Originally published on Forbes.
By: Michael Goldberg
University professors should consider making their spring classes available to the public now—We have a lot to learn—especially from each other—during the coronavirus crisis.
Last week, spring break ended for students at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), and courses were set to resume. Normally, they’d trudge through the snow or rain on campus, walk through the doors of the Weatherhead School of Management, and stream into class—just like years past.
At the entrance, I would have stood, greeting everyone and perhaps reminding them to put away their laptops and cell phones upon settling in (my classroom rules include a strict, no-cellphone or laptop policy).
Yet, because of the coronavirus, things unfolded quite differently.
Therein lay the opportunity—for educators, for students of all stripes—for anyone curious and wanting to learn.
But let me back up for a second.
Consider the “normal” structure of my Entrepreneurial Strategy course: I often invite an entrepreneur to visit in person (or occasionally by Zoom, if they’re from out of town); a few students introduce the entrepreneur—having studied his/her business as homework—and moderate our discussion. Meanwhile, our guest(s) share stories of fighting for funding and detailing successes and failures they’ve encountered in their start-ups along the way.
But then came last week; like most universities around the world, CWRU began online delivery of all courses for the rest of the semester. Still, putting my course online was a familiar task: As the executive director of the Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship at CWRU (the other job I hold at CWRU), I’ve had great results using Zoom to broadcast our speaker series. So when my undergraduate students joined class from their homes by Zoom last week, everything went off without a hitch.
But, I made a made one big change.
I opened my class to the public—allowing anyone in the world to join us virtually.
Wait—a Private Class, Taken Public?
To be sure, aside from a prospective student or alum dropping by class—most people don’t know what’s going on inside our classrooms unless they’re physically present.
Since I was already taking my course online last week, it dawned on me that I easily could share this experience with the public. And the topic was likely of interest to all: a discussion with our guest entrepreneurs about the coronavirus situation.
With so many people confined to their homes, why not share publicly how real entrepreneurs are dealing with the pandemic? I thought.
Before taking any action, I checked in with my colleagues at Weatherhead and CWRU Provost and Executive Vice President, Ben Vinson III. To be honest, I was not sure if everyone would agree with the idea of sharing private classes with the public. In addition, promoting a course would require some university resources. In short, support was needed from administration.
“I find your idea intriguing,” wrote Provost Vinson, responding to my email. “It’s in line with some of my own thoughts about how to proceed during this unique and trying moment in higher education.”
A few phone calls and emails later, and my course was advertised and open to the public. I appreciate how quickly my colleagues and Provost Vinson threw their support behind sharing my course online.
In no time, the course became a part of our CWRU Entrepreneurship Speaker Series through the Veale Institute’s social media platforms—inviting anyone to attend on Facebook Live—ensuring the message would reach a wide array of alumni, donors, and other community members.
On Thursday last week, Mel McGee, Founder and CEO of We Can Code It, and Ashley Weingart, Founder and CEO of Perfectly Imperfect Produce, came together with my students in a Zoom session to discuss social entrepreneurship. To my delight, 25 non-student community members also joined our class via Zoom, and a few others joined via Facebook Live.
While I was thrilled with the community response, I wanted to be sure my students continued to be the main focus and benefactors of the class—that no one from the community took over, disrupted, or dominated the discussion.
When class started, I announced that we had outside visitors who were observing the class on Zoom and Facebook Live—essentially that we were allowing the public to attend because of their interest in the speakers and in learning how businesses were managing the coronavirus crisis.
One community member, Evan Cooper—CWRU Executive MBA ’04 alum, and a successful entrepreneur who runs growU, a growth consultancy firm based in the Cleveland area—said he joined the class to learn how We Can Code It was dealing with the outbreak and shifting their work online.
Cooper said:“During the class, you reached out to all your students, asking them how they were doing and where they were calling in from,” he explained. “I didn’t feel like I was sitting in an online course where the audience almost doesn’t exist. The students and entrepreneurs were an integral part of the conversation—the experience was engaging and mirrored what a real class feels like. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a remote class.”
Based on last week’s experience, inviting members from the public did not interfere with my students’ ability to learn and get the most out of their CWRU experience. Outside visitors will gain a lot of knowledge from attending a class, but they do not receive credit from CWRU. Community members are limited to observation and, in some cases, asking a question via online chat.
Most importantly, my CWRU students participate and learn in ways that are not available to visitors—my CWRU students complete three hands-on projects during the semester, they read and complete homework assignments and materials for each class, they interact directly with entrepreneurs by making introductions and moderating the classes. Only my students will take the final exam and receive credit towards their CWRU degree.
In closing, I want to offer three easy-to-remember benefits of opening university courses to the public:
- Prospective students who cannot come to campus and take an in-person tour can now virtually attend a real course at CWRU.
- Universities can become leaders during this coronavirus crisis, sharing insights and knowledge on how an array of industries are dealing with unforeseen and unprecedented obstacles.
- We can reach our donors and stakeholders in ways that were previously limited — easily giving people a chance to virtually witness our professors and students learning in action.
I invite you to join our upcoming CWRU Entrepreneurship speaker series events which you can find here. Also, we are re-launching our free Beyond Silicon Valley MOOC with a focus on supporting entrepreneurship in a global crisis (register here).