Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

How to teach remotely, all of a sudden

Scott Murray
Mar 14 · 6 min read

You are used to teaching in-person and have just been told to facilitate learning remotely.

This may come as a bit of a shock.

The good news is: Everything you already do to facilitate learning continues to be valuable and important. But there are additional considerations online that can make or break the experience for learners.

This checklist will help you prepare for a quick transition to online, remote teaching.

Whatever specific tools you are using may require additional considerations; this checklist is tool-agnostic and appropriate for working with learners of any age.

Checklist

☑️ Use clear video and audio.

Keep your webcam video on as much as possible. It is critical that learners be able to see you clearly. Position your webcam at eye level, pointed straight across at your face. (If you’re using a laptop webcam, set the laptop on a box or stack of books to elevate it.)

For audio, use a wired headset — ideally with a boom microphone, to best capture your voice and eliminate background noise. (I know it looks silly, but it sounds better.) In a pinch, Apple headphones with mic will work. Avoid Bluetooth and other wireless mics (batteries can fail, and audio gets compressed). Don’t use your built-in computer microphone (to prevent audio feedback).

☑️ Prepare your environment.

Position soft lighting in front of your face, pointed at you. Make sure there are no bright lights behind you, nor anything moving, like ceiling fans, which will be highly distracting for students. Minimize interruptions by closing and locking any doors to your room and putting signs on the doors, warning others in your building or home that you are teaching a live class.

If you’re at home, test your Internet connection speed in advance, such as with fast.com. If you expect to stream video and see students on video, you are going to need more data bandwidth than you’re used to. (25 megabits per second is a rough minimum. More is better. 100 Mbps is likely plenty.) If you’re using wifi, consider positioning yourself closer to your wireless router for a stronger connection, or, better yet, connect with Ethernet to your router or modem directly, and avoid wifi entirely for the fastest and most reliable connection.

☑️ Welcome and acknowledge everyone.

Many aspects of life online are dehumanizing. Actively counter the impersonal nature of video conferencing by being “a great host” to your learning party. If your class has fewer than 40–50 learners, welcome each of them personally as they join.

☑️ Be explicit and unambiguous.

Online communication is “low-fi” and lacks most non-verbal cues. When communicating, clarity is critical. Speak at a reasonable pace and enunciate. When you are presenting information or asking learners to do something, be clear and explicit. For example, “What do you think?” is too vague and open-ended. Instead, try “What actions could have prevented this disaster?”

☑️ Ask for feedback directly.

Online, in a group context, people are even less forthcoming with comments and feedback. To prevent the chattiest from dominating any discussion, create space for quieter individuals to contribute. Sometimes that means leveraging alternate media — e.g. a student may feel very comfortable in a chat box, but not speaking on camera. (Of course, if you have specific expectations about how learners will appear and interact in this medium, make those explicit.)

☑️ Familiarize yourself with your tools in advance.

The more comfortable and practiced you are with your teaching platform, the more comfortable everyone will be. Your goal in practicing is to minimize the cognitive load of navigating the platform, so your brain can be focused on facilitating learning.

Asking “Is this thing on?” or “Hmm, wait, how do I get this to work…?” distracts from your subject and highlights the tedium of the medium.

Critical features you should be comfortable operating on your platform (when applicable):

  • your own audio and video
  • group chat and private messaging
  • screen sharing, slides, media sharing
  • “hand raising” and other Q&A features
  • small group and student management tools
  • mute button (practice the keyboard shortcut in advance, for quick use before a sneeze!)

☑️ Arrive early and stay late.

Get to your virtual classroom before the official start time, to welcome learners in. Stay after the scheduled time to respond to individual questions as they trickle out.

☑️ Alternate activities rapidly.

Don’t lecture, but also don’t rely on extended group discussions or lengthy exercises.

Keep your class short, sweet, and structured. Present an idea, facilitate a discussion, assign an exericse, break into small groups (if your platform supports it).

☑️ Adapt your activities and exercises.

Online, activities must be brief, time-boxed, and focused on a specific outcome. Vague instructions like “Reflect on these ideas” don’t provide learners with enough direction. Provide clear instructions, make your expectations explicit, and set parameters in advance. For example, “Make a list of three possible flaws in this argument, and post them to the chat. You have five minutes. I’ll be quiet while you work, but can respond to any questions in the chat.”

Then, stop talking for the promised duration. If you are talking, learners will be listening to you (or at least unable to focus on the assigned task). Make sure you are available via chat for group or private questions.

For purposes of assessment, every exercise should also have a clearly defined “output” visible to you. This can be a post in the chat, a private message to you, a verbal response to the whole class, or some work specific to your subject and medium (like an equation, sketch, or code snippet).

~ An aside on assessment and exercise design ~

This is the hardest part about teaching online: your inability to walk around the room, read body language, and peek over shoulders. Many of the tools you’ve relied on for real-time assessment don’t work online. Activities must be wholly reconfigured for the low-fi medium.

An example: I work with a professional trainer and author who teaches about product management. He designed an exercise in which learners are asked to read a description of a new product whose development they’ve been assigned to manage. This handout includes five features. The exercise is to prioritize the features — absent any other context.

The instructor labels each of the features A, B, C, D, and E. He asks learners to post their chosen priorities to the chat, e.g.:

CDEBA

DEACB

BCADE

This exercise brilliantly condenses a huge amount of thought and nuance into a very low-fi “output” of only five letters.

At a glance, the instructor can then respond “Most people are putting C as the first priority. Isn’t that interesting? If you put C first, tell me why in the chat…” and that kicks off a rich discussion about prioritization and any underlying assumptions.

Better still, this same exercise can be repeated later in the course, and any notable differences in the output (such as everyone now listing E first) lead to reflection and discussion on what was learned in the interim.

☑️ Keep your energy level up.

You set the tone and energy level for the whole class — even moreso online than in person. And learners of all ages are much more susceptible to tune out online than in the classroom.

Be spirited, yet authentic. Convey your enthusiasm for the subject. Be grateful for every contribution your students make to the discussion.

☑️ Have fun with it.

The best way to bring humanity back to this medium is to acknowledge the artificiality of the medium. Be goofy and be real. Poke fun at what you’re doing, while you’re doing it.

Feedback

Let me know whether or not this was helpful for you, so I can improve it.

Message me personally or sign up for my newsletter at scottmurray.org.

I have over ten years of experience teaching both working professionals, undergraduates, and graduate students — both in-person, hybrid, and online. My background in interaction design and learning science inform my learner-centric point of view. I coach educators on how to adapt their exercises and activities for online use, and to facilitate the best possible learning experiences for their students.

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