How to Teach Without a Classroom

The tools and techniques for effective online classes.

I’m a professor teaching at Minerva Schools, a selective, international liberal arts school that’s part of the Claremont Colleges. Our students come from all over the world, and are the kind of wunderkinds who start undergrad with four patents, or a successful blockchain startup. Each class lives together in a dorm, but each semester, they all travel together to a different world city. We professors teach entirely remotely using a teaching platform developed in partnership with a Silicon Valley startup. Faculty are promoted based on the quality of our teaching and online pedagogy — not our research or the number of grants dollars we pull in.

This fall, due to COVID-19, many of my colleagues at traditional universities are moving their classes entirely online for the first time. Many are excellent teachers and worry that the transition from a shared classroom space will undermine their ability to teach their courses effectively. This is a valid concern. Effective online teaching is different from effective classroom teaching. Remote teaching leans more on active-learning techniques. It requires more thoughtful logistics and scheduling. Ironically, online teaching requires a deeper understanding of the social dynamics of the classroom, and how these change in a virtual environment. My colleagues are right: it’s not reasonable to move your class to Zoom and expect good results.

If you’re a professor moving your class online this fall, this article will give you a concrete framework for teaching online. It also attempts to explain the social function of various online teaching practices. While specific, it’s not meant to be prescriptive, I expect professors to adapt the ideas presented here to their own teaching practice and curriculum. I’m also aware that professors right now are under unprecedented institutional pressure and bureaucracy which they’ll have to finesse. But if you already have a strong teaching practice, using the policies presented here can help you move online.

Four Components for Online Classes:

I emphasize four components that I think produce a warm, fair, open, and just online community. I’ll describe these components, link some tools useful in implementing them, and explain what they communicate. Each is intended to answer a fundamental question asked by members of a community:

  1. Am I in good standing? — Schedule-Driven Grading
  2. Where do we gather? — Asynchronous Public Chat
  3. What is expected of me? — Prep Work, Portfolios, and Feedback
  4. Who is my community? — Online Gathering

These questions arise in all communities, and teachers are community leaders first. Academic institutions and classroom infrastructure help professors build authority and persuade students to listen. An unfortunate number of professors assume that deference is something students owe them, rather than something earned by the authoritative, supportive teachers who taught the younger version of the student. In online spaces professors no longer benefit from classroom norms and must earn respect and attention by establishing an organized, welcoming community. Be kind, be warm, be honest. No one learns well when anxious. Online strangers are scary. Set high standards for student behavior then build up students to reach them.

Am I in good standing?

Schedule-Driven Grading

Every member of a community’s first question is “am I well regarded?” For most students, for better or worse, this question is tightly linked to their grades. Every teachers knows that grades are silly and imprecise. Often teachers treat grades as an afterthought. I think this is a mistake. Students obsess over the game of grades. To me, grades are a tool I use to tell students what to attend to. Online, this is especially important. I cannot be in the same room with students and use the force of my personality to convey what is important so I must use a proxy. I want to use something students care about and understand.Thus I turn to grading.

However, “am I well regarded?” is dangerously close to “am I a good person.” Many students equate grades with personal merit. Teachers inadvertently reinforce this by giving good grades for “good work,” even when that “good work” is the result of a student’s cultural capital rather than their effort in the class. Students can modulate their effort but they cannot choose their cultural background. Students from marginalized backgrounds notice when they are receiving worse grades than students from privileged backgrounds. The same system that doles out cultural capital also defines what constitutes “good work” within the grading system. Students left out of this system do not perceive a poor grade as an entreaty to write a better thesis sentence. They understand it as “I am not welcome in this community.”

Faculty often try to help students by de-emphasizing grades, giving flexible deadlines, providing exceptions, or extra credit. These practices also cause harm, because they present students with a difficult optimization problem. Students from privileged backgrounds are better able to navigate this more complex system and have more experience with the grading systems created by the dominant culture. Thus, the gap between students is only increased. In online communities, cultural capital is already an outsize advantage, it does not need additional policies that exacerbate the gap.

I am a quantitative neuroscientist who has studied transfer learning, I’ve patented systems for measuring student learning and at IBM research. I understand the difference between measuring abilities and incentivizing behavior. Thus, in my ideal online grading system focuses only on the process of learning. I draw on my hobby of game design and I take care to write accessible, clear, balanced rules. My preferred grading system asks students to focus on smooth, reliable effort. No cramming, no missed study sessions. No struggling, no rushing. Even, spaced practice. I distribute course credit as evenly in time as possible.

