Integrating Guest Speakers and Panelists in Online Courses 

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Oftentimes, putting a brick-and-mortar course online begins by preserving the readings and assessments, and then considering adaptations to replace all or some of the “live” elements of interactive lectures. Easily overlooked in this process can be maintaining the use of outside experts as guest speakers, panelists, or evaluators because of condensed class formats and the reliance on asynchronous elements in online course designs.    

Fortunately, classroom guests for online courses are increasingly easy and convenient to add given the ubiquity of recording and meeting technology like Zoom, as well as everyone’s general experience and basic skills using it. 

More importantly, the available evidence suggests that outside perspectives are viewed overwhelmingly positively by students because it adds to their learning by providing insight into the real-world application of course material and/or provides real-world evaluative perspectives (Bruff, 2019; Jablon-Roberts & McCracken, 2022). Indeed, the adult learner generally needs and desires to know why and how something is applicable to “real life;” for students, an outside expert is the embodiment of the reasons behind the application.   

When thinking about how to preserve or incorporate outside experts into an online course design, there are four basic approaches to consider. The first two approaches for integrating a guest speaker into an online course are most helpful for courses with significant (or entirely) asynchronous design elements. The second two approaches are best for online courses that have live class sessions.  

Asynchronous classroom guests 

First, a professor can arrange for an interview style video with the professor interviewing the guest speaker on camera. To develop learner-centered questions to ask the guest, a professor can a) rely upon their experience of what they know interests students about the topic, b) ask the perennial or “tough” questions in the discipline, and/or c) ask current or former students to generate questions for the professor to ask. 

Second, a professor can help the guest speaker develop a script for a guest lecture video that the guest speaker will record on their own. This approach may be particularly helpful for having the guest speaker demonstrate their mastery of some aspect of the course content, well-informed by experience and applied in their day-to-day work. However, this approach also requires providing ample guidance on what to speak about and the important points to highlight. 

Some ways to develop a learner-centered guest lecture video are asking the guest speaker to a) provide a lecture on a specific topic, b) explain how they apply central elements of the course in their day-to-day work, and/or c) demonstrate a specific technique, concept, or skill drawn from the course content. Importantly, asking the guest speaker to demonstrate a specific technique, concept, or skill will likely require more pre- and post-production considerations to make sure that their physical or virtual demonstration is wholistically and accurately captured for the video. 

These video-based approaches allow for the professor to take one contribution from an outside expert and then disseminate it to students to watch at a time and place of their convenience. It also has the added benefit of allowing the professor to use it for many sections of the same course.  

The final consideration for developing an asynchronous guest lecture is the “shelf-life” of a video. While focusing on topics that are immediately relevant will likely prove most engaging, they will also need to be replaced as topics of importance in society and discipline change. Alternatively, focusing on topics that are most likely to be relevant and still accurate for three to five years will help ensure a much longer lifespan for the video.  

Synchronous classroom guests 

Third, for courses with a synchronous or live meeting element, a professor can invite a guest speaker in the traditional sense by having them present and/or answer students’ questions in a live class session.  

Consider integrating live guest speakers for material and/or application that changes frequently or is changing rapidly due to societal context such as legislation, regulation, technology, consumer preferences, and so forth. In rapidly evolving contexts, inviting respected sector leaders to share their experience and insights can add significant value for the students and ensure the course remains current. If rapidly changing topics are presented by guest experts, then the real-world relevance engages students and adds value to the students’ understanding of the course material, the professional context, and implications for application in the workplace. 

When having a guest speaker in a synchronous element of an online course, it is important to establish ground rules around interactions for everyone. In live class sessions using virtual meeting software, establish if and when interactions will take place, as well as how those interactions will be facilitated. Some examples include having students use the chat, the raising hand function, or submitting questions ahead of time to the professor. Additionally, the guest speaker should know how their time is scheduled, and what responsibilities they will have, if any, for facilitating interactions with students and operating the technology such as calling on students or reading the chat. 

Much of how any interactive portion will go, largely depends upon the guest speaker’s skill and comfortability with the virtual venue and meeting software, which should be discussed at length in a pre-class meeting with the guest. Depending upon the situation, the guest, the professor, a teaching assistant, or an appointed student in the class can all be good options for moderating the interactions. 

The fourth, and potentially most impactful for student learning, is the evaluative guest or panel approach whereby an expert or a panel of experts are invited to a virtual class session to hear a students’ presentation and provide feedback. These authentic audiences can help deepen learning by encouraging students to think about how what they are learning is applied in a relevant situation, as well as providing the opportunity to practice doing so (Bruff, 2019). Indeed, developing competence and increasing self-confidence through oral presentations to sector experts cannot be duplicated. 

To use this approach, first identify professional scenarios in the context of the course where individual or group presentations in the workplace are the norm. Then integrate at least one such presentation into the course requirements in a way that allows students to both demonstrate their understanding of course material, as well as gain feedback when they are observed by industry experts.   

This requires considerable planning and development since most students may come to the course with little relevant experience. Therefore, the professor must develop the assignment and provide guidance to students to help ensure the final product is ready for presentation to an industry expert. 

Additionally, the professor must ensure the guests know exactly what they are invited to observe, and how and about what they are to provide feedback. Accurate and useful industry-relevant feedback is key to student learning—but it must be delivered in a manner that protects students’ dignity. 

All four approaches preserve an essential element of traditional brick-and-mortar classroom experiences. When adapting a course—or designing a new one—to be offered online, consider classroom guests as course content that is as essential as the assigned readings. Taking this perspective will make outside experts a central feature of the course, rather than designed out because of perceived modality constraints. And, in the end, the classroom guest elements will lead to more engagement and deepened learning.  


Robbe A. Healey earned a BS in education from Northeastern University and an MBA from Villanova University. In her more than four decades of experience, she has started fundraising programs for four nonprofit organizations and counseled more than 150 organizations in the areas of strategic planning, board governance and non-profit organization management. As a professor, she helps students in her online fundraising course relate their learning experience to the work environment by integrating fundraising professionals as expert lecturers and grantmaking professionals as panelists for individual student presentations. 

Stefan A. Perun, PhD, is the associate director for Digital Learning Pedagogy at the Villanova Institute for Teaching and Learning. He has taught graduate-level online courses for over 10 years, and his scholarship focuses upon how pedagogies enacted in various contexts throughout higher education shape students’ learning.    

References 

Bruff, D. (2019). Intentional tech: Principles to guide the use of educational technology in college teaching. West Virginia University Press. 

Jablon-Roberts, S. & McCracken, A. (2022). Undergraduate Student Perceptions of Industry Guest Speakers in the College Classroom. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 22(3). https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v22i3.32317 


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