This guide is intended to give new online teachers a sense of some of the possibilities and the challenges that this environment brings. Online teaching is not the same as face to face teaching, but it also isn’t radically different. Some things work almost exactly the same in a virtual classroom as in a physical one, some things are no longer possible, and some entirely new possibilities present themselves.
It was written by my colleague Paul Lowe and I, together we teach and run London College of Communication’s MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography (online/part-time) which Paul established in 2008, and which I started to teach on in around 2013. We wrote this guide primarily for our colleagues, but we also want to make it avaliable to anyone else who might benefit. The reasons are both altruistic, and self-interested. We’re both very excited by the possibilities of online learning, and recognise that what’s happening right now could have huge ramifications for the practice. Teachers and students are moving online rapidly, and I personally fear that without proper support many will have bad experiences and be turned off online education for good. On the flipside I hope that is with proper support and guidance, many people who would never have considered teaching and learning online start what the possibilities see in it.
We’ve written this guide to focus mostly on the issues of running good live classroom sessions, and with the Blackboard Collaborate VLE in mind as that’s the platform we predominantly teach on. However most teaching platforms have similar functions, and some sections deal with online teaching and online course administration more generally. I’m hoping to follow with a guide more focused on online pedagogy and activities. The version published here includes a few additional pointers and suggestions not included in the original piece, and suggests some platforms which we don’t use at LCC but which other teachers may find useful.
Preparing for Classes
- Set up your teaching space. Find a suitable space, comfortable and free of other distractions, particularly noise. If you want to use the webcam make sure there’s nothing in your space that you don’t mind your students seeing.
- Use a headset. Internal microphones in most devices are not great for this type of teaching, they pick up unwanted audio like your neighbours music and sometimes annoying feedback from the internal speakers. Headsets with a decent boom microphone are far better. Wired or wireless is fine, Bluetooth is good too but sometimes there are audio delays so do some tests first.
- Revise and review your materials. Run through your teaching materials and think about whether they still work in an online environment. Generally speaking lectures and discussions are straightforward, more engaged participation and demonstrations of techniques and processes become harder, but not impossible. Most things will work with some adaptation, and the things that won’t work live are often things that students can still be asked to do individually after class
- Get a feel for different devices. Students can and will log in and participate from a range of devices, from desktops to smartphones. If you have a variety of devices available to you at home it can be useful to log in to Collaborate on each one to get a feel for how the functionality and interactivity of the virtual classroom changes on different devices. Even better log in to a class run by a colleague and observe.
- Prepare Useful Links. One of the handy features of Collaborate is the ability to send students links as you give a class, we often use the chat box to send them photographer’s website addresses and other resources they might want to follow up on later, or to share examples which aren’t in the talk but have perhaps popped up in conversation.
- Get in early. Log in early, check everything works, be there to welcome students as they arrive into the classroom, chat to them, make sure they’re comfortable and their technology is working ok. All this applies doubly so if you are inviting in guest lecturers. A lot of new students will be worried about whether their audio is working if they are not hearing anything even before the session is due to start, so keep saying things like ‘hello everyone, we will start soon’, and/or typing it into the chat box.
Tools in Blackboard Collaborate
- Sharing Files/Presentations to the Whiteboard. This will probably be the main tool you use for sharing content with students. Mostly it’s straightforward, aim to keep files sizes as low as possible to speed uploading (and also because Collaborate will reject anything over 60MB). You can upload Powerpoints but keep in mind these will be converted into jpegs by Collaborate so any transitions/animations, links or embedded media will be lost. It works well to save a Powerpoint as a PDF to reduce size, and if it’s still too large then resave this as a reduced file size PDF in Adobe Acrobat. Also avoid uploading PDFs with different shaped pages (square, rectangle, portrait, landscape) in the same document as this sometimes causes Collaborate to distort the pages, particularly annoying if they include images.
