Career Advice,Presenting

Transitioning to Online Teaching – Initial Thoughts

13 Mar , 2020  

Like many professors, I’ll now be teaching remotely. Northwestern has cancelled in-person classes for a while and shifted everything online.

The move brings up a lot of interesting questions about communication and presenting. I’ll share my learnings as I navigate the transition.

Here are three initial observations.

This Won’t Be Easy

A few of my colleagues at Kellogg have said the transition won’t be a big deal. They explain, “I’ll just teach with Zoom. It will basically be the same.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Teaching an online remote course is a completely different experience from an in-person class. What works on one platform won’t work on another.

When creating a presentation, one of the first things I recommend in my book How to Wash a Chicken – Mastering the Business Presentation, is to think about the format. An in-person meeting allows you to do certain things. A webinar or online session requires different thinking.

With an online course, for example, it is exceptionally difficult to do a discussion. It is hard to get people to pay attention. It is almost impossible to make eye contact.

Anyone who thinks the transition will be easy isn’t thinking clearly about communication and people.

Don’t Just Talk for Ninety Minutes

The simplest way to teach online is to just turn on a computer and talk for ninety minutes. Or perhaps talk for 80 minutes and leave 10 minutes for questions.

Don’t do this!

For students, a ninety minute video stream just won’t work well. The students will focus on other things – the phone is moments away and there are always updates about the falling stock market and Tom Hanks.

For instructors used to interactive discussions, this is a dreadful prospect. Staring at a computer for 90 minutes trying to be entertaining? With no feedback or interaction? This is not an appealing situation.

If you have a typical lecture course, where all you do is talk for 90 minutes straight, I guess this would be an ok prospect. But you shouldn’t be lecturing for 90 minutes in any event – so this is a good opportunity to learn how to teach in a more dynamic fashion.

Rethink Time

I’ve heard some students are worried that they won’t get the full course experience. When Northwestern said the quarter might be just nine weeks instead of the planned ten weeks, apparently some students asked for a partial refund, noting, “We aren’t getting every minute of instruction we paid for.”

Don’t be absurd.

With an online course, time changes. If a course becomes a video presentation, then there is no real need for it to be live. Students can watch it whenever it is convenient. Discussion sessions need to be live, of course. But content sessions? They can start and end whenever. A class can run long, or short.

One thing is true: a series of short videos and activities will be far more engaging than a 90 minute broadcast.

The question is content and learning, not minutes of broadcast time staring at a computer.


Taking a course online is a profound change. It isn’t necessarily worse – but it is very different. Anyone making the transition needs to approach it with creativity and a willingness to try new things.

Next week I’ll start making the transition. More to come.

3 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Happy to hear you’re thinking of this as a very different animal…. I wish you luck and look forward to hearing what lessons you learn as you go through the experience!

  2. Stephen Calkins says:

    Great comments, but you forgot one: Those of us on sabbatical this semester are very, very lucky!

  3. Matt Schwarz says:

    As I read and comment on this, I am multitasking during a video conference! One of the keys is mandating having everyone use their video cameras on and a small group (not the case right now). Otherwise my attention span is no more than 5 minutes. Facilitators must routinely call on participants if there is not an active discussion.

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