During the spring 2020 semester, when thousands of face-to-face classes went virtual on short notice, some professors dumped lecture notes on educational software and called it a day. Others recorded lectures asynchronously, uploaded them on YouTube, and left it at that.
Many instructors already had websites with posted lectures that students could visit 24/7. Initially, department chairs and deans encouraged students to access these sites as some students lacked home computers with broadband internet and requisite software. It was enough at the time.
Because of the abrupt transition in March, traditional rules for students and faculty also were relaxed, including attendance, proctored exams and even grades, with pass-fail options available.
It was supposed to be temporary.
Then the pandemic in the United States worsened.
By mid-August, universities planning to hold face-to-face classes reversed that decision. Some, including Iowa State University, where I teach media ethics, relegated large classes to the Internet and smaller ones to classrooms with meticulous social distancing regulations.
Students were asked to practice safety precautions after hours and off-campus. It was the new honor code.
Many students violated it, especially on 801 Day (Aug. 1) in Ames, an annual citywide party on the Saturday before school starts.
This video went viral. Then COVID-19 did here.
Ames became the top national hotspot in early September. Iowa State reversed course again. In an Aug. 31 memo, faculty were informed that no one would be forced to teach in-person. Professors had the option to “modify a course’s delivery mode (in-person, hybrid, online or arranged).”
Such reversals safeguard employees and students. But they also often create havoc as professors trade face masks and sanitizers for help webinars and IT support.
Vaccines most likely will not be widely available until late spring or summer next year, according to top infectious disease specialists. That means the spring 2021 semester will look a lot like 2020.
Your online classes do not have to, however, if you prepare for the inevitable.
IT and teaching excellence experts typically promote videoconferencing via Zoom or WebEx by emphasizing such features as break-out rooms, chat and interactive tools.
Break-out rooms may require proctors; chat, moderators; and polling, programming. Instructors spend time mastering these components often at the expense of lesson plans. Many soon realize that these techniques sometimes transform professorial brilliance into homogenous mediocrity.
Instead of a tech model, consider a broadcast one with teacher as producer. Broadcast programming has three components: pre-production, production and post-production. Each is meant to enhance the viewer experience. Hence, engagement.
The biggest obstacle to online teaching is lack of a script (i.e. class website). Educational software such as Canvas or Blackboard can help build one. Another option is an interactive blog.
Your lectures and handouts probably are stored on Word or other document software. These are your production notes. Online content must appeal to the eye and ear. Your job is to illustrate and transform text using YouTube and other videos, podcasts, audio, clickable photos, links, graphs, PDFs, and PowerPoint and other downloads.
As you create that script, think about the student experience and provide them with as much information and data as possible.
The era of memorization has ended. Post your lectures with proper attribution and give students total access to your scholarship and acumen.
One legal consideration: If you post student material or slides on your public website, make sure that you have permission to do so because of FERPA considerations. For instance, I have written permission from students to share their ethics portfolios and select exercises.
Many professors already have web, book and research sites. For them, creating a script will be relatively easy. If you lack a site, invest in the effort. Once created, your website becomes an indispensable classroom resource. You can update it regularly and provide students with the latest information.
Each posted lecture should be timed to fulfill as many credit hours as the class offers. In other words, about 50 minutes per credit hour.
That may sound like a lot. But not when you factor time spent discussing concepts during live sessions, clarifying and interpreting data and/or encouraging student interactions.
Producers do not create content for the host; they do so for the audience. That requires you to view your material through the eyes of your students. What concepts will need explanation? What videos should be summarized so that you show only pertinent parts without wasting class time? What material might be sensitive, such as coverage of racism, requiring a trigger warning?
Anticipate the role students play in your session. Do you intend to call on them? If so, how will you do that? Will you allow them to interrupt your narration? Or will you use the chat function and monitor that at set intervals?
Engagement is not a screen full of students in questionable attire with video cameras on and squeaking microphones. That’s a reality show. Make sure your settings mute mic and camera when students enter the online session.
Provide instructions in an email announcement or a Zoom or WebEx invitation on how you intend to run your class.
