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Early reflections on transitioning to online teaching

Berkman Klein Center
Mar 12 · 9 min read

Kathy Pham discusses the shift from in-person to Zoom

Universities across the country are shifting their courses online in response to the novel coronavirus, leaving professors and instructors scrambling to modify and adjust their curriculum and teaching methods to this new dynamic. The transition surfaces questions about engaging with students in a virtual environment, students’ internet access to attend class, participate in discussions, as well as concerns about ensuring accessibility guidelines and best practices are upheld.

A stuffy nose last week encouraged Kathy Pham, an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, to pilot an online session for her class, Product Management and Society, even before Harvard issued its update on COVID-19.

A screenshot of a Zoom call with 25 participants
A screenshot of a Zoom call with 25 participants
Kathy Pham (top row, second from left) with students from her Product Management and Society class during their second fully-online session. Photo Credit: Kathy Pham, taken with permission from students.

Pham lauds the EdTech and Slate pedagogy teams at the Harvard Kennedy School for establishing infrastructure and technical capabilities into the classrooms and courses — including Zoom — so when the novel coronavirus hit, Pham felt equipped and confident to try teaching online. We spoke to Pham about the transition from in-person to online teaching.

Responses have been edited for clarity.

How is your pedagogical approach for distance learning different from teaching in person?

It’s 100% not the same. I think we all have to go into it recognizing that it’s not the same learning experience. There are some benefits of remote; one of the learned crafts in classrooms is having a balance of students that talk, and figuring out who to call. The benefit of the remote is you get to see all the students on the screen next to all their names, and they can raise their hands remotely. This can be easier to manage than having a student raise their hand, and then me looking at them and saying, “I see you, and you’ve just spoken in class. I’m going to wait a few more seconds [that feel like hours] for other people to raise their hands.” On remote, you can just wait for people to virtually raise their hands, or people can quickly put into chat to share what they’re thinking without disrupting the whole class.

That said, chat can also be disruptive because now you’re not paying attention to the full screen, and you’re having a chat on the side. It is a different kind of disruption than people talking in class. This is just one example, but it is good to recognize that there are some benefits like the virtual raising hands or chats, while you lose that in-person collaboration and community. We do small group discussions in virtual breakout rooms in tools like Zoom, but it is still different than an in-person group discussion. Both have their own challenges and benefits.

What are some challenges you have faced with online teaching, and how did you navigate them?

We did a short retrospective after the first online class session, and some of the greatest feedback I got from students was that if it’s just lecture for an hour and fifteen minutes (some classes are 3 hours long!), it’s really exhausting.

Then we have different learning styles. Some people don’t do well sitting in front of a screen for that long. This is a totally different kind of pedagogy. MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] and remote first classes have a really different style, they don’t necessarily try to mimic the real world. You teach differently when you do that than when you teach in person. It can be something as little as the background (there are amusing virtual background options) behind me might be distracting. We have to set norms around the online classroom — different kinds of norms than in person. In the classroom, they might be put away our devices, don’t talk to your neighbor, et cetera. With online teaching, norms are: mute your device, minimize all your other screens, put the virtual meeting on full screen so that you’re not distracted. And you’re trusting the people are doing that. So there’s a lot of different kinds of constraints.

How have you incorporated activities and other modes of engagement into online classes? How did they pan out?

But my goal was never to mimic real life. My goal was always: what’s the best learning experience I could have in this environment? And that might be, let’s try and mimic some things from real life. But there might be things that a remote environment has that is way better than real life in general. I think coming at it with, “Let me try and mimic real-life” might make it so that we don’t see some of the benefits. So, for example, if we want to mimic real life by always doing an online poll, using Poll Everywhere, that just won’t work well in this environment. So things that work better to get to the goal of pulling my students.

My first fully online class at Harvard was on prototyping and tools; it was a lot of me demoing and lecturing and then having students respond through chat. In my normal class, I use Poll Everywhere to poll the students on various questions. I’ve learned that I always do it just at the beginning of class, so I thought, “Oh, this might be good with remote because they’re already on their computers so they can just do Poll Everywhere whenever.” It turns out that when you’re on a computer and you’re trying to be in Zoom and toggle, especially between Zoom and another browser or another tab to do Poll Everywhere, it gets really distracting.

So we tried that for the first class, where Poll Everywhere plus chat were their only way to interact with me, and then I lectured — I would pause every few minutes to check in on the chat thread. Another minor tech thing that was a major distraction: I did not turn off chimes for when people entered and exited while I was in teaching mode. While in the middle of the lecture, I couldn’t find the feature, so I just left it on. It got really distracting with people exiting entering throughout the class, sometimes involuntarily due to connectivity issues. These are norms that you have to figure out so they don’t take away from the whole experience. So after the first class, a few things to change included the chimes, have even more interaction opportunities than an in-person class, allow students to raise hands, do not require students to switch between screens.

