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Six things I learned moving my face-to-face module online

Jesper Hansen, Senior Teaching Fellow in UCL's Arena Centre, shares his concrete tips for others who are new to online teaching.

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25 June 2020

As Programme Director of Arena Two, I have had to make rapid changes to the course so it was ready for online teaching and learning in response to Covid-19.

I want to share my experience during that process in this case study, along with some concrete tips for others who, like me, are new to online teaching.

About Arena Two

Arena Two is a course for lecturers and teaching fellows on probation, and it normally consists of eight sessions each lasting two hours.

It takes a blended approach with a range of preparatory activities which are then discussed and contextualised in the sessions.

The Arena Centre facilitates six iterations of the course each academic year, and one of these takes place in the summer term.

1. Well-designed asynchronous learning

This frees up valuable time to be interactive in the live session. Being together with your students is a great way to connect with them, and when most or all learning happens online this becomes even more important.

So how do we ensure this valuable time is best spent?

Surely not by talking at our students - just taking your lecture to a live online space is not a good use of yours or your students’ time.

Here are some helpful first steps:

  • In preparation for each session, I asked participants to read and understand the content of the slides. I created a forum (Moodle Hot Questions) where they could ask questions that I clarified before the live session or ensured were addressed in the activities.
     
  • I used the same slides as for the original face-to-face teaching but with a couple of additions: firstly, I added slides with transitions between topics so there was a more coherent narrative (what I would normally have done verbally).
     
  • I added notes in the section below the slides where I clarified concepts and made connections between elements.
     
  • I colour-coded the slides so that the light blue ones were about knowledge and the light green ones were activities.

Tip: I didn’t create videos for this content, but for some disciplines this might be a good option.

Remember that around 5-6 minutes is the optimal length, and there is a drop in student attention and retention after 15 minutes. 

View guidance to online alternatives to teaching. 

  • I asked participants to prepare for the online activities (jotting down notes in response to questions, for instance).This ensured our time together was spent interacting (with each other and with me).
  • Think first about what can be taught in asynchronous activities, and then about what makes having you, the expert, in a live space the most important and effective. 

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Tip: Watch Dr Zachary Walker, UCL Institute of Education, a 30-minute video ‘Simple tips for online learning.'

2. Be clear

While clarity is always important, teaching online made me realise just how crucial it is; and just how difficult it is to judge whether your own materials are really clear.

This was particularly true for Moodle. While you should definitely familiarise yourself with UCL’s Connected Learning Baseline, here are some things to think about based on my experience:

  • Think about inclusivity and accessibility from the beginning. Can all students access your files? Can screen readers read your documents and slides? Are the colour schemes and fonts rights? You can get further guidance on the Teaching Continuity webpage ‘Visuals and use of colour’.
     
  • Have as few distracting elements on Moodle as possible. For any given session, students should be able to find all the relevant materials in a single topic (there might, of course, be links to other materials). I followed a simple model where I had: Blackboard Collaborate link; a Moodle ‘book’ called preparatory activities; slides; a Hot Questions forum; and where needed a couple of key resources that did not fit into the Moodle book (film clips, screen casts, quizzes).
     
  • In the Moodle books (preparatory activities), I created sub-chapters for each type of preparation, such as:
    • Read chapter ...
    • Think about the following questions and jot down notes for the class discussion
    • Watch the following video on YouTube explaining ...
  • Don't overload your slides: it can be tempting. I would advise against this and instead add more slides if needed, using the note space below the slides, link to other materials (YouTube, museums, collections) or create new materials yourself (short explanatory videos and screencasts – I did this when I couldn’t find existing materials and when something had to be tailored to this particular cohort such as our guided marking activity). 

Tip: UCL Digital Education has a wiki which breaks down each functionality in Moodle. Access here. 

Case study: Moodle tools to make your teaching more interactive 

3. Work with a peer and students 

This follows on from the last point about clarity and it is particularly important if teaching online is as new to you as it was to me.

