Some tips for teaching (mostly) higher ed online

Pandemic is causing universities and high schools to close down face to face gatherings and move to online media. The good news is that tools are available, free or inexpensive, and (most) don't require a software engineer to set up; the not as good news is that knowing how to use video, Slack, webforums, blogs, etc. is not the same as knowing how to teach well with these media. Good teaching is hard, and teaching well online is harder. And right now, many teachers are being forced to dive into the deep end of online teaching without instruction in how to do it well. However, the same recentering of attention on student participation and collaboration -- what I and others call co-learning -- can elicit enthusiastic engagement and rich dialog online as well as in the physical classroom. I taught blended learning courses for ten years at UC Berkeley and Stanford -- three hours of face-to-face meeting each week, with forum, blog, and wiki learning activities spread over the week between classroom sessions. For eight years, I taught my own online courses at what I called "Rheingold U." Here are a few tips:

Teaching online is more work

Assuming a cohort of 25 learners (see next item), you will want to encourage participation and dialogue asynchronously by responding with a brief, inviting comment -- you aren't testing learners, you are drawing them into conversation about your material -- to each student blog post, at least at first. If you do it right, you will prime the pump and students will comment on each other's posts, as well. It's not as intense as grading 25 papers, but the advantages of personally commenting on blogs are significant: You invite and prompt discussion rather than rote answer-recitation; you model the behavior of co-learning dialog; you initiate and build upon a personal learning conversation with each student. If you ask for two blog posts each week, that's 50 comments. Then there is the forum, where you want to facilitate, prompt, catalyze conversation about your texts -- but want to avoid dominating the conversation. So in addition to preparing lectures (which you will either record and post as asynchronous video, or present in real-time in a live audio-video session), you will be commenting and facilitating online conversation. When you practice enough to become skilled, it can be a real pleasure as well as a way to consume hours of your evenings. When you plan your curriculum, you will want to account for your own lecture time, online synchronous discussion time, and asynchronous commenting time.

Class size

If you have 300 students, the canned lecture is more practical than the interactive live lecture (although the latter is still possible). But when it comes to the discursive part of learning the material in lectures and texts, you will need to break out into online discussion groups of 15-25 (at least 15 to have a critical mass of conversation, but no more than 25 or 30, max, if you or your teaching assistants intend to engage in and facilitate blogging and forum posts.) Not every teaching assistant is an ideal facilitator of online conversation -- but you can be sure that at least some of your graduate students have social media skills. 

Lectures -- YouTube or interactive?

The notion of the flipped classroom has been around since the rise of YouTube: Post your lectures online, ask students to view them before class meetings, and use face-to-face time for group discussion, individual interactions, problem-sets. If you are comfortable lecturing to your computer, and the idea of spending your face-to-face time in student interaction appeals to you, and/or your class cohorts are large, this may be the way to go in the physical classroom. It could also be an ingredient in your mix of media for online learning. However, each canned lecture can best be augmented by having 30-45 minutes of live video (it's best to keep all synchronous sessions under an hour) for students to ask questions and engage in dialog. When I taught totally online courses with no physical co-presence (it might not be as good as face to face learning, but it's the only way to do it when learners are located all over the world -- or school has been shut down as a health precaution) -- we co-learned to make my presentations interactive. On the shared whiteboard, learners proposed and signed up for different roles during the session. Searchers found online resources relevant to the lecture, class discussion, and put the URLs in the text chat; contextualizers downloaded the chat and wrote up three sentence descriptions of each URL, then sent the contextualized resources to the wikimasters who compiled a web page for each live session, including URLs, link to a recording of the session, link to transcript of text chat, link to the lexicon; lexicon team entered words and phrases from lectures, discussions, texts, on a collaboratively editable page (wiki, Gdoc, etc) -- during the week until the next live session, all learners flesh out the lexicon entries, Wikipedia-style. Others could mindmap or make a graphic recording. The point is to make live sessions collaborative and participative, even with a lecture. For my online courses, each live session included a highly interruptable lecture by me that framed the context for the week -- why are we reading/viewing the resources in the syllabus, how do they connect to previous weeks. I usually pushed slides -- GRAPHICS, not endless text bullet points. And co-learners were encourage to carry on parallel dialog in the text chat. From time to time, I would respond to something from the text chat, or ask someone who made a chat entry to tell us more via audio-video.

Synchronous and Asynchronous

There's nothing like physical co-presence. We are all highly evolved to pick up on non-verbal cues; all teachers know the way students look when you've said something that goes over their heads. But audio and video are excellent ways for co-learners to experience each other as fellow humans with voices and faces, not just as text on screens. If you can get the learners talking with each other, it can be as engaging as a good classroom discussion. And it's good to have a regular time for real-time questions. I wrote more extensively about blogs and forums and live video media in a previous post about how to organize an online conference. Please also read the links there about the use of forums/discussion boards (and why Facebook in inadequate for doing asynchronous discussion well). A few years ago, Jim Groom and I created a three-part video guide to creating your own WordPress learning environment with open source tools

Frame, scaffold, support, encourage participation

As I tell my co-learners, I can't guarantee  the magic of a participative, collaborative, co-learning community, but I can create the conditions. The very first condition is to paint a simple overall picture of what you hope to accomplish, the media you will use, and how to use those media. In my first live session, I welcomed people and gave them each one minute to introduce themselves (another reason for cohorts with fewer than 30), then I talked first about the goals of a co-learning community and what that means in terms of the way each of us participate, then I present a slideshow of screenshots that introduce the forum, blogs, and wiki. I also made available a link to a text how-to. Then a pause for questions and discussion. Then I presented a high-altitude overview of the entire course, and after a short break, presented a slide-show and lecture on each of the themes and texts of the coming week. (Here is a recording of the introductory session of one of my online courses if you want to see these activities in action). Taking the time to screen-shot quick how-to intros to each medium, then posting them to a page, is also important. Instead of answering all questions all the time, create one conversation thread in the forum for how-to questions, and liberally share links to your online slideshows. 