It is simple enough for students to track their grades in their heads. No tricks, no traps. The system fits on an index card:

Students begin the course with an A+ but this grade can only go down. —This is because students are loss averse and work hard to hold onto their grade.

The course syllabus has a list of tasks, each with a deadline. —There are about two tasks per class meeting and the deadline is usually the beginning of the next class. There’s often one task corresponding to the prep work for each class, and a task related to longer-term assignments.

Each time a student misses a deadline, their grade drops half a letter grade. A+ → A →A- →B+…

There are no extensions and no make ups. If you miss a deadline, it’s not a big deal. Skip the task, take the hit, and move on to the next one.

That’s it. I communicate all deadlines and tasks clearly at the beginning of class. I emphasize that there will be no surprises and no work apart from completing the tasks by the deadlines.

Occasionally I elaborate. For instance: with large assignments, I have students turn in multiple drafts each with a deadline. If the class meets frequently, I might start students out at an “A++” so students have a freebie. I reserve the right to increase a grade half a letter for exceptional portfolio pieces. Once class begins, I mechanically apply the formula.

It’s easy to understand how to succeed: prepare for each class, come to each class, turn in drafts on time. You will get an A+. Stop participating and you’ll bleed out in three weeks. I want students to associate grades with steady effort. I want to break the association between grades and self-worth. I incentivize student practice, not wins. Students can control when they practice. They can’t choose to win.

I’m clear with my students that failing is an option. I assume anyone who misses a deadline does so for an appropriate reason. I never need a note or excuse. I explain how incompletes work (most first-generation college students do not know what it means to “take an incomplete”). I explain to my students that my feelings aren’t hurt if my class isn’t the most important thing in their life and that I’m here to talk if there’s a catastrophe. I emphasize that learning to triage is more important than perfect grades, that the system is set up so they can always know their grade, and exactly how much it costs to skip a piece of work.

I do want my students to produce exceptional work, and I believe that this system helps them do so. See the section on portfolio pieces below. I think that “lumps” of credit in time produce bad patterns of behavior. I think comparing individual student performance is statistically naive and based on biased thinking. I think it is far more important to clearly communicate community expectations so that students can always know whether they are in good standing.

No student has ever objected to this system. Faculty who want to be “rigorous” frequently do. Please feel free to @ me. I love to argue.

Grading Tools: I use Minerva’s platform, but you can use a spreadsheet, FERPA-compliant grade book , or a full featured LMS such as Moodle. The tool doesn’t much matter: the point of using a simple algorithm is that students need never “look up” their grade — they just know it at all times.

Where do we gather?

Asynchronous, Public Chat

Now that students understand that they will be in the community’s good graces simply by completing the work in a timely fashion we can ask “where shall we gather?”

Since you can’t gather in person the class needs a digital “space” to communicate. This communication problem was solved by EFnet in 1990, but educators and institutions doggedly refuse to use what is easily the most important technology for online teaching: channel-based, asynchronous, team chat.

When I have a new class, I send all students and TAs a blast email. It says “It is 2020 and I refuse to use obsolete communication technologies. This is the last email you will ever see from me, I will not respond to your emails, to communicate with me, join my Slack workspace with the included link. All communication in this class takes place in this workspace. You will not be able to pass the class without it.”

In my chat channel I require students to speak publicly. I don’t respond to private messages — except about sensitive topics or family emergencies. When students send private messages that are not sensitive I copy-paste them into the public channel saying “Mortimer sent me this great question…” and then I answer Mortimer’s question in public. This happens frequently, because most students have internalized the belief that confusion and imperfect work are dirty secrets that should be whispered about privately. They assume that learning communities are competitive spaces to perform knowledge rather than safe places to get help.

Public communication is good for fairness. If Mortimer wants a better grade because his father is the Provost I’d like him to ask that in front of his peers. Public communication also sends the message that there’s nothing shameful about asking for help or producing imperfect work. I want students to see lots of ordinary examples not just the best ones. Most importantly, public communication reinforces the expectation that students should work independently when class is not in session and reach out to peers and instructors when they get stuck.

After each class, I create a thread in the public chat that links the prep work required for the next class, and asks students to reply to the thread with their completed prep work before the next class session. I post all assignments in this channel and sometimes ask students to turn in their work there. Posts are time-stamped so I can easily audit to see if the work was on time. I try to make my chat fun and engaging. I make sure TAs are active in the channel. I use the media capabilities of the channel (I’m famous for communicating with gifs). I check chat every day. I love it there! For me, this is the modern Socratic forum.

