester for use in the summer session.

After meeting with them, I created a five-week curriculum plan that spelled out weekly assignments and tests. It became evident that online classes required more structure and definition than classes during the school year.

At the next meeting with my student helpers, we agreed that there would be three platforms for the class online delivery based on my curriculum plan. We would post all of the assignments and tests on the campus Blackboard platform, we would create 10 short videos (two a week) to support the reading assignments that would be posted on a private YouTube channel, and we would open a private Facebook group requiring students to join and post comments on a daily basis.

The videos were 10 to 15 minutes in length. They were shot around campus in April by one of the students using her own camera. Another student edited the videos, adding some student humor to build interest and to emphasize ideas of particular importance.

In May, I sent out an email welcoming the summer students to the online class. It was astonishing how well the class ran without the use of any sophisticated online educational platforms or expensive videos. My three former students and I had created an online class that worked beautifully and efficiently for the entire five weeks.

Not all subjects can be as easily adapted to an online venue as the one I was teaching this summer. Some courses will most likely always require a traditional classroom setting.

However, my students taught me a valuable lesson this summer: Give them the opportunity to communicate digitally and you unleash a freedom of expression that has been fading from the higher-education classroom in recent years.