Introducing online teaching as a response to COVID-19: Lessons from our experience

A very useful personal reflection on experiences with online lecturing

[Guest post by my co-author Katsuhiko Yoshikawa: This is an English version of my prior post. I normally write this blog in Japanese, but my colleagues in the UK recommended me to write this in English, as the content may be useful for wider audience.]

My institution, Shizenkan University, offers a part-time MBA program to working professionals, and we recently moved all lectures online as an emergency response to the spread of new coronavirus (COVID-19) in Japan. We shut down all classroom teaching and now only deliver classes online since 2nd March. As our program emphasizes student interactions, we needed to carefully (but quickly) examine how to keep the heart of our teaching/learning approaches online.

As I worked intensively with our administrative staff to make this happen over the last two weeks, I like to share how we did it as well as some key lessons from our initial experiences. I hope this post offers some help to colleagues around the world who consider to move their lectures online as a response to the coronavirus emergency. We use the Zoom software as our infrastructure, and this article is based on what we do on the platform.

Setup system infrastructure

The first task we tackled was to set up an online-teaching infrastructure (If your school already has a studio for online teaching, you don’t need to read this section). We were already familiar with Zoom, as we used it for small group meetings. However, we had several fresh challenges to bring our lectures online, as we need to accommodate a much larger number of participants (our typical class size is 40), and have various student interactions such as case discussions, role play, and group discussions. Below, I list some key challenges we identified and how we tackled them.

Ensure the lecturer sees participants’ faces along with the lecture slides

It is always helpful for lecturers to see students’ faces during sessions, as it allows lecturers recognize students’ reactions and adjust course delivery accordingly. Zoom can display up to 49 participants on a screen and allows users to use dual screens. (Unfortunately, the number of students you can actually display depends on your PC’s specification. Your PC’s CPU should be Intel i7 or equivalent to be able to show 49 participants on a display. In my case, my Macbook Pro has Intel Quad Core i5, so I could only display 25 on a window, and when I have a larger number of participants, I need scroll the window to watch all students, which is not very convenient when I deliver a session. To resolve this problem, we use two sets of PC and external monitors to show all participants.)

To be more specific, you can connect an external monitor to your PC, and display thumbnails of participants’ faces on it (use the “Gallery View” mode). This setting allows you to display and control your slides on the PC screen. I recommend you not to use the “Slide Show” mode of your presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint), as the mode makes it difficult to control Zoom on your PC. We just keep the normal edit mode, and share the window with students.

Help lecturers deliver sessions with impact

Our initial experiments revealed that students perceive much less presence of the lecturer, who they only see on a small screen on their device. As a result, they feel like watching a pre-recorded video lecture, despite the fact that it is actually live, making it more difficult to keep their focus and sense of participation. This challenge was also mentioned in a recent webinar on online teaching by Harvard Business Publishing (by the way, they have some useful resources for online teaching). Its lecturer emphasized it is important for lecturers to keep higher energy levels and directly talk to the camera to keep students’ attention during online lectures. He also recommended to deliver online lectures standing up, rather than sitting down on a chair. Our experiments support his recommendations – lecturers appear more impactful online when they stand up, talk to the camera, and use larger gestures.

Another advantage of a stand-up position is that lecturers can use whiteboard normally as they do in classrooms. This is particularly helpful in delivering cases online. Although Zoom offers an online whiteboard function, we found it was not flexible enough for us and decided to use a physical white board. This setting allows the lecturer talk to the camera, while checking students’ reactions and the current slide from time to time. When we deliver a case session, a support staff member adjusts the angle of the camera as lecturer writes on the wall and moves around.

In terms of system setup for students, we conducted guidance sessions for students prior to the first online lecture. This was done on Zoom, and we sent them various online tutorials that the company offers in advance. The purpose is to let students familiarize themselves with the platform and to instruct key functions, such as Side-by-Side view (students see slides and lecturer side-by-side on their window) and breakout sessions (I will come back to this shortly).

Student-lecturer interactions

An online teaching environment creates some hurdles for student-lecturer interactions during the sessions. First, we normally need to ask students to mute their microphone during the session, as microphones can catch background noises, which makes the lecturer’s voices less audible. Second, even if you display all students’ faces, it is still challenging for a lecturer to visually notice signs that students want to say something. These hurdles mean that lecturers need to more systematically (rather than naturally) organize interactions. Fortunately, Zoom offers various ways to deal with this, and I share some approaches we took in thir respect.

