Quick Emergency Checklist for Synchronous Online Teaching

Written with John Kennedy, IT Online student and coordinator of UTK’s Office of Student Media.

This post was an emergency post for COVID-19 transition to online learning. It’s kept as a tool for anyone making a sudden transition to synchronous learning. The 5-minute illustration to the right identifies the blog post. Illustrations don’t need to take time. They need to convey meaning, fast. I created the image created quickly with this tool. It was resized in MS Paint.

As of March 20th, UT Knoxville is suddenly moving all courses to a synchronous video conference format. Here are some useful tips that won’t take long to read.

Before you start…

  • Don’t panic.
  • Restart your router.  Pushing the power button and unplug it. Wait 20 second. Plug it back in. 99% of lag problems are solved by simply restarting the router because it clears out lots of temp files clogging your connection.
  • Do a speed test. This will tell you if you have enough bandwidth to handle video conferences such as ZOOM. Ookla is the one I use. I find connection less than 10 mbps can get choppy in video conferences.
  • Install those updates. Update requests can pop-up during teaching, or can inhibit software from working with peripherals like your camera or microphone. Simply starting up a video session on your own can clue you into features that might require a system re-boot to get moving. Testing out the settings or preferences is far easier when you’ve got time before class than when you have students waiting or class is starting in a few moments.

After you get going…

  • Don’t panic.
  • Set expectations in the first session. The first one or two classes might have some technical hiccups on both the teacher and student end. Use this time to iron out any difficulties, but more importantly, negotiating clear expectations for your students and yourself reduces stress and the types of miscommunication that can sour the learning experience. The class can help decide communication, timeliness, and ground rules and gain ownership and buy-in in the process.
  • Keep text communication short, to the point, and positive. 🙂 Remember, the default tone of electronic written communication is always negative. Your witty sarcasm does not carry over. The simpler, the better. Emojis work wonders.
  • Visuals help. Learners have difficulty using writing to communicate complicated things, but they are good at online play. A visual meme that captures course content goes a long way. Visuals don’t need to take time to develop to be helpful.
  • Describe what you’re doing when you teach. For example, “I am opening a browser to share the website that contains the syllabus I want to show you.” This lets learners know that you’re in the process of teaching and also provides vocabulary they may need. Video conference silence is louder than silence in a classroom setting because learners cannot see what you are doing. Describing what you are doing online is also difficult, and you will struggle a little at first. However, it is far more difficult for your learners to describe what they did when x or y went wrong, but they need that skill to explain to you where things went wrong. This practice is both vocabulary building and modeling.
  • Feature fatigue is real. The use of too many digital features can confuse learners. Keep tech use to a comfortable variety in order to move the focus of the interaction off the tool and onto learning the content. Too many tools is exhausting.
  • Presence is everything. Most tech failures can be overcome simply by being there. Being there means: answering email quickly, even if it says, “I got your mail; your question is not easily answered in text, please ask this is our live session.” Being there means: Grading when you said you would grade. Being there is checking for understanding in live sessions when you see faces that express confusion.
  • Pick the right tool for the job. Skill in online teaching is using tools in coordination; skill in online teaching is not knowing all the features of a given digital tool. Use the right tool for the job it will feel look easy.
  • Appreciate a new perspective on your learners. Some students will perform more comfortably in online settings than in face to face settings. Some will find it more challenging because the skills that made them stand out before do not carry over. Be prepared to recognize that with the media change, will come a perspective change, both for you and for your learners.

After you have been teaching synchronously online a while….

  • Don’t panic.
  • Take breaks. Taking breaks every hour will be better on your eyes, and that goes for live sessions as well. Since your screen doesn’t move, your depth perception weakens as you teach for months online. Walks are good for eyes as well as legs.
  • Consider an adjustable / standing desk. Sitting introduces all sorts of health issues.
  • Solicit the questions you should be asking but are not. By asking learners what you should be asking them, you open a number of options to improve your teaching, give yourself insight into how they experience your work, and most importantly, demonstrate that you are invested in their experience. Many of my advancements in teaching, both in tech choices and cognitive strategies, came from learner suggestions, or a discussion with learners about ways I might improve a particular lesson or approach. Learners often appreciate simply being asked, suggesting that their opinions matter.
  • Create a frequently ask questions (FAQ) area. Similar questions will be asked, and your desire to answer them in individual emails will decrease with time. Also, many students will shy away to ask questions in a larger group settings, but will ask plenty in emails. Create a central repository for questions and answers and continue to add to it with time. By broadcasting your answer prior to entering it on your FAQ, you credit the student who asked the question and validate their participation without forcing a social interaction upon those who might prefer not step forward.

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