I am used to reviewing my materials all the time, and I can fairly easily tweak a live session while teaching it if something does not quite work. But online, I am not yet experienced enough to do that.

Therefore, I worked closely with a colleague who reviewed all of my slides and Moodle activities. I was fortunate to have support throughout from Valentina Barbaria, UCL Arena Programmes Manager. 

For the first few sections, she had many comments, questions and suggestions, and when I look back at the first draft and what I ended up with, I am so grateful for her help.

She pointed out fewer and fewer areas that could be improved and found fewer things that were unclear. This is where I can offer a reassuring word:

It becomes easier with experience. What takes a half day at the beginning takes a few hours when you begin to understand online teaching better“it becomes easier with experience. What takes a half day at the beginning takes a few hours when you begin to understand online teaching betterit becomes easier with experience. What takes a half day at the beginning takes a few hours when you begin to understand online teaching better

Valentina moderated all the online sessions, particularly looking after the chat, organising breakout groups and supporting people who disconnected.

This is actually quite tricky to do on your own, so it is worth thinking about before your first session, especially if you work with a big group. And while we cannot always expect to work with a colleague as I did, maybe it is possible in the first couple of sessions while you get used to teaching in an online space. 

Tip: Why not make this peer-review and support part of your annual peer dialogue? And if you have students who did your course last year, maybe they would be happy to review a session or two and give you some feedback? 

4. Technical support for participants

In the first session, I had set aside 10 minutes to support participants who experienced technical difficulties.

This turned out to be much needed as many had not worked with Blackboard Collaborate before and so had problems with their microphones and sound.

I am no expert, but I had familiarised myself with Blackboard so I could help participants with basic issues (finding the settings panel, using the dial-in option, trying to log in and out).

In the following sessions, I set aside 5 minutes and towards the middle of the course, we didn’t really need it anymore.

Tip: It’s much nicer having five extra minutes at the end than having to rush things. My suggestion if you are new to online teaching is setting time aside for tech support at the beginning of every lesson, and having an in-built buffer of 5-10 minutes at the end.

When planning online learning activities for the first time, add 30-50% of time to what you would expect when face-to-face. Remember, you can always have an extra activity up your sleeve if you happen to finish early.

5. Delivering your teaching

Content delivery

If participants have engaged with the material beforehand, the content delivery (‘lecturing’) can be done in roughly the same time as you do it face to face (summing up key points, clarifying connections and so on).

If you ask questions, however, this changes.

Participants are often slower at volunteering comments or questions, and I found it useful to indicate how much thinking time they had, saying for instance “Look at the question on the slide - I’ll be quiet for 30 seconds while you think about it, and then I’ll invite some comments from you”; the difficult part is sometimes to then stay quiet as the silence can feel somewhat oppressing when you are used to the classroom buzz.

I suggest you use a timer or count to yourself (if you feel particularly Scandy, you can do what we do in Denmark and go ‘one crate of beer - two crates of beer’ and so on).

Being explicit about time has a further benefit that you get some breathing space, and it can help to ensure you hear a range of voices rather than the most extroverted or self-assured ones.

Remember that ‘voices’ can be heard in a number of ways, and some might prefer using the chat, which I would encourage.

This can be a very nice way to communicate quickly and effectively: putting a y (for yes) and n (for no), or using the thumbs up icon, for instance, can create a flurry of interaction which can instantly liven up a session.


Activities

If we want the online space to be about collaboration, application of knowledge and discussion, we need to move away from focusing on content delivery when we are live.

The break-out groups in Blackboard work really well, and there are similar options when using other platforms. This is particularly true once your participants get used to working in this way. In the beginning, people need time to start the activities, turn on their mics and negotiate roles in what to some will be an alien space.

You need to anticipate that these activities take significantly longer than in a physical classroom, at least the first couple of times.

