Brandeis International Business School

Harnessing data to improve online learning

Team of Brandeis faculty, students build software to help educators analyze virtual class discussions

Brandeis Online Class Analytics (BOCA) is the creation of a cross-disciplinary team of professors and students.

Brandeis Online Class Analytics (BOCA) is the creation of a cross-disciplinary team of professors and students.

The meteoric rise of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic drove innovations in the world of pedagogy. With new teaching modalities came new digital tools to assist in learning. Brandeis has been on the forefront of developing some of these tools.

During the pandemic, synchronous online classes suddenly became an option for learning, especially in business schools. In this modality, teachers and students discuss case studies and theories in live video conferences. Prior to this, online learning usually was asynchronous, with video lectures and perhaps interaction by text.

Motivated by their own experience in the new virtual classroom, a team of professors and students at Brandeis University built a software program that aims to improve student engagement in the new online classes.

They learned early on that, once students were no longer a captive audience in a classroom, it was up to teachers to keep them engaged. The Brandeis team reasoned that if the classes could somehow encourage participation in discussions, it would boost engagement and learning. And they thought that by measuring the students’ participation, they could find ways to encourage it and even give useful feedback.

“Everybody should have a voice in these new online classes,” said Ben Gomes-Casseres ’76, the Peter A. Petri Professor of Business and Society at Brandeis International Business School. “It is actually the way most graduates will work for a chunk of their career, so it is good to learn now how to express yourself effectively in an online meeting.”

Brandeis Online Class Analytics (BOCA) is a patent-pending analytical toolset, invented by Gomes-Casseres, Prof. Pito Salas ’76 of Brandeis University’s Mitchom School of Computer Science, and Klodeta Janaqi, MBA’21, currently at Google. Over three years, they have worked with dozens of Brandeis students and alumni to develop the software. The project has been supported by the Asper Center for Global Entrepreneurship, a Provost Research Grant, a Sprout Grant, and a TIER Grant at Brandeis.

BOCA analyzes any given class meeting to show who spoke, when, for how long, and other indicators of participant interaction. The data are presented on dashboards featuring a variety of useful metrics. It helps instructors see how interactive and balanced their online discussions are and who might need a push to speak up. Periodically, students get feedback on their participation compared to class averages.

A BOCA case study featuring sample dashboards appeared in Inspiring Minds, a widely read blog for educators from Harvard Business Publishing Education. The inventors are also showing their technology at online learning conferences later this year.

“BOCA is a unique analytic tool for interactive online meetings,” said Salas. “We are excited with where we are but there is a lot more to do.”

The team has built a sophisticated enterprise version and a free demo that has been downloaded by instructors from Ivy League universities to community colleges and technical training programs.

The future of online learning is different today than before the pandemic. Gomes-Casseres believes that there is “a sweet spot for interactive online classes, as part of both residential and online programs in a variety of fields.”

The Brandeis team believes that getting better at this pedagogy is key to making online education accessible and effective.