From the classroom to cyberspace

a few tips (from personal experience) for transitioning to teaching online

First of all, this post is not about online learning, e-learning or distance learning. It’s about sharing personal experience that may be potentially helpful for the emergency transition from face2face to online teaching in Higher Education contexts. 

*this post will be continuously updated to reflect lessons learnt, feedback from comments and additional information for other sources*

Before everything, i wanted to share this:

Well-planned online learning experiences are meaningfully different from courses offered online in response to a crisis or disaster. Colleges and universities working to maintain instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic should understand those differences when evaluating this emergency remote teaching.“[1]

[1] Charles Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust and Aaron Bond, “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning”, Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning?fbclid=IwAR0NzxUmB68COIvUjGMZSRVSbNXED0yI56cUpEjStWXw3t4rnpJNhoAMr1Y on March 30th, 2020

Most of the courses that i have developed and teach are blended-learning courses: part of them is face to face and part of them is online. So, when the coronavirus outbreak crisis hit, i didn’t have much to do – in the sense that most of the learning material was online already and the learning design was prepared for online teaching anyways. However, I had the “unique opportunity” to witness the emergency transition  of a face2face course to online within a week’s time (Alex is teaching a full course on Human Computer Interaction in the Institute of Computer Science, University of Tartu). From our discussions – mostly sharing personal practices, issues and concerns – i put together a set of tips. That is, minor things that we can do when moving our courses online and could potentially make life easier in these challenging times.

I guess it comes instinctively to most of us: the first thing to do is to video record our lectures, upload them to some designated space and share the link with our students. But before we do so, here are some things to consider:

  • Content and Duration of Video Lectures: It might make sense to re-arrange the content of the lectures into themes.  In the classroom, we usually transition from one theme or topic to another by interacting with our students: we ask a question, we share a story or we make a joke (sometimes, even a funny one!) that we use as an opportunity to move forward. However, in a video lecture we don’t have the luxury of the interaction. Splitting a lecture in smaller themes has two benefits: a. clear and explicit learning goal – that is, the student knows exactly what this particular lecture is about; b. short(er) video duration – its really hard to watch a 1-hour long video lecture without losing focus.
    My personal experience is that 15-minutes long videos that focus on one topic are easier to watch and digest than a full-length (45-minutes) lecture. They are also effective for making a point and to re-use later during revision.

  • Setting and Quality of Video Lectures: If you have the possibility, you would want to record your face along with the slides for the lecture and of course your voice while narrating it. The point is that being able to see the lecturer gives a feeling of familiarity. Having said that, I (almost) never record my face. Most probably i should start doing it….

    When it comes to audio, I suggest that you use a headset when recording instead of the computer’s built-in microphone. You just don’t want to have the noise of the surroundings in your video. I still remember this one time that you could hear our washing machine in the background of one of my video lectures….

    When choosing a spot for recording
    the lecture, find a place where you won’t be distracted by the environment and other members of your household won’t be disturbed as well. If you video-record, make sure the lighting conditions are good and that the background is not distracting (for example, the cat jumping around behind your back can be funny but honestly, why focus on the lecture when you can enjoy cat-watching?)

    For recording the videos, one has many options. I’m don’t want to suggest a specific software but your academic institution most probably has something in place for that reason. If you only want to record audio over slides, you can do it with any presentation software and just export the file as video.

  • Uploading videos: Again, your institution most probably has your back covered – either uploading using your LMS or some dedicated space. Of course, there are other options, including google drive and youtube.

  • What about “live-streaming” lectures? I’m not necessarily against live-streaming the lecture but there are many factors that one should take into account. In an emergency situation, i’m not sure it is worth the fuss. For example, what if the lecturer or the students have connectivity issues? how do you recover from technical failures and at what price? how to make up the lack of human interaction (i.e. asking for input, ensuring common ground)? how to make up for the loss of communication channels (for example, body language or facial expressions)? These are things that we could potentially address if we had the time to plan an online course – but if we have limited time to set up an emergency solution, i’m not quite sure that going for a live streaming lecture is the way to go. Especially if we’re not experienced in this.

  • Other learning materials: Ideally you want to provide additional learning materials to support your video lecture – for example, pdfs or news articles or worked examples (especially if you have a practical course). First of all, make sure you have the appropriate and necessary rights to share these materials and additionally cite your sources appropriately.

  • Providing alternative communication channels: Students will want to get in touch with you and vice versa. To that end, it is a good idea to offer multiple communication channels BUT make sure you have the resources to address all these channels. In other words, offer as many channels as you can handle. In emergency times, my gut feeling tells me that asynchronous channels – such as emails and discussion forums – work better than synchronous channels (chat rooms and online meetings). Therefore, its a good idea to set up a discussion forum and maybe set up also some “office time” – that is, provide some days/times that you are available when someone wants to reach you. Additionally, I plan to set up social cafe webinars: that is, i will host 1-hour-long webinars to discuss questions and issues that have come up in the discussion forum. Not sure how this will play out but i will keep you posted.

  • Bring the students together: Another good thing about using a discussion forum is that the forum can bring the students together in a social context: the discussion forum enables and facilitates communication not only between the teacher and the students but also among the students themselves.

  • Assignments and Deadlines: I’m really struggling with this topic as well. I’ve been following various discussions about assessment during emergencies and i haven’t made up my mind yet with respect to what is the best way to deal with it. One the one hand, we want to accommodate people who struggle. On the other hand, we want to be fair and acknowledge people’s efforts. I will provide links to insightful discussions in the near future.

So far so good. I’m currently in the process of learning as well. So I will be updating this post with new information as time goes by. I will be more than happy to hear your comments, suggestions or advice and share them so feel free to get in touch with me at chounta@ut.ee or just leave a comment!

Stay healthy and safe!