Use Chat

I’m overselling chat because 80% of instructors will read this section and say “Sounds hard, I’m just gonna use email.” Those instructors live in hell.

My inability to EVEN when instructors ignore chat

I use chat primarily for selfish reasons. It’s not just about creating online community. It’s about saving myself a huge amount of effort. Online, your students can’t walk up to you after a lecture and ask you something. So they email. All 200 students email. All of them ask the same thing: something you clearly explained in the first paragraph of the syllabus. I have literally seen instructors cutting and pasting the message “check the syllabus” and emailing it out one-at-a-time to students.

Use chat!

Oh, you sent out an assignment via email? Enjoy your 50 replies saying “Got it! Thanks!”

Oh you missed an email asking for a deadline extension? Now that student is angry that they failed the class? Or perhaps they sent you a message saying “my homework is attached,” but then nothing is attached. Bet you wish you had a time-stamped thread of student communication with embedded assignments to audit.

Use chat!!!

Want to show a great example of student work? Have fun saying the same thing about it 15 times in a row in office hours. Have fun being frustrated by the 185 students who didn’t come to office hours.

Have a clear explanation? You could record a video of it and post it to chat and used class time to check if students understood. Instead you were an egotist who simultaneously summoned 200 of your students to watch you talk. What an excellent way to communicate to your class just how much more you think your time is worth then theirs. I’m sure there will no behavioral consequences to that arrogance. 🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄🙄

Use chat you shameful Luddite!

By the way, did you see how I was able to convey emotion with gifs, pictures, and emojis? All modern chats include these necessary functions.

Don’t live in hell. Every question you answer in a chat channel, you answer for 200 people. Every example of student work helps 200 people learn. Every joke, or sympathetic interaction lightens the hearts of everyone.

The point of a classroom is to provide a place for the community to gather. Video calls do not feel like a gathering space. Online, the gathering space is chat. It is the public square and the historical record. It is where all the class documents can be accessed. It is the pub and the common room. Anytime a student is confused or lonely or bored, I want them to think “I’ll just go check in with my friends in chat.”

Imagine trying to teach via the post office.

Do you usually teach by mail? The mind recoils! USE CHAT!

It’s 2020. Use chat. Check it frequently. Do everything there.

Chat Tools: Slack, Discord, Flock, Riot.im, or Teams. Slack is most mature and has the best integrations, but any channel based messaging app is fine here. Just be sure it looks like messaging, not a Facebook wall. This is for conversations, not advertising posts.

What is expected of me?

Prep Work, Portfolios, and Feedback

The key question about student work is “who is this work for?” Some work is simply for student practice. The instructor might check on it to make sure students are on track, but after students use it to practice it’s discarded. I call this “prep work,” and it is clearly for the students themselves.

Some work is for an external audience. It’s for the student to show to parents, or at interviews, or for you to show off to other teachers. I call this “portfolio work.” An instructor may suggest changes to this work, but students’ motivation to do this work well comes from their larger community.

All student work receives feedback. Yet the goal of feedback depends on the type of work. Prep work doesn’t have to be brilliant. Portfolio work should be great but the ultimate judge of its greatness is an external audience.

Prep work

In advance of each class, I assign some passive study materials (readings, videos, etc) and prep work that provides sufficient evidence that the student engaged with the passive work. I paste these assignments in the Slack channel. Students’ prep work is due anytime before the next class.

Here are some example prep work I might give:

Read Chapter 9 on the lead up to the American Civil War. Take detailed notes as you read, and paste a link to your notes into this form.

Read this SEoP article on the dialectic of enlightenment. Pretend you are Heidegger and write tweet-length response to the article. Paste your response next to your name in this spreadsheet. Write a second tweet that responds to one of your classmate’s posts with a sick, yet philosophically appropriate, burn.

Complete 15 Codewars exercises. Paste a solution you wrote that you thought was especially cool next to your name in this spreadsheet.

Take the Midpoint Riemann Sums Test here. Repeat it as many times as you like until you get at least 80% correct. Once you’re over 80%, post a screenshot of an incorrect answer you gave in the Slack thread, and explain the mistake you made.

Tomorrow’s class marks half-way through the semester. 1. Write a one-sentence summary of what we’ve covered in class so far. 2. Write a self-evaluation. It should have one sentence on something you feel confident about, and one sentence on what you feel less-than-confident about. 3. Write down a one-sentence plan for how to practice going forward. Post your sentences in the Slack thread.

