Thursday, April 30, 2020

How to Transition to Online Teaching: Ten Tips

A few months ago, Zoom was foreign to me and I rarely used Skype and FaceTime. Virtual teaching was something I’d occasionally thought about but dismissed it as too cumbersome or impersonal.  Really, I’m a technophobe. Then the pandemic hit and virtual classrooms sprung up everywhere. The only way to teach was online.
This term I’m teaching writing at the University of Utah’s Osher Lifelong Learning Program (for adults over 50). Part of my course, “Re-Imagining Your Life: A Creative Aging Writing Workshop,” stresses the importance of stepping out of our comfort zones in order to grow.  So back in March, when the program director asked if I’d be willing to learn Zoom and teach online, I jumped at the chance. I realized this was the moment to expand my technology comfort zone. The first week I muddled through as we experienced a few technological difficulties, but I encouraged the students (most of whom were also new to online learning) to re-frame this as a group adventure. I’m almost finished with the six-week course, and through trial and error, I’ve quickly learned a few things along the way to help make my online classroom run smoothly. Here are my ten tips:
1.     Lay out the ground rules upfront – Spend a few minutes in the first class session explaining how your online platform works, the mute feature, how to ask questions, taking breaks, if any, etc.  

2.     Pace the instructional material – The tendency may be to pack in a lot of information but pare down what you normally cover in an in-person class. With online learning, it’s a bit more of a strain to take in a lot information at once. Email your students to follow-up with any quotes, handouts and references mentioned during class.

3.     Speak in a conversational tone – Be aware of your pacing and make sure you speak clearly and not too quickly.  

4.     Use visuals – Use images, PowerPoint or Word docs to complement what you are saying. Because we all have different learning styles (auditory, visual, kinesthetic), slides or documents with quotes, short passages or images help visual learners to read along. Kinesthetic learners can take notes on what they hear and see. To mix it up, Zoom has a whiteboard feature which is easy to use with a little practice.

5.     Ask for help – Enlist a TA or student to monitor the chat feature and aggregate the questions while you focus on the teaching.

6.     Practice, practice, practice — Do a few sessions with yourself or someone else to test out your mic and camera. Very often, the camera isn’t at eye level so you may need to prop up your computer or your chair to make sure that you’re gazing straight ahead.

7.     Scan the “room” – It’s much harder online than in person to get a sense if students are engaged.  Try to scan the students’ faces to see if you’re holding their interest. If need be, call on people!  This way you’ll get more active participation which, in turn, will make your class more interesting.

8.     Silence is Golden – Make sure your phones, computer calendar and event notifications are turned off (I learned this the hard way).  Also, mute the students while you’re talking to prevent background noise. You’d be surprised what gets picked up: radios, texts, cell phones, kids crying, dogs barking. You get the idea.  Use the “raise hand” feature (or have the students raise their hands) to unmute.

9.     Close your door— Unless you want your cat jumping up onto the keyboard, your dog lunging onto your lap, or your little ones barging in, make sure your door is closed.

10.  Create the right atmosphere – the background to your image on screen shouldn’t be too distracting, and neither should your clothes. For this, I’ll defer to the experts:  How to Look Your Best on a Webcam. For a master class on lighting check out: How to Look Good on Camera According to Tom Ford.  Here’s some common sense information on how to dress and how to create your web environment:  How to Look Fresh and Professional in Videoconferences and Web Meetings.
Go easy on yourself!  We’re all adapting to a new “normal” and much of your success with teaching online is remaining flexible. I’ve really enjoyed teaching virtually and am thrilled that I’ve had the opportunity to nudge my students and myself out of our comfort zones. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m slated to teach my next online course starting mid-May. I can’t wait!

Guest blog author Debbie Leaman’s writing, including personal essays, has appeared in numerous local, national, and international magazines and on a variety of websites. She teaches various writing courses including “Writing Through Grief,” “Writing as a Tool to Cope with Anxiety” and “Re-Imaging Your Life: Creative Aging.”  Read more at: and