I found that they took 50-100% longer at the beginning, and 25-50% longer towards the end. So it is difficult to do a 3-minute buzz group - it will probably take almost 10 minutes. And your 10-minute group work on a case study might take 15 minutes.

Remember to think about how groups share their notes and how they retain them (in Blackboard, the chat/whiteboard are not stored anywhere). I used a number of techniques:

  • Mentimeter
  • Padlet
  • Screenshots of whiteboard; but you could also use OneNote
  • Google Docs and many more. 

Tip: When doing group work, indicate timings in the main chat, and give some ‘warnings’ toward the end: ‘just 3 minutes left, please make sure you’re ready for the plenary’.  

Also, give a final 10-second warning before ending group work in Blackboard so people can finish their sentences - if not, the return to the main room can feel very abrupt.


Plenary

When face to face, we often have a plenary after group work, where we share and discuss findings. In an online setting, this can work really well, too.

However, I found that it took a lot of time, particularly when going around and asking each group (instructing groups to nominate a spokesperson before the plenary can be very helpful).

You can really think creatively here and there are so many exciting options:

  • Can the groups share insights in other ways, for instance on Moodle?
  • Could other groups be asked to comment on 1-2 other groups’ Moodle posts?

This is an area that I am looking forward to exploring much more, and I think there is a lot of potential here. 

Example task

This task has two stages and you must all complete both. The first is done by the group, the second is individual.

  • Task 1: Before Wednesday 5 pm, all groups must share a short summary of their findings (around 300 words) on Moodle.
     
  • Task 2: Before Friday 5 pm, you must all individually comment on one of the other groups’ summaries, thinking about:
    • a) how this is similar/different from your groups’ findings
    • b) what question(s) you would like to have clarified in our next session.

Try to comment on summaries that have zero or few comments already if you can.

I will have a look at it all and address anything that is unclear in our next session.

6. Listen carefully to your participants right from the beginning

If like me you are quite inexperienced teaching online, you will probably want to build in ways to get feedback from your participants right from the beginning. I did this in three ways:  

1. After session 1, to gauge if there were initial problems or concerns, and invite participants to give me advice:

What has been good or helpful today?

  • Small group discussions
  • New perspective of what others' consider to be their priorities regarding teaching.
  • Exchange ideas with other academics; reflect on different topics

What would have made this session better?

  • A way for groups to collect and share written notes
  • A little bit more time, with maybe a break in between, to refocus.
  • Keep it as it is in my opinion, I think the format worked great.

2. Midway (to elicit some thoughts now that participants understood the basic structure of the course and knew the tutors better)

What do you think has worked best so far?

  • The group discussions are my favourite part of these sessions. The prep is always helpful and focused and I enjoy the further readings.
  • Useful to have a discussion in plenary and breakout groups but then to have a summary of key points from you too.
  • Great learning environment!

What advice would you give us moving forward?

  • Have all materials and tasks laid out clearly together to make preparation simpler.
  • More time for summarising and drawing on the outcomes of group work.

 3. At the end (to understand the total experience of participants).  

  • The possibility of rethinking traditional lectures not only at the moment while we're online but when we're back to face to face
  • It has given me some good ideas about teaching online and course evaluation. I will also be using shorter online sessions chunked with quizzes/ discussion for the online version of my course
  • I feel confident to develop a teaching plan that includes asynchronous and synchronous learning

Building on feedback 

After all of these evaluations, I fed back a summary as well as action points for myself, i.e. things I would change or tweak (for the final evaluation I did this via Moodle).

I would definitely recommend a model like this, as each evaluation gave me confidence in that I was doing some things right, established a further dialogue between participants and tutors, and gave me concrete suggestions that I could address.

UCL has launched a new project to ensure all departments have an online Student Evaluation Questionnaire (SEQ) tool for module evaluation in the next academic year.

Don’t feel, however, you have to do it quite as formally as we did - there are many options available using Mentimeter, Moodle, the chat function in Blackboard and so on.