Students generally do excellent and engaged work. Students who turn in nothing or phone it in are obvious. Prep work should be of appropriate size: check with this calculator. Assigning more than can be done in two hours is covertly running a test that will punish students with jobs. Include creativity, or self-evaluation since this will make it pointless to copy another student’s answer. Use online resources that provide evidence of work. Have students turn in something time-stamped so you can check deadlines.

Don’t use surveillance apps to see if a student has clicked through and spent 2 hours reading the book. Don’t run everything through TurnItIn. That undermines the community you’re trying to create. It’s gauche. It’s cop shit. The goal is engagement not compliance. Prep work keep students practicing steadily.

Prep Work Tools: Google Drive, Google Forms/Docs/Sheets, Slack, online quizzes like Codewars, OER commons etc.

Portfolios

For external-facing student work, I have 2 principles:

  1. No busy work — Portfolio work should never be thrown away. Students ought to walk out of my class with a creative product they can proudly show off.
  2. Revision is required — Nothing great is done on a first draft. Feedback is pointless if not used. Substantial assignments should be revised at least once.

I assign only 1–2 portfolio pieces per semester long class. One is appropriate for freshman, two for seniors. For each of these works, I set at least three deadlines:

  1. Turn in “first draft.”
  2. “Feedback on first draft.”
  3. Final camera ready version.

I’m currently experimenting with tools like Eduflow to automate the peer grading part of this process. However, I’ve had success breaking students into small study groups of 4–5 and having them share links to their work in Slack and add comments.

For portfolio pieces I often assign blog posts on Medium or Notion. I have students select a topic we’ve discussed in class, and write a post explaining that topic. They should provide supporting resources such as linked visuals, code, or data. Online writing spaces are nice because students can give out private editing links and their peers or instructors can write comments directly on the work.

I strongly encourage students to publish their portfolio pieces. I reach out to students who’ve done exceptional work and ask them if they’d like to develop this work into a paper on ArXive or for submission to a conference. You’d be surprised how well your students can do given the chance to iterate and improve.

Here are a few example portfolio pieces from my students:

Reinforcement Learning: Curiosity Driven Learning

Neuroscience: Surface-Based Group Analysis

Data Science: Image Classification

Use media: websites, code repositories, videos, and podcasts are all good options for portfolio pieces. It is entirely possible for your physics students to build a potato cannon and film themselves hitting a target at a fixed distance. That video provides more proof that your students were able to apply what they learned than any exam you might give.

Sometimes its impossible to avoid traditional assignment structures, but this needn’t mean abandoning the feedback format. For example, in a math classes give students a take home exam to print out and fill in with a pen. Exam generators can often be found online that provide each student with a unique copy. Have everyone photograph their completed exam and upload it for their study group to correct and annotate.

Portfolio Tools: Medium, Notion, Youtube, Podbean, Wix, Drive, Slack…Have you heard of the internet?

Feedback

For prep work, I rarely read student responses in depth. I skim and spot check. If each student makes a yeoman’s try before the deadline I’m satisfied. I tell students the point is to practice. I don’t mind if they explain what they did to each other but I’d rather they not copy answers. However, I don’t consider lawyerly rule-following to be a student’s primary job so I try to give prep work that can’t be solved by copy-paste. If students miss a deadline or turn in obvious junk I just lower their grade and move on without comment. Occasionally I’ll give some class-wide prep feedback in Slack. Since everything is threaded and timestamped in slack I can grade everyone in 20 minutes by looking up the small subset of students who didn’t finish their prep on time and perhaps checking up on them with a private message if I’m worried.

For portfolio pieces students get extensive peer feedback. However, depending on class size I often augment this by reading several pieces and explaining my overall impressions to the class as whole in Slack: “Here are some things I’d like to see more of… Here are some common mistakes I saw…” Depending on class size, I might send TAs to annotate with detailed feedback, but I usually don’t write detailed marginalia. My goal reviewing the portfolios is to identify students who are struggling with their drafts so that I can meet with them privately or in small groups during the next class gathering. The grading system helps here because students who turn in incomplete drafts get immediate, clear feedback. I want to provide encouragement and personal support to students who struggle with drafts. I want to pull up their piece with screen sharing and show it side-by-side with other students examples — good and bad — so students get a clear picture of how a draft develops.

Feedback Tools: Medium, Notion, Kami, Drive, Slack, Eduflow.

Who is my community?

Online Gathering

The three previous components of online community have already given students a secure sense of acceptance, a place to gather, and a clear plan of work. Online meetings are a nightmare. Why bother with face-to-face at all?

