In retrospect we were always destined to move classes and business online, COVID-19 simply over-cranked the clock and accelerated the timetable. While the reports and prognostications from the likes of Gartner Research and Alvin Toffler charted a plodding, organic progression to our increasingly virtual community, it just took one simple global crisis to move from toe dipping to skinny dipping. And this scenario has created new opportunities within educational field and the business world.
I was teaching a traditional classroom course in business communications at Purdue when the word came down that we were moving all classes to an online environment. This set off a series of meetings, email streams, theories and workshops all designed to answer one simple question: “will this work?” Exploratory committees, likely mirroring the same exercise at other institutions and companies across the globe, were established to vet the right platforms and ask critical questions including, “how many attendees can we host,” “ will we be able to tell if someone has left the room,” and my personal favorite, “ what if everyone’s talking at once?” Honestly that last question is the stuff of every educator’s bucket list.
To determine an online vehicle, I sampled my class to find what platforms they had personal, and positive experiences with; after all, this is their education. Out of 30 students I found that a handful had good things to say about Zoom, and one of my several go-getters volunteered to set it up for us. We were in business. The first class went well, it’s hard to be late for something that starts on your breakfast table, and I immediately found that certain parameters would have to be established for this exercise to become a model for success.
I acted under the assumption that the first day of an online meeting is like the first day of any new class. Everyone finds their position in the field and demonstrates their level of preparedness through the class conversation. Body language and eye contact is hard to establish and maintain when someone has a camera off, so it’s important to repeatedly remind participants to stay on camera, unless there’s a pressing personal issue. You’re not in a position to do the dishes when you’re in the classroom, so why should this change because you’re learning from home? Bio breaks are, of course, bio breaks.
It’s easier to hide on the corners, or off-screen, when you’re online, necessitating the need for the educator to randomly call out students for commentary and engagement. I measured success by working with at least 60-75% of the class every period and would circle back to those I hadn’t pinged during the subsequent meet. Initial takeaways for success include:
- The class always starts on time, with attendance, as scheduled.
- Everyone keeps their camera on.
- Use of the chat feature and hand raising is encouraged, and factors into the participation portion of the grade.
- Watch for frequent off camera episodes and address these directly with a participant of concern.
- Use your allotted fully, don’t repeatedly cut a class short because the material has been exhausted.
- Constantly review protocol and assignments – keep the class top of mind, it’s not a streaming show that gets viewed once or twice a week, it’s a university class.
- Keep students engaged with the online quiz function built into your school’s portal – these are auto-graded and can be tailored to reflect assigned and extemporaneous classroom information.
- Keep it fun: encourage virtual backgrounds, banter and don’t default to be a talking head or PowerPoint jockey.
Group assignments and presentations posed an interesting challenge to the students, however managing in advance turned this problem into a constructive wrap to the semester. How do you conduct a group presentation when you can’t assemble a group? Here’s the playbook for successfully managing one of the toughest aspects of online teaching:
- Develop as much material, including sample presentations in advance – make these available through Blackboard/Google Drive or whatever solution your school/business is using.
- Pick your groups – and designate a leader -this makes life much easier. You’ll know who the leaders are.
- Provide your groups with their customized assignments and make yourself available to discuss. Keep this to a minimum – you’re teaching people how to swim, not providing a life raft.
- Require three virtual group meetings, with a plan submitted by your leader for educator review.
- Require a written document supporting the presentation, AP style, yada, yada (we’re still teaching at a university level, remember).
- Instruct your group that everyone is expected to participate in the final presentation because they will be receiving a group grade. Trust me, students make the best taskmasters when they realize that everyone has to row or drown together.
- Game Day: Make sure that you schedule presentations to accommodate class time allotments. I required all students to provide written notes on every single presentation. This makes a difference: it guarantees engagement, and every presenter deserves the full attention and respect of the rest of the room.
- Finally, clap after every presentation – it makes people feel good, and that’s half the challenge of a successful education environment.
As you read this and wonder whether or not your student will be shortchanged in the Fall by an online classroom, I’d like to provide a bit of comfort. Done properly, the experience can achieve many of the same information goals as a traditional education. The obvious lack of social interplay, the wink and nod, the lunch after class, smoke break in an alcove on a wintry day or beer infused study session at the Student Union are hard to replicate online, but for that, you can always re-watch Animal House, and not miss what you think your student is missing. This is not, however, an article on the merits of the socialization aspect of university life, but a look at how to maximize the learning experience from an educator’s point of view.
There’s lots of chatter about what Fall will looking like, with scary scenarios of plexiglass partitioned classrooms limited to groups of 20 who are hosed down with Lysol before entering the building. Some hybrid variant of limited classroom space, online learning and masked up socialization will probably emerge in various universities, at least for a few semesters, and may prove so effective that online learning becomes a profitable revenue stream for the institutions. In one sense the pandemic is providing a handy springboard to legitimize an initiative many schools have been struggling with for years: increasing revenues from online and distance learning. After all, real estate is expensive while bandwidth is cheap and plentiful. Why limit enrollment to 40,000 per year when 100,000 are willing to pay for it? In the final analysis, the pandemic has changed the angle of the online adoption curve and ushered in Future Shock, just slightly ahead of schedule.
About the Author: Steve Lundin is a business and marketing strategist for private equity portfolio companies and teaches business communications at Purdue. His services can be found at: www.bigfrontier.com