July 17, 2024

Coronavirus Has Led to a Rush of Online Teaching. Here’s Some Advice for Newly Remote Instructors

Author: Jeffrey R. Young
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Every day, a new batch of colleges announces that in-person classes are closed and teaching will shift online to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. This has thrust an unprecedented number of teachers into a format for which they may have little or no training.

So EdSurge asked our teaching advice columnist, Bonni Stachowiak, to offer a quick primer. Stachowiak is host of a long-running podcast called “Teaching in Higher Ed,” and she’s the dean of teaching and learning at Vanguard University of Southern California. Her campus is still open—for now—but she is bracing for disruption and sees it all around her.

We talked to Stachowiak for a bonus edition of the EdSurge Podcast, and you can hear it on our podcast feed wherever you listen.

Or read the highlights here, edited and condensed for clarity and readability.

First, the tips:

The Simplest Way to Go Online is to Shift to a Video Conference Platform

Stachowiak says that just lecturing to a webcam instead of an in-person class isn’t the best way to teach online, but it is the easiest way to switch. Under the circumstances, it is better than nothing. “I’d rather that you do that for your students, for yourself than to cancel all the classes,” she argues.

So the first step is to pick a web conferencing tool, she adds, like Zoom or Skype. Often the college already pays for access to one of them.

Think Shorter

If it’s hard to hold students’ attention in person, it’s even harder online, says Stachowiak: “You’ll want to think about shortening that experience. The online environment tends to have shorter, more-compact opportunities and then other things to do that are more engaging than just sitting and listening.”

One reason, she adds, is that students may be logging on through their smartphones, or watching a recording later instead of tuning in live.

Make Sure to Record Online Sessions For Those Who Can’t Tune in Live

Because not everyone will be able to make it to class, and because it’s easy to do, press record on whatever tool you use to offer remote classes, Stachowiak says. She has a habit of sharing the recording with students just as soon as a session is over, so she doesn’t forget.

But don’t just put a large video file on Dropbox, which can take students a long time to download. Either put the video on YouTube and share the link, or use a service that manages streaming, which some colleges already buy access to, she adds.

Lighting is Key, and Think About Virtual Eye Contact

When you’re standing in front of a class via live video, make sure you aren’t standing in the shadows. “Think about your webcam and having your light source in the room come from in front of you so that the light is shining on your face as opposed to turning you into this shadowy figure that looks a little scary,” says Stachowiak.

“You should join the session early so you can look at yourself and ask, where’s the light coming from? Is it the right positioning for that camera? And the other thing to think about is that you can simulate eye contact by looking at the camera that for many of us is sitting on top of our monitor—so put your notes at the top of your screen so you look at the camera more.”

Use Polls to Keep Students Engaged

There are many tools available to pose multiple-choice questions to students remotely. Or professors can just ask students to respond to a prompt in the text chat included in most video conference platforms. Stachowiak suggests including at least three polls or opportunities to interact during each online class session.

Here’s more of the conversation:

EdSurge: As colleges close physical classes and shift teaching online, we’re seeing concern among online learning experts that the teaching will be done badly since so many of the professors doing it will be new to the format. Are you hearing that?

Stachowiak: I absolutely am. In fact, a lot of it’s getting really critical, like, “What you’re doing, that’s not online teaching—you’re not in the cool kids club.”

I was really happy to see this morning that Jesse Stommel [co-founder of the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Mary Washington] tweeted in response to some of this. And his response was to remind all of us that yes, online teaching is hard. But then he comes back and says, teaching is hard. They’re both hard, and we don’t talk enough about pedagogy in general, let alone when that becomes digital pedagogy.

So one of the things I think we need to be saying is ‘come on over [to online teaching].’ There’s a whole network of people that have been doing this for a long time and have failed and experimented and tried things. We would love to be able to help you just make that move.

Let’s start with some small things. If you’re going to make that kind of change, you’re going to start small. I love what many of the universal design for learning people say. Tom Tobin is the first person who taught me about this, but it’s a UDL principle, and that’s “plus one.” Don’t think you’re going to transform your entire course to the greatest online course that’s ever existed. Do a plus one. Say to yourself, “What can I do this week? What can I do in the next two days to be able to meet the needs?”

