March 12, 2020, the day many of us first learned that our on-campus classes would need to be transitioned to online for the two weeks following Spring Break (which would eventually become the rest of the semester). Having taught online for the last 6 years in our Master’s of Science in Data Science (MSDS) program here at SMU, I was pretty confident that I could easily and effectively transition my undergraduate statistics class of 120 students from our lecture hall to Zoom. While I was able to use many of the techniques I had employed for MSDS classes, I vastly underestimated the differences between the two and the new challenges that an undergraduate class of that size would represent. Below is a summary of the challenges that arose and how they were addressed. It wasn’t easy; although in the end, the effort was very fulfilling and resulted in what I feel was one of the most successful statistics classes I have ever taught!
Challenge 1: Humanization
Many years ago, while teaching at my old high-school, a senior teacher once told me, “They will never know how much you know until they know how much you care.” While teaching on campus, we can move throughout the classroom, make eye contact with specific students, use body language and voice inflection (and even stand up on desks!) to convey ideas and show students how passionate we are about our subject and how equally passionate we are about sharing that experience and knowledge with them. We can use that 3-dimensional space to let the class know that we are a team, that we are all in this together, indeed, to let them know how much we care.
I have heard and read over the past few years and much more in the past few weeks that we should not be trying to simply mimic what we do in the classroom. While I understand the spirit of the statement, I think it is too broad and doesn’t take into account what each teacher is actually doing in the classroom. If you are doing something that you have found to be very effective in the classroom, why not try and find a way to do something similar in your “online classroom?”
A very strait forward example of this is the use of a white board. I teach a statistics class which can be very “mathy” at times and in those times, I will often demonstrate calculations or derive formulas step by step on the white board. The online analog of this is of course the digital white board which I think is an amazing tool that has been successfully employed by many of the most experienced online professors. However, for me, I prefer and have found simply turning the camera to my own physical white board is a very effective tool. In addition to the fact that my handwriting is much better and there is no lag between my writing when it is viewed on the screen, the use of a physical whiteboard allows for the use of the all-important body language. This can be done full body where the use of arm and hand gestures are visible or I can zoom in on the board where I can occasionally peak my head in and make eye contact with the students to drive home important concepts in real time. (This is also an example of how the online delivery can enhance what can be done in the physical classroom: here I can make eye contact with everyone in the online classroom simultaneously!) If you are a bit skeptical about this technique, I was too! A few years ago, I was using the digital white board and the physical white board. After polling my classes that semester, every student indicated that they could see the physical white board just as well while the vast majority commented that it made them feel more like they were actually right there in the physical classroom … thus adding to the humanity of our classroom!
Another quick example is music! Yes music! In my on-campus classes, I like to arrive early and get some tunes playing as students roll in and get ready for class. Sometimes I play some of my favorites (usually 80s music) and sometimes I take requests. For me, I think it makes some students feel less anxious before studying a subject that may feel anxious about, it helps build repore between myself and the students, and since I play it before every class, turning off the music a great way to signal the beginning class. This fun technique can easily be performed in the online classroom as well … it is actually easier! Simply que up the song you would like to play (I usually use YouTube), play the song over your computer’s speakers and make sure your mic is on in your online classroom. That’s it, low tech, high impact!
Finally, I will underline the obvious yet critical ingredient in humanizing any classroom: knowing each student by name … and conversing with them by name in class, office hours, etc. I know this is more challenging in classes of 50 to 100 or even more students; however, this is another place where the online tools make this daunting task much easier. Zoom, and other video conferencing software, have the student’s names on the screen! I can’t over emphasize how important this has been in my own teaching … it is a feedback loop. The more I am comfortable with the student’s names, the more I confidently call on them, which in turn motivates them to engage more which in turn fires me up to call on more students. This seems to always lead to learning more about each student as an individual which helps to diversify instruction and again, make the class more personal, more human.
Challenge 2: Pedagogy / Delivery
No doubt we are all familiar with the Sage on the Stage versus the Guide on the Side adages. Even on-campus, we may have been encouraged to move away from the traditional lecture delivery (Sage on the Stage) and design classes that foster more self-discovery, peer interaction and critical thinking with occasional direction given by the professor (Guide on the Side). This debate / contrast becomes even more center state when thinking about conducting classes online.
Before I continue, I want to reiterate that I believe the most important ingredient is that the student knows that their professor cares about their education and about them as an individual. Similar to an athlete who will “play for their coach”, if a student believes that their professor is invested in them the will go the extra mile to not the their professor down. I believe that the choice of the best delivery depends on the teacher; of course, one size does not fit all. To this end, while I have found that I tend to be more of the Sage on the Stage on campus, for me, the “flipped” or “reverse” classroom is my preferred strategy when it comes to online teaching and learning.
In short, the “flipped” classroom is one in which the “lecture” has been prerecorded and can be consumed asynchronously by each student before class, at the time of their choosing and at their own pace. This content often comes in the form of video recorded lectures, voice-over PowerPoint type presentations and / or other prerecorded or even live broadcast content available over the internet (Ted Talks, political speeches, etc.). The idea is that the student internalizes this material before class so that class time can be used to help the student synthesis (often in groups) this new information with previously learned material and personal experience through practice and practical application. I liken it to a puzzle in which the students build the pieces of the puzzle outside of class and then class time is used to work to put these pieces together to see how they form the bigger picture.
With respect to the asynchronous portion, recently, the “voice-over PowerPoint” has received some bad press (Universities’ move online ‘must be done the right way’). However, like any other tool, I believe if used with creativity and with a little TLC, they have the potential to be a very useful and engaging component of the overall online delivery. Some tips on the “TLC” include keeping them digestible (5 – 10 min in length), including your video picture in picture (for body language and facial expression), and getting creative with location (example: you can broadcast live from a conference, city hall, or White Rock lake!). In my most recent class, my asynchronous material consisted of about 75% voice over PowerPoint, and 25% other internet recourses (articles, podcasts, online simulators, etc).
An additional component of the asynchronous material is the For Class Assignment (FCA). After completing the asynchronous activities, the student is directed to practice the methods and begin to synthesis the information covered in the video content through the use of the FCA. The FCA may be a few practice problems and or a
While the delivery of the asynchronous material is similar if not identical when implementing the flipped classroom online versus on campus, the execution of the in class / synthesis phase is considerable different. I have tried this method a few times in on-campus classes with varied success. I have tried it in a graduate, 80-minute class of 40 as well as an undergraduate, 50-minute class of 90. The former was much more successful than the latter. My post-mortem concluded with the finding that since it takes time and space to organize the students (and sometimes their desks) the “flipped” classroom was much more effective with smaller classes and longer class times. The good news is, that both of these factors are mitigated when implementing the flipped classroom online!
Introduce, the Breakout Room!