For the second class, we did hand raising, so I would call on people when they raised their hands. I wanted to test breakout rooms, something I had used at work a few times but never with students, so I put them into breakout rooms right in the beginning to discuss a class question about A/B testing. I wanted to test this out right away to get the students engaged, and also prepare for another breakout rooms at the end of class. A lot of students really, really enjoyed being able to have a smaller breakout room with three or four students. But then we also realized that the way some students had Zoom connected, they weren’t able to actually do the breakout rooms. So it became a problem for some students that were not in groups. Overall, breakout rooms were a great idea, with a note to help students who couldn’t get into breakout rooms. Additionally, some of my students have roommates who were still sleeping during the 8:45AM class, which prohibited those students from being able to really talk too loudly during the breakouts or during class.

The breakout rooms helped with engagement, and we paired that with chats and hand-raising for different styles of engagement. It was a much more interactive class than the first. When in a remote class, I think there’s something that’s really nice about calling on people with their hand raised and then hearing the voice of someone else that’s not mine. We would switch from presentation mode back to this Brady Bunch family-style photo where I now saw people talking, and it was nice just to see that. I am the type to really thrive on the energy in my physical classrooms. You can tell that there was definitely a group of people that crave that kind of interaction with people.

I found some great tips on Harvard’s Teach Remotely page as well.

Students come to classes with different backgrounds and needs. What are some ways to make sure that student accessibility is a priority when teaching online?

Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney shared a bunch of resources about accessible online experience. There are so many layers of accessibility, from reading and watching lectures on a screen to internet access to having a quiet place to watch lectures live, et cetera, and it is critical that we prepare for as many as we can, to make learning possible to all of our students.

I think the way it’ll unfold over the next few months is that yes, it’s really different to be an in-person university to go online, but at the same time, there are MOOCs and online communities and other remote organizations we can look to for best practices. And I think we need to consciously reach out and see what are some of the best practices of remote-first companies or MOOCs or others that we can now adopt. Then also recognize that it’s not enough, because the MOOCs don’t deal with the same kind of issues that we’re dealing with at Harvard.

But it can be helpful to take some of their best practices and see how it can fit in with what we’re doing, I think could be beneficial. I learned so much from being at Mozilla, a remote-first company, and having people like Abby Cabunoc Mayes teach me all the ways of online training. Even if we have a list of 10 things you have to do before you start a meeting with your students and include turn off chimes and these really common things. I think we’ll see that unfold. And as things settle, maybe some students are going to get together in small groups to get into the remote session together. They might do that because it’s less isolating. Again, I think we’re going to watch people make the best of the situation and watch that unfold. I think what’s important to take note of is that we have to be okay with constant change.

What tips do you have for educators teaching online for the first time?

I came at this with a lot of privilege. At Harvard, we already had tools in place for remote learning, and I personally have a home office space. I also work for Mozilla, and we’re a remote-first company. So hopping on Zoom was normal for me. My class is also a class about building technology, so I understand testing out products, and I am very familiar with Zoom. Even then, we still had things to improve on each class! There are faculty members and students who have never opened Zoom, so there definitely will need to be grace and empathy during the ramp-up period for all.

A way to start: Log into the video conferencing tool in advance. Get familiar with the space. It’s like scoping out a lecture before you have to lecture. Find all the weird quirks. And then invite some students or friends to join to have a mock classroom. Mimic just what it’s like to talk and share your screen, sharing different screens, switching between breakouts, chats, and sharing to not sharing. Then ask for feedback from your attendees of the mock class. They can tell you, “When you do this, I see this,” and then you can troubleshoot. Put yourself in the environment, Do a fake teaching session and see what it looks like for you and for them as you try out different things. At the very least, it’ll get you comfortable in the environment, so it’s not the first time.

Also, the best time to get feedback from students is immediately after the class or even throughout. But get feedback on how it went for everyone because different classes have different styles; some of these classes are lecture-based, others are very discussion-based. Some require students to go out into the field! So, get feedback on how the students thought of the class and just keep going and change over time.

I think this piece is really important: set the tone as a faculty member of being incredibly empathetic to what everyone is going through and being flexible. If a student can’t do something like show video — even though that’s in the university guidelines — that’s fine. Highlight that we’re all learning together. This is just a different kind of environment, so set this tone of understanding and learning and empathy for everyone.

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Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how…

Berkman Klein Center

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The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University was founded to explore cyberspace, share in its study, and help pioneer its development.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

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