Recently, an increasing number of educational establishments and teachers need to feverishly prepare to shift their face-to-face classes to online only.
Apart from a user-friendly Learning Management System and applications, to maintain learner enthusiasm in an engaging environment, it is useful to provide online face-to-face meetings. They offer an instantaneous and flexible support solution, improve team collaboration, reduce stress, and they also remove geographical limitations. Here is some essential advice based on my experience on how to embrace your remote digital classroom through web-conferencing software and how to maximize value for your students.
The use of online meetings or conferencing tools, for Remote or Blended teaching, may not be complicating but there are still some basics you need to know before embarking on your online courses, especially if you decide to record your synchronous lessons for the class LMS (Learning Management System). There are a lot of web conferencing apps to this end and the choice is up to you but technically, here are some areas to bear in mind:
First and foremost, when teaching online, be sure to place your webcam (unless you have a built-in camera) in front of you at the level of your eyes (just about equal to your hairline) at a reasonable distance, and angle the screen so that students do not only see the top of your head or a headless neck. You may have to place your laptop or screen on an object for this. Everything should be centred; your light and you are centered to the lens. You need a well-lit room with white light coming from the front rather than the side or the back (NO windows behind you, no fluorescent lights in the room) so that your facial features are softer. You can place a cheap LED light or a simple desk lamp right over the lens of your device to set up on your desk, or open a white screen in front of you (not underneath) on your computer for that purpose. Also, you can have light coming through a window in front of you and you may optimise your camera settings (White Balance & Brightness/Focus) but otherwise put the rest of the blinds down.
Varying your positioning helps maintain learners' attention and encourages participation. For example, you can move forward, reduce the distance and get closer to the camera or to the sides of the screen and only move out of view completely when you want to show your learners objects such as flash cards, puppets or realia. Instead of looking downwards a comfortable chair with a back will help you vary your positioning, which will create a positive atmosphere.
Keeping the background behind you as simple as possible will not distract your students. A cluttered wall will not help them focus on your classwork. Instead, unless you have no paintings to display, you can select from the platform backgrounds (for example while on Zoom) or a photograph you have uploaded or a picture of a virtual world. Overall, keep it uncluttered and reduce visual noise to maintain attention!
You may think it is difficult to keep eye contact with your students during online classes but in fact you can make the most of the camera position to show that you pay attention to what they contribute and that you are interested. Looking at yourself on the screen is not the best idea. Don't be afraid to move closer to the lens or to move an external camera around and use facial expressions to indicate approval, encouragement and positive feelings. It is also advisable not to look down at the keyboard for most of the lesson, but to look at the camera (not the screen) in a friendly manner instead which creates the effect of looking at your students straight in the eyes. Looking at your learners' faces is also essential to check whether they follow the pace.
Do not forget to look into the camera, not the screen, and avoid showing your forehead part. It will make more sense to your audience to look at you when you look into their eyes.
As only the upper part of your body is visible to your students, it is important to use gestures for prompting and find your own type of gesture to indicate you are pleased with the course of the lesson. My students and I find it particularly entertaining to 'high-five' each other in front of the camera lens. Virtual reactions that some online platforms offer are also a good way to vary the pace of the lesson and to create a positive atmosphere and release stress the new technology may inflict.
It is essential that you smile to show that you are confident with the material and the technology you have selected to use.
Voice & Sound:
It is essential that you test your sound tools and volume before the lesson begins. This is to ensure that your students will not hear a whisper or a deafening sound. Although it is useful to vary the volume, you still need to make sure it does not harm your learners' hearing and it does not distort the quality of your voice or listening material. By varying the pitch and pace of your voice, you will not sound monotonous and your audience will also be entertained. You can even exaggerate a bit and by all means do not hesitate to use your drama skills.
Don't use the built-in microphone of your web cam or laptop. Get an external USB headset or a podcasting mic you may have. Anything else is better than built-in microphones.
It generally depends on your teaching style but there is an element of entertainment during online lessons. The nature of technology itself is more fun and satisfies the expectations for variety in class. It caters for different learner styles and stirs learner curiosity to research more after class.
Obviously, it helps to have clear-cut teaching aims, to know your tools before using them and to be ready to provide solutions to parents or students who encounter difficulties before, during and after lessons.
It is wise to have online notes with the links you will be using and open the links before class. Have your visuals at hand and practise using the Whiteboard, Annotations, Remote Access or Screen sharing tools before hand.
Test your slides or desktop software beforehand and provide interactive activities such as games, puzzles, mazes or scenarios (the list is inexhaustible).
Keep your register at hand to record absentees' names and provide them support and tuition before they return to class.
At the beginning of courses, it so happens that learners may get taunted by the technology they are asked to use for learning. To avoid this, you can involve your students in gaining access to the material on your desktop by simply underlining and circling parts of the material or options on the Whiteboard (Zoom provides reliable settings for that). Start with simple technological tasks in the beginning and leave more demanding ones for later to encourage even your younger learners' participation. To get students to look forward to your lessons, vary the pace and exposure and increase the level of technological difficulty gradually throughout the course.
For online classes, it also helps not to rely on lecturing only but to allow for learner talking time and, as with face-to-face classes, to invite student engagement and feedback throughout the teaching session.
They may also miss old interactions at school so it helps when they are given opportunities to take part in pair or group work (such as in Breakout Rooms in Zoom).
For best results, successful virtual teachers maintain communication by checking in by phone, text or e-mail with each student and their family — most often with those who are struggling with poor network connectivity or no access at all and substandard, if any, devices. They also employ other channels of communication that students are already familiar with, and blend with cloud-based Learning Management Systems for ubiquitous access to the material.
Warmers & Fillers:
To create rapport and help students unwind and release stress, have some warmers and fillers off your cuff. This can help with larger groups as they involve learners in using the technology less and in talking about themselves and their background more. These tasks can be based on accumulated knowledge and have an element of game play with the use of online tools. Many a time, a song, a board game a film clip, photos, crosswords, anagrams, drawing, screen sharing your Virtual world or simply the whiteboard of the platform you use can promote educational aims and help the class bond.
More on this to come in a future post.
(Dedicated to my friend Claire and teacher colleagues and friends who are faced with the new challenge of moving their classes online with little or no advance notice)