7 More Strategies to Optimize Online Classrooms

Part II: Best practices for being an interesting and effective online teacher.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

This post is a continuation of the first nine strategies introduced in Part I for optimizing virtual/distance/online classrooms. 

Lesson #10: Be infinitely flexible with grading and reduce their uncertainty. I mentioned that my revised curriculum assignments are optional and can replace poorer grades prior to the virus slopfest. What can you do to explicitly inform students that the workload will drop significantly?

Lesson #11: Be infinitely flexible with live and recorded classes. I have live classes for students who crave the routine of 10:30 a.m. classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Do everything you can to have live, synchronous learning experiences, even if only two students show up. You know the value of live experiences. It’s why we pay 10 times the price for a live concert over recorded music. It’s why viewing a recorded sporting event is not as enjoyable. The reason is you know nothing incredible happened. When live, anything can happen. Give a live option. Gently nudge students to choose the live option. Don’t judge them if they cannot be there for the live option. To show non-judgment for students who cannot make class, send recordings immediately after the class is over. I have an online forum so those wanting/needing asynchronous classes can still ask questions and participate in discussions. There is no reason that discussions should end artificially because a class session reached its time allotment.

Lesson #12: Obliterate mental health stigmas. There is no normal response to adversity. Honor individual differences. You lose your pet goldfish, my grandmother dies. Who is to say your trauma is any easier or harder than mine? This is a good place for personal disclosures. But don’t get crazy. Nobody wants to know about how COVID-19 reactivated your hemorrhoids. Give a concrete, playful example of an acceptable and questionable personal disclosure. Remember that things are abnormal. You are more than a teacher. You are a secure base for students to come to for a sense of equanimity. That being said, be cognizant of resources to give if services require a mental health professional (this includes social workers when there is an intuition of neglect or abuse or suicidal thoughts). For some resources available in your state, see here and here.

Lesson #13: Be concrete about how you can and will help your students. For instance, I told them that if they have other professors who are being rigid (as if nothing changed), I will help them craft emails for maximal persuasiveness in a request for leniency and flexibility. This is the time to do your mitzvah and redeem yourself for a lifetime of misdeeds. Your students need you. And there is plenty of scientific research finding that one of the best antidotes for feeling depressed is helping other people. Forget altruism, just be generous with your time and energy.

Lesson #14: Remind yourself and teach your students about the steps of creating routines. One of the most important lessons I taught my students in my virtual well-being is to reflect on tiny behaviors to initiate new routines (as opposed to the trend of hairy audacious hypomanic goals). If you rarely exercised, start with waking up and after brushing your teeth, complete two push-ups. If you don’t floss, start by flossing a single tooth every other day. If you don’t eat healthy, start by biting a banana before leaving the house. Start with easy wins and structure. See the work of BJ Fogg.

Lesson #15: Self-care is essential. I am an extraverted guy and I regularly take naps after three hours of teaching virtual classes and attending virtual meetings. I am building up my social cardiovascular system again. You may or may not feel the same way. If you do, take care of yourself. Make the investment. It will pay off when you don’t have sufficient time and energy.

Lesson #16: Stop lecturing so much. I spent several hours figuring out how to teach virtual classes that don’t suck. That is, trying not to be the teacher/professor who speaks the entire class with an occasional question to break up the monotony. I have been using Webex as my platform but what I am going to recommend can be used with Zoom and other online platforms.

  • You can set up breakout sessions. Small groups of students can reflect or do an exercise and then rejoin. You can ask students to reflect on an issue and discuss it in small groups and then rejoin. For those interested, this single seven-minute YouTube video did the job in training me on a Webex feature.
  • I send students forms ahead of time for group activities (this is something they asked me for). Sometimes it’s a hypothetical scenario or two. Sometimes it’s a set of provocative questions. Sometimes it’s an instruction manual. Before I send them to breakout rooms, I walk them through everything and have them ask questions. Having even one breakout session for a class is transformative. They just don’t need you there as much as you think.
  • They get to work with the content. They get to socialize (!) with their peers.
  • Before each class, I set the algorithm from a dropdown menu to create random groups of three students each time I do a breakout. I like to randomize who is in what breakout room for students to be surprised and hone social skills with lesser-known characters (which is what grade school and college are for, among other things). If it ends up being that there is an uneven amount of students, I will join that student for the breakout and do the activity with them.
  • In case you are wondering, you can enter and leave each breakout room just to ensure it is going well and there are any questions. You can also broadcast a message that goes to each breakout session at the same time. And you can abruptly end the breakouts or give them a timer and when it ends, everyone automatically returns to the larger class.
  • The breakout sessions have virtual whiteboards that can be shared with the larger group afterward if you want to do a deeper dive in the aftermath.
  • My students love it and wish other professors did the same. So do it.

But we are not done yet. The final set of six strategies (plus a few bonus tactics) can be found in Part III.