Last fall, geography instructor John Boyer, aka the Plaid Avenger, took to the high seas on a Semester at Sea (SAS), an independent study abroad program in which students and teachers sail to over a dozen ports of call. While globe trotting, Boyer taught his World Regions and Geography of Wine courses for SAS while also teaching World Regions remotely for Virginia Tech.

During his adventure, he recorded mini lectures from all over the world. Back in Blacksburg, his students watched as Boyer discussed gaucho culture saddled atop a horse in the Pampas of Argentina and lectured on the iconic Nelson Mandela in Cape Town shortly before the great man’s death. He also connected to students by hosting live, interactive Q&A’s from across the globe.

“We employed a variety of strategies to not just keep the class going but to keep it engaging and try to have as much interaction with me as possible even though I was not physically in Virginia,” Boyer explained.

The SAS provided an ideal opportunity for Boyer to further incorporate online tools into his teaching as well as demonstrate that massive online open courses can be both engaging and effective. Demand for such techniques is evidenced by his packed courses and the overwhelmingly positive response he receives from students. For example, he is the country’s fifth most-followed professor on Twitter and has received the Student’s Choice Award for Faculty Member of the Year for eight years in a row.

“We’re living through this awesome age in communications technologies that is allowing for interaction with all humans all the time, and I wanted to see more educational stuff done with it,” said Boyer. “I’m all about melting the walls of the classroom and really marrying a kind of classical education with the real world.”

Boyer has used technology to connect his World Regions class with international leaders. In his latest effort, Boyer and his students invited King Abdullah II of Jordan to come to Blacksburg. The king made concrete plans to visit but was thwarted by the February snowstorm. He responded with a video of his own that included a heartfelt apology and welcomed Boyer’s students to visit Jordan.

With unconventional yet successful teaching methods come notoriety. In April, Boyer was featured in the New York Times article “10 Courses With a Twist,” highlighting how his ‘70s-style plaids, student-friendly lingo, and use of social media to connect with students, who get to choose how they engage in the course and what assignments they do.

Listen to John Boyer on Virginia Conversations: Semester at Sea.