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How can I be better at teaching online? Part 1

Online teaching is a challenging, creating, and rewarding process

This question has moved to the forefront of schools and universities around the world. With a sudden shift to a virtual learning environment and digital tools, teachers find themselves struggling to make the adjustment. Here are my top six tips for teachers who want to get better at online teaching.

Tip #1: Quality Teaching Comes from Caring Teachers

Before jumping ahead to discuss the technologies, learning curves, systems and apps a teacher might use for online teaching, and with which they struggle, I want to encourage you first. If you love to teach, if you care about your students, if you want what is best for those under your care, you already have what it takes to be a good online teacher. The tools we use, be they face-to-face classrooms, HDTV’s, smartboards, lightboards, paper and pencil, or Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, Facebook Live, Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, are simply vehicles for the good teaching you already know how to do.

This needs to be said and emphasized at the outset because I meet many great instructors who confront the realities of teaching online with a sense of failure as a teacher. This has nothing to do with being a good or bad teacher. You are already a good driver. But you have now been placed in a new vehicle with new controls. It’s just a matter of learning where drive, neutral, fifth gear and the accelerator are, so you can get going. And you may need to do some test driving to get the hang of operating that particular vehicle. So give yourself some accolades and remind yourself that this has nothing to do with your ability to teach. It is simply learning the controls and shifters of the new car to get going.

Tip #2: Create Teaching Presence Online

If you are anything like me, you cherish that in-the-moment connection with students in the classroom where you can break them into groups and facilitate discussions using your expertise as a guide. You can call on students to assess if they did the reading or understood part of your lecture. You can play Socrates with questions to draw out wisdom and insight from them. This can still be done in an online teaching environment, but typically requires “live” session tools like Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts or similar.

If you are an instructor who enjoys this type of teaching, you can incorporate links into your courses to conduct “live” sessions with your students for this type of teaching. But remember, this requires all students to be in the virtual room at the same time. Depending upon your institution, students taking an online class could be in a different time zone. Some students may have to work during the time of the scheduled session. Due to work-from-home dynamics, it might be difficult to pay attention at a time when they have other responsibilities with their families. Their kids may need to use the computer for a martial arts or music lesson at the same time. Someone may need to use the one family computer for a telemedicine session with a doctor. So creating an online course requires thinking about ways to get your presence as an instructor “there” even when you’re not there.

How can you do this?

The best way to create a teaching presence for an online course is to use tools to create videos and post them in your course. These could be video announcements that get sent out through the learning management system. They could be brief video lectures for each module. It could be video recorded grading feedback or a narrated PowerPoint video.

The point is simply to get your face and tone and voice into the class so students can experience you when they can do work for the class. The more you can use video tools like this, the greater connection your students will have with you as their instructor—even when you are not there “live.”

Tip #3: Switch Your Thinking from “Course Conversion” to “Creative Imagination”

One of the most difficult tasks when shifting from a traditional face-to-face environment to online is thinking through how to take each element of your traditional course and convert it to something that will work “online.” While this is likely what most faculty had to do with a sudden shift to teaching online, this paradigm will work against you as you look ahead at developing future online courses.

I would encourage you to stop thinking about “conversion” of what you are used to doing in the classroom and start thinking creatively about how you would completely reinvent what you do online. Why do I say this? Well, because if you are a music teacher or physical education teacher, etc. you may just throw up your hands and say, “This is impossible! I give up!” You just can’t do it. Can’t do what?! You can’t do what you normally do. And what you normally do requires live interaction and physical proximity and synchronicity. If you think “conversion,” you are just going to increase the frustration.

But what happens if you shift from conversion thinking to creative thinking? Take the music teacher. Live sessions probably will not work well because of internet lag and technical limitations. Knowing this, you would need to develop a plan for asynchronous teaching. This means thinking of ways to pre-record your music for students to watch and listen to. You can also have students use video recording tools to upload their musical compositions. This keeps the music sounding crisp and clear and gives you the means as a music instructor to teach them the content. It just requires some imagination and rethinking for an online context.

The same is true for the P.E. or soccer coach. No, you can’t run soccer drills with cones and sprints across the quad. But you can bullet point the concepts and the outcomes you are looking for. You can pre-record videos. You can slow the videos down and comment on them. You could make videos of yourself kicking the ball the wrong way and then ask students to watch the video and comment on what you are doing wrong with your kick. You could find things around your home that they likely would have at theirs and give them drills to watch and follow along with. It simply requires a switch from conversion thinking to creative thinking. And, honestly, despite the work, creative thinking and imagination, it is much more fun. So make the switch and imagine what’s possible!