First, if you remember students’ faces and names, you can ask students to raise their hand before the camera when they want to say something. This is particularly useful if the class size is small and you have a big screen.

Alternatively, you may ask students to use the “Raise Hand” function on Zoom, which appears on its “participants list” screen. Once a student clicks the “Raise Hand” button, the student’s name moves up to the top of the list with a small icon of a hand. This allows you identify who raised their hands (by the way, don’t forget to ask students to use their real names as a handle name on Zoom). This can be used in many ways – students may just raise their hands when they want to say something; you might throw a question (e.g. “Who agrees with this proposal?) and ask students to “raise hand” if they agree. Then, you can choose one from those who “raise” hands to give his/her opinion. This was extremely useful when I delivered a case. 

Third, you can also take a “poll” on Zoom. You need to setup polling questions (single or multiple choices) on Zoom’s meeting setting before your session starts. However, if you set up questions properly, it is very easy to use them during a session. Once you select to take a poll on your PC, a polling window pops up on students’ screen, and you can immediately see the results on your screen and share them with students. Although this requires advance planning, a poll invites everyone to participate and thus helps you keep students’ attention.

Finally, you may also use “chat” window for small chats. Students can write whatever comes up in their mind during the lecture, and you can respond to them whenever appropriate. I like to keep this as a side channel, as I cannot always pay attention to everything. 

Student-student interactions

In classroom, we often ask students discuss something among themselves. The “breakout” sessions function on Zoom enables us to do this online. This function virtually opens smaller discussion rooms and allocates students into these small “rooms” to allow them to discuss in group, trio, or pair.

To use this function, you first need to enable this function on Zoom, as it’s disabled in default setting. Again, this is also easy to use – what you need to do is to identify the number of breakout rooms. Then the system can automatically allocate students into them. You may want to manually allocate them, and of course, you can do so. However, it is a bit complicated to do so during a lecture, so I recommend you to ask a support staff to deal with it while you giving lecture to students (again, advance planning and coordination is key here!).

One shortcoming of this tool is that you cannot see students during breakout sessions. However, students can call help if they need you during the breakout discussion. You may set a certain duration for a breakout, or you can manually close the breakout rooms (students will see “this breakout session will close in 60 sec” when you ask Zoom to close the breakout session).

Design and delivery

Finally, I would like to share some lessons we learned from our initial experiences regarding instructional design and delivery. As I mentioned earlier, it seems more difficult for students to keep their attention during online sessions. Hence, we try to have more interactive elements in a session than we normally do. According to the webinar by Harvard Business Publishing, it is desirable to have some sort of interaction with students every 15 minutes. There are several ways to do this.

First, one may try to insert small interactions with students here and there, including throwing in a question, taking a poll, group discussions, role play (yes, I found this works without much problem!) etc. As I noted earlier, Zoom offers various functions to support this, and you can plan ahead to use them smoothly.

Second, cold calls are also useful to keep participants alert. One of our student recommended this to me after participating in one online session, telling his mind tended to slip away during the lecture. It seems more important for lecturers to actively invite students to participate, as we found even normally very active students tend to become quiet in online sessions. This is understandable, as saying something online involves more actions than in classroom (e.g. click “raise hand” button on Zoom, unmute microphone…) If your students are not familiar with cold calls, you may want to warn students in advance. I recommend you to print out a copy of student list and keep track of those who say something so that you can cold-call those who remain quiet.

Third, as I mentioned earlier keep your energy levels high. You should look at the camera rather than students’ faces displayed on screen. We found this is rather challenging, as we unconsciously look at students’ faces when we want to talk to them, but if you do so, students will see your head looking down to somewhere else. We also need to be aware of the camera angle, so that students can see your gesture and body language. 

Keep it simple

Finally, I recommend you to gradually step up your approach. We are fortunate to have enough support staff to deal with technology side, but this is not always the case in bigger universities. I think it is always safer to keep it simple when you start. Test-runs also help, as you can identify potential glitches in advance. 

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