Last week was my first full week of teaching online. Like virtually every other teacher in the world right now, I learned a lot about what works for my course and what does not. There were many realizations that I had about the logistics of my class: for example, I learned it takes much longer to do almost anything than it does in person, and also that I should delegate more responsibilities to my teaching team than I had originally planned.
But the biggest realizations have been in the realm of student engagement. Here are three high level takeaways from my first week which I’m taking into Week 2:
Reflection 1: There are many more ways for students to engage with the class online than in person.
When teaching residentially, the primary mode through which a student can interact with the class is verbal. They can raise their hand and ask a question or make a comment; they can talk to the students sitting next to them; or they can have discussions in small groups. Of course, some classes use other methods, but for the most part students speak to each other and to you.
When teaching online, in contrast, it feels like there isn’t really a “primary way” for a student to interact with the class. Here’s a brief list of modalities that students can use to engage:
- Raising their hand physically or virtually. When the instructor calls on them, they unmute and speak.
- Using “nonverbal feedback” to indicate understanding, mood, or preference the instructor.
- Using Zoom’s chat function to leave a comment or question for (a) the whole class, (b) a peer, or (c) the instructor or other co-hosts.
- Responding to a poll that the instructor activates. After voting, the poll results may be shared back to the students.
- Working with one another in breakout rooms on a discrete task, and coming back together for a report out afterwards.
- Typing into a collaborative document or presentation (e.g., a Google Doc or Slide) alongside their peers/the teaching team/the instructor.
Reading this list should make your heart beat a little bit faster, both out of excitement and anxiety. On one hand, teaching online makes it easy to get the kind of engagement that many residential instructors aspire to (I’ve seen some really nice uses of Google Docs in residential courses, but those examples are few and far between). Students can collaboratively generate content, make their feelings known without the pressure of raising their hand and speaking to the entire class, and seamlessly share insights or concerns with each other and with you.
On the other hand, each of these modalities has problems associated with it, and doing them all at once is a recipe for chaos. What if students flood your chat room with side conversations? What if you’re halfway through your lecture and you suddenly see that half the class is signaling “Go Faster” while the other half is signaling “Go Slower”? What if the process of calling on someone, having them unmute themselves, ask their question, then mute themselves again shaves off a few seconds of class time every time, to the point where you’re losing 5-10 minutes of class time just on microphone management?
Luckily, I’m finding that the issues of one method can be addressed by the strengths of another. In my class this week, I left the chat window open to everyone, and quickly found it to be a distraction for myself and a large number of my students. Instead, I’ve decided to generally restrict students to chatting with co-hosts (my teaching team) and relying on hand-raising/verbal communication. However, during discrete times in class – question times, or when I ask for a large number of examples of some concept – I can open the chat to everyone. Suddenly the chat becomes a rich source of information for me that would take way too long to solicit via verbal responses. In short, I find myself asking when a certain modality should be employed more often than I ask if it should be employed.
Reflection 2: Unlike residential teaching, students’ interaction with your course is mediated entirely through a single small rectangle on their laps.
While teaching online opens up a host of possibilities for students to engage, it’s also limited by a seemingly obvious problem. While students in residential classrooms can easily switch between looking at you, looking at slides/visuals, and looking at each other, when online they must do so through the porthole of their computer screen. This has a few implications:
- There are time and energy costs to moving between your shared screen, their notes, your video feed, their peers’ feeds, the chat, etc. The more switching they have to do, the higher the risk of fatigue and confusion.
- Inertia can easily kick in, resulting in students just watching your shared screen and not their notes, their peers, or you.
- Every tool that you use outside of the videoconference – Poll Everywhere, Google Docs, bit.ly links to reference material – is subject to the two problems above, reducing its effectiveness.
With these issues in mind, I’ve had to make some adjustments to how I teach (again, these are things that are working for me, not necessarily prescriptions for you):
- Whenever possible, use Zoom functions instead of third-party services: I love Poll Everywhere and the rich set of polling tools it provides. However, unless I’m asking for free-response questions from students, I’m using Zoom polls instead. Similarly, despite the many advantages of a dedicated chat service like Slack, I’m sticking with Zoom’s more rudimentary chat feature. In short, unless I have an important reason to do otherwise, I’m keeping things in Zoom for the sake of student sanity.
- Reduce the amount of content students need to process: As I’ve written before, while teaching residentially I make use of a main screen (for the handout) and side screens (for supplementary slides/animations/polls). When switching to online, I was largely able to replicate this two screen setup in Zoom (though I needed a bunch of screens to do so). However, I quickly learned from students that having to view two simultaneously broadcasted screens on their computers while also taking notes was too challenging, even if the content was shared in high resolution. The problem wasn’t blurriness – it was cognitive load.
- Mirror handouts directly: In my class, I provide students with a guided handout (with lots of empty space and questions), and then project a “slide-ified” version that I create which emphasizes certain parts of the handout and breaks up with the content. For the same reasons as my previous point, I’m now projecting exactly the same handout that the students have to make it easier to follow the class. I can still emphasize certain content by zooming in and out of sections as needed, but projecting the handout that they also have and writing on that appears to be a big help to students.
Reflection 3: As we transition to teaching from home, students are transitioning to learning from home.
As we scramble to successfully move our classes online, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that our students are having to make significant cognitive, physical, and emotional changes themselves. For a moment, let’s put aside the obvious distress of COVID-19 and social distancing and think about the transition to online learning. Students who are taking 3 classes a day are now sitting in front of a videoconference for 4 or more hours, sometimes straight! That means not walking between classes, not chatting with peers, not going outside for a few minutes before class, and not talking with their instructors before or after class. Even without a global pandemic, this is a tough transition.
Here are a few small suggestions I’ve tried in order to be a positive force in my students’ lives during this time:
- Commit to ending class on time, always. I put the most important one first. Transitioning to online has meant that I’m not always getting to the content that I planned to cover, and it feels like a disservice to not get to those topics when time has run out. But the fact that students don’t have to walk to their next class doesn’t mean that the transition time between classes isn’t important to them. In short, I want to make sure I respect the contract that I made with my students way back in January.
- Build in stretch breaks. I aspire to give my students 30 seconds to stretch every 30 minutes. I find this much harder to do in practice given all the time constraints mentioned above, but this is a nice way to re-center the class when attention starts to drop.
- Play music before class. I saved the best for last. When I started the Zoom conference on Thursday and shared my introductory slide, I also shared my computer’s sound and played some fun music while they waited. It was just wonderful to have students roll in looking tired and frazzled, perk up a bit because something was different, half smile as they realized there was music playing, then start to bob their head back and forth. By the time class actually started I even had a few students dancing in their seats! I’ve since made a collaborative playlist on Spotify and asked students to add to it for the remainder of the semester. It feels silly, but maybe silly is what we need a bit more of these days.
I’m interested in returning to this post in a few weeks and seeing how much I’ve changed my approach, and how wrong some of this sounds in retrospect. I hope that’s the case – most of us are new to this, which means there’s so much room to grow.
Be physically and emotionally well. Let me know if you have thoughts in the comments.