- The chat panel. Collaborate has a chat window that encourages students to chat and discuss using text messages. While it might seem a bit distracting to encourage discussion during a class we find it’s actually a great way to get live feedback from students on the topics being discussed, how well they understand what we’re saying, and to give examples of their own. Encourage them to use it, and use it yourself to share links and other things as you go. You can share weblinks in it and they can be clicked through directly to open up in the participants browser. After a while participants will even begin to help the tutor, adding links themselves or make suggestions for work to look at.
- Screen Sharing. A really useful tool in Collaborate, we use it for all sorts of things including showing students how to use software, doing live edits with sets of photographs, and showing them examples of things online that aren’t in any of my presentations. Just remember to switch it off when you finish, and resist the temptation to quickly check your emails while it’s still running.
- Microphone discipline. It’s good to set some ground rules early on, including about microphone use. In larger groups a few live microphones can quickly start to generate a lot of random noise. Usually we encourage students to virtually raise their hands to indicate they want to speak (or to say so in the chat box) and then we verbally invite that student to turn on their microphones and contribute something. That tends to avoid people talking over each other or lots of random noise. Also remind them to turn their mics off after they finish. You can mute a specific student’s microphone if really necessary but it’s a bit draconian so we try and avoid doing this unless there’s a lot of noise coming through and they are not responding. To do this click on the symbol that looks like three dots next to their name.
- Text chats. As mentioned, during things like talks we encourage students to primarily feedback and comment on things in the chat box to avoid breaking the speakers flow (we leave it up to the speaker whether they want to respond to questions as they go, or wait until the end of their talk. We invite students to switch to microphones for more involved questions, comments or discussions. It’s also possible t in Collaborate to send directed text messages to specific participants or to groups (for example all the moderators/presenters). This can be handy if for example you want to remind a particular student not to do something, but don’t want to say it in front of the entire class.
- Start Time. Be prepared to start the class a few minutes after the stated start time. Usually a few people are slow logging in or have some minor technical issues so are a little late. You can use the first five minutes or so to welcome people as they login and to chat and check in with students before the class starts.
- Recording. Only start the recording when you are 100% ready, you don’t want dead sound or chit chat at the start of an archived recording. Introduce the session once you start the recording, and then sign off at the end. Stick a post-it to your screen before you start the session to remind you to record, it’s easy to forget. It’s also worth giving students and other participants a courtesy warning that you are about to start the recording.
- Engagement. Teaching online removes much of the visual feedback we rely on in face to face classrooms to measure how engaged students are and how well they understand the subject under discussion. It’s a good idea to regularly check in with the group and use open questions, discussion or simple activities to gather other forms of feedback and give you a sense of how well students are following the class as you teach. Online teaching also allows you to experience your own teaching, and it can be useful to listen back to a recording or two and see how you find it as a participant rather than as a presenter.
- Be open to other ideas. Just as often as we come with new ideas for different ways to use Collaborate and other platforms, our students suggest brilliant ways to reinvent these platforms. Be open to these and even invite them to collaborate with you in developing new approaches. Students will quickly get a grasp of what is and isn’t possible on these platforms and will suggest the things they want and need. When responding to these requests we usually issue the caveat that ‘we’re going to try something new, we don’t know how it’s going to work but let’s try it’ which again helps to make them slightly more like collaborators in the process.
- Be prepared. Technical issues, yours and students, will inevitably occur. To minimise frustration it helps to prepare students for this and ask for their patience. Mostly they will understand and will do their best to try and help or be patient while they are resolved. It also helps to be as prepared as possible with your teaching materials so you can entirely focus on resolving technical problems when they occur. Some of the most common problems and ideas for fixing them are:
- Problems uploading presentations. Usually this is because the file format isn’t one that Collaborate can manage (stick to Powerpoints, PDFs or sequentially numbered Jpegs). It may also be that the file you are trying to upload is too large. One final possibility is that there are already several presentations loaded in Collaborate and so there is no space for another. try deleting a couple of these using the icon to the right of the presentation in the file sharing window).
- Problems with audio. Closing the browser and logging in again often resolves this. If it doesn’t it may be a microphone issue, try unplugging it and plugging it again. Failing that switch to another microphone or device. If possible it’s worth having a backup headset/mic somewhere because like anything they can and do fail from time to time, and more often than not it’ll happen exactly when you need them.
