Campus Universities and Online Teaching

With the corona crisis many campus universities have fast moved to online teaching. To help people in the transition, with a group of volunteers, we wrote an open guidebook, for educators in difference educational levels, on how to start online teaching. I mainly contributed to the section about how to continue university education in times when people cannot go to the campus. The Guidebook in Finnish is in the Finnish Wikibooks (Wikikirjasto). Feel free to translate it to other languages. To share some ideas in English, too, I wrote this.

As a teacher in a campus university, the first thing to do when starting online teaching is to find out what are the online tools and software provided by the university. In most universities there are some Learning Management System. For video conference many universities use Zoom.us, Hangouts Meet, MS Teams or Skype. Some favor the open source BigBlueButton for video conferencing. Google Drive and Office 365 are the most common tools for sharing and collaborating, and Google tools and MS Teams are used for teamwork. Many universities also use various types of instant messaging, such as Slack, Signal or Telegram, for teaching. To get an idea how are your students doing in times of the crises, you may also check once in a while your university’s Jodel-channels. In the anonymous platform students tell about their feelings very openly.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is often used for enrolling to courses, sharing content, communicating, forum discussions, assignments, and similar administrative activities. The LMS is good to be used as the portal for online teaching and learning; a single place where students will find all the other tools and software used in a particular course.

Scheduled lectures and group work can be conducted with a video conference. When your university have moved to online teaching, for students there are real challenges to stay in the mood of studying. Now you are competing with other online activities; watching movies, playing online games, hanging in a social media service. Therefore it is important that you will do all that scheduled lectures and meetings online, according to the original program. The video conferences will give students a scheduled time when they are expected to work with others in their studies. This will give them rhythm. There are other benefits, too. During the video conference, students can quickly ask from their teacher questions related to the course practicalities and completion, and as the teacher you can guide them through independent study, group works, and assignments.

Instead of using e-mail for general course related communication, it is better to use the LMS’s discussion forum, which will email notifications to students. This way the messages are archived in one place and can be read later. It is also good to have the schedule, the video conferences and course assignments in the LMS. This way they can be found in one place, no matter the time or place the students are. Most LMS are also usable with mobile phones.

Therefore, the very first step when starting online teaching in a campus university is to make sure that your course pages in the LMS are in good shape. Some universities automatically create a template for each course, including course descriptions, learning objectives, syllabus, timetable, and classrooms. In some universities, courses must be created by teachers to the LMS. It is good to think of your course page in the LMS as the course’s home page, a place where students can easily find the most important information about the course and how to complete it.

To the LMS’s course page you can add links to the software and study materials used in the course. Direct links to services (e.g. video conferencing) and materials (e.g., library database, PDFs, online videos, etc.) will make it easy for your student to use them in a right time. All they really need to remember or bookmark is the course page in the LMS.

The actual teaching, both remotely and traditionally, is mainly communication. Students should be actively reminded of assignments and the course schedule. Having scheduled video conferencing is a great way to rhythm online learning and teaching. The so-called flipped classroom is a good method for online learning, too. You may give students assignments to study topics independently, to read articles and watch videos (e.g. lectures or documentary films) and then use the video conference to discuss about the materials together. Just like in a traditional teaching, you can also divide students to small study groups and ask them to do assignments together. In the video conference the study groups can then present their results to others.

There are some tricks to have a successful video conference. Here is my list of seven tips:

  1. When someone is presenting, keep others’ microphones muted. If you can’t do this as the host ask all the participants to mute their microphones. This will reduce background noise and improve the quality of audio.
  2. When starting the video conference ask everyone to say hi for all. This will increase the sense of belonging. It is also way to test that everyone’s video/audio is working.
  3. Encourage everyone to have their video on. This will improve the feeling of presence. The participants will feel that they are together in a same room and helps to keep everyone on a same page. Modern video conference software and the bandwidth can handle video very well. If there is someone who really do not feel comfortable to have the video on, let them just to use the audio.
  4. Facilitate discussions. You may open microphones for some participants (2-4) in turns to have discussions and debates on the topics of the course. You may think this as a way of having a panel discussion or fishbowl conversation online. For a teacher this is an easy and nice way to give a turn for all to share their thoughts and to talk in the video conference.
  5. Use the share screen to give presentations. Also teach your students to use it. This way students may prepare presentations as an assignment and present their results to others.
  6. Use the breakout rooms (if you have them in your video conference software). Breakout rooms are a great tool to manage group assignments and discussions. Divide students to breakout rooms to have a discussion on the topics of the course. Then invite them back to the main room and ask them to summarise their discussions to all.
  7. Guide your students to use video conference and other collaboration tools to do their group assignments. Having these skills is a really crucial skills for the workforce of our time and the future. These times they may also organise online parties with the video conference tools.

Teaching online is not rocket science. It is possible and can be fun, too.

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