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Apr 11, 2020

Teaching online: Week four tips

If this is your first time, by now you did the heavy lift. Congratulations. Next week, all the frustrating limitations and inefficiencies of online teaching will become painfully obvious. You may be doing either too much zoom time, and it is difficult to engage students. Or you assign them too much independent work, which makes it difficult to engage. Or else, you spent all your waking time providing individual feedback to students, which maintains their level of engagement, but is killing you. Welcome to the joggling world of the online teaching circus!

If you are still zooming the entire time, feel entitled to reduce the zoom time. Use it for weekly check-in, emotional support for students, and Q&A time. Use the break-out rooms in Zoom to add variety. Ask small groups to do a specific assignment, let them select their reporter who will present the highlights of the discussion back in the common room.

If you must lecture, pre-record several 5-8 minute segments rather than an hour-long lecture. It is much easier for students to watch, for they can skip, take breaks, and re-watch. It is actually easier for you to produce in chunks. But also, try searching YouTube or open lecture databases of other universities – there is a chance someone has done the same lecture better than you, or at least acceptable. It is all fair game: your job is not necessarily to produce content. It is to curate content, to select it, and include it in your class’ structure. You know how a school teacher will never let kids loose in a museum without a worksheet? It is the same with any kind of content: give students something to do beyond “take notes.” For example, “Draw a mind map of today’s lecture,” or “Build a list of key concepts.”

You manage a face-to-face discussion with your tone of voice, facial expression, and comments on comments. These allow students to learn what kind of thinking is good and appropriate in your discipline, and what kind is not. None of this subconscious communication machinery works in a Canvas discussion thread. You worry about student comments being shallow, and factually wrong. Adapt by building a very structured discussion. For example:
  • Write an example where the concept A is applicable. Google and link the best illustration of the concept B.
  • Comment on at least two of your classmate’s entries, using one of the two patterns: (1) I agree, and can further develop your point, or (2) I disagree, because.
  • Find an error in this statement, explain why do you think it is an error (You would have to prove the statement)
  • Self-assess your skill doing… What do you need to do to grow?
  • Define С in your own words, differently than your textbook does it.
  • Develop a test to assess your classmates’ knowledge of today’s reading (thanks, Aaminah).
In threaded discussion, do NOT read and give feedback to every single entry; that would make you miserable. And you will find yourself repeating the same point over and over again. The frustrating limitation of online environment is that students do not automatically “hear” what you said. Rather, glance through quickly, spot most common errors and good examples. Point out to the rest of the class, whose response was especially brilliant, encourage them to re-read those. Comment on common errors without naming those who made them, of course. Make it clear students have t read ALL of your comments. Your voice has to be on loudspeaker.

While high stakes standardized tests are almost always problematic, short low-stake quizzes are fun, and can be highly engaging. Both Zoom and Canvas have polls/quizzes. There is a number of external quiz-making platforms, but stick to Canvas if you can, because it will automatically add them to your gradebook. Putting the quizzes together will save you time on grading, and will make your course more interesting. Besides multiple choice, consider fill-in the blank; those are not automatically graded, but still very easy to grade, and help spot misconceptions.

If you use final essays in your assessment, make them shorter; it will save you time on grading. Also consider progressive assignments: an idea one week, an outline the second week, a draft third week, and the paper at the end. This kind of process discourages plagiarism, and lets you do the last grading more cursory. Most students won’t read your feedback on the final paper, sorry. Recycle your comments. If you wrote an especially good feedback, same it in the comment file. There is a very good chance another student will need exactly the same comment.

In general, online teaching is about relentlessly prioritizing, simplifying, defining what is the bottom line, what essential skill or set of facts you need students to learn. And it is about making explicit what you used to convey implicitly. It is a lot about reflecting on your own assumptions and expectations.

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