Clarity, communication, connection: Priorities for our global pivot to online teaching

Posted on Friday, March 20, 2020

laptop opened with notebook and tea

By Michelle Schira Hagerman, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education 

I’ve been thinking all week about what really matters as teachers everywhere try to reframe their courses in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I think it all comes down to clarity, communications and connection. 

No matter the technologies we use, what really matters is that we do our best to lay out a clear plan, to communicate that plan to students, and that we do what we can to support our learners in ways that reassure them and enable them to stay connected to one another and to us. 

Let’s begin by underlining that nothing about our current moment has precedent. We are all figuring out what this means; we are all feeling uneasy. For this reason, we must acknowledge that any methods we develop as educators to maintain “business as usual” for our students can never truly accomplish this goal. 

The tips and recommendations I offer are informed by my beliefs that (a) good teaching is always about relationships, and (b) that in the midst of a global public health crisis that requires us to physically distance ourselves from one another, we should make pedagogical decisions that emphasize our humanity and our capacity to connect in supportive ways. 

student sits on floor in living room typing on laptop computer

Sometimes, less is more 

Networked technologies make it possible for us to connect with one another. However, it is also important for us to recognize that tech overwhelm is real, and that providing too many resources, or offering up too many opportunities for our students to connect, can be anxiety inducing. In times like this, we might feel compelled to direct students to videos, free resources and ideas for how to extend their learning from home. I would wager that, in this case, less is actually more—especially for our learners who need to see the clearest path to the accomplish their short-term and long-term goals. 

This same sense of overwhelm can have a similar effect on us—the very people charged with creating the right learning conditions for others. Last week, when it became clear that Universities around the world were starting to transition to online instruction, my social media feed blew up with recommendations, resources, tips and tricks for what to do. I found myself wondering whether such approaches might contribute to, rather than alleviate, the sense of overwhelm that we are feeling. 

Although the instincts to support, and to offer grounded recommendations are truly heartfelt and well-intentioned, I also know that large-group discussions can lead some people to question their own preparedness, to feel less equipped than others, to compare their skills to those that others seem to have. This can erode a person’s confidence. 

For anyone feeling unprepared or overwhelmed as they think about how to pivot to an online modality, please remember that YOU are the most important educational technology in any classroom, whether online or face-to-face. 

The email messages or announcements you write to reassure your students, the provision of a clear plan, the instructional choices you make to ensure they finish out the semester—these are the things that will matter more than anything. 

And so, dear colleagues, take heart! You are already enough. You know the learning context, you know your students, you know what learning is most essential, and you know how to make your learners laugh and reassure them. 

Student looking at two computer screens.

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Instruction 

Given the quick turn-around time imposed by COVID-19 restrictions, this is probably the most important decision for you to make. The right solution for your course may land somewhere between these two approaches. 

Asynchronous online designs do not require real-time attendance by students or by the professor. This means that students can complete the online work when it works for their schedule and from any Internet connection. 

Typically, asynchronous units of study can be designed using a Learning Management System (LMS). At uOttawa, we use Brightspace by D2L as our institutionally supported LMS. 

In my experience, every LMS (e.g. Canva, Schoology, Edmodo, BlackBoard, Google Classroom) has its strengths and weaknesses—none do everything a teacher wants, or in ways that seem immediately intuitive. So, if you hate the LMS your institution provides, you’re not alone. 

However, now is not the time to go searching for something better. Do what you can with what your institution provides and accept that a certain amount of satisficing is just part of the process. Do the best you can with what you’ve got. 

Synchronous online designs require everyone in the class to connect through an online conferencing system at the same time. This approach typically leverages a digital technology such as Zoom, Adobe Connect, unHangout, Skype or Google Hangout, to create a virtual classroom that everyone can join into using a special code or hyperlink provided by the teacher.  

Synchronous sessions usually involve video, audio and a space for chat, where students can type questions or share links to resources that are germane to the class discussion. 

Benefits of synchronous instruction include the ability of the professor to deliver an online lecture of sorts—keeping in mind that attention spans may be a little shorter than in face-to-face sessions. 

Students can also see the professor and one another. Break-out sessions for small groups can be designed with some video-conferencing platforms, which can support student engagement and knowledge construction. 

Significant limitations of this approach, particularly when we have had to transition so quickly, include access and Internet speeds. We cannot assume that all our learners have ready access to Internet connections from their homes or have laptop computers with webcams. Most university students do seem to have smart phones, and most videoconferencing platforms have mobile apps for iOS or Android devices that can be downloaded free of charge.  

