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With Everyone On Coronavirus Lockdown, Here are Lessons From 5 Years of Online Classes

So, your school, work, etc. is sending everyone in to quarantine and you’re being asked to conduct classes online. Before you set off into the world of online teaching, let me give you some pointers on teaching a class entirely online for those of you who’ve never had to do that before.

As a software trainer for 5 years, I have spent plenty of time sitting at a computer talking to, seemingly, no one, teaching them how to navigate eDiscovery tools and workflows, sometimes in classes that covered multiple days. Along the way, I learned a thing or two.

In no particular order:

1. Learn the Tool

Whether you’ve been given Webex, Zoom, or some other online tool to use for your classes, now is the time to get in and learn how to use it. Before the students log in, make sure you’re comfortable with how to share your screen, check that your microphone is working, and that you can bring up any other materials you may need during the course of the class. If you’re using video, now is also the time to figure out how to make sure the webcam is showing up properly, and that you are familiar enough with the interface to go through the lesson while also arranging the windows so that you can see if a student types a question into the chat function, or “raises and hand” to ask a question. It’s also a really good time to familiarize yourself with how you can mute students if needed, because inevitably someone will forget and you’ll be hearing their little sibling running around the house screaming because they’re going stir crazy in the background. The quicker you can get familiar with the interface, the easier it will be to focus on the class materials instead of the technology, and the more you’ll be able to assist students who may be attending classes online for the first time. Also, remember to mute yourself too when necessary. If students are working on an exercise, for example, they don’t need to hear you chugging down some coffee and a biscuit. Be mindful of the fact that your headset is feeding sound directly into their ears.

2. Speaking of Video…

Check the location of your webcam. Are people going to be looking up your nose? Might be time to make an adjustment on that. Also, don’t forget lighting, and backgrounds. Poorly lit rooms will be a distraction, as will busy walls behind you. Keep it well-lit, simple, and straight forward. Also, consider Bluetooth for your headset, so that you can actually move away from the desk without ripping your headset off. (It happens..)

3. Embrace Silence.

Let’s be honest, one of the strangest adjustments you will have to make when teaching online will be to getting no immediate feedback. That little joke you’ve told a hundred times when teaching this particular subject over the years that always gets a chuckle from your students? It might still get that chuckle, but everyone will be muted and you’ll hear nothing. Get used to it, but also, ignore it. Tell the joke anyway. If it has some value in the classroom, it still has that value online. It might even have more as a way to keep things interesting when students attentions may be tempted to wander off. Yes it feels weird to make a joke when you hear no laughter. Do it anyway. And, in this one case, go ahead and laugh at your own jokes too so that you can maintain the conversational feel to your presentation. (Just not too much..)

4. Speak clearly and purposefully. 

Obviously, if you’re in a teaching or training profession, you know enough to speak clearly, and loudly enough so everyone can hear you. Just because your brain is telling you that you are in a small office, do not allow it to convince you not to speak as though you are in the lecture hall. When listening to a lecture online, your students will naturally start to get bored, and possibly even sleepy. Letting your voice trail off, or become monotone will make it worse. Keep up the energy despite the fact that you are sitting in a room alone. Practice it. Speak to no one while maintaining an energetic tone as if you could see 50 people in the audience. With bandwidth always being a concern, the more purposeful your speech is, the less likely a quick little blip in the audio is going to completely lose anyone. Also, make sure you visuals are clear and purposeful as well. In the classroom, if your PowerPoint sucks, the students can at least look at you instead. Online, they may only see the PowerPoint, and all that text on their screens! 😉

5. Manage your computer

For the love of God, when doing a screen share or presenting using your computer screen online, turn off anything that might popup in the middle of class. Again, if you use your laptop to present in class, you should already be familiar with this, but if you don’t normally do that, make sure while the class is watching your screen they are not seeing popup notifications for your emails, IM, or news apps. Shut them down for now. They are an unnecessary distraction to the student, and to you. Also, if you’re using multiple screens and are savvy enough to have all those programs running on the non-shared screen, turn them off anyway. That new email or other notification is designed to get your attention when your attention should be on teaching your class.

6. Figure out how interaction will work

I don’t care how many times you tell them to feel free to ask questions or that you want the class to be interactive, when students are online and can’t see the other students, they will absolutely interact much less. There are myriad reasons for it, from the extra steps involved  in turning off mute in order to speak, the desire to not hear our own voice online, the mystery of who else may be listening or not, but there’s just something about online classes that bring out the selective mutism in all of us. All the more reason to make ample use of the chat, survey, and Q & A tools that may be built into the platform you are using. The ones you got familiar with way back in step 1, right?

All in all, online classes can be a vital tool in your toolbox. Whether it’s for dealing with a temporary shutdown of a university, or training a geographically diverse group of students inexpensively, these kinds of classes are not going to go away. They bring some unique opportunities for learning, but they also bring some unique challenges as well. It is different, but with some practice, and some planning, you can be successful.

Now it’s your turn. All those folks who’ve been doing webinars and online training for years, what’s your recommendation for someone being thrust into this position in the next few weeks?

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