Lessons learned: 9 Takeaways from teaching online during COVID-19

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Lessons learned: 9 Takeaways from teaching online during COVID-19

Editor’s note: This story was originally shared on Medium by Damian Radcliffe. It has been republished here with permission.

 Like most educators, the coronavirus pandemic forced me to move my teaching online. And quickly.

My institution, the University of Oregon, like many others had to make some rapid calls about the move to online instruction.

Although I had some experience of creating materials for online courses, there is a big difference between contributing a few pieces to a MOOC (massive open online course), and delivering 3 x 10-week classes — at short notice — to a cohort which is both unsettled, and skeptical of the value/quality of teaching you might provide.

That many of these students had yet to take a class with me before, was also a factor. They didn’t know me. And I didn’t know them.

The learning curve was going to be steep. It still is.

Nonetheless, I am pleasantly surprised with how things have gone, and as we rapidly approach the end of term, it’s a good opportunity to pause and reflect on the experience.

With that in mind, here are nine key things that I have learned so far:

1) You cannot just replicate what you do IRL

I knew this, intellectually. But, I didn’t really know this until term started.

Zoom is exhausting. Especially if you’re the host, staring unblinking at a screen, trying to pick up on visual cues, and unable to look away, lest you look disinterested or bored. We just don’t engage like that in real life.

Typical classroom lectures don’t work either. Fortunately, I tend to only teach small classes, and I’m not the lecturing type. I may do a few a term, but they’re really discussions with slides + examples.

Tip: Break lectures up into a series of online quizzes — with questions after every 5–10 mins of presentation.

2) There is a value to hosting live classes

I continue to conduct most classes live. We don’t meet for the full scheduled duration (1 hour 50 mins), but will connect for 60–90 mins, with the rest of the class materials available for students to pursue at their own pace.

Several students have commented that I am the only instructor they have doing this. In some cases, my class(es) are the only ones they have with any live elements at all.

At a time when all the days feel the same, many students also tell me how valuable this is. For some, it is the only fixed point in their weekly calendar.

Especially for students living alone, it not only helps to create some routine, but also a sense of community.

Tip: If you have live classes, try to keep them under an hour. If they are longer, be sure to factor in different types of activities, just as you would do in a physical classroom.

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Photo via Ally Osborne, captured during our conversation with University of Oregon alum Isabella Garcia.

3) Record all your classes for later consumption

The digital divide is very real. And, right now, it’s having a bigger impact than ever on the education experience of all students. Whatever their age.

Lack of broadband access, coupled with the closure of coffee shops and many public spaces — making it difficult to access free Wi-Fi — and the fact that online learning can quickly chow through your expensive data plan; are all considerations that instructors need to be cognizant of.

Heck, my internet connection even slows down when it rains, which can be a real challenge given the climate in much of Oregon!

Alongside this, I have students who have jobs that clash with class — and in the current climate I’m not going to tell them to cut their job, I’m going to make sure they can catch class later.

Moreover, mental health considerations may also make it harder for students to show-up, even online, on a regular basis. Flexibility with attendance, especially right now, is therefore vital.

Tip: Record your Zoom classes, so if a student cannot join you, they can catch-up later. Be sure to record + share, the audio, as well as video, version of the class. The audio version consumes much less bandwidth.

4) Seek outside reassurance

Given the anxiety many students understandably felt when the transition to online teaching was announced, during Spring Break I sent a note to each class stressing continuity, telling them what we would be doing, and emphasizing how/why this would help their continued development.

As a Professor of Practice, a major part of my role is to bridge the gap between academia and the media industry. Conversations with industry professionals are a key means of doing this; often reinforcing conversations already being had in class.

This term, more than ever, these sessions have been useful in assuring students that jobs and freelance opportunities still exist, that you can produce good work remotely (including discussions about how to do this), and that remote working was already becoming more commonplace.

Tip: Conversations with young alum are especially useful, as their experience resonates better with students. Many of my Guest Speakers previously took the class (with me) that they are now guesting in, which provides a powerful feedback loop for the next generation.

Via Twitter

5) Some conversations turn out to be better online

I have moved many of the topics that we would have previously discussed face-to-face, to Canvas Discussions. (Which work a lot like Reddit threads.)

It’s notable that many of these written conversations — and the insights from students — are of higher quality than previous in-person efforts.

Some students clearly feel more comfortable expressing ideas in written form, via an online forum, so I will continue to do this in many cases, especially at the start of term when students are getting to know each other.

Tip: It can be hard to get students to open up, offering feedback, and sharing opinions. Instead of trying to force this on a Zoom call (Tumbleweed!) move the conversation online, so students can reflect and offer their thoughts in written form, when they are ready to contribute.

Via Digital Learning at Grant Wood AEA

6) Promote engagement by using breakout rooms

My teaching philosophy is much more predicated on being a mentor, rather than an instructor, a preference that’s helped by the fact that I tend to reach 400 level courses, working with seniors and juniors.

Discussion lies at the heart of my classroom. But, building the rapport required to make this work is hard online. That is where Zoom’s Breakout Rooms function becomes your friend.

Breaking into smaller groups is less pressured, and I have found that students are much happier to engage with each other in this setting.

