Welcome to Your New Zoom Classroom: Some Tips on Handling the Switch to Remote Learning from Professor of Marketing Leyland Pitt

July 30, 2020

By Janet Homeniuk 

Anyone who has a semester of emergency remote learning under their belt knows how it feels to tackle those three-hour Zoom lectures. And while sitting alone (or not so alone) in your apartment for a long stretch of screen time is part of the current university experience, chances are you might not actually be absorbing as much as you think.

Leyland Pitt, Professor of Marketing and the Dennis F. Culver EMBA Alumni Chair of Business at the Beedie School of Business thinks there is a better way.

Dr. Pitt explains, “Adjusting to remote teaching provides a limitless opportunity to innovate but it takes time, and must be done well, in order to maximize the benefits offered by the medium.”

He should know. The initial pressure to redesign his popular graduate-level Marketing course was intense. He had to quickly adapt his course to suit the needs of his students, which were much different than at the beginning of the semester, and on an entirely different platform to anything he’d used to teach a graduate school class before.

In addition to the technological set up, students were anxious, stressed and unsure of what would happen to their jobs, their courses, and even their graduate degrees in the highly competitive EMBA program.

From past experience, Dr. Pitt knew that the most important thing for graduate student well-being was not just putting the course online as quickly as possible but being measured and thoughtful in the manner in which this was accomplished.

What the students needed was a new way of teaching, one that took into account the pressures everyone felt with COVID-19 disrupting every aspect of their lives.

These students were fortunate in that Dr. Pitt has earned many teaching awards throughout his career and has held a number of teaching and learning grants through the ISTLD.

For Dr. Pitt, the biggest challenge was to create a comfortable, compassionate environment in which students could connect with one another and learn despite distractions, unstable internet connections, worries over their own well-being, and the health of their family and friends.

How did he do this? Dr. Pitt focused on three key areas: Digital Classroom Strategies, Social Connection and Sense of Community, and Accessibility – all critical areas to ensure the students had access to as rich a learning experience as possible.

Dr. Pitt chose to increase the interactivity of his course by using group presentations and simulations that provided the opportunity for students to learn from and interact with each other in ways that were not possible in a traditional physical classroom.

He also saw a unique opportunity to include guest speakers that were no longer limited by the usual restrictions of having to travel to campus. In some cases, these presenters were recruited by the students themselves. This strategy alone provided students with enriched learning experiences from a variety of speakers who would not be part of the usual curriculum.

Dr. Pitt surveyed students at the end of the course for feedback into their experiences in the online format, and it seems his most important goal was met: the students felt he had created a safe and compassionate learning space during the pandemic. 

And he is happy to share his successful strategies here:


“I think everyone was doing the best they could, and I think SFU and Leyland were awesome in being able to continue the program and courses during COVID.” – Student response

Digital Classroom Set-Up

  • Learn how to use the “tools of the trade” for online teaching: Zoom, an Apple Mac, iPad + Pencil, and Notability.
  • The best tools are tools that can be as “alive” as possible, where real human movement (i.e. someone writing on a whiteboard), rather than electronic movement (e.g. PowerPoint slides transitioning) is possible
  • If you have decent handwriting, simply use a pen or stylus on Notability on an iPad, joined to your computer, to write on the “whiteboard”. If you don’t write legibly, use the text function in Notability. However, if you can write legibly, students actually prefer it to text because it’s more “authentic”
  • Put “Do Not Disturb” on, both on the computer and other devices so that things don’t pop up on the screen (e.g. email and iMessage notifications)
  • Expert Tip: Use all the technology – iPad whiteboard with pen, PowerPoint, video both from your computer and also from YouTube, spreadsheet, etc. before you actually run a class in real time, so that you can anticipate any glitches.

Zoom Classes are not the same as Zoom Meetings

  • For Zoom classes, have some colleagues, TAs, PhD students sit in on a “test class” beforehand so you can experience what having an audience is like
  • Have one of your audience take over as host in the test class so you can experience what it’s like to be in a “real class” rather than just a Zoom meeting – have them raise hands and lower them, conduct polls, use Zoom Spotlight, do all the stuff that you would do
  • Expert Tip: Always run a full Zoom class rehearsal before you teach your first class.

Screen Time vs. Break Time

  • Sitting in front of a screen trying to concentrate is very tiring – cut your students some slack.
  • Both you and they have all kinds of distractions – pets, kids, neighbors, household noises, doorbells etc. Online is NOT ideal
  • Have good breaks, and finish at least 20 minutes early
  • Try not to go for longer than 70 minutes at a stretch in a typical 3.5 hour class – people need to stretch their legs, and take bathroom breaks
  • Plan on finishing early in a 3.5 hour class. They might have another class later, and that instructor might not be as kind and considerate as you are
  • Expert Tip: Aim to do about 80% of what you would have done in “real” class – so what if you don’t get everything done?

