curriculum design

Active Learning in the Online Classroom

With the arrival of the pandemic, my day job as the Academic Manager at SAE Institute Paris has essentially transformed into one of my part-time jobs, online teaching. While I’ve already posted about the administrative side of this shift a few weeks ago (feel free to read it here), I figured that another post about actual pedagogical strategies might be helpful to all the other teachers out there who might have to stay online in the fall and would like to prepare new types of classes that are designed specifically for the online classroom. Since I’m most familiar with Zoom, I will structure this post as a series of lists, each one corresponding to one of Zoom’s many functionalities. While not by any means exhaustive, I hope these tips and tricks that have been very useful in my online classroom will help others!

Share Screen

Just like in a traditional classroom, it is often helpful to mix it up. With Zoom, you can share your traditional PowerPoint, for sure, but you can also share videos (be sure to click “share computer sound” first!), websites, different software, and more. In certain types of classrooms, sharing something particularly interactive (even if you didn’t have to prepare it in advance) can be far more beneficial for the students. Indeed, unlike a traditional classroom (unless you’re in a computer lab or allow your students to bring their computers), in the Zoom classroom, students can have the software or website open themselves and practice themselves. For instance, in my work with ViaX, I teach students text encoding in XML-TEI using the software Oxygen. Opening Oxygen in the class and having students help me (either orally or in the chat) tag a document is much better than showing them what encoding looks like on a PowerPoint slide or having them try to do it without the appropriate tools. At SAE, teachers have been incorporating a wide range of software and media into their online classrooms, which has been essential to continuing the students’ creative media education.

Annotations

Let’s say you don’t have any interactive software or websites that you could do with your students based on your specific subject matter. For instance, I’ve been teaching academic writing to video games students at SAE for the past few months, and Microsoft Word isn’t a particularly exciting or interesting software to use in class. In this case, a traditional PowerPoint can absolutely be the backbone of your course, just as you would use one in a traditional classroom. That said, to encourage students to participate more, there are certain ways that you can design your PowerPoint to make use of other Zoom features, specifically the annotations. For instance, the other day, I was teaching one of my ViaX students how to perform a close reading on an excerpt I had chosen. While we could have just had a discussion about the text, this task was greatly facilitated by Zoom’s annotations feature. I was able to have her highlight repeated words and sounds, underline sentences that she found particularly meaningful, and even place stars, checks, and more directly onto the slides to keep track of our observations. While these annotations aren’t saved on the PowerPoint slides themselves, you can save the finished product to send to your student(s) and/or post in your LMS as an additional course document, and if the class has been recorded, students can rewatch the line of reasoning that went into those annotations.

Chat

The chat serves a very obvious purpose: students who are more reluctant to speak in class (or perhaps who don’t have a microphone) can post their questions, comments, or concerns in the chat. If there are more than 10-15 students, I would highly encourage using the chat during more lecture-oriented parts of your class to avoid being derailed by endless questions. You can even make it so students cannot unmute themselves, reserving actual conversations for moments you predefined. If the class is recorded, you will have a copy of the chat transcript, but if you want to encourage students to view this textual conversation as a more important aspect of class, I would also encourage you to put the link to a Google Doc in the chat, where students can take notes collaboratively, beyond just asking questions. This sort of strategy works better if you have a second screen, so you can keep track of what students are finding most useful during your class and also point them in the right direction. The Google Doc strategy also works well with the next functionality I will discuss.

Breakout Rooms

As all teachers know, the oldest trick in the book is to put students into pairs or small groups for directed learning activities during an in-person class. However, in the online classroom, this might seem impossible if Zoom did not have the breakout room feature! The breakout rooms can be used very effectively, but proper preparation and explanation are necessary for the students to stay focused in these separate rooms (since you can’t be in all of them at once). The way I have found to make productive use of the breakout rooms is also by leaning on the collaborative nature of Google Docs. Before class, I create the Google Docs, set up the groups, and include in each Doc the rules to the exercise. At the start of class, I explain the group assignment, share the Google Docs with the assigned group members, and split them into their breakout rooms. Then, I can bounce back and forth between the different groups, but can also make sure students in the other rooms are staying on track. Instead of Google Docs, you can also consider using Google Slides and having students end the breakout rooms assignment with a group presentation. A final way to keep students on task is to push messages to all breakout rooms at the same time (for instance, tips or time limits).