It’s almost like that frustration by somebody who is the longtime movie reviewer when somebody comes in and acts like they know everything about film history because they watched one artsy film. But you’re saying that this is not a time to say, “go away from online learning.”

I think that’s such a helpful analogy and I’m going to be taking it with me after today, because I want to say to people, “Come on in, the movie theater is nice. I’ve got some popcorn for you. It’s a large theater. There’s lots of people that have been around watching many movies. And there are experts that may be showing you what you might not see initially, but also your perspective is valued and we welcome you into the show.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I come back to what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, that’s named after researchers. But the idea is that the more you know about something, the more you realize that you don’t know. But even if you’ve been doing this a long time, many of us still feel like there’s so much more we could do and so much more to learn. And so being a part of a community and recognizing that you’re part of many, many people working in solidarity together to help our students and help other faculty to make these kinds of transitions—whether it’s the coronavirus today or some other thing that raises a sense of urgency tomorrow.

We’re noticing a lot of resource sharing by folks in higher ed and in schools—and sharing information about what their campus or school is doing, including teaching tips. What kind of things are you seeing?

I’ve really been amazed at this. I’m on a task force now with our vice presidents and then a group of us that have been deemed as essential personnel. And at first I was thinking, “Oh gosh, I’m not sure I know what I’m doing here.” But a lot of people have already really done this in prior iterations, whether it was campuses that were affected by fires or other kinds of crises. And so a number of individuals, including Daniel Stanford, who’s the director of faculty development and technology innovation at the Center for Teaching and Learning at DePaul University.

He’s put together a whole spreadsheet that’s curated from institutions from all around. And it was so great to me to watch it. Initially, it was over on a Google Doc. Remote resources for business continuity. Yeah. One of the common names that you’ll see is keep teaching and you’ll also see class continuity as a theme that comes up a lot, or academic continuity. It started out as a Google Doc and when I first went up there, it was really fun just to see in the upper right hand corner, if someone’s logged in there, then you’ll see their little avatar, but if they’re not, you see the little characters.

You’re continuing to teach in there and your classes are not canceled at your university. How are your students handling the uncertainty?

Just yesterday I had a meeting with my students and something didn’t go as I had planned and I looked around at all of their faces and they are just, it’s one week before our spring break. This is normal for one week before our spring break, for students to be feeling stressed during their semester. This is very normal. And so I had just decided, you know what? We can [do what we had scheduled later]. I just wanted to check in with them. So we have a little thing we do where they bring in business ethics news and as you could imagine, the coronavirus has been coming up a lot.

One of the young women shared about her mom being in a low-wage job and how her pay had just been cut 80 percent, because whatever industry it is that she’s in, that there just isn’t as much need for the services that she typically would provide. And then this overwhelming, just, feeling of angst. So I felt like I was able to answer some of their questions, but also re-emphasize that we need to be looking to science at times like this [to learn about the coronavirus]. We need to be looking to experts at times like this. So it was part of just an opportunity to reinforce, they’re looking to me as a source of authority.

As you mention, there is this potential out there for misinformation about this coronavirus and COVID-19. That is something that seems like an educational teachable moment for professors and teachers.

There’s a leadership author who writes a lot about change and his name is John Kotter, and that first step [he suggests] on how do you influence change is to create a sense of urgency. Well, the coronavirus is doing that for us.

But many of us have been concerned about misinformation long before this particular version of the coronavirus, the COVID-19, has showed up in our world. And Mike Caulfield is one of those experts. He’s at Washington State University and also works with a number of nonprofits that are fighting against misinformation. And he has a wonderful resource called SIFTing Through the Coronavirus Outbreak. SIFT is an acronym that he tried to use to replace some of the acronyms that were less helpful in information literacy. So SIFT, it stands for Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, Trace claims, quotes and media to the original content. So if you’re interested in misinformation, Mike has a wonderful three-hour course. It’s online, entirely self-paced and free that you can use. You can also download his materials and then customize them for any class that you were teaching.

It’s just so important to talk about it with our students, to over-communicate, to leave plenty of opportunities open for them to have their questions answered.

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