Before class, print out your lecture and make notes. For instance, after you explicate a graph, you may need to cut away from that to your face and voice explaining what the data mean.
You can even open a Zoom or WebEx session without any participants and record your lecture as a trial run. View the performance critically. The point is to know the material without worrying about the technology. You’re the talent, literally and figuratively.
Zoom and WebEx come with bells and whistles from annotations to polls. Use them if you wish. However, the key to a good broadcast only involves two pivotal views: you and the content. You need to know when to cut away from material and back to you at the digital lectern. As such, your main functions are “share screen” and “stop share.”
Test your microphone and video camera before each session. Make sure you enable computer sound, too, so that students can hear video or multimedia. Once you do this, sign off until the start of class by turning off your mic and camera.
Start your session and send an invitation to your class.
Now look at your computer screen. You may end up sharing your desktop as you toggle back and forth, so inspect icons there, especially if you have teen children. Do you really want students to think you play “Grand Theft Auto?”
What programs do you have open? Facebook? CNN? Fox? Outlook? Close all but essential ones. Open any software referred to in your script, such as a PowerPoint, so you can go there on cue.
Broadcast studios have “On Air” red lights to warn against intrusions. If you share your household with others, tape a sign in your office stating, “Do Not Disturb.” Unhook your landlines and put your mobile phones on silent.
As you approach class time, unmute your mic and turn on video. Before you begin, hit the record button.
Make sure to leave time at pre-planned intervals or at the end of your session for any chat questions that may have arisen. Close with a thank-you, reminder or preview of the next session.
As soon as you sign off, send an email thanking students for their attendance with a short summary of what you covered. Invite them to provide feedback on the material so you can address that in the next session or during online office hours. This is more instructive than use of any “thumbs-up/down” tab or polling feature as it provides the occasion for individual engagement.
Discussion boards on Canvas and Blackboard offer continuous interaction. I post articles and interact daily with students using this feature, offering modest extra credit for students to respond to my and others’ research in ethics. Our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching shared my recommendations about this feature.
Synchronous engagement requires attendance. Make sure that your students sign in via their official university email IDs to guard against uninvited entities disrupting your session.
If you recorded live sessions, you might not want to share those immediately. Students invariably will come to rely on those, paying less attention and multitasking during class time. They might even miss more sessions knowing they can always access recordings on demand.
To mitigate against that, you can share recordings a week or two before any test or exam. Remember, you have a script (your website) so students have access to content. If they ask—“Did I miss anything important?”—direct them to the URL and ask them to contact you later with any questions.
Save recordings in a folder. You can upload them to your educational software and also create an interactive page for each lecture and video. Students not only see the recorded session but now can respond more fully with their own observations. You also might clue students here about important concepts and give them opportunities to ask questions in advance of any examination.
Like it or not, you have ratings. They’re not Nielsen. They’re student evaluations. These are more important than ever as institutions try to maintain enrollments during economic downturns caused by COVID-19.
You’re working harder than ever using these technologies. A 2017 study showed that online teachers needed 10 hours of preparation for a one-hour class compared with eight hours for a face-to-face class.
Add to this the stress of teaching at home during a pandemic, and you might wonder why you should put in the extra effort.
Consider the student viewpoint. According to recent reports, they are unhappy paying resident tuition in return for remote learning. Many of these digital natives now believe face-to-face instruction fosters greater engagement. They are starved for it because of social isolation rules.
Don’t undersell engagement. If we lose the audience, we lose enrollment, and that means more furloughs, firings and pay cuts.
Heeding production techniques puts the focus on the student in real and virtual time. They get thrice the amount with you via websites, live sessions and recordings, in addition to any other digital interaction.
This still may not be as effective as face-to-face instruction, but efforts will come close.
The pandemic has revamped higher education and will likely continue to do so after we are vaccinated against the virus. Anticipate more online classes for cost-saving, if nothing else.
Those who make the transition now will be better prepared for changes in the future. Call it job security.
Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living Media Ethics (Routledge/ Taylor & Francis). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.