William Spaniel takes on 21st century teaching tools to enhance student learning

April 30, 2014
William Spaniel during his BBC radio interview on what game theory can teach us about World War I. NPR has also turned to Spaniel for theory-based strategies on winning the popular game, “Words With Friends.”

William Spaniel during his BBC radio interview on what game theory can teach us about World War I. NPR has also turned to Spaniel for theory-based strategies on winning the popular game, “Words With Friends.”

By Rachel Goldstein

Through the innovative use of online videos, William Spaniel, a doctoral candidate studying bargaining and warfare, makes complex ideas accessible and entertaining for students at the University of Rochester and across the globe. Those innovative teaching methods and Spaniel’s commitment to learners have earned him fans in the classroom and online.

His Game Theory 101 YouTube channel, a collection of 300 videos, has over ten thousand subscribers and approximately 2.2 million lifetime views. In total, Spaniel’s four massive open online courses (MOOC), hosted on his Game Theory 101 website, YouTube, and Udemy, have a following of at least 7,000 students. Additionally, Spaniel has self-published two digital textbooks: Game Theory 101: The Complete Textbook (2011) and The Rationality of War(2012), the first of which has sold over 30,000 copies.

“In four years of graduate school, William has created an online teaching presence that puts him at the forefront of the revolution we are now seeing in higher education,” says David Primo, the Ani and Mark Gabrellian Professor and director of graduate studies in political science. “While many in the ‘old guard’ fear online education, William embraces it as a powerful tool that, if done well, enhances face-to-face education.”

Spaniel began producing videos and posting them on YouTube in 2009 when he noticed the lack of online resources for learning game theory. The production requires three simple tools: a high quality microphone, PowerPoint, and a video software program called CamStudio, which essentially takes images of the computer screen while simultaneously recording the microphone.

“The reason that I started with the video format, and that I’m still using it, is that it’s much easier to learn game theory with someone visually showing you what’s going on with a cursor,” explains Spaniel. While a textbook, linear and static, is better at reinforcing issues and definitions, videos allow learners to see from slide to slide how a particular game tree is evolving.

As his collection of videos progressed into something more coherent, he created an introductory course to game theory. The project “snowballed,” according to Spaniel, who has established a prominent online presence, gained followers, and continued producing videos for online classes—creating independently what large companies such as Coursera offer.

“It is amazing to me that a company with that much reach bleeds money,” says Spaniel, “while I, by myself, with a much smaller audience, can bring in more than enough to justify the amount of time that I put into it.”

Although Spaniel does not foresee online lectures replacing face-to-face interactions, he does recognize videos as a tool for learning, understanding that everyone learns at a different pace.

“Videos are much better as a reference for people who need to see the material again,” says Spaniel. “There may be a particular issue that someone might not understand, but for whatever reason, they didn’t want to raise their hand,” he explains. The videos allow students to review lectures at their own pace, on their own time.

Set to graduate in May 2014, Spaniel is not only working on his dissertation, “Bargaining over the Bomb: The Successes and Failures of Nuclear Negotiations,” but also teaching his first undergraduate class at Rochester, Civil War and International Systems. He posts online in video format, all of the lecture material covered in class. As a result, fewer students need to attend office hours or send him e-mails, but it is not because the students don’t have questions.

“Students are answering the questions themselves using the material I had already given them,” says Spaniel. Video view counts jump right before an exam, giving him insight into student study habits. More importantly, the students have done well on their midterms this semester.

For Spaniel, the online feedback that he receives is another plus.

“Unlike in the real world, people are much more honest in their online criticism and also more instantaneous,” says Spaniel. The game theory class, now in its fourth incarnation, has been edited and revised based on comments from viewers, which in turn helps Spaniel improve as a lecturer in the classroom.

His effective teaching methods have not gone unseen by the University community either. Spaniel was one of seven individuals to earn the 2014 Curtis Peck Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student.

Letters of support written by undergraduates for the Edward Peck Curtis nominations describe Spaniel’s teaching as “inspirational,” “passionate,” and “innovative.” Students praise his dedication to helping each individual succeed, and appreciate that he “peppers his slides with jokes and anecdotes” to make the material more relevant and entertaining.

“He has an extremely good reputation among the students,” says Hein Goemans, an associate professor of political science for whom Spaniel has worked as a teaching assistant. “Teaching comes totally natural to him, and I think that is what makes him so effective.”

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