Dr. Steve’s Tips for Online Teaching

If you are facing putting your classes online, I have a few suggestions. It is daunting, but gets easier. Your online material does not have to be perfect. You are preparing for a guided conversation, not a conference paper/presentation.

It is not a lecture. If you just move a lecture online, you are throwing away most of the strength of the medium. In addition, you are using a really weak way of delivering a lecture. It’s a lose-lose situation.

In my experience, online teaching done well is a better way of teaching. It allows and encourages more interaction with ideas. It cuts back on the teacher’s temptation to just lecture at students.

Don’t spend time on making it tight and pretty.

Spend time making your information succinct.

Greatest power – nurturing the interactions between students, between student and teacher and, most important, between students and information.

The big shift is to an ongoing learning experience.

Here are my guiding principles.

  • Information is not learning is not knowledge
  • Separate and lift
  • Require participation – clear requirements
  • It takes more time – for both you and students
  • Active learning
  • Ongoing repair – Get something up. Ask how it is working. Continue to fix and tweak it.

Information is not learning is not knowledge

This is an issue in all learning. It doesn’t matter if it’s online or face to face.

Information is provided from books, articles and lectures. Information is a thing. Think of it as a pail of water. Or, to beat an analogy some more, some information is water. Other information is soap. You can pass information from student to student and no one gets clean. The information doesn’t change and neither do the students.

HOWEVER – In order to get clean, a student has to interact with that information. They have to dip their hands in and rub em together. Get some soap and do the washy washy thing. Learning is the same. The student has to mess with information in order to learn.

So What?

The teacher’s job is to

1. provide information and

2. set up situations that make the students wash their hands.

3. Correct/advise students to improve their hand washing.

In face to face teaching, all these things (in a perfect world/class) happen concurrently. In online teaching, these things are divided.

Separate and Lift

Different tools. Different tasks. This is one of the most time consuming, but powerful aspects to teaching online.

Video your lectures. Don’t worry about having wonderful production value. You can do this with the camera on your phone or computer. Keep it short. Most teachers think of having a room of people listening to them talk is a treat. We tend to drone on.

Tech note: I like to have very simple slides that I use to emphasize what I’m talking about and keep me on track.

Design note: Rule of 5. No more than 5 points on a slide or 5 words in a point. Otherwise, you aren’t summarizing. People won’t read the slide. But you will and there are few things that can lose an audience more quickly than reading a slide.

Tech note: I use Camtasia to put the slide as the main part of the movie and stick me talking in the corner. I tried without the vid of me talking and without the slides and students said they preferred both.

Design note: Don’t take too long to make this – it’s information. Don’t TALK too long. Students will die if your lectures are more than 15 minutes. This is no different than in class. They’ve stopped listening, but they are physically there. If you MUST talk longer than 10 minutes, consider posting a couple of shorter vids.

Post Summaries. Summarize the vids and readings. Doesn’t have to be way time consuming, just quick reminders. Yes, some will just view the summaries. Their issue, not yours. Main points on top. Blather on at the bottom (like this).

Post Readings. This is pretty well established by now.

Discussions – Real power hereDiscussions are where students can interact with the ideas presented in the readings and videos. This is a really powerful improvement over face to face teaching. However, you can easily mess this up. Here are some hints:

Require and set expectations. Students have a lot going on in their lives. If you just tell them to talk among themselves, only a few will. How often do you volunteer to take on extra work?

I require a number of posts each week (the number depends on the class). I give a participation point every week from 1-3. I describe the kind of post gets what point value. This makes a significant part of the final grade. I tried 1 or 0, but that didn’t get rich discussions.

Some of the things that I assign point values to in order to force/encourage engagement – Make a connection with something we have read or, even better, with more than one thing we have read.

Ask a question.

Comment on someone else’s post.

Posit a new idea, taking info read and tying it to your own personal experience.

Post questions and activitiesto start discussions. Active learning is essential. The students need to use the information to do something, then discuss what worked, what didn’t, what confused them, what made sense. This is engaging the information. It is combining the soap and water and rubbing hands together.

Allow students to start their own discussions – based on thoughts or questions.

Ask questions of each other. You also want them to ask questions of each other. A common way to do this is to set expectations for commenting on another student’s post by including 1. Something you like/learned/agree with. 2. A question

Students post questions for class meeting BEFORE. During the week we hope that questions arise. That’s a sign that students are trying to make sense of the material. Encourage or require students to post questions they want YOU to address a few days before online class meetings. This serves three purposes. First, you can prepare. Second, it requires the students to consider what they do and don’t understand prior to class. Third, it reduces the dissonance of lots of questions during the online class (more on this later).

What do YOU do during the discussions?

This is where things get time consuming and wonderful. As the students begin to explore the ideas, you want to goose the discussion, lead the discussion if it starts going afield. You do this by regular comments. By regularly commenting, you turn learning into an ongoing exercise. The students see that you are looking and participating. When the discussions become rich, the class morphs from a single weekly event to an ongoing consideration.

