A few things we’ve learnt about online delivery – part 2

In my previous post I listed some of the things we’ve learnt during the summer running an online course for over 2000 students. It was getting rather long so I decided to split across several posts, so here is the second part. In this one I’ll focus in on what we learnt about delivering remote ‘live’ lessons using Blackboard Collaborate.

Collaborate is a similar tool to Zoom, Adobe Connect or Microsoft Teams and has similar features such as a chat box, screen sharing, the ability to display pdfs or presentations as well as the option to create breakout rooms so that students can work in smaller groups.

On our programmes, students had two 1-hour lessons each day in an online room with two teachers and approximately 25-28 other students. The lessons had already been created by an internal team at our centre with slides and lesson note, so the focus for the teachers was working out how best to deliver them with their partner teacher.

We decided to go with 2 teachers in the online room as we felt those with less experience with technology could be supported by those with more and also as a failsafe in case any teachers suffered a technical breakdown. As our teachers were based in many different locations both in the UK and abroad, we had no way to control the quality of internet connection they had access to.

We learnt a huge amount about delivering ‘live’ online lessons, the way to approach them is to regard them as their own thing rather than trying to replicate a face to face class in an online environment. The key takeways for us were:

4: group dynamics only really work with around 4-6 students

When we first shifted across to online teaching in March, one of the first issues that teachers raised after a few online lessons was the lack of group dynamics. Not being able to see a student’s face or their body language makes it very difficult to establish any kind of relationship with them or for them to bond with each other.

This was particularly noticeable when students were asked to work in breakout groups, teachers would go into their breakout rooms to check on progress and it was common for them to all be sat in silence with their webcams turned off.

In some ways this is not surprising. In the last few months we’ve all probably experienced the awkwardness of being in an online meeting with people we don’t know very well. The awkward wait for someone to start the meeting or to break the ice with a joke or comment. And this is when we speak the language very well, imagine if we were put in this situation in a language we didn’t really have a perfect grasp of, how confident would we be to speak up or take a leadership role?

And the numbers are important as well. When I’m in meetings with groups of 10 or more people and even if I know them there is an added awkwardness, a nervousness about saying something out of turn or accidentally talking over someone. With a smaller group it feels less intimidating.

Meetings always seem to work well with small groups of people I know well, there is an ease of communication as well as plenty of opportunities to speak. This is something worth thinking about in relation to online classes.

Now, of course, it’s probably not financially viable to run online classes with small groups of students, but you can break a larger group down into smaller mini-classes so that they work with the same people more frequently. One thing we did on our summer programme was to establish permanent breakout groups, so that whenever students worked in small groups, it was always with the same people. Again, anecdotal evidence does suggest that this worked better than creating random groups for them to work in all the time.

If you have a larger online class (say 20+), think about breaking them down into smaller groups for when they do tasks together to establish better group dynamics. You may even want to give these groups names to establish that bond even better.

5: team teaching works unexpectedly well in online lessons

 This was not something we expected to work as well as it did. Initially, we put teachers in pairs to teach to adjust for different levels of technical knowledge and the possibility of one of them losing their connection, but from anecdotal evidence it also seems to have been a welcome chance for teachers to learn from each other and divide up work in the online room. So, for example, one could be delivering the content while another is monitoring the chat box for any questions or problems that have arisen. If one of them was more technically capable than the other, they could be responsible for uploading files or managing breakout rooms. 

We did do some training on how best to work with each other and I think that paid off as teachers then had to really think about how best to work together and how best to communicate both inside and outside the online room.

6: Keep it simple in the online room and respect the silence

 For many teachers adjusting to the technical side of the online room is going to be challenging enough, so in terms of lesson design/delivery, it’s better to keep it simple rather than having lots of complicated activities planned for the students. The amount of material you can work through online is quite a bit less than in a face to face class, so it’s ok to take it slow, make sure any instructions are clearly delivered – ideally with visual support on the screen – and give students adequate time to work through a task or reflect on a question. 

Online lessons can seem very isolating at times, especially if you can’t see your students’ faces and it’s very easy to feel that you’re talking to yourself. But resist the temptation to fill the silence, give students time to type in the chatbox or turn on their microphone to speak. If you ask them to work on something on their own or in groups, give them ample time to do so, much more than you would in a face to face class to give them time to manage the technical side of things as well.

At the start particularly try to keep them in the online room and avoid introducing other websites and tools that are likely to cause confusion as they then need to jump between tabs or windows on their computer. It’s very easy to lose them if you do that. If you want to introduce other tools – such as Padlet or Google Docs – do it slowly and give them multiple chances to use that one tool before moving onto another.

7: Setting up simple routines in the online room can really help

 Just as we have routines in our face to face classes – simple things such as chatting with the students before the lesson begins, checking homework at the start of class etc – doing the same in the online room can help settle both the teacher and the student. In the online context the routines might revolve around different things, such as asking the students to say ‘hi’ in the chatbox as soon as they arrive or not turning on the microphone unless the teacher requests it, but they do help to make the lessons feel more structured. 

Ok, I’ve got some final thoughts on what we’ve learnt, but I’ll leave that for the third and final post in the series.

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