Early in 2020, students all over the world experienced a sudden, dramatic, and unprecedented shift in their academic world. A whole semester later, we have found ourselves preparing for at least two more semesters teaching and learning in the virtual environment. Some astute instructors at Langara took the opportunity to write about their perspectives on the impact of moving to remote teaching and learning.
Our fourth contribution comes from Lucinda Atwood, Instructor in the Langara School of Management. Below, we share Lucinda’s article, “How Online Classes Made Me a Better Teacher,” an exploration of the impact of online learning on students and teachers, chock full of tips for designing and implementing your next online course.
We look forward to bringing you more perspectives. If you would like to make a contribution, please contact Jessica Kalra at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How Online Classes Made Me a Better Teacher
By Lucinda Atwood, Instructor, Langara School of Management
I’ll be forever grateful to TCDC’s Fall 2019 book club selection, The New Education (Davidson, 2017). Cathy Davidson’s book offered great teaching ideas and validated my then-favourite slogan: Education is ripe for disruption.
I’m not surprised that education has changed. What’s shocking is how quickly.
While I cherish this change, it’s also kicked me in the ego and challenged me to step—more like leap—outside my comfort zone. Best and worst of all, it’s forced me to let go of my beloved perfectionism.
In this article, I discuss the impact of online learning on the key components of education—students, teachers, and learning—and offer tips from my own experience.
Let’s take a look at the difference between in-person and online learning for students.
What I learned this summer is that some students will use digital technology as an excuse for under-performance. Other, more diligent students, may be less technically adept or connected. Students can and do get disconnected. Phones may die; laptops crash. Mine crashed once while students were in breakout rooms. I panicked, thinking I’d lost the class but when I reconnected they were all there. They hadn’t even noticed I was gone. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Don’t assume everyone is on a laptop. Look at the shape of your students’ zoom videos. If they’re vertical, the student is on a phone. If you’ve never used Zoom on your phone, try it at least once before teaching online: you can’t see the host and a shared screen at the same time, text is smaller, and simple tools like Menti, Socrative, and Kahoot become challenging as you swipe between apps (Zoom and a browser).
Technical challenges mean that we can’t know that every student will see and hear what we say in class. So I learned that redundancy is key. Now I’m careful to present information in multiple formats. For example: explain something in a Zoom class while showing it (using slides, the chat or annotation tool), post it to Brightspace, and if it’s really important, send an email to the classlist. For online teaching, just saying it in class isn’t enough.
When teaching online everything has to be exceptionally clear. And then a bit more clear. Students who are already overwhelmed by the normal cognitive overload of college may not know where to start on Brightspace. This summer showed me that my previous practice of posting multiple items in modules was inadequate; each module needs a ‘Start Here’ telling students what to do with each item in the module. Also, courses should include a clear list of deliverables and due dates that students can see at a glance. This helps with their planning and time management.
Online students benefit from realistic deadlines and clear criteria. Very clear, logical and consistent information presentation also encourages less skillful learners to become self-sufficient. I found that when less-dedicated students realized they couldn’t use “I didn’t know” as an excuse, compliance increased.
Brightspace & Other Tools
I discovered unexpected uses of Brightspace. Early in the semester, I logged attendance on a spreadsheet, just for my own records. Attendance was inconsistent and there was lots of lateness. So I made it a grade item on Brightspace, worth 0% of their final grade. Our attendance ritual was “when I call your name, please unmute and in 2-3 words describe how you’re feeling today.” I gave 3 marks to students who were in the waiting room when class started, 2 to those who came late or left early, 1 if they were away but had let me know, and 0 for those who just didn’t show. Attendance improved immediately. I was amazed at how quickly students logged in after receiving 0 for that day’s attendance, even though they knew it was worth 0% of any grade.
Recording attendance was also a nice way to say hello at the start of each class. Equally important, it helped me notice students who had disappeared. Whether due to the stress of lockdown or lack of online learning skills, students struggled this semester. I checked in with more students than usual, and they appreciated the proactive support.
Additionally to Brightspace, there are lots of tools and platforms that are great for online teaching. But I recommend introducing tools gradually. I found that multiple tools (Zoom, Brightspace, Kaltura, and MS Forms) was too much early in the semester. This fall, I’ll stick to Zoom and Brightspace for a few weeks, then add Kaltura and other digital tools.
Speaking of tools, Zoom fatigue is real—teaching and learning online is exhausting. I recommend flipping your classroom, which means using class as a time to practice what students learned from asynchronous work. Instead of lecturing in class and giving homework, learners engage with the material before class then implement it when we’re together.
I assign lessons that can include any or all of the following: readings, podcasts, short lectures I’ve recorded, links to external tools. Then in class, students practice what they’ve learned, receive live feedback and learn from each other.
