Signum University is a digitally native university focused on providing high-quality instruction online. Since 2011, Signum has combined off-the-shelf and custom software and tools to meet the needs of our students and deliver an unparalleled catalog of language and literature courses.
A big part of our success is the hard work of Signum faculty who engage with students around the world through our digital campus. Our lecturers and preceptors have dedicated many hours and much thought to refining our teaching methods to best suit students’ unique and diverse needs.
With the recent decision of many colleges and universities to temporarily move to online instruction, our faculty wanted to offer some tips and advice about how to keep students engaged and deliver course material effectively over the internet.
Teaching Engaging Classes Online Tutorial & Discussion
On Monday, March 16, 2020, Signum Founder and President Dr. Corey Olsen hosted a live session on Teaching Engaging Classes Online: A Tutorial and Discussion. The recording is available on Signum’s YouTube channel and is embedded below for those who were not able to attend live:
Now for the Online Teaching Tips
Signum faculty have provided their best tips for remote instruction. Read on for a wealth of advice about how to teach online.
1. Don’t Panic!
Amy H. Sturgis: Problems arise. Glitches happen. Keep your cool. Your students will be less stressed and more capable of finding solutions if you model the patience, sense of humor (and perspective), and creative thinking you hope to see in them. No dropped connection or frozen screen or other technical hiccup is a big deal, but the message you send by your reactions could be.
Maggie Parke: Be honest with them! Tell them this is new territory for you too, but you’re in this together. Honesty goes a long way to navigating those hiccups.
2. Organize Your Space
Faith Acker: I find that I end up talking a little more in an online class than I typically do in a brick and mortar classroom, so I like to keep a glass of water – plus a refill bottle – close at hand. I also try to keep a shelf or stack of all the class texts within arm’s reach whenever possible. This way, if our discussion touches on another course book unexpectedly, I can refer to it easily (and show it to students if they are struggling to follow the conversation).
Corey Olsen: Put your notes in a place where you don’t have to look too far away. On the screen right below your webcam is a great place – unless you are sharing your screen. If you like to print them out or use another device (phone, tablet, etc.), you can prop them up right below the webcam. I also highly recommend having a second monitor where you can organize chat windows, notes, or other things you may want to have access to during your lesson.
3. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Sparrow F. Alden: Professor, check your email daily during your work week. Now that students are less restrained by class schedules, they may get out of sync with your regular plans. Anything that can be dealt with in under two minutes, just do it. Anything that takes longer to research or complete, flag or sort into a folder until you’re doing your regular office hours.
Amy H. Sturgis: Communication is key. Make certain your students know how to contact you. Give a turnaround time for emails, and make virtual by-appointment office hours easily and quickly available for face-to-face, synchronous, one-on-one discussions. If a student poses a general question about the class, it’s likely other students have the same question but haven’t come forward; post the answer (without naming the student who asked) so everyone has the benefit of your clarifications.
Maggie Parke: Gabriel Shenk and I implemented “packing up” time at the end of our classes, so when the session ended, we just stuck around for 10-20 minutes to create a virtual “packing up.” It’s often that time in an in-person class when students will come up to you to ask questions for clarification, share an experience, or to share something they were nervous about sharing in a group.
Faith Acker: Tell your students how you plan to communicate directions for an alternate class session or meeting space if your discussion software has technical trouble. If your software isn’t working, where should they look for updates? (Also encourage them to communicate with one another, so that if a student has trouble accessing your discussion during your meeting time, that student will have a way to find out if other students are experiencing similar issues).
4. Don’t Overthink Production Value
Corey Olsen: Don’t stress too much about production value. A lot of people think they have to have the perfect setup with a professional webcam, lighting, and so forth. If you are going to worry about anything, worry about sound quality. Make sure you have a somewhat decent microphone – it’s got to be clear. If people can’t hear you, everything else is useless. If there’s a piece of hardware you should buy, I would suggest a good microphone, which you can get for around $50 or less. That said, many built-in laptop mics are fine, so do a test run with others listening to see if your sound levels are okay. Also, be conscious of your sound environment: Beware of fans! And keep in mind that background noise is always louder than you think. If others are talking on the broadcast, be sure to use headphones or earbuds to avoid feedback and echoing.