Tip: You can drop into the Breakout Rooms to observe the conversations, and to chip in (if needed), without it being too intrusive.

Via Flipped Classroom Tutorials

7. Time Management is harder than ever

I am still struggling with this. The admin associated with online teaching feels like it has taken over my life. Turns out, that isn’t an exaggeration.

At first, I couldn’t understand why I seemed to be spending all of my time on Canvas, our Learning Management System (LMS).

So, I started to keep track of what I was doing, and I saw — very quickly — how the time started to add up.

  • If I commented on every student post to a discussion board, then just 50 words per student = c.1,000 words of written feedback. Multiply by 2–4 discussions per class, each week, and that’s 6,000–12,000 words.
  • I also realized that with 47 students this term, I only need to spend 10 minutes per student commenting on discussions, dealing with queries, etc. (nevermind grading) for this to take up nearly 8 hours of my time a week.
  • Alongside this, I spend an average of 90 mins per course, at the start of each week, setting up all of the instructions and assignments for the next seven days. With three courses this term, that’s another 4.5 hours gone.


This is all before 5x live classes a week (averaging 60–90 mins each), 2 x Office Hours, grading, etc… Ah, now I know where my time goes!

Of course, I am incredibly grateful to have a job that I love and one that I can do remotely. To be clear, I am not complaining.

But, at the same time, there’s a certain irony that I see less of my family when I work from home.

I am not alone in this. Bloomberg reports that we are spending three hours more per day on the job than before. We need to work smarter. Not harder.

Tip: There’s only so much you can automate. Clear instructions and delivery dates for work are more important than ever. However, there may be some ways (see below) to reduce some time-consuming work, without compromising on the value to students.

8) Finding different ways to give feedback

Given how much time my initial efforts were taking, I knew I needed to do things differently.

Although I believe this level of engagement — responding to everything being posted — was important to show that comments were valued, and that none of this was “busy work,” my methods were unsustainable.

At first, I decided to step back from responding to every student comment. Instead, I tried to offer a written summary at the end of each discussion, after all of the student contributions had been posted.

Then I switched this to a video reflection for a discussion, and later switching to a video reflection for the whole class.

However, I quickly ascertained from students that they weren’t watching them, and that their preference was to cover this in our conversation at the start of the first class of the week. Much easier!

Tip: When it comes to assignments, I’ve also moved away from written feedback, unless it’s necessary (e.g. long-form reporting pieces).

Instead, I’ve held 15x minute 1–1 feedback sessions on Zoom, and/or switched to top-line audio feedback on many graded assignments; which uploads quickly to our LMS. Both of these feel more personal, which is especially important when you’re working with students remotely.

Canvas, our LMS, has a video feedback function. But I find a huge time-lag on uploading these, and that they sometimes crash Canvas, or that they disappear altogether. That’s frustrating when a 4–5 minute piece to camera is lost. Audio uploads very quickly; and hasn’t crashed yet!

9. Don’t forget to have fun!

I love teaching, and still enjoy doing this remotely. Yes, it’s not the same, but I still believe that my students are learning useful stuff and that they are growing as journalists, while I am continuing to grow as an educator.

Because we all need a bit of levity in our lives right now, I encouraged a “wear a hat to class” day for one of my classes, which most students gamely participated in. (However, an attempt to “wear yellow” with another cohort failed spectacularly. I was the only one to do it!)

That might feel like a gimmick, but I am also trying to find fun, engaging, ways for students to learn too.

Members of my audio class had to record themselves eating, or drinking, something. After capturing the sound of it being consumed, along with a verbal description of the item — without mentioning what it was — they had to post this audio clip on a discussion board. The rest of us had to guess the item in question. TlDR; a modern-day parlor game for the pandemic age.

Every student in this class also selects a podcast episode for us to listen to and critique. “It doesn’t feel like homework,” the students often say. But, in doing this, they’re working their storytelling muscles by exposing themselves to audio content and consuming it critically.

Another class joined an industry webinar on Covering the Coronavirus, hosted by the Center for Health Journalism, which they loved.

Students watched the conversation in real-time, along with their industry peers, learning about the ground-breaking work being done by Ashley Alvarado and the team at Southern California Public Radio.

Alongside being exposed to these ideas, they also had to write a recap of it, within 30 minutes of the webinar ending, thereby mimicking the type of live event reporting many journalists have to do.

In doing this, students were introduced to concepts of engaged journalism (an emerging and increasingly important field) while at the same time, getting to practice reporting — and writing stories — more quickly.

These are valuable skills and knowledge to develop, and tapping into an online event in this way was much more authentic, and engaging, than a classroom simulation would have been.

Clearly, I need to learn how to take better selfies….

It remains early days for my online teaching. I am constantly trying to find new ways of doing things, modifying my approach as I go, and considering how best to change what — and how — I do it.

In the absence of any Jedi mind tricks, I hope these personal lessons and reflections are useful.

What tips and discoveries have other educators made this term?

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Published on: Jul 09, 2020

An experienced digital analyst, consultant, journalist, and researcher, and has worked in editorial, research, policy, and teaching positions
See more from Mr. Damian Radcliffe


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