In synchronous classes, I put students into breakout rooms for an activity that uses what they’ve just learned. After the activity, typically the class comes back together for a group discussion about the activity and results. Alternatively, if the class is asynchronous, students work individually or in groups to create content that uses what they’ve learned.
They could, for example, create a group document critiquing the content they just reviewed; record a video that builds on one I recorded, or perhaps make an infographic. I often have them post their results to the class discussion and provide peer feedback to each other.
Flipping the classroom increases student engagement. Paying attention to lectures on Zoom is really difficult. Try it yourself: watch any 20-minute video lecture and see if you’re able to pay attention the whole time. Now try it when you’re tired and hungry. Hopefully this experience will inspire you to keep synchronous classes active and productive.
On to teaching, our second component. Some key differences between teaching online and in-person are:
At some point in our teaching career, we’ve all done it: relied on subject matter expertise and personal charm to overcome lack of preparation or creativity. Teaching online makes that practically impossible. In the classroom, it’s easier to use personality to teach, but online, activities are the vehicles of learning (experience building).
Teaching online demands preparation, organization, consistency, and exceptional clarity. There’s no avoiding it: online teaching requires a lot of work up front. Building a clear, user-friendly Brightspace site takes time and energy. Being clear forces you to know ahead of time exactly how the semester will progress, to create a precise schedule, and develop meaningful activities and learning assessments.
Teaching online also requires creativity. We can’t just show up and speak. We need online activities to replace handouts and photocopies. And we need problem-solving techniques to deal with technical difficulties, lost students, and new types of teaching challenges.
This summer I learned a few things that helped improve students’ online learning experience:
- Providing agendas for synchronous classes is wise.
- Little rituals—like attendance, short get-to-know-you activities, and a break at exactly the same time every class—help build a sense of comfortable predictability for students, allowing them to focus on learning.
- Be a bit more personal; connect to your students human-to-human.
- Use multiple activities, whether for synchronous or asynchronous classes. Have students create documents, images, videos, podcasts, infographics, tests, or articles to teach the subject matter or build on it.
- Make assignment briefs clear, consistent, and directly linked to the grading rubrics. Deliverables and deadlines should be exceptionally clear.
- Make rubrics simple and clear. Use assignment rubrics as pre-submission checklists.
- Use cumulative and specifications grading methods.
- Include a variety of assessment methods. Try to think outside standard memorisation tests. To deal with cheating, test higher-order thinking. Have students engage with content instead of simply repeating it.
Some students keep their video off, so you don’t know if they’re there. And I’ve heard of students making looped gifs of themselves nodding like they’re present and paying attention. So I did frequent check-ins, asking each student to answer questions by speaking or typing in the chat box. Sometimes I’d ask for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down response from every student.
These check-ins also build relationship. Without the in-person experience, teaching can feel remote—and lots of students reported feeling isolated—so I was a bit more kind this semester. But I didn’t experience wheedling or attempts at sweet-talking. Clear, objective expectations and assignments allowed me to be sympathetic but not get taken advantage of. I created a How to Succeed in This Course document that students engaged with the first day of class. After that, I could point to it whenever questions arose about plagiarism, participation, or reading Brightspace.
Finally, let’s look at how online impacts learning.
Engaging students is always a challenge. Teaching online, it can feel impossible. You’re competing with Facebook, YouTube, and a midterm that needs studying for.
I found that the secret is not to edutain students, but to make obvious the value of attending and engaging with your content. Make the content interesting, and students will engage themselves.
Learning demands vulnerability. We can work to make learning less painful. I was inspired by tools like DuoLingo that provide lots of positive feedback.
Get students creating, rather than just receiving, knowledge. Help them find a way to relate and connect it to their own lives. Challenge them to build meaning from the content.
Give up perfection. Accept that your videos might never go viral, that you’ll make Zoom-stakes and that wide-angle webcams make us look goofy. Instead, challenge yourself to be curious, creative and humble. I learned from an anonymous but brilliant teacher who awards “Thanks for improving the class” Brightspace badges to students who find errors in the course.
One of the hardest lessons of teaching online: you’re not the star; your content is. While it’s hard on the ego, focusing on creating meaningful learning activities and engaging students is far more satisfying.
Though this semester challenged me in ways I hadn’t expected, it rewarded me greatly. And not just by letting me wear yoga pants to work. Teaching online forced me to focus on content, delivery, engagement, creativity, and meaning-making. Fewer synchronous classes made me pare down my words and content to the absolutely necessary. And online assessment demanded clear expectations, criteria, and feedback. I feel a better teacher because of this experience.
Final tips: Use headphones to cut down on reverb and ambient sounds. Always, always, always mute yourself on the break. Turn off screensharing before checking your email. And stop worrying about how you look on video. Your gift is your knowledge, your passion, and your commitment to teaching.