How do I transition from in-person instruction to a virtual classroom?!
As we all practice social distancing and hand-washing techniques, many university instructors and grade school teachers are also nervously preparing for the seemingly inevitable transition from in-person instruction to virtual classrooms and online learning.
Along with my in-person workshops, I've also taught a number of live online classes over the last several years. This includes The Carpentries Instructor Training and three iterations of UC Berkeley Extension's Practical Data Science and what I've learned is that teaching online comes with a whole new set of challenges... but also a whole new set of cool tools and techniques! You can do this.
For any of you who are about to enter the world of online teaching - especially live sessions - I've compiled a non-exhaustive list of tips and tricks that will help make the transition smooth for you and your learners.
(1) Record yourself teaching and review the footage Fair warning - it is very uncomfortable to watch yourself teach. But it's important that you understand exactly what your learners will see and to minimize the extra cognitive load that comes along with switching to a new medium. Consider things like:
- Is the lighting, audio, and video quality appropriate?
- Is the font size, colour, and resolution of shared materials accessible?
- Are there any background factors that might be distracting to students? This could include roaming pets, a loudly humming fridge, a busy intersection, or simply clutter in your environment that might pull attention from the lesson.
- How does your body language / movements translate to the screen? The first time I did this exercise, I realized that I often "talk with my hands" just on or below the lower limit of the capture screen; this means that every few moments I could see just the tips of my fingers briefly wave into view - it was incredibly distracting and I've since learned to either specifically have my hand motions visible or keep them out of sight at any given moment!
(2) Share your screen
Sharing your screen is a great way to keep learners engaged and communicate materials in a variety of ways. In my world, this usually means live coding and sharing the occasional diagram, but most or all subjects can benefit from having something other than the instructor's face to focus on. This is also great for any instructors who may feel a little camera-shy! But, if you're going to use this technique, you should:
- Mirror your learner's environment. Make sure that the materials they have access to match the materials you are sharing on your screen.
- Don't flip between several windows without clearly indicating where you're going, what learners can expect to see there, and, when applicable, how learners can navigate to that window on their own device.
- Disable all pop-up notifications! To be safe, I have a teaching-only account on my laptop which is disconnected from all applications that might be tempted to send me pop-up notifications.
- Consider the files and background visible on your desktop, or tabs that you may have open in a browser. Minimize the number of distractions for learners and ensure personal information (like your email inbox) is not accidentally shared.
- Increase the size and visibility of your mouse. I have modified my laptop settings so my Control key prompts an animated circle to appear around my mouse pointer. This is especially helpful when instructing students to click on a particular place during interactive activities.
(3) Make it interactive!
Social distancing shouldn't prevent your class from being interactive. There are lots of amazing tools out there to help you design the perfect type of interaction for your learners. Remember that your learners are also transitioning from being present in a classroom to being in a new and, likely, distracting environment. Interactive activities can help learners regain focus while initiating discussions and opportunities to practice what they've learned. Some of my favourite tools are:
- Zoom video conferencing. It has tons of cool features and options for question boxes, interactive polls, and live chats, along with practical considerations like microphone and video permissions. In my opinion, though, the highlight of Zoom is the ability to send learners to any number of virtual breakout rooms for group discussions.
- Etherpad or Google Docs for shared note taking and group discussion summaries. I have found Etherpad to sometimes be less reliable and occasionally need refreshing, but Google Docs requires that learners have an account (and institution permission enabled) to be able to join in. I suspect there are lot of other options out there, and would love to hear from you about them!
- Socrative is an app that allows you to build and share interactive formative assessments that give you instant feedback from learners. I'll let you explore the app website for specifics, but I've found it to be a flexible and accessible way to re-focus a class and evaluate learner's understanding of the concepts we're covering.
(4) Set norms for interactions
Virtual classrooms may be a new environment for many or most of your learners. Get things started on the right foot by creating a positive, safe learning environment.
- Share and use a Code of Conduct that establishes the rules, principles, values, and expectations of all participants.
- Clearly share your expectations around interactions well before the class begins. This is particularly important if you will be asking learners to share their screens, turn on their cameras, or use their microphone. Advanced notice gives learners the opportunity to modify their own environment or appearance (selecting a quiet location, wearing appropriate clothing, etc.) or contact you privately if they are uncomfortable sharing.
- Establish and communicate rules to ensure that all learners have equal opportunities to participate and share. This may include moderating group discussions, or using software settings that allow the instructor to unmute/mute learners as requested.
(5) If at all possible, have a helper!
An extra set of eyes is useful for:
- Moderating the chat.
- Managing questions.
- Sharing links.
- Administering formative assessments and communicating the results.
- Creating breakout rooms in Zoom.
- Monitoring technical issues.
Seriously .. find a helper or co-instructor if you can. It makes a huge difference and also takes the pressure of a single instructor acting as the content expert, the technical support, and the classroom manager! Consider pairing up with another instructor and take turns helping each other with classes at least until you're both comfortable in the online classroom environment.
(6) Ask for feedback
You're learning a new skill! Like any skill, you can improve with practice and feedback.
- Use Google Forms to create minute cards and collect feedback from your learners.
- Prompt specific types of feedback by asking questions like "What, if any, technical issues need to be addressed for next class?" or "How could the online presentation of the material be improved?"
(7) Consider the practical issues
- Remind all of your learner to keep their microphones muted unless they are speaking to the class. Otherwise, you'll end up with the sounds of loud typing, heavy breathing, coffee mug clanking, background conversations, and traffic from all over the city pulling attention away from your class. Pro Tip: If you use breakout rooms, you'll need to remind students to re-mute their microphones when they return to the main room!
- Give frequent short breaks and encourage students to physically move around during those breaks. It is difficult to keep your focus on a computer screen when you're accustomed to a traditional classroom!
- Always start class a few minutes early to address the inevitable technical issues that you and your learners will discover!
- Consider any accessibility issues that may be caused by the movement to an online course. Encourage your students to contact you with any concerns they may have around accessibility and work together to come up with a solution. This may include recording your sessions so that learners who don't always have access to a quiet location can revisit the material at a later time.
(8) Enjoy the learning experience!
I know this is a stressful time for all of us, and suddenly needing to move a course online and learn new skills around managing an effective virtual classroom is a lot. But I promise, there is a huge, supportive community of online instructors out there and lots of incredible resources, so take advantage of all of it and embrace these newly developed skills!