Because we are human. Students deserve a chance to socialize, to show off, and to play with ideas. Learning is a social, human activity—being together as a community is a primal need. Who has not yearned to see faces during the pandemic? Student communities need to see and hear that they are with other people who are connected to them.

For the moment this means some sort of video conferencing software. However, I must to emphasize that gathering is for interaction. Everyone rightfully hates webinars. Live, online lectures are embarrassing because anyone can go to YouTube and watch the best lecture ever given on this topic. I’m sure you are a charming physics lecturer. You are no Richard Feynman. Do not beclown yourself.

It’s easy to perceive an online class you lead as interactive. Consider a relatively small class of 30 students. You ask each student one question, they answer, and there’s a brief clarifying follow up — about one minute of speaking each during the exchange. To the instructor: a whirlwind of social interaction —an hour of dialog with 30 different people. To every student: a dead class — 98% waiting and one minute with one person.

Your class gatherings via video chat should be used for:

Discussion — Students meet to discuss the readings and prep work with in 2–5 student breakouts.

Quizzes — Students test their knowledge of the topic in a quiz-show format. This is the controlled space where competition is accepted and the reward is a bragging rights not a grade. Break the class into teams. Send the teams to breakouts to come up with answers. Bring everyone back and call on random teams.

Workshops — Students give peer feedback and work on their portfolio pieces together. Align these with tasks on your deadline list so that students feel they are making real progress through the class.

Don’t waste in-person time on anything else. I know you have a great set of activities. Kill your darlings. Your slide decks are no good except as study materials.

A note on workshops. This should be one of the most frequent activities you do. Perhaps 30 mins of workshop time each week. This is when students get to meet their peers and chat with each other in their breakouts. This is when TAs stop by. It’s fine to prep for the next class. We’re all here working together in our community.

I use my time in workshops to give portfolio feedback and check up on any student I think could use some encouragement. This is a much more valuable use of my time than marking up 200 student papers. To give feedback, I screen share a student’s assignment, skim it with them, and make comments as I go. I say one or two things I like, and one or two changes I expect for the next draft. Since I’m right there they can ask for clarifications (another email avoided) and I can be sure they’ve understood what I’m asking for. With all the students gathered and working on portfolios it’s easy to share examples that help students see where their understanding falls within the overall community.

Remember: gathering is for socializing. Class should be a party, a barn-raising, a roast, a poetry reading, or a relay race. Many online gatherings are awful not because they use webcams but because they are vapid, soulless, snooze-fests. They are webinars lead by someone who wants to be on stage and force others to witness them. If you have a great idea for a fun activity that everyone can do simultaneously with no one being left out: great! Do it! If not just put everyone into small groups and have them work through the list of tasks you created for the class. Class gatherings are not a performative space to show off. They’re a place to connect with other people feeling and doing the same learning as you.

Tools: Minerva Forum is really good for this. For other systems, your main challenge is scaling for your class size, and knowing how to use breakouts. Zoom is a leader mostly because it can handle large groups and has breakouts. It’s also possible to use Discord or Google Hangouts if you set up a list of rooms in a spreadsheet.

Final Touches

I’ve given a whirlwind tour of my online-teaching techniques and these aren’t meant to be prescriptive. They’re an example portfolio piece: meant to show how one teacher creates an online community. Each teacher moving online must ponder what community they wish to create, what norms they wish it to follow, and how they will achieve their goal.

There’s one more benefit to teaching online communities. During the pandemic my community helped me to be less lonely. I met with bright young people every week. I advised them on their careers and empathized with their frustration. I got to see faces and hear voices while I was locked inside in NYC. I spent time with my Minerva colleagues. We even set up a coop to teach each other’s children. Social media doesn’t give me this feeling because it’s not based on trust and mutual learning. It’s based on selling ads.

My community has a history. I have a chat channel with hundreds of students and alums with conversations dating back five years. I consulted it to write this article. I can look through each piece of student work. I can watch as students grow, graduate, ask for letters of recommendation, start careers and families. I can watch my own teaching change. I can see lines appear on my face over the years in my teaching videos.

Except for photos of my son, my teaching portfolio is the digital artifact I’m most fond of. Even when you eventually return to your classroom, I hope you’ll consider starting an online community of your own.

Patrick Watson teaches Neuroscience and AI at Minerva. He’s helped robots cheat on middle school science tests, compared amnesia to the cultural revolution, and writes on love and epilepsy. He’s currently developing a role-playing game about business wizards.

An educational Watson

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