Max. Classroom Capacity: On Teaching in Fully Online and Hybrid Formats
Loren J. Naidoo
Welcome readers! A little more than a year ago I wrote a column on preparing to teach an online class. At that time I was about to teach a fully online section of psychology research methods for the first time. That class has come and gone, and I’ve also just finished teaching a hybrid format statistics class, also for the first time. I’d like to share with you some of my experiences as a new online/hybrid instructor as a follow up to the column from last year. My goal is to provide some further food for thought for those of you considering teaching fully online or hybrid format classes.
But before I get into the messy details, let me quickly recap what the research literature seems to say about online/hybrid teaching: The flexibility of asynchronous online classes that lets students learn on their own time more than compensates for the detrimental effects of a lack of face time with students, and hybrid formats tend to offer the best combination of flexibility and face-time. Further, about a quarter of university students have taken at least one online class.
Here are some things that I have learned.
1. The Structure of the Class Requires a Lot of Thought and Planning
My colleague Erin Eatough was on the money a year ago when she noted that the most important consideration in planning on online class is how the structure of the class can be designed to support your educational goals and students’ successful management of the self-regulation challenges inherent in online classes. I structured my class such that each week students first had to watch a video lecture and complete an associated online quiz on that material by Wednesday. Then students had one or two assignments to complete by Sunday. I kept this basic structure in place for each week to provide students with consistent expectations for their behavior so that they could develop effective habits for the class. Having a clear schedule with weekly deliverables also allowed me to track students’ engagement in the class and quickly identify any those who were not meeting their responsibilities.
Some issues for you to think about are how you are going to present critical information (readings, discussion, lecture, video resources, podcasts), how you will track student engagement in the class (tracking of video views, discussion board posts, e-mailed questions), how you will assess student learning and at what intervals (e.g., online quizzing, discussion board posts, assignments), and what technology is needed to produce (e.g., Camtasia, Officemix) and post materials (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas).
2. Recording a Video Lecture Is Very Different From Presenting in a Classroom
I like to think I’m a pretty engaging instructor. This is feedback I get a lot from students (e.g., “He’s annoyingly energetic and enthusiastic, especially for a 9 AM class”). I really enjoy being in class, interacting with students, asking questions, answering questions, and so on. It’s a joy to observe students “aha moments” when you know you’ve had an impact. On the flip side, every semester I get a few questions from students that make me change my understanding of a theory or think of a new research idea. I love it. I didn’t realize how much my own teaching style (and, possibly, effectiveness) relies on interacting with students until I sat alone in my office to record my first video lecture and then spent the next hour watching and editing it. Yikes—I didn’t know I could be that boring! I really struggled to find that same level of enthusiasm and energy in the absence of real-time student input, and frankly, it wasn’t nearly as much fun for me. However, others may prefer the predictability and control of recording lectures. I try to do as little editing and as few “second takes” as possible, but others may relish in this kind of work. Maybe recording lectures is to presenting in class like classical music is to jazz—both are good, just different. Anyway, having only done it poorly, I’m not sure I have great advice on how to create a great video lecture. In the future I will try to be more scripted and to build in more stories, examples, and multimedia. It’s important to note that not every instructor chooses to record video lectures. Some prefer simply to use readings, existing media, and discussion (or other combinations) and do not themselves present any material. I’m far too conventional to contemplate doing that but it’s an option!
The other challenge for me was the absence of real time feedback on how clear, comprehensible, and interesting my presentation was. When you’re in front of students it’s usually pretty obvious when you’re being unclear, confusing, or boring, and over time you learn what works and what doesn’t. I found it very difficult to get that kind of feedback in an online class. Which brings me to the next point.
3. It’s Difficult to Teach a Class Online That You’ve Never Taught in Person
I think when you’ve taught a class more than once and you have developed a sense of how to effectively deliver your message, the lack of immediate and candid feedback on your presentation is less important. However, when you’re teaching the class for the first time (as I was), this lack of feedback can be crippling. This is particularly problematic given the massive investment in time to record, edit, render (rendering alone can entail several hours of waiting), and upload video lectures—you want to get this right the first time! By the way, along the same lines, if you are recording videos that you wish to reuse, try not to mention students’ names or specific dates or anything that might be confusing to the next set of students to watch the videos. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly difficult to avoid and a pain to edit out after the fact!
