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Published in Learning Matters

Teaching online — How to look like you’re not new to it

Transitioning teaching expertise from live face-to-face settings to online is not immediate. But there are a few little things that can make it look like you’ve been doing it for ages.

The essentials for good communication online?

Many of my friends have 30+ years of face-to-face teaching behind them. And like many educators, they are new to teaching online. Unfortunately, face-to-face teaching expertise may not transfer to an online setting immediately. So what can we learn from teachers who ARE experts at teaching online? Or, put another way, how can you look like you’ve been doing it for ages?

Know and teach the technology.

It’s no mean feat getting to grips with new technology. But it’s not enough for you to know the technology. Learners need to understand how to use it too. Don’t assume they know how to use Zoom or Skype or whatever technology you use. Consider sending a (YouTube) explainer video alongside your invitation to the sessions. Posting this communicates to the learner that they have a part to play in making sure they can participate.

Cameras on. No buts. No option.

Make it a requirement that learners have their cameras on, and tell them why you need them to have their cameras turned on. It’s harder for a sense of belonging to develop in a group online than it is face-to-face, so let’s not make it any harder by turning cameras off. If you can’t see the learners, you may be left listening to food chewing or crisp packets rustling. You may find yourself wondering​“are they even listening?” Try this.

For our lessons, it’s crucial that we have our cameras turned on. You need to see me similarly as you would in the classroom so that you can see how I use my hands and face to make and emphasise key learning points. I need to see you too — what we are learning today is important, and if you do not fully understand what I am saying, I need to be able to see that. I need to see that you are listening so I can ensure everyone understands. So can everyone turn their cameras on now, please? Thank you.” 

Make it a default behaviour by doing this EVERY TIME until it becomes automatic, as it is critical for learning online. 

Limit the amount of text on a slide.

Don’t make your slides the main focus. You don’t want text on slides competing with what you are saying. Learners should not be reading something when they should be listening to you. The points on the slides should complement what you are saying and act as the main point anchors.

Limit screen sharing.

It’s hard to have face-to-face conversations with slides still showing. If you are going to have an online teaching session, then the idea of teaching online is that it is as face-to-face as possible. The content is NOT the teacher — you are! Learners need to interact with you and not the slides. The slides are there to support you, not represent you. So, whenever you are having a conversation, turn the screen share off to make the focus you and your learners.

Write names down.

Have you ever forgotten the name(s) of a learner(s) when teaching face-to-face? If so you’ll know that to compensate you’ll either end up NOT asking them anything (so you don’t have to remember their name!) or try and bumble your way through without using their name. Of course, writing names down isn’t necessary if you are using technology that automatically displays user names. If this is the case, make a point of asking learners to show the name they’d like you to use. If none of this is possible, consider having photos with names on them to hand. Plus you then won’t mix up the learners and ask the wrong person the wrong question. Remember, you are a significant person in your learners’ lives. Having you, their teacher, forget their name does not serve their self-esteem, nor their need to sense that they belong to the group. 

Always use names when asking questions.

Knowing names enables you to nominate individuals to answer questions. Asking individuals questions makes it easier for you to ensure everyone is involved and avoids some learners opting out (waiting for others to answer the questions and dominate the session). Using names allows you to ask open questions such that everyone will think about their answer because they know you may nominate them to answer. Put another way, not using names makes it likely that some learners will opt out of thinking about the answer because they know that one of their peers is likely to. (They’ll even know who). The bottom line is using names will help you remember them (!). It will help learners feel engaged and part of the learning process and build on that sense of belonging that we want to nurture when teaching online. Using names ensures no-one sits on the sidelines and enables you to direct the flow of the learning conversation. You become the conductor of the orchestra.

Smile — lots.

Chances are most of your torso and legs won’t be visible. Learners may sometimes see your hands as you gesture to reinforce points, but most of the time, your face is pretty much all you’ve got at your disposal. What learners think of you will be based on what you say and what learners see from the face-up. If you smile, learners will focus on your smile or, if you aren’t smiling, they will focus on the lack of a smile. Learners want to have a good time online. Creating a positive learning experience online is hard, and nigh on impossible if the person orchestrating events isn’t smiling. As mentioned earlier — you are a significant other in learners’ lives. They will be looking at you as a role model. It is our job as the teacher to bring energy to the virtual room, to the content and the conversations around the content. The energy is not squirrelled away somewhere in the subject matter.

Face a light source and have your camera at eye level.

You want your learners to see you the best you can; you want them to see you as they would if you were teaching face-to-face. To make sure your learners can see you face a light source and have your camera at eye level. Ensure you do NOT have a window with sunlight coming in behind you. In most instances, you are better off having one light source in front of you and no lights at all behind. Turning up the brightness on your monitor can also help.

Stand up to teach or at least sit up straight.

Again this is about replicating, best you can, face-to-face teaching. Chances are, given a choice, most of us wouldn’t teach much sitting down, so give yourself the best chance of succeeding online by standing up when teaching. If needs be, use a pile of books to have your camera at eye level. It’s easier to smile and bring energy when you are upright. Why? It’s hard to explain. Try teaching sitting down at a screen and then do it standing up. Then you’ll see the​‘why’ for yourself.

State the purpose.

Define and state the purpose of the lesson at the start. You are setting expectations and imagining an outline of what is going to happen. Tell them what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. Tell them before you start, while they are succeeding and when it’s over — when they have reached their goals. Stating the purpose helps eliminate learners feeling anxious about what is about to happen. It sounds obvious, but by saying what the end goal is, you can point out to learners when they have succeeded. And nothing breeds success like success. Put it another way if you don’t make it clear what the end goal is don’t be surprised if you don’t get there. 

Take control

Finally, all of the above is about helping you be in control but if someone needs to be muted, mute them and speak to them later away from the group, as you would if you were in the workplace or classroom.

What next?

If you’ve missed it take a look at an earlier blog post — 5 no brainers for smarter teaching online.


Preview of the Poster (Available via the Link Below)


HOW2s — My journey

Damian Rollinson first used HOW2s when he was a sessional lecturer. In this blog post, he describes how HOW2s increased his confidence as a teacher and gave him more time to spend with his growing family.

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