5. Convey Clear Expectations
Amy H. Sturgis: Make your expectations very clear. If you have asynchronous discussions, for example, ask students to respond to you and at least X number of their classmates. Provide examples. For instance, “I agree” is not a satisfactory response, but “I agree/disagree, because of these 2 examples from the reading…” (with a minimum of 200 words and 1 citation of your weekly text) is a satisfactory response. Spell things out.
6. Make (Virtual) Eye Contact
Gabriel Schenk: I look at my webcam lens as if I am making eye contact with my audience. Indeed, I am making eye contact with my audience even though I can’t see their eyes looking back at me. After practising, this has become as natural to me as looking someone in the eye when I’m in the same way room as them, and it even has an advantage over offline teaching: I can look all my students in the eyes at the same time! I also recommend reading lecture notes from the screen rather than from paper on the desk. If you are sharing your screen correctly, the audience won’t see your notes but you can read from them without breaking too far away from eye contact.
Corey Olsen: This is something that most online lecturers do a very, very bad job of. Nobody wants to look at the top or side of your head as you’re looking away at notes or other things. The advice I gave to Verlyn Flieger, and that I still give to faculty who are new to teaching online, is: Teach to the little green dot! (Or whatever color the “on air” indicator is on your webcam.) That’s the advice I give my faculty who are new to online teaching. This can be especially hard when you have more than one person sharing their webcam, because the natural tendency is to want to look at the person talking. Resist that urge!
7. Keep It Fresh
Amy H. Sturgis: Mix things up. Combine synchronous and asynchronous class meetings, offer audio and video content, and make sure that students interact with both you and each other.
8. Share Your Setting
Gabriel Schenk: If you push your webcam further away from you, students will see a little more of your office in the background, which helps them feel as if they are in the room with you. The greater distance also makes it harder to tell if you are reading from a screen or looking them directly in the eyes (a similar technique is used by news readers using teleprompters).
Maggie Parke: And don’t be afraid to incorporate it – some of our best moments were sharing what was on the walls of our offices (or the pub when we were in the Eagle & Child) – props and examples still work over the screen!
9. Coax Cooperation
Amy H. Sturgis: Whenever possible, give students ownership over the content and the process. Many of my undergraduate classes include a component of independent research. The students present their work online, in live webinars, and take questions from their peers. Not only does this allow them to help contribute to the common content we study, but it also allows the students to hear and see each other, appreciate their peers’ efforts and expertise, and even invite outside audience members (friends and family) to see them shine.
Maggie Parke: Create online spaces for them. We use a shared google doc to jot down ideas or questions in the week, post links referenced in class, and to list discussion questions. Having these focal areas can help coordinate material, and give structure. Plus they won’t always just be staring at you!
10. Encourage Kindness and Respect
Sparrow F. Alden: If your course will now rely on posting one’s work and commenting on others’ remotely, you can still create an atmosphere of mutual respect and encouragement by grading entirely on kindness and helpfulness. Since biting critique and friendly comments both improve writing equally, let’s give our students a positive experience when they check in.
Maggie Parke: Create ground rules. “This is how this is going to work…” particularly if it’s a larger group, ensuring virtual hand-raising, encouraging reflecting on what was just said before you state your point (i.e., not just a bunch of people waiting for their turn to speak), and asking students to say their name before they speak – it increases connections, slows the pace to be more thoughtful, and helps clarify who is who – especially when there aren’t cameras for all, or you have any second-language students.
11. Dress Smart
Sparrow F. Alden: On one hand, working from home has benefits such as saving you time and commuting fuel and stress – celebrate the good things! On the other hand, working from home can feel like an opportunity to slouch in pajamas. We deserve to be at our professional best when we’re working, and our students rely on us to model respect for scholarship and enthusiasm for excellence. Let’s get up, go through the morning routine, and get dressed to our shoes and earrings.
Gabriel Schenk: Sometimes I wear a tie and jacket, in fact dress smarter than I do for offline teaching, to counter the feeling of home comfort and familiarity!
Get Help from the Signum Teacher Mentorship Program
To help those making the transition from traditional classrooms to an online teaching environment, we have launched the Signum Teacher Mentorship Program. With this program, individuals and groups can get customized coaching from Signum faculty to answer questions about online instruction, address specific goals and obstacles, and create a plan to set up or improve their online instruction.
Share Your Online Teaching Tips!
Do you have tips to share for teaching online? Send them to us on social media.