Poll

At SAE, we have used the poll feature in our open days to ask participants in these very large marketing events anonymous questions about their interest and appreciation. That said, the poll can also be used for sporadic checks that students have understood the material, as well as to see how students are appreciating the classes to get live feedback. I know that I’ve used the polls a surprising amount to get quick student feedback at the end of classes so I make sure that students are responding to the various activities the way I’d like. You can even use the polls as a way to incite conversation — for instance, in an English-language workshop I run with my French-speaking games students, I gave them polarizing questions related to common debates surrounding video games (for instance, do video games have the potential to make children more violent?). This led to lively debates in English, even though many of the students are not necessarily the first to participate in a different language.

Whiteboard

While there are certainly more functionalities and strategies, I think I will end this post with the whiteboard. Now, I know it’s hard to draw/write properly with the trackpad or even a mouse (not everyone has a tablet/stylus that they can use, for sure), but thankfully the whiteboard comes with the option to type. I’ve found that the whiteboard greatly facilitates group brainstorming activities, mind mapping, as well as helping students work collaboratively in the breakout rooms. Just as with the annotation function, it is easy to take a snapshot of the final result to then share with the students in their LMS, via the chat, or by email.

Conclusion

While online teaching is certainly difficult, hopefully these tips will help you. I know that at first, online teaching was a task that I spent hours and hours prepping for because I was very nervous about how students would react in the online classroom (since I was much more familiar with in-person classes). That said, the more I taught, the more I realized that these types of strategies that make use of the distinguishing features of the online classroom can help reduce prep time and improve student satisfaction. It can certainly seem scary to let more unknown variables into the online classroom (in addition to the typical ones — student and teacher internet connection, being the most important), but I can honestly say, fostering active learning in the online classroom has been the only way I have found to make it so I am not completely drained at the end of a long day of teaching on Zoom. Hopefully they work for you as well! Feel free to leave a comment or share your own strategies below! Together, we can get through these trying times and virtually support each other!

Teaching Online with ViaX

Education has recently been turned on its head as schools all over the world have been forced to migrate their instruction online at the drop of a hat. I have already written a post about how I had to manage such a change in the context of the creative media education we provide at SAE Institute Paris. That said, one of the reasons I was able to make that change so quickly was because of my experience teaching online through the Chinese EdTech, ViaX. Indeed, both during and after my Ph.D., I actively sought out opportunities to work online, as I figured it was the perfect combination of my interests in both the humanities and STEM fields. And since graduating, my work with ViaX as well as with other EdTech companies (more posts to come) has grown in scope. Since I know that many Ph.D.s who are looking to transition out of the academy and into EdTech, I figured that this post might help people understand exactly what this sort of work entails.

1. Getting the Job

In January 2018, I was frantically finishing my dissertation and looking for jobs. I had done some curriculum design work with an EdTech company called Transparent Language the previous summer, as well as an intense amount of teaching English online. While I had a lot of experience teaching French language and literature in a traditional classroom setting at Princeton, as well as mentoring individual students through my work at the Princeton Writing Center, I loved these experiences since they gave me a glimpse into another type of education. Like many people, I had taken a few online classes throughout my own education, but was always somewhat dissatisfied. Curriculum design and teaching online courses myself made me feel like I could correct or improve upon those very aspects that I had found less engaging in my own student experience.

Well, it was right around this time that I got an email from ViaX saying that they found my profile and research interesting and that they suspected that their students might like to take a class with me. The email had a number of encoding issues, so had actually ended up in my spam folder (it turns out that this is a common issue when Chinese emails are received on non-Chinese servers) — thank goodness I checked! After I responded to this preliminary email, I had two interviews with one of their representatives, the second of which was more like a brainstorming about the type of class I could teach. Since their students were very interested in technical training and since they were leaning towards project-based learning, I proposed a course on Digital Humanities that would cover computer-assisted text analysis, something I had a lot of experience with myself, but not much formal training in. I was happy to see from that second interview that we were on the same page, so they sent me a contract and scheduled my first group workshop!

