Using the Virtual Environment as a Public Policy Learning Experiment

Two students engage in online classes while sitting outside wearing masks.

In March of 2020, Duke University transitioned to emergency remote teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020-21 academic year at Duke required instructors to adapt their courses to be more flexible and resilient. For many Duke instructors and students, this period was the first time they experienced hybrid and online courses. 

Matt Perault

Matt Perault, Director of the Center on Science & Technology Policy and associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy, is optimistic about post-pandemic teaching and learning. In recounting his Spring and Fall 2020 experiences, Perault demonstrated how virtual learning can further student learning in technology policy courses.

Perault’s Fall 2020 course, Tech Policy for the New Administration, asked students to grapple with setting a technology policy agenda for an incoming presidential administration. Through experimenting with online education, Perault found overlaps between his learning objectives, as well as practical ways to improve the delivery of his course.

Listen to Perault describe his class in more detail:

My name is Matt Perault. I’m the director of the Center of Science and Technology Policy at Duke, also an associate professor of the practice here at the Sanford School of Public Policy. The class I taught last Fall was called Tech Policy for the New Administration, and it was focused on trying to figure out how to think about setting the tech policy agenda in a new administration, whether that was a Biden administration or a second Trump administration. The focus for me was on trying to build four different talents and skills for students in the class.

The first was focused on substantive understanding, so understand your really key issues in tech policy like antitrust and section 230 and privacy and cybersecurity.

And then second, focused on the work product that would be involved in setting the agenda. So if you were dropped into a presidential campaign right now, what would you actually try to do from a work product perspective to get your candidate to say the set of things that you think he or she should say about tech policy issues.

The third thing was perspective and so it's really important in the field of tech policy but any policy field, to understand the various different points of views of stakeholders in the field.

And then the fourth skill was collaborative work, so trying to figure out how to work in groups on these issues and figure out how to work with various different people to move the ball forward and so students in my class had an opportunity to do group work to try to build that skill as well.

Online Education as Opportunity 

Perault found that moving to online teaching offered some unique opportunities; he found excitement in how online education provides instructors and students a space to develop skills to work in a virtual environment. 

Listen to Perault discuss the relationship between the virtual education and professional environments in more detail:

One thing that's really cool about this current moment is that I'm learning things as a practitioner in this field that I can then take to my class. So for instance, right now I'm asked to speak all the time in various different settings about various different issues related to tech policy, whether that's a panel or I'm speaking to a group of company executives or speaking to a policy staff. And I have to figure out, how do I do that virtually? How do I give myself notes that are helpful to guide what I say in those conversations? How do I figure out ways to establish a relationship and make myself seem credible to someone? And I've been learning about that as I go, in terms of the specific things that I do, like where do I put a set of notes if I'm on a TV interview for instance, and how do I gauge how I look over at those notes or not. Sometimes that means you have to look into a blank screen because you just have your notes in front of you and actually the zoom image is off to the side and you can't be distracted by that.

I have found that difficult but also really productive to figure out how to develop that skill and the really fun thing is now I got to pass it along to my class. So one of the components of my Spring class is giving students an opportunity to practice being in a panel, practice being an expert in the field, and being in front of an audience and talking as an expert. And so when I did that last spring, students did that in person in the class, all at the front of the room, and we’d do a mock panel the end of class. In the class this spring, they're going to have an opportunity to do that virtually, so they're going to be doing that essentially over Zoom, which again is the kind of thing that I've been doing now as a practitioner on a regular basis and they're going to get to figure out how to build that skill just like many people who work in the field have been have building it over the last year. So I’m excited for them, they're going to get a chance to practice it and figure out where do they put their notes and where do they look and how do they compose themselves and what happens if there's a glitch in the in the Wi-Fi and all of a sudden they go dark for a minute or they miss half of a question. Working through those things in real time I think is just an incredibly important component of being successful in the tech policy field and it’s great that students are getting a chance to practice it.

“One thing that is really cool about this current moment is that I’m learning things as a practitioner in this field that I can then take to my class,” he said. 

Examples of this kind of work include being asked to speak in different settings about various issues in technology policy, such as panels or speaking to a group of company executives or policy staff. 

“And I have to figure out, how do I do that virtually? How do I give myself notes that are helpful to guide what I say in those conversations? How do I figure out ways to establish a relationship and make myself seem credible to someone?” Perault said, “And I’ve been learning about that as I go … Now the really fun thing is I get to pass it along to my class.”

One of the activities where students have an opportunity to develop these skills is during a mock-panel. Whereas in Spring 2020, when his students sat in front of an in-person class, the Spring 2021 class panel was conducted over Zoom. 

“They’re going to get to figure out how to build that skill, just like many people who work in the field have been building it over the last year,” Perault said. 

Listen to Perault share his goals for online learning:

So my goal for the class is to try to use this as an opportunity to really learn and get better, not just for the students in terms of them getting better at learning how to use a virtual environment to their advantage and figure out how to express themselves and convince people of their views and learn and digest information via Zoom, but also to do it better as a professor, to figure out how can I teach well using this mechanism. There are any number of different ways where I think there actually are advantages in the current environment.

