I am a few days away from teaching my first official online class. The past week has been a blur of webinars and Zoom discussions. I am not ready for the new quarter, but I am getting there.
Here are four things I’ve learned.
Online teaching is an improvement, at least in some ways. It is easy to create group discussions, for example – a simple push of a button randomly mixes up a class. It is also easy to include guest speakers from all over the world.
Video recording is better, too. I record and post my in-person class sessions on the course website, but these videos are always lacking. I’m a tiny figure moving around at the front of a big room. On Zoom, the recordings are quite good – the system bounces from person to person.
Online seems – strangely – more intimate. In my classroom, I’m pretty far away from some students. The people in the back row are pretty distant. I can’t really see their expressions. I certainly can’t see their eyes. With Zoom, I can see everyone, up close. It is a curiously close connection.
The consistent theme I’ve heard is that you have to mix things up online. When planning a class, I generally think about 15 to 20-minute blocks of time. In this new world, attention spans shrink so you have to move more quickly from activity to activity.
Teaching is physically and mentally taxing. After a morning with an in-person class, I’m pretty worn out. It is hard to settle down to do deep analysis.
Online seems to be even more exhausting. Now I’m sure this is in part because the systems are new and unfamiliar for me, so it requires more mental attention. But the basic construction of a system like Zoom is complex.
When teaching an online class, I’ll be looking at four things. First, I’ll be looking at my slides and notes – the material I’m trying to communicate. Second, there are the video streams of my 20 to 60 or more students. Each stream is different. If someone gets up and walks off, it attracts attention. Third, there is a discussion board, where people can post comments. These might be related to the topic I’m teaching, or a funny unrelated joke. Fourth, there is a list of participants, where people can raise their hands, applaud and post a cup of coffee. I’m not sure what the coffee cup symbol means.
How in the world do you keep track of all that?
A great class is entertaining and fun. Students feel that the instructor enjoys the material. There is energy and a spark to the class session. It is a mix of activities. The instructor cares about the students, and this comes across. There is an opportunity for people to participate and get positive feedback.
This is true of all classes: in-person and online. The technology is different but the overall impression is the same.
One of the good things about this transition is that everyone is going through it together. All of my colleagues seem to be just as unprepared as I am. We are trading ideas and suggestions. We are learning together, and I suspect much of what we are learning will be useful for many years to come.