4. It Can Be a Challenge to Get to Know Your Students
I don’t think this is necessarily so, and experienced online instructors probably develop different ways to get to know their students. I found that this was a challenge. There were some practices I initiated to try to develop rapport with students at the beginning of the semester. I asked everyone to add a headshot photo to their course website profile and to complete a survey with various self-report measures of psychological characteristics. They completed an introductory blog post in which I asked them to talk about why they chose to take this class in an online format and what about the class that they are most excited and anxious about. Not surprisingly, almost every student preferred the online format for scheduling flexibility, often because this was their last required class before graduation, they were working full time, and/or had children. Many expressed anxiety about the workload or the responsibility of keeping track of the class online. I responded to each student who expressed concerns that I thought I could help address.
I think this was a good start, but it was difficult to maintain momentum throughout the semester. To maintain students’ scheduling flexibility, my goal was to require no synchronous meetings with students. However, the next time I teach this class I will require periodic synchronous meetings using Skype or something similar, at least in the early parts of the semester, to try to build a sense of community and make sure students are on track.
5. The Technology You Choose Matters
There are many options available for recording a video lectures and choosing one that works for you is important. In terms of software, I use Camtasia for recording, editing, and rendering video. There are many other options (e.g., Adobe Premiere, Final Cut), but I really like Camtasia’s combination of power, flexibility and intuitive design. It takes a little time to learn but on the whole it’s very easy to use. In terms of hardware, I think it’s worth investing in a good mic (I use a Tascam DR-40 recorder/mic) to get clear, noise-free audio. A good webcam is also worth considering if you need one (e.g., for some reason Dell built their webcam into the bottom left corner of my laptop screen).
For my fully online class I used a blogging site developed by my university as the primary interface with students. Others may prefer Blackboard, Canvas, or similar platforms. I posted videos to Vimeo.com so as to avoid size limits with Youtube. In addition, Youtube has some automatic copyright detection that can prevent the use of short clips from copyrighted works that would otherwise fit under fair use rules. However, in my hybrid class I posted videos to Youtube and embedded them in Blackboard, which worked fine. I’m not a big fan of Blackboard as a general rule. I find it cumbersome, clunky and counterintuitive. However, I do like the feature which allows you to track when students access a video. One thing to think about is what level of privacy you would like to set on your videos. I was quite conservative, choosing private, password-protected videos. Others may prefer for their work to be freely available to as many people as possible.
One area I am looking to improve upon is the support of collaboration between students. I had my fully online research methods class design and conduct three empirical group-based research projects. For these, I asked students to brainstorm design ideas on a shared Google document. The objective was for me to be able to check in and offer feedback and guidance during the design process. Google docs takes some getting used to, and I found that the interface really slowed me down. In addition, Google docs works best as an asynchronous collaboration tool, and I did not require any formal synchronous meetings among students or with me. Some students used various means of communicating with each other in real time, including phone, Skype, and probably other ways I haven’t heard of. Other groups worked only asynchronously. Blackboard collaborate provides one option for synchronous communication. Others include Webex, Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp, and so forth. Notwithstanding the software issue, I think I failed to provide enough structured time for synchronous conversation with students, and next time I will do more of this.
6. Hybrid Teaching Can Be Fantastic
In my admittedly limited experience I found that hybrid format can mitigate against many of the challenges and disadvantages of fully online format. First, you can separate instructional aspects that require hands-on or face-to-face contact from those that do not and implement the former in class meetings while relegating the latter to online instruction. For example, in my applied statistics class, I had online video lectures that focused on the statistical theory and uses of each analysis, while class time was spent applying this knowledge to the analysis of actual data sets and to discuss areas of confusion, questions, and so forth. Similarly, in a hybrid format introduction to I-O psychology class, you might prepare video lectures that present key theories, with class time reserved for exercises, discussion, Q&A, and so on.
In sum, the fully online format presents certain challenges, requires careful thinking about how to structure your class in light of your educational goals and requires you to invest in learning about and learning to use software appropriate for your needs. Converting a course you’ve taught before to fully online is probably better than developing a new class from scratch. One way to do this is to convert the class to hybrid format first, carefully developing materials over time until you are able to offer the class fully online.
I hope this gives you some ideas and a sense of the issues that may be important to consider when making the switch to online or hybrid instruction. Please e-mail me if your experiences have differed or if you have any questions or comments!