Technology also provides opportunities to improve upon existing activities. Using Zoom for small group work, Perault said, helps increase efficiency in several ways. Firstly, as compared to in-person work where groups disperse physically across the Sanford school, breakout rooms allow students to instantly be transported to and from the main room. Secondly, when students need help, they can use the Zoom breakout room “Ask for Help” feature to alert him, and he can instantaneously join their group. 

Growing as an Educator 

In regards to online education, Perault acknowledged that it does have shortcomings, but that being forced to confront them over the last year gave him the chance to figure out how to address them. “There’s an opportunity to manage the downsides, and that’s the thing that’s really compelling,” he said.

Perault cites connecting with students and connecting students to each other as one of the difficulties he has faced as an instructor holding class over Zoom. To meet the challenge of creating moments of empathy, he has made himself available for office hours, reached out to students over email more often than usual and created study groups to give students another way to connect.

Listen to Perault discuss the importance of empathy in the online environment and some of the challenges in creating it:

I'm not saying that online education is perfect. I just think that the things that are challenging for us right now are real opportunities to learn and grow, and I'm just very excited about figuring that out. I think probably the primary one for me where I feel like there are weaknesses that are important to figure out how to overcome is creating moments of empathy with students and really connecting with them when they feel the most vulnerable or the most challenged. 

And I think there are ways in which that’s easier to do in person and probably more difficult to do over Zoom, particularly if you're aiming to build a relationship with students over a period of time. It's not impossible to do remotely, and like I said I'm excited about the challenge of doing that. I try to reach out to students sometimes I think more than I would otherwise over email for instance, to congratulate them on moments where they were successful in class where I put them on the spot and they were able to figure out how to respond to real time. I get excited when I see students sometimes who are shy or nervous work through those feelings and achieve moments of real success and satisfaction in class. 

I try to make myself available for office hours weekly and encourage students to come and participate and engage, and I have also tried to create some ways that they can support each other through discussion on Microsoft Teams site, for instance, but also by creating study groups that give them a chance to meet together and discuss various different things that are going on in class. So I think there are ways to mitigate that issue, but I do recognize that the lack of face-to-face in person contact might make it more challenging to empathize in certain ways that are important.

“I think it’s important that faculty look at this as the learning opportunity it really is and talk to students about this time as a moment for greatness, as opposed as a moment to wallow,” he said.

Listen to Perault reflect on this moment as an opportunity for instructors to learn:

I think it's great to talk to students about this as a moment to learn, as a moment to grow as a community. Often we think of teachers teaching and students learning and I think this is a real opportunity for teachers to learn. This is an opportunity to kind of figure out what about this new medium can you take advantage of, and what are the downsides of this medium that you need to figure out how to mitigate. To me it feels like it's just a moment of kind of enormous opportunity for pedagogical creativity, and I find that to be really exciting, and the people who have risen to that moment -- it's extraordinary and it's fun to watch and fun to kind of compare notes and get guidance on it from people who are doing it well. So I think it's a really exciting moment as a community to be really committed to the process of learning.

Perault identified some of the structural challenges of online learning: “It can be challenging in very complicated ways, when people have poor access to broadband or when they have a home environment that makes it very difficult to learn.”

“So I think there are significant barriers and significant challenges, but what an amazing opportunity to think about how to grow and learn together,” he said. “How we as professors can learn to be better online educators and how students can figure out this testing ground for what I think is going to be an important component of their professional lives in years to come.”

Designing Your Online Course

Perault initially equated teaching with lecturing, but a conversation with a Learning Innovation consultant helped him realize that there are more effective ways to teach. 

Listen to Perault discuss how Learning Innovation helped him create engaging courses:

Duke Learning Innovation has been really helpful for me in understanding the value of orienting a class toward engagement, as opposed to lecturing for instance. So when I started at Duke I was really nervous, I sort of was having conversations with people in the Learning Innovation program and I was kind of saying, I'm terrified of lecturing and it's not something I've done a lot of, I don't think I'm particularly good at it. And the response I got was, there's good news, that's actually not a very helpful pedagogical tool and to the extent you can figure out ways to really get students more engaged, that will be -- actually what I was told was the data strongly supports the notion that that's a more fruitful way for students to learn. The students learn much more through engaged learning. So I’ve tried to orient my classes in that direction and I think the online model was really helpful for that.

If you have questions about online course design, you can contact us at learninginnovation@duke.edu. For one-on-one help with course design, you can visit Learning Innovation office hours every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 1 – 3 pm EDT at duke.zoom.us/my/dukelearninginnovation.

Hear More From Matt Perault

If you have enjoyed listening to the snippets of our interview with Perault and are interested in the tech industry, check out his podcast “TBD: Technology By Design.” TBD is a podcast devoted to exploring the tech industry, the products and policy decisions that shape it, and its impact on our everyday lives. Perault hosts guests from all corners of the industry: everyone from tech experts and policy gurus, to local business owners who are using social media to promote their brands.