Teaching Assistants and the Digital Classroom

  • Use the TA as your extra set of eyes and ears in the class and debrief with them during the break and after class
  • Insist on a really good TA who will sit in the class throughout; communicate by phone with the TA before class, during breaks, and after class
  • Have the TA monitor the chat to gauge individual student activity and presence.
  • Content of chat isn’t really good material to grade so don’t worry about that.
  • TA can alert you to issues (e.g. Steve had his hand up but you didn’t see it”; "Rosie has a really good idea, ask her to talk about it”; “George is an expert on this by the way” or “Mary has WiFi issues”)
  • The TA is also your technical backup, either live, or in the chat (“your mike isn’t on”; “I’ve put last week’s board pdf in their shared space”), especially on the rare occasions you might encounter serious tech problems
  • Expert Tip: ALWAYS make the TA a co-host


“Wonderful class! Leyland adapted the curriculum and teaching to an online environment incredibly well and kept our class engaged throughout each class which was no small feat.” – Student response

Simulations enrich the learning experience

  • There are really excellent simulations available for most courses that students can do in groups outside of class e.g. Marketplace.
  • They are happy to spend LOTS of time on those and learn LOTS by “doing” rather than studying a textbook or listening to lectures
  • Try to find short exercises, such as negotiations, that can be done online, live, in front of the class. 
  • You can put individual students or groups in breakout rooms where they can prepare.

Team Presentations enhance learning

“I learnt the most from the various team presentations.” – Student response

  • Have students in groups do a presentation in each class, preferably only one group per class.
  • Try to leave the topic up to them, that way they get really creative and excited about it
  • Suggest a time (e.g. 30 minutes + questions), but don’t be rigid on that. Give them the time, you can always make it up
  • Best to start each class with a group presentation, that way you can plan for the rest of it, rather than having them rush at the end. You’re a better timekeeper than they are, so manage your time not theirs.

Guest speakers are a HIT

  • Students LOVE having a guest in a class, and its much, much easier online. No travel, no time barriers, guests can be anywhere.
  • They don’t have to be famous, just interesting
  • Students are really good at finding their own guests, let them do so
  • Don’t restrict their (the guests’) topics, people speak best when they talk about things that they care most about


“Leyland was excellent at removing stress during a stressful time for many of the class (loss of jobs, etc.) I thank him for providing a caring and compassionate space and doing the best he could.” – Student response

Allow the students to access the recorded sessions on their own time

  • Use the record function on Zoom or whatever software you’re using, to record the classes.
  • You might not want to watch or listen to them again, but some students do.
  • If you are using a whiteboard function like Notability, save the boards to a pdf and email those to students

Stay connected to your students outside of class

  • Answer student emails as soon as you can – it shows you’re there and that you care.
  • Be kind, most people are stressed; immediate response can alleviate that.
  • Send regular emails to the class just to catch up – they don’t have to be about the course – they can be funny, interesting, anything that keeps a conversation going. Make fun of the situation, stupid bureaucratic rules etc


Leyland F Pitt, MCom, MBA, PhD, PhD, is Professor of Marketing and the Dennis F. Culver EMBA Alumni Chair of Business at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. He holds adjunct professorships in marketing at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, and at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria. He has also taught on executive and MBA programs at major international business schools such as the Graham School of Continuing Studies at the University of Chicago, the Graduate School of Business of Columbia University, Rotterdam School of Management, and London Business School.

Professor Pitt has won many awards for teaching excellence, including Best Lecturer on the MBA Program, Henley Management College, UK; the Dean's Teaching Honor Roll, Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, Canada; best professor and MBA Teacher of the Year, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark; and Best Professor of Program, Joint Executive MBA, University of Vienna, Austria and Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota, USA. In 2002, Leyland Pitt was awarded the Outstanding Marketing Teacher of the Academy of Marketing Science, and in 2010 he was the recipient of the American Marketing Association's Solomon-Marshall-Stewart Pearson-Prentice Hall Innovative Marketing Teacher Award. He was elected a Distinguished Fellow of the Academy of Marketing Science in 2012. In 2006 he was awarded the TD Canada Trust award for outstanding teachers, and listed as one of Canada's top MBA professors in the magazine, Canadian Business, in 2005.

Leyland Pitt has also presented in-house management development programs in major organization worldwide, including British Airways, Unilever, HSBC, Ernst and Young, Dixons, Volkswagen, SABMiller, the Australian Customs Service, Kone, Siemens and the Royal Metropolitan Police.