Instructional Highlights: Jason Kwan

To present complicated concepts online, professor dips toe into animation

Last summer, as Jason Kwan researched the components of effective online learning, he noted that the most popular educational YouTube videos used a lot of animation and visual aids and a relatively low amount of text.

That prompted Kwan, a UW–Madison associate professor of pharmacy, to plunge himself into learning a few basic animation skills. He acknowledges that, in hindsight, he probably spent way too much time on the endeavor. But the videos were very popular in student surveys, and Kwan thinks that, through the process, he learned a lot about teaching in general and how best to convey information.

“My attitude going into this was, ‘OK, it looks like we’re going to have to teach entirely online, so I should really lean into that, rather than doing everything the same.’”

Kwan taught a biochemistry class for more than 100 first-year students in the pharmacy doctoral program last fall. It’s a course he has taught since 2014.

“I saw this as kind of an opportunity to redesign my course to some extent, to really pare the lectures down to their most essential elements and cut out the fat,” he says.

Animation was an ideal format for that, Kwan says. He started by learning a framework for explanatory math videos called “Manim” in Python, a general-purpose programming language. He used these videos to explain things like protein structures and chemical mechanisms. You can view examples here and here.

Kwan liked the results, but there was a hitch.

“This was a serious amount of work,” he says. “Even though I managed to get the writing, animation, voice recording and editing down to a week per video, the course has three lectures a week, so I would have run out of time.”

For later videos, he switched to Apple Keynote to make an animated slide deck, which he edited to fit to a recorded voice track. It wasn’t quite as versatile as Manim, but Kwan could make each one in three days instead of seven. Here’s an example.

Kwan stresses that the animation he created was not all that complicated, yet he knows not every instructor would want to try it. Still, he thinks there are some broader takeaways.

“Even in person, I’m going to try to present more in this kind of style,” he says. “The exercise of simplifying and streamlining my lectures was very useful.”

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at  instructionalcontinuity@provost.wisc.edu.