The current circumstances differ from the typical distance learning scenario in that everyone, including the instructor, is remote. Best practices for video conferencing apply. Teachers also have to consider how the remote format will affect their teaching style.
Moving lessons into the virtual world requires thinking about how to balance security and convenience in a way that’s not required for in-person instruction. Some platforms are closed systems, and only authenticated users can join; this can be great for security, but if a user forgets their password or is joining from a new device, they may have to go through extra steps to get connected.
On the flip side, fully open platforms are great for getting people into the meeting, but if the unique meeting ID is shared publicly, malicious actors may be able to disrupt your lesson. Depending on the maturity of the students, it may not be strangers that use the open platform to disrupt the lesson, but rather a student joining anonymously.
A password-protected meeting can be a middle ground between fully-closed systems and a completely open meeting. Work with IT to ensure you’re making the right tradeoffs between securing your virtual lessons and enabling easy access for a broad audience.
Using the Chat Function
For teachers who use the Socratic method, it doesn’t work so well to ask a question and have your remote students reply over audio all at once. It can work to ask a question and prompt students to answer via chat. The remote, Socratic instructor can selectively read out answers, prompting respondents to un-mute and discuss their contributions. Or students can virtually “raise their hand” via chat and the teacher can call on them by un-muting their microphone. Adjust the meeting settings beforehand so that microphones are muted and chat is enabled.
Sharing Your Screen
Presenting prepared materials well takes a little planning, just as it does with in-person teaching. For many instructors, closing unnecessary windows and browser tabs and arranging the ones they need comprises “pre-class setup.” The teacher can then share the entire desktop to present content. The risk with this approach is that everything the instructor sees – popups from their various communication programs and calendar, messages visible in miscellaneous windows, icons on their desktop – will be visible to the class. Sharing individual windows instead of the entire desktop is another approach. Notifications from certain programs can also be turned off.
Virtual White Boards
While marker boards are still a favorite presentation approach, most at-home instructors don’t have access to one. Marker boards are a challenge for distance learning because it’s hard to point cameras at them and get a legible image. Fortunately, most online collaboration tools have built-in whiteboards that offer the ability for presenters to annotate over presented materials. These tools are not hard to use, but they take a little familiarization beforehand to make the most of.
Virtual backgrounds, like those found in Zoom and other collaboration platforms, allow instructors to enliven presentations, or at least conceal messy home settings. Sometimes, however, using these tools is more distracting than an actual room interior. Here are some tips for more effective use of virtual backgrounds.
- Light it well: Whether you use a green screen, or your software allows a virtual background to conceal the room’s actual interior, evenly light the scene. When you do, you’ll find fewer odd artifacts around your head and shoulders, random disappearances of ears, etc.
- Green and blue fabric backgrounds allow the use of chromakeying, technology that replaces areas of these colors in the scene with substitute backgrounds, like the weather maps we see on TV. How do you know which color to choose? If you’ve got blue eyes, use a green background. If you like wearing green, use a blue background. Wherever the camera sees that color, your computer will substitute the background image.
- Animated virtual backgrounds, such as waves on the beach, can be fun to use, but many find them distracting. My own opinion? Stick with static backgrounds.
- Not all collaboration apps provide a virtual background feature. Microsoft Teams, for example, optionally blurs the background, another good way to minimize distracting elements on-camera.
Not all content is easily taught with electronic tools; sometimes teachers need to demonstrate with physical objects. A document camera is a handy way to include real-world objects in an online class. Many doc cams cost less than $100, plug into a USB socket, and can be incorporated into a web conference in place of the instructor’s face-facing camera. More tech-adept teachers can even switch between two cameras during the course of a class using the collaboration software’s camera selection capability.
Teachers for younger students and smaller classes will need to prioritize making their faces seen on camera. Teachers who lecture larger classes at higher levels and prefer to move around may still be able to do so during remote classes. They can have a presentation on screen and return to their computer periodically to change slides and monitor student feedback via chat.
When instructors are face to face with students, it’s easy to pick up loss-of-engagement cues. It takes deliberate effort to get this feedback during online classes. Consider various ways to check in with students during classes. Use voice polls, the collaboration software’s chat features, even online polling tools to get responses from “the room.” If you keep them on their toes, you’re less likely to lose students to online distractions.
Distance learning has already been a rising trend as more students take classes online. We can only expect this trend to increase, calling for facility upgrades that improve the experience for distance learners alongside that of their in-person classmates. The current situation makes us realize that we must also plan for instances when the instructor is remote.