Top tips for teaching and learning online

24 March 2020

So, your teaching is going online? Here are five top tips for teachers and students

In the face of COVID-19, teaching is rapidly moving online. Crawford’s Associate Professor Sara Bice shares five tips for making the transition to the online classroom for both teachers and students as smooth as possible.

For teachers

1) Take time to design: Your online classroom is obviously very different to your usual lecture theatre. But possibly in ways you may not expect. Start by reflecting on your personal teaching style and your students’ needs.

For instance, if you would never ‘stand and deliver’ at the base of a large lecture theatre, is shifting to an online conference room where you do just that really going to suit you and serve your students? Your design might adopt a hybrid online classroom model where you post pre-recorded videos that cover content and then use your live, online class time for discussion, including in small groups using your conferencing program’s ‘breakout rooms’ feature.

Would learning be better encouraged if you handed certain of your content delivery over to your students, assigning presentations or taking turns hosting your online classroom?

For large classes where your usual interactions with students might be minimal, would pre-recorded lectures followed by more, shorter offerings of live Q&A forums work best to ensure that students are taking in all you are delivering?

Changes to assessment tasks or the introduction of ‘homework’ or participation activities may also be necessary as you shift your classroom online. If students share their responses to these activities, these tasks can also serve as a proxy for in-class discussions and debate. Online collaborative tools built into LMS can work well, as can simple free sites like padlet.

Finally, your online course design should acknowledge your own life and available time. Be ambitious but pragmatic! These practical considerations are especially important to integrate into your course design as many of us shift to teaching from home, possibly with school-aged children, pets or housemates.

2) The human touch: Students need their teachers now more than ever. In extremely uncertain times, teachers play an important role just by showing up. Online classes are about far more than content delivery and learning, they are about offering security and surety in changeable times. Consider devoting the first five minutes of your class to just checking in. Giving students a safe space to report back and feel supported is a really important part of your online classroom. Then, take a collective deep breath and start learning.

3) Look into your webcam and smile! While this may sound pretty dorky, projecting warmth and empathy into that cold little webcam lens can make a massive difference to your students’ online experience. Radio broadcasters often receive this advice: pretend the microphone is the person you wish to speak to. If you take a moment to really visualise your students behind that webcam, you will be amazed at how your eye contact, facial expressions and vocal tone innately warms up. Research demonstrates that it is also really important for students to see their teachers’ faces. So even if you are pre-recording powerpoint slides, use the video recording feature, imagine your students are there and deliver with feeling.

4) Basics make a difference: Little steps like finding a quiet spot with good lighting and a clean background, using a headphone/microphone combo and breaking lectures into digestible chunks can make a big difference to the success of your online classroom. And once you’ve invested the time and effort to design and launch your online classroom, explain your plan and the technology you’ve chosen to use to your students.

Three things are important here: First, clearly explain your course design. If students understand your rationale for structuring your online classroom, they will also be better equipped to really engage and get the most from the experience.

Second, walk students through your online classroom. Provide them advice on how best to use your chosen technology. Screen recording software, like Screen-cast-o-matic, really come into their own here, as you can quickly and easily create a virtual tour of your online classroom technologies for your students. Not only does this help them get oriented to your new classroom, it will also reduce the volume of questions you will receive later, as students start using the classroom.

Finally, give students a clear pathway for what to do each week, including guidance on how to structure their time, the order in which they should undertake tasks, how to ask for help and your expectations for how they will participate, including online etiquette.

5) Bring your sense of humour: Few things feel better than a good laugh. And our rapid transition to technology provides plenty of opportunities to laugh at ourselves. Whether it’s your twelfth silent exclamation of ‘your mic is muted!’ (while your own mic is muted) or the random pet/child/parent who wanders onscreen, good humour is the best response. It’s a terrific reminder that we are all human, we’re all doing our best in a weird situation and we’re all in this together.

For students

1) Structure your time as if you were going to class: Learning from home can be a huge challenge to your time management, as you lose the usual structures of leaving home and showing up to classes, tutorials, the lab or library. Create a daily schedule for yourself and follow it. Are many of your lectures pre-recorded? Set a specific time when you will watch each class’ videos and stick to it. Schedule in reading and class preparation time, as well as breaks. Using an Outlook calendar? Book these activities in as you would any other commitment. Be disciplined, be structured and reject the temptation to ‘just watch it later’.

2) Come prepared: Just because you can hide behind your black box in your zoom meeting room doesn’t mean that you should. The more students who come prepared to the online classroom, the better your experience will be. Aim to bring at least one key point or question to each online class. Use the chat feature or live, online discussion time to make your contribution. Your teachers and classmates will thank you for it, and your online class will become far more interesting and engaging thanks to your preparation.

3) Stay connected to your classmates: Going online, especially in the current conditions, can feel isolating. Take those online socialising skills you use in other parts of your life and apply them to your online classes. Know four people in your Intro to Psychology class that’s now shifted to pre-recorded lectures? Combine the amazing time management skills you’ve developed (see above) with your Netflix prowess and schedule in a ‘watch together’ of the lecture. Use the same video conferencing for attending classes to create your own study groups. Align your at-home schedule with those of your friends so that you’re working on the same topics at a similar pace. Be creative and stay connected.

4) Be present: The temptations of the siren that is the Internet are powerful and alluring. How easy is it to ‘just check’ your email / What’s App / Wechat / Twitter while your mic is muted and no one can see you behind your name card? Or to flip over a tab to read the news that’s very difficult to avoid at the moment? Before your class starts, set aside any distractions. That may mean sticking your phone in another room or closing your Internet browser or email client. You have invested in completing this degree. Give these few hours of online class time your full attention. You’ll feel happier, calmer and better engaged, you’ll learn more, and your fellow classmates and teacher will also benefit because your online class quality will improve.

5) Etiquette is everything: You wouldn’t turn up in your bathrobe, lounge on the lecture theatre floor or hide behind a black cardboard screen in your real classroom. Don’t do it online. Turning up to your online classroom as you would to the lecture theatre not only provides you with structure, it is also an important signal to your colleagues and your teacher that your online learning experience is just as serious as your in-person one. (Admittedly, you may choose to be business on top, pyjamas on the bottom). Be clear that you are showing up and you are ready. Wherever bandwidth allows, use your video and let your teacher see her audience. Teaching online is new to many of your instructors. Teaching into the cold depths of cyberspace without human faces is just plain weird. Help them out by being polite, present and patient.

For more useful tips on how to take your class online, check out Sara’s blog Online Teaching Basics.

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Updated:  25 November 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team