Teaching from Home: Three Reflections After a Week of Teaching Online

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Inertia can easily kick in, resulting in students just watching your shared screen and not their notes, their peers, or you.
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Teaching From Home (TFH): Writing on a Tablet

No matter what we teach, many of us make use of handwriting when in the classroom. We write on a whiteboard/blackboard, or write on handouts using a document camera, or write on slides being project on a screen. Writing helps guide learners toward the ideas that you consider important, and it helps organize thought processes and discussions. Plus, it lets you do something with your hands besides fidget.

When teaching online, there are lots of ways to approximate the benefits of writing without a stylus. Instead of a whiteboard, for example, you could have a Google Doc that learners can follow along with or even contribute to. But many of us need the flexibility of handwritten words and drawn diagrams. For that I suggest using a tablet (in my case, an iPad).

The two main decisions you have to make when using a tablet are:

  1. What app should I use to write?
  2. How should I project?

In this post I’m going to outline these choices and your options. I’ll try to describe the pros and cons of each option, and articulate why I do things the way I do.

Question 1: What app should I use to write?

There is no shortage of apps for the iPad that allow you to write or draw. With the advent of the Apple Pencil (a tool I highly encourage you to use in lieu of a traditional chunky stylus, provided that your iPad supports it), writing on an iPad has reached new levels of ease and comfort. So which app should you use?

When deciding which app is best for you, I prefer apps that have a “presenter mode” – that is to say, when the iPad is projecting onto an external screen, the app’s UI and other apps on the screen are hidden from the external screen (see my old post on Keynote for examples). This is especially useful for teachers, since it (a) ensures that the students only focus on your content and not the details, and (b) allows you to have additional reference material on your iPad that students don’t see.

I’m going to go through the most popular options below. Each of these has its own type of presenter mode that you should experiment with:

  1. PowerPoint (.pptx): The People’s Choice. If you use slides in your class, there’s a very good chance that they’re PowerPoint slides.
  2. Keynote (.key): For the Aesthetically Minded. Keynote has, in my opinion, an unparalleled ability to animate and show context.
  3. GoodNotes (.pdf): Flexibility and Power. If you prefer a blank whiteboard, or use Beamer, or like to zoom in and out, or simply like to write a lot, PDF annotation apps are nimble in ways that more traditional slideshow apps are not. There are many options out there, though the two most popular are GoodNotes and Notability. I used to not recommend Notability for teaching because it lacked a presenter mode, but the developers have finally added it (just a week ago at time of writing). My love for GoodNotes is no secret, so I’ll focus on that in this post, but Notability seems to be roughly the same in terms of features for our purposes.

Let’s take a look at how each performs, both in terms of handwriting and presenter mode.

Writing/Drawing

  • PowerPoint: Not great, but not bad either. A very basic set of colored pens, highlighters, and erasers, with no ability to adjust the thickness or use other colors. The pens aren’t especially “realistic” feeling either. One feature of note: when you exit a presentation that you’ve been writing on, it asks if you want to keep your annotations. If you tap “Keep”, they become embedded in the slides as shapes.
  • Keynote: Truly terrible. A couple of colors, zero ability to adjust thickness. Heck, you can’t even erase (just undo)! Writing on Keynote feels clunky and fragile; if you stop presenting your slideshow, you lose all annotations that you had made. All of that despite the fact that iOS has a built-in handwriting engine that works wonderfully. Sigh.
  • GoodNotes: Exquisite! Infinitely customizable pens and highlighters; a customizable eraser that can automatically snap back to your previous pen after you use it; shape recognition; and a lasso tool to move handwriting around. If you plan on writing a lot and want precision and flexibility, GoodNotes is the way to go.

Presenter mode

For each screenshot, I tried to show as much information as each app’s presenter mode allows:

  • PowerPoint: Solid! Shows your current slide, presenter notes, and thumbnails for your presentation. There’s also a button to black out the screen if needed, and the ability to zoom in and out of slides.
  • Keynote: Lots of customizations in terms of seeing the current and/or next slide, presenter notes, current time/elapsed time, and thumbnails.
  • GoodNotes: In addition to hiding the UI, GoodNotes allows you to either mirror the each full page (similar to a full slide in PowerPoint or Keynote), or zoom in and out of your slides (“Mirror Presenter Page”). You can get to thumbnails etc., but you have to tap the four squares in the top left corner to access a grid of thumbnails.

Question 2: How should I project?

Zoom offers three ways to project from your iPad, two using the Desktop client and one from the iPad itself. I’ll say now that I don’t recommend projecting from the iPad itself. It will turn your iPad into its own “Participant” in your Zoom room, which complicates how you interact with your students (e.g., it’ll get assigned to a Breakout Room if you use those). The stream itself is also of lower quality in my experience. So, onto the Desktop options:

Option 1: Plug your iPad in directly. The advantage of this method is that it’s easy. Plug your iPad directly into your computer, click “Share Screen” in Zoom, and click “iPhone/iPad via cable”. You may have to enter your iPad password the first time, but then you’re all set! Your iPad is being mirrored to your computer and to your students.

