Teaching in virtual classrooms can be much like the widely circulated YouTube video you may have seen called “A Conference Call in Real Life.” If you watch it, you’ll recognize the familiar awkwardness of online meetings, where the rhythm of conversational interaction is thrown wildly askew by technological hiccups and the absence of visual cues. Virtual space is not always easy, so how do you teach in it? While virtual classrooms are not without challenges, there are concrete steps you can take to run class sessions that are energetic, interactive, and productive. Here are our top 10 tips for teaching in virtual classrooms.
1. Collect information before class. Send a quick email or a 1-3 question survey a day or two before class asking students about their opinions relevant to the session topic. Collecting information from students in advance will help you prepare appropriate questions and materials. It will also show students that you’re interested in what they have to say, which will help spur discussion in the synchronous environment.
2. Tell students what to expect. Email students before each synchronous session and tell them what topics or questions the session will cover, how they should prepare, and what they’ll be expected to do. Be as concrete and specific as possible. When students have time to prepare, they are often more invested in the discussion and willing to participate.
3. Make it relevant and highlight that relevance. It’s always worth asking why students should care about each lesson’s topic. How is it going to help them answer questions or solve problems that matter to them? Highlight the answers to those questions in your brief description of the class session from step 2 that is designed to spark students’ curiosity.
4. Help students ask questions. Ask participants to come with one burning question about the topic at hand—something that frustrates them, confuses them, or that they want a chance to ask you and/or their classmates. Start the session off by giving some students the opportunity to ask their questions. See what answers or insights the class can provide before answering the question yourself.
5. Incorporate originality. The most interesting virtual classrooms offer novel content, insights, and activities while avoiding duplicating what is covered elsewhere in the course. While synchronous sessions should, of course, connect to other elements of the course and build toward common goals, it’s great to have added benefit to attending the synchronous session.
6. Ask students to keep their cameras on. Having students and teachers show their faces creates a sense of connection and accountability that can help overcome the disconnectedness that sometimes plague virtual classrooms. Make it a course expectation that students turn on their cameras, and explain why.
7. Do a quick social check-in at the beginning of class. Instead of leaving an awkward silence while students are arriving, use the opportunity to chat. Ask students what’s new and interesting in their lives, what their holiday plans are–any kind of chitchat to help break down social barriers while creating the expectation of interaction.
8. Pose a question and give participants a moment to write. Regular cold calling is an effective technique for holding students accountable, but it can irritate them and erode motivation if it feels like a “gotcha” exercise. An alternative is to pose a thought-provoking, relevant question and give students a few minutes to write down their thoughts, rather than being put on the spot to answer. This really helps quiet students be more comfortable giving answers in class.
9. Ask questions that require students to pick a side. When students are asked to state an opinion, they become more invested in discussing it. So, consider asking a content-relevant either/or question, e.g., “What is more essential to professional success: being organized or being creative?” “Overall, do you think the impact of the Internet has been positive or negative?”
10. Encourage student interaction. Ask students to write their opinion in the chat window, then ask a few participants to explain or defend their positions. Students will quickly add complexity and shades of gray to otherwise simplistic choices, and the discussion will be off to the races.
The tips offered here won’t miraculously eliminate the initial awkwardness of virtual class sessions, but they will help, and over time the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of virtual meetings will become more comfortable.
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