2. Curriculum Design

Before teaching my first workshop in April-May 2018, I had to design the class. And while I had dabbled in curriculum design before as I mentioned above, that was primarily for asynchronous instruction, namely designing reading assignments, multiple-choice quizzes, and various assessments for a class that would not happen in real time. This time, I had to design five classes of two hours each that would be taught synchronously via Zoom, and interface I had never used before save for a few online interviews. On top of that, I had to figure out how to teach technical skills (text encoding, making network graphs, etc.) in such a setting.

My first instinct was to structure the course according to a specific set of texts so that all students would have the same exercises, but then I realized that students would not all have the same interests. It’s true that I could have given them texts that I had already studied and encoded, but this would only be reproducing a certain kind of thinking. Then it hit me — by letting students choose their own topics, they would develop both their critical, analytical skills as well as the technical ones that got them in the classroom in the first place! With that in mind, I began by designing the homework assignments, with each one consisting of a technical assignment to introduce students to the specific tool they were studying that week, and another one more conceptual. The conceptual assignments were cumulative, building on one another to help students arrive at the final assignment, a research proposal.

Then, I began to design the lessons. Since I was used to teaching language classes, I wanted to foster active student participation through pointed questions. Therefore, I structured each lesson to include a number of different types of teaching: a mixture of lecturing, conceptual discussions, technical group activities, student presentations, and more. I hoped that this pedagogical diversity would allow all students to feel comfortable interacting in class, which I knew would help demystify these technical tools. Overall, I was thrilled to get to design the sort of class I wish I had had before starting my digital humanities work!

3. Online Teaching

My first experience teaching my ViaX workshop online was rewarding, but difficult. While I had designed each class with a number of interactive activities, I found it very difficult to get the students to engage with those activities. In class, the first issue I had was that most students signed into Zoom with their Chinese names, which I couldn’t read. Another issue with participation came from technical issues — when all students had their microphones on, I also heard a lot of echos and background noise. Yet, I didn’t want to discourage students from talking. I learned that it was extremely important to set the ground rules in the first lesson, or even before. While these sound like very minor issues, they turned out to be essential to keep the class running smoothly, and my Teaching Assistant was able to help a lot with online classroom etiquette. Finally, it was a challenge to encourage student participation. Not only is it unnatural to participate in an online classroom, but many of the students told me that they weren’t used to this sort of seminar-style class, as in China, the educational system is much more oriented towards lecturing and rote memorization. That said, little by little, I’ve managed to encourage more and more participation in these classes, which all students admit is extremely useful for them.

In addition to the classroom dynamic, certain aspects of the material that seemed second nature to me seemed extremely difficult for the students — for instance, many did not know what a plain text file was, let alone have any idea about how computers function. I realized that, for the next time I taught the class, I had to explain everything, even if I wouldn’t necessarily have considered it in a traditional classroom. Especially considering that many students did not feel comfortable speaking in class, it was hard for me to tell what they understood and what they needed more help on. This was why I also redesigned the homework assignments, making them far more user friendly as well as mandatory, so that I would at least have an email from each student every week. I will likely write another post about online teaching tips and tricks, but overall I have learned that the same pedagogical techniques apply in the online classroom, but are even more important online: especially, setting ground rules, encouraging participation, varying the rhythm of the classes, being explicit about learning objectives, and structuring the delivery so students are constantly in their proximal zone of development.

4. Consulting

In my first six months of working with ViaX, I was consistently impressed with the company’s mission and focus. Something that made me even happier with this job was that this respect was reciprocated — the ViaX team was always available to discuss ideas and work on improving the service together, resulting in my being invited to be a member of their Consulting Board. For instance, when I mentioned to them that their recruitment email had ended up in my spam folder, they were interested in how they could better recruit instructors. We collaborated a lot on this, and now I am often an important part in the hiring process, as many potential instructors want to talk with someone who is happy working with this company. I’ve also helped them with their website, I’ve participated in their webinar series about how to design a popular online class, and much more.

Working with ViaX has not only allowed me to improve my teaching, curriculum design, and consulting skills, but it has also given me a wonderful collection of friendly colleagues. Now I have WeChat on my phone and a dozen or so people I am in constant contact with — I’ve been learning about Chinese culture and education, sharing food pictures, and I even learned that my name in Chinese can be written like this: 娜塔莉 (apparently it’s not a real “name,” but it sounds the same and shows that I’m a girl). They have even sent me a lovely calendar for 2019, and most recently, a huge pack of masks since they were hard to come by in France during confinement!