Option 2: Airplay to your iPad. The downside to Option 1 is that it doesn’t take advantage of presenter mode. That is to say, whatever is happening on your iPad is being mirrored entirely to your students. Option 2, however, will use the presenter modes that I mentioned earlier in this post. For example, here’s what I see versus what students see in Keynote when using Airplay:

The downside, though, is that projecting is a two step process. After clicking “Share Screen” and “iPhone/iPad via Airplay” in Zoom, you then have to go into your iPad’s control center, select “Screen Mirroring” and connect to your computer:

If you’re comfortable with these steps, I recommend Option 2, but only if presenter mode is especially useful to you.

[UPDATE July 9 2020] Option 3 (Keynote only): Project from your Mac and annotate with your iPad. Keynote has long had the ability to remote control/annotate on slides playing from one device using another device. This means that you can run a Keynote presentation from your Mac then, using your iPad as a remote control, annotate on the slides. I used to not suggest this approach because Keynote on the Mac took over all monitors while a presentation was running. However, as of Keynote version 10.1, you can now choose “Play Slideshow in Window” to have Keynote run as a standalone window on your Mac. If you use Keynote as your primary way of presenting, this is now the setup that I recommend.

What I Use

So what am I using when teaching on Zoom? I use Airplay Mirroring (Option 2) with both GoodNotes and Zoom.

In class, I show two screens to students, one showing a handout in GoodNotes (that they also have) and one showing supplementary screens in Keynote for animations. While online teaching, I’m learning that projecting two screens onto students small laptops is not a great learning experience, so instead I’ll be switching between them manually. iPad makes it easy to quickly switch between apps, and it looks pretty seamless from the student’s perspective as long as I’m using Airplay Mirroring:

There’s of course a lot to consider here, but in the end I suggest you pick the app that you’re most comfortable with and work from there. It’s possible to make any of these combinations work – what matters is that you feel comfortable with the setup you choose so that you can focus on teaching.

Teaching from Home (TFH): Hardware

First, to whoever is reading this: I hope this finds you safe, healthy, and (relatively) happy.

While this is very far from the first thing on folks’ minds, I’ve received a lot of feedback on my online teaching setup and online teaching strategy, and thought I should share my ongoing process of adapting to an online environment.

I’m lucky to have some experience teaching online as one of the faculty leads for the Kennedy School’s Public Leadership Credential. In addition, I’m a big advocate of blended learning both in my residential courses and in my work training policymakers abroad. Much of this work is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous content. For now, I’ll be focusing these posts on delivering content synchronously using Zoom.

This first post will be about my tech setup when teaching online, and tips to ensure that it goes smoothly. Subsequent posts will be about pedagogical choices, but I thought it better to break them up rather than publishing an online novel.

My online teaching setup at home

Here’s an image of my current setup:

And here are the details (with lots of links), and why I think they’re important:

  • Ethernet: None of your teaching matters if students can’t see or hear it. Having a stable internet connection is absolutely critical. WiFi can work, but make absolutely sure you have a good connection where you’re sitting. I prefer physically wiring my computer via Ethernet.
  • Two monitors: I connect my laptop to my LG UltraFine display and keep both of them on. For my purposes this is vastly better than a a single screen, simply because there’s a lot going on during a Zoom session: I’m sharing a presentation, I’m looking at my students’ video feeds, I’m monitoring the Participants list for raised hands, and I’m checking in on the chat (I know, this is a lot. More on this in a subsequent post). Luckily, Zoom has a dual monitor mode that lets you make use of both screens to display all of this. I like to keep my shared screen on the smaller laptop screen, and students’ faces/raised hands/chat front and center on the large screen.
  • An iPad: If you’ve read this site before, you know that I really enjoy teaching and recording from my iPad. This is especially true when teaching online. In addition to the annotation capabilities of the iPad, projecting from my iPad instead of sharing a presentation from my computer allows me to keep the shared screen in Zoom confined to a single window; otherwise apps like Keynote or PowerPoint will take over both screens to show you a presenter view. To project I use Zoom’s iOS Screen Sharing function. You can either connect the iPad physically to your computer (easier, more stable) or Airplay to it (more finicky, but lets you keep a “Presenter View” on your iPad while projecting the presentation to students). I tend to use Airplay since I like using Keynote’s presenter capabilities without students seeing them.1
  • Headphones: I cannot stress this enough: use headphones. If you use your computer speakers, there’s the risk of a feedback loop where your voice comes out of the speakers and back into the microphone ad infinitum. Zoom and other applications try to prevent this via software, but you’re better off removing this possibility.
  • Microphone: Your laptop microphone is probably fine (though you should check to make sure that it is). That said, if you happen to have an external microphone it can really help your audio quality which students will appreciate. I use a Blue Yeti which I have mixed feelings about, but which gets the job done.
  • Webcam: Your computer’s built-in one is fine, but I’m putting this here to stress that you should look into the camera as much as possible when teaching (this can be easy to forget when you have a laptop, since the webcam is below eye level. You’ll naturally want to look at your content or somewhere else, but the last thing your students want is to stare at your chin for 75 minutes.
  • Lighting: The general advice is to not have bright lights behind you, and to instead keep a consistent light source in front of you (behind your monitor). Experiment with different positions and see how they look.

Of course, don’t forget your water and espresso:

Phew! That’s enough for today. Please let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions. My  next post will be about my thinking with respect to running online sessions.

Stay safe!


  1. Note that you could also use an iPhone or other device as a secondary remote control for your presentation, but I digress. ↩︎