Teaching online on short notice

  online, teach

  Greg Wilson

So here you are: you planned to teach your class or deliver your workshop in person, and now you have to do it online or not at all. Nobody is giving you time or money to make the change, and a hundred other things also need your attention. Where should you start, and what should you aim for?

  1. Don’t change what you don’t have to. Assignments, submission, grading, discussion forums: if you’re already doing them online, don’t change them now. The same goes for content: your slides and exercises may not be perfect, but nothing ever is.

  2. Don’t make assumptions about your learners’ technology or circumstances. As Elizabeth Wickes said, “Don’t presume people have {thing}, have great {thing}, have {thing} to themselves, or even have a home where {thing} could be. For each thing, fill in:internet, computer, monitor, attention, etc.”

  3. Don’t try to be (or to beat) recorded video. Even mediocre videos require time and production experience that you probably don’t have right now, so move your live teaching online instead of trying to record and edit yourself. (If you are going to make videos, please read Chen and Rabb’s “ A Pattern Language for Screencasting” first.)

  4. Learn the song, then improvise over it. Good musicians don’t just make things up on the fly: they learn the song and then improvise around it. Great musicians listen to their bandmates and their audience while they do this. The best live teaching (whether in person or online) works the same way: make a plan, then vary your delivery depending on who your learners are, what questions they ask, and what you realize as you’re speaking.

  5. Don’t teach to empty chairs. We all rely on small social cues like nods and “mm hms” far more than we realize. Teaching without these is really hard, so if it’s not practical to have everyone turn on video, choose a subset of 4-6 learners and have them do it so that your hindbrain believes you actually have an audience. This also promotes engagement: learners can see that they’re not alone, and after each break, you can select a different subset of learners and direct your questions to them.

  6. Start with a tour. Many features of your video conference tool will not be obvious to participants. Point out where they can toggle the chat, change their participant view, answer polls, and so on. If you have time, join your call as a student, take a few screenshots, annotate them, and share them with your class. (Remember, your view of the video conference will be different from that of participants.)

  7. Direct traffic. Tell people where to put things and where to direct their attention. “Put it in the chat,” “add it to the doc,” and “unmute and tell us” will all make the class run much more smoothly.

  8. Mute early, mute often. Background noise kills meetings, so mute everyone after every speaker and then unmute the next person you’ve called on. And as Chelsea Troy pointed out, in most online meetings, the first person to speak during a pause gets the floor. The result? “If you have something you want to say, you have to stop listening to the person currently speaking and instead focus on when they’re gonna pause or finish so you can leap into that nanosecond of silence and be the first to utter something. The format…encourages participants who want to contribute to say more and listen less.” The solution is to run a text chat beside the video conference where people signal that they want to speak, and then call on them in turn.

  9. Call on people by name. “Any questions?” often produces an awkward silence, and even when it doesn’t, it gives fluent extroverts undue air time. Instead, call on people from your selected group by name. (If your video conferencing tool doesn’t display real names by default, ask participants to give theirs when they ask questions in the chat.) This also helps even out the effects of differing ability: you can throw easy questions at people who are struggling and save the hard ones for people who might otherwise get bored.

  10. Don’t teach alone. Every great surgeon has a great nurse beside her. Equally, when you’re teaching online for the first time, get someone else to monitor the chat for questions, figure out who to call on next, and so on. If none of your colleagues can do this (remember, they’re probably scrambling too), ask one of your more advanced learners to help out. Whoever it is, make sure to introduce them at the start of class.

  11. Do a dry run (with your copilot). Fifteen minutes with a small group before you do a real (larger) class can save you from saying, “Nobody told me there was a firewall.”

  12. Keep your notes beside you. For whatever reason, people seem less distracted when they look to the side at a printed copy than when they look up at a second monitor. There’s also less risk of your audience getting to see the inside of your nose…

  13. Add speaker’s notes to your slides. These can be point-form or long-form depending on how much time you have, but they will make your content easier to find, easier to review, and more accessible to people who have trouble seeing or hearing.

  14. Use accessibility tools to help everyone. Speaker’s notes are just one example of this: enlarging your cursor, using a key caster to display control keys as you type, switching to high-contrast mode all help compensate for shaky video or low-quality screens.

  15. Teach from your smallest screen. If your slides or your code are on the fancy meter-wide monitor you use for your daily work, they’re not going to look good when they’re squashed down to fit in the 800-pixel window your learners have on their tablets. Using a smaller video window also reduces bandwidth a little, which may in turn help learners in lower-quality environments.

  16. Your voice matters more than your face. You can switch off video if you have to, but if you lose sound, your class is over. You can use a headset with a microphone, but this can become uncomfortable after a couple of hours (particularly if you wear glasses). A Yeti or Samson Meteor microphone is more comfortable, but if you use one, it’s worth $30 to get a stand (because if it’s on your desk, all your audience will hear is your typing).

  17. Turn off notifications (theirs too). It’s rude to check your phone or read email during an in-person meeting, so don’t do it when you’re teaching (not even while your learners are working on an exercise). You probably can’t persuade your learners to be similarly respectful, but the subset you’re talking to at any particular time might.

  18. Share work in real time. Have learners share their work in a Google Doc or HackMD during the lesson. (This is no more or no less intimidating than asking a music student to play something for the class.) When you do this, paste in a list of people’s names so that they know where to type. Once they’re comfortable with this (which will take a few hours), have them take shared notes in the same doc so that your copilot can see what they think you’re saying.

  19. Keep track of who has and hasn’t spoken. Again, a laissez faire class can quickly turn into a discussion among a couple of extroverts, so keep a tally of who’s spoken how often and try to even it out. You don’t need technology to do this: a scrap of paper and a pencil will work just fine.

  20. Ask—fill—call. Thinking takes time. So does typing, and there’s always lag, so when asking for questions or suggestions, give people time to respond, but talk while you’re waiting for answers in order to avoid dead air.

  21. Ask for predictions. Online polls help keep people engaged but need to be set up in advance. Asking people, “What’s going to happen when we run this code?” is a good just-in-time alternative.

  22. Use breakout rooms. Peer instruction is the most effective scalable teaching practice we know of. It relies on students debating their answers to a motivating question for two or three minutes at a time. Zoom‘s breakout rooms make this relatively easy to run online: it takes 15-30 seconds to get everyone into rooms, and in a class of forty there will be one or two who initially have problems, but it does a lot to keep everyone engaged and motivated. (Zoom also supports whiteboards, but please don’t try to use them until you’re comfortable with its other features.)

  23. Take a break every hour, because the basic unit of teaching is the bladder.

The most important thing to remember is that nobody really knows how to do this—not yet. Don’t be afraid to try things, and please share your experiences: we’ll all learn faster if we learn together.

Register here to join us for a webinar on March 19, 2020 to discuss these ideas.