Six Simple Ways to Keep Calm and Teach On

Kara Gardner
March 13, 2020

This article was originally published by Kara Gardner.

As a founding member of the academic team for a university that does all of our teaching in a virtual classroom, I have had many inquiries over the past few days. The faculty I have spoken with feel understandably anxious about how to make a successful transition from a brick-and-mortar classroom to one enabled by online technology. Yet despite their trepidation, many show an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to ensure a successful learning experience for their students in an uncertain time. If you take a deep breath and keep an open mind, you will be amazed by the opportunity you have to help your students continue to learn, even as they scatter around the globe. But at first, keep things simple. Common-sense choices can make a world of difference as you and your students adjust to learning in a new modality.

For the transmission of content and information, you can flip your classroom and have the students watch videos or read lecture notes offline. Reserve in-person meetings as opportunities to discuss, interact, and build community. Understand that many students will need some time to acquire the necessary tools (laptops, webcams, etc.) and be sensitive to equity issues. Send your students a message and invite them to let you know if they have any concerns or limitations that might prevent them from accessing your live meetings.

When you choose to move to a live, synchronous environment, here are six tips for making the process more smooth:

  1. As soon as possible, set up a dedicated teaching space. Ideally, put your computer near a router and use an ethernet connection as opposed to wifi. This will help ensure good video and audio quality so your students can see and hear you well. Also think about how you want to present your surroundings. Make sure your face is not obscured by backlighting. Eliminate clutter. As a parent of a teen and a tween, I am not telling you to be Marie Kondo. The camera only sees a small portion of your living space, so make that neat, and don’t worry about the rest. You want to appear organized and professional, but also accessible. I have seen a variety of workspaces on camera, including a map of the world dominating the background, an inspirational quote on a dry erase board that changes weekly, and a display of green plants that feels soothing. Your personalized space gives you an opportunity to present something unique about yourself.
  2. In your first class meeting, acknowledge the challenges your institution is facing. Your students have just been suddenly removed from their residences, their friends, and the activities they love to pursue with very little warning. They will not be mentally prepared to focus on the classroom. Take some time (maybe 5-10 minutes) to talk about this during your first session. Ask them how they are doing and where they are. Let them express some of their concerns and frustration. Then reassure them that, although it will be challenging, they can still salvage one of the most important aspects of their college experience, their learning.
  3. Also in your first session, review the protocols for communication and your classroom expectations. Do you want the students to use chat to ask questions? How would you like them to indicate that they want to make a contribution to the conversation? Will you ask them to collaborate in small groups? If so, when will you do this, and why? Do you expect them to come prepared? If so, what work will you require, and how will you ask them to show they have completed it? Students will feel reassured if you clearly communicate your expectations.
  4. Your first class meeting will require lots of acclimating and you won’t get through much content. That is OK. Setting the classroom culture is a valuable and important exercise in itself. At the end of the first meeting, outline what the students can expect from the next few sessions. A high-level outline will work fine. Mention the topics you will cover, a few of the activities you will pursue, and what they will need to prepare. Leave time for questions.
  5. For the sake of efficiency, prepare one structured class outline and use it for the first few weeks of class. For example, start class with a poll, have a brief discussion, move into small, collaborative breakout groups, and come back together to discuss as a larger group. If you follow the same pattern for a few classes, students will settle into a routine and begin to focus on the learning outcomes.
  6. Cultivate a team approach and a growth mindset. Remember, the live, synchronous environment is for collaboration and shared learning. If a student tries to answer a question and makes an error, when the professor corrects that student in the moment, everyone learns. Encourage all productive contributions, even mistakes.

When I first started working at Minerva, before we had students or faculty, I wondered if we would be able to build strong relationships across geographies. I have found that interactive classes allow faculty to get to know their students, whether they meet in a physical or virtual room. On the rare occasions that our faculty and students do meet in person, I see big smiles, hugs, and exclamations of surprise about height. I see joy at the opportunity to physically express an already emotional connection. When things settle down, you may find you know your students better than you did before you left your campus.

Kara Gardner is the Associate Dean of Partnership Teaching and Learning at Minerva Project

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