Explore teams, 5 minute minute lectures, students co-design curriculum once they understand

Turning over more and more of the learning to students was the trajectory of both my face to face and online pedagogy. Each learner can pick one of the recommended texts (I provide both required texts that every learner is expected to master, and recommended texts on each theme for those who want to dig deeper) and prepare a 5 minute "learner lecture" for the next live session. I usually reserved time for two learner lectures per hour-long session. More ambitiously, co-teaching teams of three created a plan and engaged the class in learning activities about the week's theme during one-third of our face to face or online meeting time. In my face to face classes, it took me ten years to get up the nerve to ask my students to co-design the curriculum: I wrote on the whiteboard all of the online activities I required (forum posts, blog posts, blog comments, lexicon teams, mindmapping teams, co-teaching teams, collaborative project teams) and also my phone number. I told the students to redesign the online activity curriculum while I took a walk around campus. They could text me with questions and text me when they were ready for me to return. They did a splendid job. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done this from the beginning. With my online courses, I made it clear from the beginning, that it was up to the co-learners to design and execute their own syllabus for the last week of the course.

I am far from the only online teacher with experience in online learning. Over a period of eight years, I interviewed and blogged about more than 100 innovators in digital media and learning. I know there are others. If you have your own tips about teaching online, comment here or email me at [email protected] and I will add links to your resources to this document.

P.S. Most teachers in higher ed are being directed to use Learning Management Systems. Rolling your own media, as I propose here, is sometimes called "going rogue" and is frowned upon by the university IT dept. LMSs are optimised for the administration of education: registration and enrollment, taking roll, grading; affordances for social media, in my opinion, are not so good. (Also, the business model of some LMS companies is to compile dossiers of info, Google-Facebook style, on students -- which could be used to sell them things).


(The most important resources in my judgement are at the top)

"Transforming Your Online Teaching From Crisis to Community" by Cathy N. Davidson  and   Christina Katopodis (Dr. Davidson has been my mentor and guru since I started teaching and I highly value her advice)

More from Cathy Davidson: Transforming on the Fly: One Model for Easy Synchronous Community in an Online Class 

Crowdsourcing: Teaching Online With Care from many experts, organized by Mia Zamora (@MiaZamoraPhD) and Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha) with input by many other practitioners. A great community effort by savvy educators.

From Sean Michael Morris (@slamteacher): "If you suddenly find yourself teaching online as part of your school’s response to COVID-19, here are some helpful ideas (a thread):"

An all around resource on "Critical Digital Pedagogy

From Jesse Stommel (@jessifer )"If you’re being asked to “move a class online,” models may be even more useful than “tips.”  Here’s a link to a course site for my fully online class last semester. It’s a simple approach with very little “tech.” Feel free to borrow any of the ideas here." 

Covid19 Teaching Tips (video) by J. Gregory Mcverry (@jgmac1106) and a Twitter thread on planning online teaching by the same (expert) practitioner. 

A good Twitter thread by (@chinmay) "Since folks are moving their classes online: we've done ~7years of work on online education & are happy to help. If you can do only 1 thing: encourage and support peer collaboration, conversation and learning." 

General, not specific to online learning, but the first in a series of useful series of posts by Nancy White, who has decades of experience facilitating face to face and online meetings: "Moving Online in Pandemics"

This about using blogging tools rather than an LMS  is from Laura Gibbs (@onlinecrslady)  "I've been teaching fully online courses since 2002 (not a typo), and I  thought the best contribution I could make would be a guide for how to Be There with Blogging."  (Gibbs' blog is an excellent resource also on how to import Internet assets into the LMS Canvas)

A large, curated collection of links, blog posts, and advice from (@Larryferlazzo)
on K-12 online teaching tactics.

Online Resources for Teaching in context of COVID-19 from HASTAC, a well-trusted source

Michele Miller writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education "Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start"

"Online Learning in a Hurry," from some Canadian educators who know what they are doing

Twitter thread by Jess Perriam (@jessyp) with tips based on experience with online learning at Open University

Twitter thread by experienced educator Jessie Daniels (JessieNYC) on the simplest method of distance education: email

"Humanizing Online Teaching" (unpublished paper) by Mary Raygoza

Twitter thread of very good advice to those who are teaching online for the first time. By @david_perell

Amy Burvall (@amyburvall), a resourceful and creative teacher, recommends Padlet as a "low tech asynchronous discussion tool"

AoIR (Association of Internet Researchers) Collated Resources for Online Teaching 

This is what Stanford sent out to teachers -- ""Teaching Effectively In Times of Disruption" -- note that it depends on an LMS.

"Best Tools for Virtual and Distance Learning" from Common Sense Education -- apps that can help with logistics and communication.

"Supporting Respectful Dialogue and Building Community," from Harvard Graduate School of Education (good "rules of the road" for student commenting online)

"The Art of Hosting Good Online Conversations" by Howard Rheingold, circa 1998, but still useful for facilitators.

Don Wettrick's STARTedUP has developed a two-week set of online content for teachers (I personally know Wettrick to be an outstanding educator).

Sun West Schools has curated & created collections by grade &  subject area that you can filter to find what you need to learn @ home 

A wiki for educators and students to find guides, templates, and advice for remote teaching and distance learning

Turning your in-person trainings into virtual trainings: 6 tips & tools in the age of the coronavirus 

Networks, Groups and Catalysts: The Sweet Spot for Forming Online Learning From Nancy White, who has been facilitating online for decades

3 Ways to Use Video Conferencing with Students Learning Remotely 

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