- Problems with your connection once in the class. Most often this manifests as choppy audio. Sometimes solving it is as simple as moving closer to the source of the wifi, other times it’s something along the line which isn’t resolvable. In either case we suggest you don’t use resources that make excessive demands on your connection. A group of people all sharing webcams is not necessary, makes excessive bandwidth demands, and is distracting. Failing this try changing wifi network if possible, as a last resort and assuming you have sufficient data turning your phone into a wifi hotspot can be a solution.
- Problems actually joining the class. Assuming this is a software issue which it usually seems to be then closing the browser, reopening it and logging in again, trying a different browser, or trying a different device are usually the easiest and most effective fixes.
The dedicated platforms for online teaching are limited, and generally not discipline specific. If there’s something particular that you want to do in your classes you may need to go looking for an alternative platform. Sometimes the ones that have been designed with no pedagogical purposes in mind are actually the most effective for the purpose you have in mind, particularly when it comes to photography. Be open minded and imaginative about other online tools you might have access to, and keep in mind there may be privacy/support issues with some of these platforms, so if in doubt talk to your institution about them.
- Google Docs. Shared Docs can be collectively edited to gather feedback on a topic. Shared Sheets are useful for creating spreadsheets of student groups, and sign up forms for tutorials. Google Forms can be useful for gathering feedback or ideas.
- Slack. A useful platform for student communication and collaboration on shared projects, replaces cumbersome email chains with instant messaging, and some useful project management functions.
- Dropbox. Useful for sharing files across groups of students for collaborative projects, some file formats can be edited without downloading.
- Instagram. Accounts with shared logins can be used for collaborative photo projects between students or across year groups.
- Skype. Sometimes preferable for holding small group discussions and one to ones, for example pastoral tutorials, as you have more control over people entering the call unexpectedly.
- Time Zones. These are a challenge if you have students across multiple time zones. A couple of strategies we employ, one is to canvas the student group about the best times for classes and so far as possible schedule sessions throughout the day and week in a way that gives students flexibility. You can use a polling app or a shared document for this. Another is obviously to make sure classes are consistently recorded. The third is provide additional materials that students can access in their own time, but the applicability of this depends a lot on the taught subject. It’s also really important to be as clear as possible about what time zone all your activities are scheduled to. At the start of the term/semester this will almost always be a source of confusion, with participants (sometimes including staff) getting mixed up and logging in at the wrong times. The more you can do to make sure everyone understand what time zone they should be working from the better.
- Use emails and group messages sparingly. On an online course e-mail takes on a much larger communications role than on a traditional face to face course. Predictably students don’t enjoy being overwhelmed with emails, but they also don’t like being left in the dark. Communicate frequently but sparingly. A good approach is to do a weekly email with all the essential information they need for the week ahead, followed up later with essential updates if they become necessary. Wherever possible I avoid group emails and contact students individually.
- Encourage students to establish their own communication channels. Doing this gives them a channel to discuss assignments etc, and takes some of the load off you in terms of answering questions and queries if students are able to ask each other first, one of them will often know the answer to basic questions about the course. You can also define times for students to use the virtual classroom independent of you in order to share work or discuss assignments. These can also become a useful avenue for disseminating non-critical information to students via course reps.
- Fostering a community. It’s a common belief that online relationships are not as vibrant as real life ones. We disagree, after teaching our online students for the two years of our course we often feel we know them every bit as well as we’ve known any of our real life students. Fostering a community and these sorts of relationships takes effort and thought, both inside the classroom and outside. Take time to talk to chat to students when there is dead time in class (like while waiting for everyone to login)
- Enjoy it. The possibilities for digital learning are always changing and regardless of how long we’ve been doing it, we’re all constantly learning to use online platforms to teach more effectively. Part of that learning process is a willingness to experiment, try things out, sometimes fail, and most importantly to enjoy that process. We find that students generally sense that enjoyment and willingness to experiment, appreciate it and want to be part of it and make it work.
We’d love to know of any discoveries you make that we can add to the ideas above.
Lewis Bush – firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Lowe – email@example.com