For synchronous sessions, we should expect that many of our students will be connecting via Mobile device and that their ability to toggle between screens or participate in some aspects of a synchronous session could be limited.  

Professor in front of a laptop.

Design Tips for Asynchronous Learning 

  • Keep it simple. If you are designing more than one lesson or unit of study, be sure to use the same structure every time. This helps learners navigate the environment with confidence, which decreases their stress. 

    Here is a quick screencast that shows you the structure I use in a hybrid course I am currently teaching. Notice that I always begin with an Introduction to the topic and provide links to other resources, materials or activities that students will need. 
  • Consider recording a brief screencast. Using technology, such as Screencast-o-Matic, show students how to navigate the online resources you have created for them. Explain and show them where they can find essential documents. Place this introduction at the top of your online unit or in the Overview to your new online course environment. That way, students know to click on this resource first. 

    Here is an example of a screencast that I ha ve created to help students understand how to navigate their online course. I would recommend keeping your introduction a bit shorter than this one. I should have broken this up into two separate videos, but you’ll get the gist by watching the first couple of minutes. 
  • To discuss or not to discuss: that is the question. Discussion boards can be the best and the worst of asynchronous learning. Given that there are only a few weeks remaining in our semester, you might consider asking students to post resources or discuss key ideas, but keep in mind that the more you impose rules on how discussions should proceed, the more restrictive and inauthentic the discussion feels for students. 

    You might ask that everyone respond to a topic or share an idea, and then respond to two other colleagues. But, consider whether you want to spend your limited time reading and responding to all those posts. 

    Maybe you could encourage students to read a few posts and respond when it feels authentic for them. I find it is usually a good use of my time to read through the points shared in discussions, then write up a synthesis of the ideas expressed for the class. 
  • Connect with your students and give them more feedback. Email may be the best way to connect with your students. Send them updates on what is happening in your course. Maybe even take a little extra time when you’re grading their assignments, giving them a few extra bits of feedback to let them know you are invested in their development as a learner. Whenever I teach online courses, students tell me that feedback on their work is what they truly appreciate most. 
  • Should I record a voice over of a PowerPoint lecture? Maybe. But if you can support the voiceover recording with a transcript of what you say, it will be accessible to more students. Allow them to go back to review what you said, as needed. Consider breaking up your lecture into smaller chunks (no more than 5-7 minutes per video). Shorter typically works better for more learners online.
close up of android phone with various chat apps visible

Design Tips for Synchronous Sessions 

  • Schedules are important. Be sure to send out an agenda to your students for the synchronous course sessions in advance. Make sure the y have all the links they’ll need to join in, as well as a clear understanding of how things will be organized. 
  • Headphones and microphones. Anyone on the call who can wear headphones should do so, to minimize echoes in the online platform. Also, anyone who is not talking should put their microphone on mute so that background noise (e.g. pets, children, doorbells) does not disrupt the online meeting. 
  • Sound check. Before starting the online class session, check that everyone in the class can hear you. If you are videoconferencing, you can easily ask learners to give you a thumbs up if they can hear you. That way, everyone isn’t talking over one another. 
  • Questions from students go into the chat. Whoever is leading the discussion, whether the professor or another student, should refer to the chat on regular intervals so that questions are addressed. For large groups, you might even want to assign a student to monitor the chat and interrupt you when important questions come up.
  • Expect technical difficulties. At the start of the session, tell students what to expect if things go sideways (as they often do). If the platform crashes, tell students where they can find the materials you have presented—you can either email it to them, refer them to a folder in Google Drive or post it in Brightspace. If students lose their connection, tell them to leave and try logging back in. 

    It is unrealistic to teach and solve technical issues at the same time. Unfortunately, this will be one of the downsides of synchronous approaches. There may be asynchronous ways for students to access the materials, should they run into technical difficulties. Plan for these situations in advance and let people know what to do so nobody feels stressed out when things don’t go as planned. 
  • Consider hosting open ‘office hours.’ Students who have questions can just drop into the video-conferencing environment to speak with you about their assignment or about a course concept.  

Remember—we’re in this together! We’re all doing our best to provide an engaging experience for our learners with the time and resources we have. 

Stay healthy and stay connected, everyone! 

This article was originally published on Michelle Schira Hagerman

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