What I have learned so far from teaching online

Avoiding some common mistakes to help you get over the anxiety of teaching online

Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

“We can’t hear you, sir!”

Those were the first few words I heard from little speaker sitting right beside my computer screen when I started my online class. I immediately panicked. I checked my settings on the computer. I unplugged my earphones and plugged them back. Then I asked back, “Can you hear me now?” Nothing. Few seconds, and a voice came booming from my speaker.

“Sir, I think you’re on mute!”

That was when I realized I made the first mistake in doing online classes. Always check if you’re audio is good.

For seven weeks now, I’ve been holding online classes through Google Meet, and building my content on a separate learning management system called Canvas. All my lessons are digital. And the delivery is via the Internet. So, having a stable Internet, a decent computer, a mic, and some lighting are just some of the basic equipment needed.

For weeks, I was in between feelings of anxiety, of excitement, and relief (usually after the weekend). Anxiety happened during the first few weeks before the term started. It was driven by having to cram 13 weeks’ worth of lecture and content into an unfamiliar learning management system (LMS). I had sleepless nights thinking, “How will I be able to make this work, and still make it interesting?”

I was not alone feeling anxious. Other part-time and full-time faculty are also having the same anxiety attacks (of course, this an exaggeration). We were given time to train on the LMS through a course provided on the same LMS (sounds like an inception, eh).

Adding to that pressure is completing my revised, 13-week syllabus, which I had to re-do after procrastinating on updating it. During face-to-face lectures, my syllabus worked more as a guide, which can change based on new topics that I would later find important. So, (and a lot of teachers would admit), I would often wing a lesson/lecture several days before my classroom session because I feel the need to share an interesting development in class (my class is on digital publishing, so just imagine the stream of new developments happening as I type this).

Excitingly Draining

Preparing for a 13-week term is exciting and yet draining. It’s not easy. Why? Here are some initial observations.

  1. Content development takes time. I’m spending more time reading, and looking for more references to weekly lessons that I have to deliver to my students. This means being able to find fresh, up-to-date content in written, video, and yes, audio formats. Considering you’re building modules — or a set of lessons based on a pedagogy (the method of teaching), you need to cross-reference your sources. Tip#1: Create a Google Doc and note down all your sources on the web. These are usually links, PDFs, videos on YouTube, Ted Talks, etc. Keep these notes accessible for reference once you start building your module.
  2. A pedagogy helps you structure your online learning modules. A framework is a visual guide that helps your brain picture what you’re supposed to do. In my case, I decided to use the university’s framework that divided the lessons into: Discover, Discuss, Demonstrate, and Deepen. There are numerous methods of teaching. For me, this works for now. There’s also the 3D version: Discover, Deepen, and Do. Tip #2: If you have time, write out the summary of the week’s module using a chosen framework. Discover usually answers “What are you going to tackle this week?” while Deepen triggers the question, “How is this important to your students, and why?” Of course, Do, as the term implies, is where you assess or engage students in either a short online quiz (which I don’t do much), a weekly assignment due a week after, or a discussion, which you can turn on using the learning management system.
  3. Pace yourself and your students. The pressure is intense usually a day before the online session begins. I always put myself in the shoes of my students, and understand what would it take for them to learn, given that they’re doing this in front of a screen, with an unstable Internet connection, and perhaps a not-so perfect and conducive environment for learning; learning from home has always distractions. Tip #3: I pace the release of my weekly lessons, and as you’ve guessed, I do weekly releases — similar to how Netflix does it on some TV series. While I would love for students to “binge” on all the lessons for 13 weeks, I believe giving them time to breathe and reflect on the lessons would prove more effective. Just imagine other professors doing the same thing, so that’s a lot of cognitive load for a week for one student.
  4. Offer all means and venue for feedback, questions, and clarifications. I picked this feedback from a former student who said that the failure of online learning happens when professors are not able to communicate well. So Tip #4: Over-communicate. Use Facebook Groups, e-mail, newsletters, and the LMS’ calendar to create a cadence of updates, offline sessions, and scheduled activities. Remember, you’re not the only professor demanding their attention. So the onus is on you to inform and engage students regularly. Respond quickly to questions. It’s part of the learning experience.
  5. Establish a cadence for online learning. One insight I got from another student is this: they want a semblance of consistency and regularity in learning. “I miss going to class, sir,” one of my students said. I asked why, and she said, “I think sir, it is because we want to feel that we have this regular thing happening.” Clicked! Tip #5: To help students build a habit, you need to trigger a certain behavior regularly, and that trigger should motivate them to act. So, by having weekly online sessions on Google Meet (this is called synchronous learning), this creates that feeling of regularity, where students are able to get into class, and learn together with their classmates. For the past 7 weeks, “attendance” to my online session has been good! So, I’m not complaining.
  6. Set expectations early, and hopefully deliver based on those learning objectives. Setting goals is part of your syllabus. In online learning, this has to be implemented and communicated many times over. So far, I think my materials for the first week delivered on the expectations. But yes, over-communicate. Never expect students to get it the first time. You have to keep hammering it for the first few weeks of the term. Tip# 5: Just like doing a summary for each module, write down your key learning objectives. And stick to it. It helps you handle the anxiety later on.

Tell stories when you’re teaching online

Photo by Jonathan Farber on Unsplash

Paying attention has not been my strongest suit. My mind wanders after 20 minutes or so of listening to an online lecture, a webinar, or a podcast. But when you’re telling me a story, or if I’m watching a nice movie on Netflix, or if I’m taken back to a historical moment via an interesting podcast, I’m with you, 100 percent.

Approaching my weekly lessons through a narrative is bit of a personal experiment. But part of this idea is inspired by my experiences with content on digital mediums. This oft-quoted statement, “Show more than tell” is more than just a nice way of saying, show me pictures instead of making me read a 600-word article on a computer screen.

Just like the rules on digital publishing, crafting effective content for the digital medium applies to online learning. Observe how online lessons are delivered on Coursera, Udemy, or on other online learning platforms. They are delivered in chunks, or bite-size formats, and they’re in multimedia. Take this favorite teacher of mine and blog on online learning.

Jennifer Gonzales’s Cult of Pedagogy is one good example of mixing narrative with other elements of online learning. She starts off with a catchy title or headline, then a nice image, and just before you start reading, she serves a podcast, which is an expanded audio version of the blog post you’re about to read. Amazing!

And to help you remember everything she said, she keeps her writing short, simple and conversational. Of course, there are more links embedded in each bulleted-item.

Finally, because she’s on the web, she embeds content on her narrative, which helps “show” what she’s talking about, more than tell.

Towards the end, she drives home the point, and invites you to follow her through a newsletter that offers more information and tips. The last bit is called community building and driving “conversions,” which is a marketing practice where you make people subscribe to a newsletter, and thereby converting them into “fans.”

So that’s it. After seven weeks, I was able to stumble on these insights, and hopefully, you’ll find them useful! On to the next 6 weeks.

Follow me on Twitter Erwin Oliva or you can drop me a note through the comments below.

An ex-journalist. Teacher. Dad. Loves Guitar & Books. Writes when inspiration hits him.