You can also KILL the discussion. AVOID these things.!!!

Don’t be the one with all the answers. Show a direction. Point to places in the literature. Suggest other searches. If you regularly ride in with the answers during the discussion days, then you will stop any searching and playing with ideas. They will just start to guess what you want as a response. This is tricky for teachers. We WANT to answer. But to do so kills the discussion. When a class begins regular, rich discussions, you have entered into a new kind of teaching/learning environment. You are not handing out soap and water. You are handing them out and the students are washing. They are getting clean. Remember, you already know. They don’t. Learning is an interaction between a person and information in time. It is an active event. If you hand answers, you kill discussion and you are stopping learning.

Guide don’t tell. If you disagree, try first to point to the reasons why. Give examples. Do not say that you are right and they are wrong. Show why and how you came to your conclusions. Perhaps you will learn something.

In the class meeting I strongly prefer having a synchronous class meeting. There is a power when you can foment group think. One student’s comment feeds on another and you can help guide and suddenly, you will have an aha moment. I try to keep in mind:

  • Build on what has happened in the discussions
  • Re-enforce learnings
  • Answer questions from the discussion boards
  • Have new, boundary crossing challenges/questions/activities (trying to combine readings and discussions)

Purpose of the class is to develop and grow group understandings. In these situations, you are an expert – not THE expert. The group comes to an understanding. It is not a dull parroting of information. I do try to keep these meetings short – about 90 minutes tops.

  1. Tie together Readings, lecture, discussions. I will often have a short (2-4 slides) presentation. This is the place for specific feedback on
  2. Answer Questions Important balance. You want to inspire conversation. Conversation and working with ideas will result in questions. However, as in a face to face class, questions can sidetrack the class. If it is a deep question and is important, I will make a note of it and say I will answer that in the online lecture or notes (Note: Don’t forget this followup). I try to keep the questions in class for clarification and those that aid in group think.
  3. Discussion/ Posit questions. Bring the theory into the real world. Ask for situations where pertinent issues/questions arose. A good approach is, given a situation 1. What did you do? How did it turn out? 2. What information/tools did you have? 3. What additional tools/ information do you wish you had? 4. What would you do differently, particularly having been given the information shared in this week’s lessons?
  4. Set up next week. An overview of information to be covered. If the pieces are challenging, a very quick explanation. Point out the most important. Some feedback to improve level of discussion or complement good work.
  5. Any questions? Ask for questions and feedback. You have to be more proactive in asking for feedback. In a live class, you can sense interest, boredom, confusion. You get some from webcams, but not as much.

I like to have people use their webcams. This helps build the social connection. It also encourages people to pay more attention. I always have a webcam on me. I try to break the idea that I am a disembodied voice. When I teach a hybrid course with some students on site and others online, I use one cam on me and another pointed at the class on site.

Tech hints:

Microphones – remember to turn them off unless speaking. Often you’ll hear background mic noise when someone forgets and leaves their mic on.

Cameras – remind students that they are on, so they can be seen. Dress appropriately.

About Chat – Most conferencing software has a chat function. You can get lost with chat really quickly. If you try to focus on the class and what people are saying and also what is going on in the chat – it’s a recipe for disaster. The more people in the class, the more of a problem this is.

One option is not to use chat at all. Students can use it to “pass notes” among themselves. However, a chat for the entire class doesn’t work for me. I have seen

For more than a dozen people in the class, I recommend having assistants who monitor the chat. If they see something that is important, they can shoot it to you (I often have them use email, which I monitor.) Keep your focus.

It Takes More Time. Putting things online and cultivating rich discussion takes more time than a usual class.

It also takes time in different hunks of time. In lecture classes, there is a single big chunk of time for the lecture and another chunk for reading. To make discussions work, it is essential that reading is done toward the beginning of the week and that discussion is ongoing.

Nothing is a one off. The rich discussions happen if the students get something up soon, then someone responds, then another chimes in.

This doesn’t happen automatically. It is different than the established paradigm of behavior in a class. So you have to be explicit. You have to talk about how and when and how often students should post. It is learned. If you take the time to teach this method of learning, you will see discussion quantity and quality improve over the semester.


This is an exciting time. It’s new and scary. That’s good for us as teachers. We often live in a safe place where we understand what is going on. Adventuring into a new medium helps us understand the confusion and excitement of the student experience. Don’t be afraid of messing up. Some things won’t work. Change them. Some things will be wonderful. Keep them.

Take the time to reflect both alone and with the class on the process of learning.

It’s about learning – the active moment when a person interacts with static information and creates an aha moment.

In my world, if you put those aha moments to use so that that learning can be retrieved, used, manipulated and changed – then you have knowledge.

Questions. Comments. Schatz@powerstart.com

If anyone expresses an interest, I’ll even put up a discussion board on powerstart.com.

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