Real-time online lectures

Following up on the previous post where I hinted that video recordings instead of real-time online lectures could be the safer and easier way to go (depending on lecturer’s experience and internet connection). Then I had a discussion with Fredrik Milani, who is a lecturer at the Institute of Computer Science in the University of Tartu, and who shared a completely different story! 

Fredrik decided to do his lectures online and in real time and he’s actually very happy with the way it turned out – so if video recordings are not for you, here are some things that came up from the discussion:

What’s the good news:

  • People show up regularly! A real time lecture among video recorded ones must be the equivalent to an exotic island in the middle of a stormy ocean. It’s interactive, it is time-bound, it is structured, it’s familiar practice.
  • More people show up than in the traditional lectures. People don’t have to wake up earlier in order to get drink coffee, get ready, commute etc. You can practically be in your pyjamas (this is not a suggestion), you can follow your favourite teacher and make coffee simultaneously while petting the cat.
  • Participation in the discussion can (potentially) increase. Modern conferencing tools (e.g. Zoom) use the live chat as a communication channel running parallel to the online, real time talk /lecture. Kind of makes sense that people would feel more comfortable to type a comment or question in then chat than standing up in front of a full amphitheater.
  • Easy to invite guest lecturers – especially high-profiled ones who live in another city, in some far-away country. This is really mind-blowing – all these people that we want to bring to our lectures for a 15 minutes intervention.. now we can actually do it!

Is there a downside to real-time, online lectures?

The most crucial thing is to keep students’ engaged and focused. In the traditional classroom, its quite easy to spot when students get tired or bored (you know, eyelids getting heavy, people start chatting with the ones next to them, spontaneous yawning…). Unfortunately this information doesn’t make it through the communication channels of online conferencing systems. One workaround would be to synthesise information from different channels in order to assess if the spirits of the audience are up:

  • Use factual and opinion-based polls regularly to engage the audience through the lecture.
  • Monitor the activity in the chat channel.
  • If you have indications that students are not focused (polls’ participation and chat activity is low), negotiate a break. One could replicate the “45 minutes lecture – Break – 45 minutes” lecture pattern but you may find out that 45 minutes is longer than the audience can take. You may want to prepare breakpoints in the lecture flow in between.
  • A “break” doesn’t need to be a break. This means that if you see that students are not following the lecture but its still too early for a proper, 20 minutes break, you can just pause for a moment, share a joke or a story, ask the audience to stretch a bit, and then resume.
  • People have been praising gamification for a reason: prizes, stars, levels. If you haven’t heard of Kahoot, maybe you want to try it out.
  • Don’t forget to respond to whats going on in the chat periodically. Actually, this sounds like a good opportunity and strategy for regrouping – both for the lecturer and the students.
  • Integrate the element of surprise! Consider of adding to the lecture something like Easter Eggs or Scavenger Hunts – like for example, when a specific picture shows up, the students have to participate to a quiz or poll or to answer a specific question. Winners / people who answered first can be awarded extra points for example, earn chocolate or whatever works for you 🙂

Fredrik is doing something extremely clever: He encourages the students to create memes using the lectures’ contents and share “inside jokes”. So, when you have this “database” of inside jokes, you can go back to it and reference it when the students are low on motivation. You laugh a bit, you chat a bit, you relax a bit — in other words, you are re-establishing your common ground and co-presence. Of course this presupposes that a) you share some sense of humour that allows you to do so with your students and b) you have set clear boundaries of what is acceptable and what’s not for the sake of laughs. It is also easier if this is a practice you have established in the traditional classroom – where communication is easier and you carry it with you in the online setting. 

By now, most of us have figured out what’s working and what’s not. The topic that is coming up next is “what do i do for my course’s exams?”. But that’s a good topic for the next post!

Your input and feedback is always appreciated! See you soon 🙂