A screenshot from one of my online class sessions
When I showed no hesitation to teach online classes, a friend asked me to write a blog post about how I would transition to online teaching saying that I would be helping many who are not all that experienced with online tools and teaching. I was not all too excited about writing this at first, but I thought I need to share my experience (especially since it is a positive one) with my colleagues who seem to be anxious about navigating such seemingly treacherous waters.
Let me begin by saying that this shift to teaching online has taken the world by storm. It seems that academic institutions around the world might have seen this as an opportunity to shift higher education from face-to-face to online learning, but the way instructors have been thrown into this whirlpool of digital teaching has aggravated anxieties.
So let me get straight to the point; the most burning question that academics nowadays seem to be asking is: How do we shift to online teaching when we have never been trained to do so before?
First of all, let us deal with three misconceptions surrounding the issue:
-Misconception #1: Online classes should be synchronous. Meaning, they should be taught live. We should be able to deliver them as if our students are in class and we are there passing on our wisdom to them.
-Misconception #2: Online classes should be delivered orally. Whereas oral components in online classes are important, the entire content should not be delivered orally as I will illustrate below.
-Misconception #3: Online classes should last as long as regular, face-to-face classes do. An hour-long class should be an hour-long online session.
These three points mentioned above are misleading for several reasons:
First of all, online classes, especially in countries where the internet is unreliable, are better held asynchronously. In Lebanon for example, internet connections are weak and drop with the frequent power outages the country experiences on any given day. Also, Internet bandwidth is not unlimited, and students can get charged hefty sums for connecting from home. Because of the quarantine, students won’t be able to connect from cafes and other places, and most libraries are shut down. Therefore, it is better if instructors do not use Zoom or Skype to hold online sessions. They should not plan to deliver their classes like they would deliver in-class lectures.
What should we do instead?
QuickTime Player allows you to record video lectures or even screen recordings. These can later be shared publicly or privately on YouTube for those students who wish to go over the sessions one more time to clarify some points or revisit some concepts.
Second, we presume that since we deliver lectures orally, we need to deliver oral presentations when we move our classes online. This is not necessarily true or beneficial. When we change the medium of instruction, we should think about changing the delivery method. Synchronous and live oral presentations work well when there is a live audience, when one is delivering a presidential speech on TV, or when one is commenting on a football game during the World Cup. When it comes to teaching, we need to give the students the option to learn in their own time and at their own pace. When students listen to a lecture online, they might miss important information because of a lag in the internet connection or because they could not process the information quickly. Some might argue that students can be more focused on the lecture, but we cannot tell for sure what other stimulants in their surroundings might distract them. In class, we have control over the lighting, temperature, and setup of the class, but we cannot control any of that when the students are online. Therefore, it is better that our online sessions consist of prerecorded sessions, but I do not recommend that the lecture be substituted with another online lecture be it a Zoom session or a voiceover PowerPoint presentation. All these are beneficial tools, but they should be used wisely and frugally.
Third, Online classes should not last as long as face-to-face lectures or workshops. It is best if the lecture part is no longer than five to seven minutes. Think of it: When you receive a message on WhatsApp or any other chat app and it is longer than five minutes, you groan and moan. You prefer short, straight-to-the-point messages that sum up all you need to know in just a few minutes. TED says that the most successful TED talks are those that are between six to nine minutes long. If the talk is filled with engaging points and details, it can go up to 12 or 14 minutes but should not be longer. TED talks that are longer than 17 minutes are not watched in their entirety. As a TEDx co-curator and speaker trainer, I advise my trainees to keep their talks short and concise. This is why I suggest you keep your lecture (video presentation, screen recording, voiceover PowerPoint) to under 10 minutes. Better yet, break up your lecture to two presentations that are no longer than seven minutes each. Follow these up with exercises and supplement them with written material. Your online session should be diverse to suit the learning needs of all students: the auditory, the visual, and the kinesthetic. It should have a short video (presentation, talk, etc.), it should have Word docs that detail what the audiovisual material addresses, it should include exercises, and it should ask for feedback in the form of group work, homework, or even video presentation that can be recorded on a phone and uploaded in two simple steps to YouTube. The approach to teaching an online session should certainly be different.
Another important point to keep in mind while planning your online session is to plan for one online session a week This means that if your class is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays or on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, it does not matter. You should hold one online session per week that requires three hours of work or more. But how do you know how long it’ll take students to complete the session? Calculate how long it will take you to complete the session and multiply that by three. If you think it will take you 10 minutes to watch the video and understand the content, think it will take twice as much or three times as much for others to accomplish the same task. You know the material well, and you should cater to the student who is least comfortable with the material. Those who know the material well have the advantage of being able to finish the sessions early and successfully.
Finally, try to rely on outside sources–do not plan to record all the sessions yourself. There are tons of available sources out there from teachertube.com (YouTube for teachers) to Khan Academy. You should rely on these sources. Unless you are teaching a highly specialized graduate course, rely on what is out there to help you teach your material. Make your prompts as detailed and as clear as possible, and write those yourself, please. But do rely on outside sources to deliver the content. Diversifying the material by bringing in outside sources keeps students engaged. Also, add optional readings for students. Most won’t look at those, but those who do not understand the material might want to check other sources. You want the recommended/extra readings to come from you.
Online teaching should be approached very differently from the way we have approached face-to-face teaching for thousands of years. The skills required for that are different, so we need to revisit our teacher identities as we revisit our classes and restructure them. When we talk about teacher identity, we talk about a whole body of literature that deals with the identity and the persona we think of as teachers and how we want to present ourselves. We are deprived of that on-screen, but it is an opportunity to hone this identity online and from it behind a screen because it helps us reconsider the teacher image we wish to portray and present. Here, we are moving from the role of conductors to facilitators. We should remember that there is no classroom management in an online classroom that depends on our character, voice, body language, and image. Our classroom management shifts from that to how well-organized and well-executed the online sessions are. Here, online classroom management is delayed and even removed. What ensures that we captivate the students’ attention is how well and thought-out our online session is.
This is not the first time instructors in Lebanon had to urgently shift to online teaching in the past five months since we did that after country-wide protests erupted in Lebanon last October halting work, businesses, schools, and universities. Online teaching is not easy. But, it is not difficult either. After a while, it becomes fun to plan and teach.
If you have other suggestions, please add them in the comments below.
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