It’s been a week since many of us made the pivot to online teaching. Since then, I have been figuring out which form of online teaching (I outlined five options in my previous blog) would work best for my courses at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University. Because I teach small-scale seminar courses, I was particularly excited to learn that our university had acquired a new platform to teach interactive online classes (option 5 in my previous post). Having never used the platform, I figured this called for a practice session.
Preparing to mess up
Using the department’s app group, I asked which of my colleagues would be interested in joining a practice session with the new platform. Two days later, I found myself fumbling with slides, tools and chats in a newly assembled online classroom, while 30 colleagues from 3 different departments and a reporter for the university newspaper looked on. I had decided that I should focus my session on what would be most useful to the participants: a brief outline of how colleagues could use the new platform as teachers, while simultaneously having them experience it as students.
We kicked off with an icebreaker quiz consisting of a few silly questions, that allowed me to set the tone for the session: serious overall, but slightly giddy at times. I then continued with a brief lecture, using slides I had prepared earlier. The lecture covered what kind of preparations are necessary to organize an online seminar, how to build the online classroom, and how to lead the seminar. I interrupted the lecture with short interactions to highlight some of the features of the platform: one colleague made a drawing on one of my slides, while another responded to a question by using the digital hand raising tool. I also shared my desktop to show the contents of one of my browser tabs (it was a video of two swimming sea turtles, which I found relaxing to watch). Towards the end of the session, participants formed small breakout groups to think about how they could use this platform in their own classes. We ended with a group discussion, sharing the results from the breakout groups.
Most importantly, I prepared to mess up. Few of us will be able to smoothly run an online seminar under present circumstances and our teaching will involve a lot of trial and error. Why postpone the inevitable? When I set up the online classroom, I had noticed a few tools (video!) did not work for me. So I included these tools on purpose to try out during our trial run. And then, of course, lots of other things during the online session did not go exactly as planned. We were lucky to have our ICT & Education coordinator present to help out with problems, as they occurred in real time. Here’s what we learned:
Lessons from the practice session
1) Minimize multi-tasking. I love all the tools for communication and interaction that our online system offers: I can see the participants through their webcams, but they can also communicate via chat and by digitally raising their hands. When I was leading the practice session, however, I noticed it was impossible to keep an eye on all those tools at the same time. While giving my presentation, participants raised their hands to pose questions but they were outside my focal point on the screen and I did not notice. The same applied to the chat function. So when I teach my first online seminar with students, I’ll avoid multi-tasking by giving them clear instructions on when to communicate and how.
2) Take the student point of view. As the person leading the session, I did not see the same things as the participants. This may seem commonsense, but it is surprisingly easy to forget in an online classroom. In a face-to-face setting, we read our students’ body language to intuit how they are responding to our teaching. In an online setting, we cannot use our senses in the same way. At the beginning of my presentation, for instance, some participants experienced delays in the connection and were unable to follow me. From my end, everything seemed fine and I continued speaking. Only later did I see their chat messages notifying me of the connectivity issues. It made me realize I need to communicate to students beforehand how they can solve common problems rather than me trying to fix it for them (see also: avoid multi-tasking).
3) Assign roles. Another issue was about the roles we take on in the classrooms. Even colleagues, who are used to standing in front of a classroom, confessed to me they found it daunting to visibly participate in the online classroom. Participating online means that your face is projected onto everyone’s computer screen, which can make you uncomfortably self-aware. In the break-out groups, participants found it difficult to self-organize without a teacher present. So they resorted to silliness. When I visited these rooms, I found pictures of monkeys, games of tic-tac-toe and really anything but a serious discussion. In a face-to-face setting, I would notice this. Here, I had to enter each break-out room separately to check in and that took time. In future online seminars, I’ll therefore make sure to assign clear roles (e.g. moderator, note-taker, reporter) beforehand, so students know what to do. And perhaps accept that an occasional game of tic-tac-toe won’t hurt anybody…
4) Share knowledge. Immediately after our practice session, I created a Google Doc to share with my colleagues. In the Google Doc, we write down tips and tricks for using the online classroom. We cover things that are not part of the technical instructions, but rather focus on the use of the online classroom in real life. One of the participants observed, for instance, that the screen briefly turns black, when the teacher activates a new tool. She had initially mistaken this for a connectivity issue and had logged off, but later realized it was a quirk of the platform. The solution to the problem was to simply wait it out. We also discovered we could avoid awkward silences, if participants were in charge of turning their microphones on or off. When I did this for them, the platform took much longer to respond. Observations like these led us to the final lesson:
5) Write a protocol. When people signed up for the practice session, most of them did so out of a lack of familiarity with the technical features of the platform. They simply wanted to know how it worked and if they possessed the skills to use it. After our practice session, however, we realized that running an online classroom has only partially to do with mastering technical skills. It’s also – and perhaps even more so – about clearly communicating how we can all contribute to making the online classroom a success. One of the best suggestions coming out of this trial run was to create a protocol for students, detailing such things as how to communicate during the different segments of an online seminar (e.g. raise a hand or post a chat message), how to solve common problems with the platform, and when to adopt which role in the online classroom.
In the past week, the online classroom has become a space for us as colleagues to come together and reflect on how we can collectively manage the pivot to online teaching. Looking back at our impromptu practice session, I feel more confident in being able to handle the uncertainties of the next few months, at least when it comes to my teaching. I hope you will as well.