Adding Virtual Guests to the Classroom: Why it works, and how: Teaching Tips

By Robert Mark Morgan, Teaching Professor in Drama (Design) and Director of the Beyond Boundaries Program, Washington University in St. Louis

As myself and my WashU colleagues are currently designing their syllabi for the spring semester and beyond, you may think of a colleague in some distant city who the students should really hear from – someone with some wisdom and expertise combined with a great energy that would be sure to inspire our students to “be like them” in their future careers. Perhaps it is an alum who has made a name from themselves in a specific discipline. Alums – and recent alums in particular – can be particularly inspiring to students. They speak to them from their not-too-distant future, but a divide that to the current student resembles the Grand Canyon. So many questions with so few answers abound. The “real world” will soon be upon them.

So, to paraphrase Simon Sinek, we may have convinced ourselves by way of this intellectual foray into the “what if…” as to the WHY hearing from a special guest would be fantastic, but we may be hung up on the HOW. How do I bring in a guest speaker when the logistics seem daunting: flights, travel, lodging, etc. It would be just GREAT to have them there, but can we afford the time and expense of making that actually happen? The question assumes that the guest has to be in the classroom at all.

As video conference technology has advanced in recent years, I have found myself asking alums and colleagues to virtually guest in my class. And the results have been a win-win for the students and for the guest! Consistently I get positive feedback from students and guests on the experience of having – perhaps only briefly – a virtual guest speak on a topic mid-lecture. The surprise for me was that the guest themselves regularly feel like they had ‘given back’ to an earlier version of themselves and felt great doing it. A call from WashU to an alum may typically be related to fundraising, but I have discovered that alums really want to “pay it forward” and share something about themselves and their journey that can be a real inspiration to current students listening to the story of their journey. Below are a couple ways I have enjoyed virtual guest speakers by video conference:

  1. For the Beyond Boundaries Program orientation, students read a book called “5 Elements of Effective Thinking.” Co-author Professor Michael Starbird of UT-Austin spent an hour answering student questions about the text. Full video here.
  2. WashU alum Julia Lindon has made a name for herself in the world of TV & Film serving pre and post-graduation as a page for NBC, The Daily Show, and Saturday Night Live leading her to a job as personal assistant to Jason Sudekis and launching her own career as a podcaster and filmmaker. Her film Lady Liberty, just debuted a the Tribeca Film Festival last April. Here is a link to the full video of her talking to my Drama 212: Introduction to Theatre Production class last spring.