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Online teaching

Updated: May 16, 2021

As the coronavirus pandemic means many millions around the world now face the prospect of moving their teaching online, I’ve put together a list of some of the steps to take and some of the best advice I’ve seen to help you adapt to this change. As a teacher who has taught in both environments, the real and the virtual, I can be honest and say that you can never quite capture the same atmosphere and energy online as you can in a physical classroom, but there are many positives that can be drawn on and some students may even thrive in a way they couldn’t when sitting in a classroom.

1. Choose your technology wisely

There are so many tools available today that it is difficult to know what to use. However, when you begin researching, you need to have your student demographic firmly in your mind.

What will their country allow them to access? In China, for example, you may not be able to use platforms like Facebook to create groups to communicate in because Chinese students wouldn’t be able to access this. Their alternative is WeChat, which can be accessed in the West. When choosing material this is also important because China may not be able to access videos on YouTube, so consider when posting your lectures/ classes whether the particular platform will be accessible.

What can the students afford? Some online tools are free, for example, Zoom. Others may only be used if students have the software package personally or through their institutions, such as Microsoft Teams. Do not expect all students to be able to buy software, as this may not always be feasible. Try to use free software where possible.

What are other people’s experiences? Check reviews carefully before you commit to one particular tool. Check if it has been used successfully in other contexts or those similar to yours and if there were problems encountered, what were they and would there be ways to mitigate?

What if it doesn’t work? When you have made your decision regarding a particular tool, choose a second as a back-up. It may be that one tool seems suitable and ticks all the boxes but when it comes to it in practice it just doesn’t work. So, be ready with an alternative.

2. Experiment beforehand

Some software and platforms out there can be fairly straightforward to navigate and uncover the useful tricks they sometimes have on offer. But others can take a while to get your head around so give yourself some time to experiment before you go ‘into the field’ as it were. Though we can say that many of our students will now fall into the category of ‘digital natives’ and therefore will most likely whizz around the platform and reveal to you other things it can do that you didn’t know about, always try to assume and plan for the student who knows absolutely nothing about technology and will need some guidance and simple tasks to help them find their way around. Try to remember how it felt when you saw the software or screens for the first time and provide them with some helpful initial tasks to build their confidence with the tools. Keep in mind that not only are they now mastering a new subject (whatever it is you are teaching them), but they are also adjusting to a new learning environment and new software and platforms that might seem overwhelming at first. It might also be super easy for them so judge it as you would in the class – if all confirm their confidence and capability, carry on to the main menu of the day, teaching your subject. If others are struggling, boost their confidence and encourage them to experiment - and don't chastise them for putting things in the wrong places.

3. Minimise live sessions

Though it is much more effective in pedagogical terms for students to be able to interact with their teacher and to ask questions in the moment, owing to technology and the challenges of connecting a large number of people in various places at exactly the same time, this can be difficult to realise in the virtual world. For this reason, when you do hold live sessions, try to do it with a smaller number to lessen the potential for connection difficulties. In addition, build time into your session for dealing with microphones that aren’t switched on, or students having dodgy connections etc. And when the connection is bad or when there are more interruptions than there is quality discussion, be prepared to close the session. Don’t leave it to the point where all are frustrated and sweating with the stress of trying to catch every third word. Cut your losses, agree to record a lecture and allow them to post their questions as videos or text and respond later. Be honest with students from the start that technology is great when it works, but needs to be politely side-lined when not playing along.

4. Give a purpose for listening

In some ways, teaching online provides the perfect space for breaking free from the traditional teaching styles we’re often bound by. Your online lesson does not need to follow the traditional lecture style where teacher talks and students listen – and fall asleep – which of course, they can do more easily if they’re not sitting in front of you but instead, lying on their bed with Netflix on the TV in the background. How are you going to know if they dropped off or tuned out five minutes in to your one hour lecture? So, where possible, don’t just lecture. Give them a purpose for listening. You could set them a set of questions they will have to listen for and answer on a Wiki. Or you could ask them to post a summary or their notes to share on the forum. They need to have a task attached or switching off will be all too tempting – as it always is even in real life when hiding with head down at the back of the lecture theatre. It would also be wise here to keep lectures short, a maximum of 30 minutes. Even that will be difficult for some to keep focussed but any longer than that and you might as well not bother.

5. Points of discussion

In tune with this breaking free of traditions, use the technology to be more creative. Vary the tasks to keep students as motivated and engaged as possible. Use the flipped classroom approach where you can. So, for example, if you’re going to have an online seminar with a small group, give them a reading activity to do beforehand. Ask them to summarise some points/ answer some questions on the online forum/ Wiki before you meet and use that input as points of discussion to make the seminar more productive. Or ask them to write their questions on the online platform before you meet. This is where students who typically might be too shy to participate or to speak up with their question in class may actually benefit from this new mode of discussion. They would have had the opportunity to think and consider their question and type it out without other faces looking on and without the time pressure. This could also be particularly useful for students who are conscious of their language skills. In the same vein, this questioning by text could be an option you offer in the lectures if you do them live – you could find many more students engage than would normally do in the large lecture theatre. The anonymity gives them the confidence to type and to ask and therefore to learn.

6. Create a timetable

It can be very easy without the face-to-face contact for both the teacher and the students to drift off into their own realities and only connect when it’s time for the assignment at the end. But this, as you know, risks leaving all the complications and questions and indeed the learning until the very last minute. An online course still needs a timetable, even if no sessions are going to be given live. You should create a clear plan and timetable for the entire course duration and schedule in tasks at regular intervals to keep students engaged and in contact, and to allow you to monitor progress. This could involve getting them to summarise articles/ documents they’ve read, post a video presentation of topics they’ve been learning about, post questions and respond to other people’s questions, or research topics and provide definitions of terms, with references provided. An actual timeline where students can tick off their tasks as they go can also be motivating and allow students to see their progress.

7. Encourage collaboration

Online courses can be very lonely – as can face-to-face, when not managed well. But in the virtual world of learning, the students can feel far from the teacher and their fellow course mates from the beginning to the end and the important social aspect of learning can be entirely lost. That is why it’s essential from day one to encourage students to work together. Set them pair and group tasks as you would in the classroom. Encourage them to swap numbers for WhatsApp or WeChat and to collaborate on projects with one or more other students. They can co-ordinate their meeting times but you set the deadline for task completion. Tasks might include writing a report on a Wiki or creating a PPT presentation that they can record voice-overs to. It might be designing a lecture/ seminar to teach their classmates something. Allow them to experiment with the technology available to them and you might be pleasantly surprised with the levels of creativity and what students can achieve together without ever being in the same room as each other.

8. Embrace it

This might be the most important point of all and may also be the most difficult. For those of us used to our paper materials, our white board and friendly chats with students before class, the change to an online environment can feel clinical, impersonal and unfulfilling. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I assure you that I have created extremely strong bonds with students who I have until this day only ever met over Skype. Some family members may only ever have had this form of contact with their loved ones. There are many situations today that force us to depend on the technology and though it may not be our preference, we are in times where we need to adapt. The coronavirus is one of these times. If we have to adapt, we have to embrace it also, and take all the advantages that come with an online classroom. There are many. I hope you have found some of them here and I hope you can take away some of the advice for preparing your own online lessons. Best of luck to all and happy teaching!

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