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Tips and tricks for the digital lecturer

This is how to teach online classes

Across the university, UG lecturers have been preparing to teach their very first video classes. How are they going about it? What are some of the things they should avoid? Colleagues that have already made the switch provide tips. ‘Don’t expect everything to immediately go according to plan.’


Christien Boomsma

Door Christien Boomsma

31 March om 15:49 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
Christien Boomsma

By Christien Boomsma

March 31 at 15:49 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.
Christien Boomsma

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio
Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
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1 Don’t do too much

Keep it simple! Quite a few UG lecturers discovered the potential of Blackboard Collaborate. As amazing as that is, don’t overdo it. Not only are you a newbie at the whole thing, but the students aren’t used to this kind of education, either. 

‘Try not to let your fear make you look all over the internet for tools’, says professor of international management Alan Muller.  ‘Keep it manageable and make compromises. If all else fails, you can have the students upload their PowerPoint files. Just cancel the presentations if it’s too much of a hassle. Let your students know that this is how it’s going to be for a while.’

2 Teaching a digital class is teamwork

You’re used to facing your classroom alone, so why would this be any different? Nevertheless, it might be smart to involve a colleague or a teaching assistant. While you’re busy teaching your material, your students are asking questions in the chat, which can be very distracting. 

‘I asked a TA to also join the session and turn on their audio. Then they can interrupt me whenever there is a relevant question or directly answer easier questions’, says Malvin Gattinger, who teaches artificial intelligence. 

Economics and business lecturer Derk-Jan Heslinga is also a fan of teamwork: ‘Present with several teachers and divide the roles between presenter and moderator.’ Once the seminars get going, the lecturers shouldn’t all just take on a group by themselves. ‘Combine forces. Appoint two presenters and two moderators. Divide the work.’

3 Break up your class into smaller parts

An online class is fundamentally different from a live one. You can’t feel how the group responds to you and the students don’t have time to settle down, if only because you no longer turn your back on them to wipe the whiteboard clean. 

Pharmaceutical professor Eelko Hak broke up his classes into half-hour bits. ‘It’s a way of spreading the risk in case the technology fails, but it also makes you think about the structure of your classes and when to give your students a break’, he says. ‘Online classes are really intense for everyone involved. Breaking them up also allows your students to watch the smaller sessions, and they don’t have to click through ninety slides.’

Muller breaks his classes up into even smaller bits: twenty minutes for a live class and ten minutes for a pre-recorded session. ‘Be clear in explaining what you’re going to do and why. Summarise at the end of each bit. Tell your students where you are in your narrative and what they can take away from it.’

4 Organise a practice session

Don’t think that just because you took a CIT webinar, you’re now a computer wiz. It might be a good idea to organise a practice session with a few students. It’ll allow you to pick up on the small things you need to do differently, like using headphones instead of your computer’s speakers. You might find out that a student using Explorer instead of Chrome doesn’t have audio, or that things become extremely confusing when people leave their microphone open when they’re not talking.

Muller calls himself a control freak, but he still recommends a practice session. ‘There will always be students who want to log in early’, he says. 

‘You can show them how the sessions are recorded, how you can make a picture bigger or smaller, and how to turn off the board function for students’, Hak adds. ‘Otherwise they’ll end up drawing on your screen. And don’t forget to show them how the chat function works.’  

5 Use your hands

It’s easy to forget that the students only see you on a very small portion of the screen. That means you have to adjust your posture and your voice if you want to keep their interest.

‘Look straight into your webcam every once in a while’, trainer Frederiek van Rij with the Centre for Information Technology suggests. ‘It makes students feel like you’re talking directly to them rather than just reading from the slides.’ 

Muller agrees wholeheartedly. ‘You have to seduce people with your voice and your sense of timing. ‘Use bigger gestures, more expression, more voice dynamics.’

6 Communicate clearly and a lot

Everything is different right now. Help your students out a little, will you? The easiest way to do so is to stick to the structure of your web schedule. ‘That’s easiest for everyone and your schedule should have a logic to it’, says Hak. Nestor Announcement is also a useful tool to keep students up to date. ‘Announce your session fifteen minutes beforehand’, says Hak. 

You should also clearly tell your students what you expect of them. Tell them to watch the Blackboard Collaborate instruction video beforehand, for example. Tell them the same rules that applied to the physical classes apply to the online ones or ask them to close tabs they don’t need for the class’, Van Rij suggests. If they don’t have a webcam, ask them to upload a profile picture. ‘That’s really helpful in smaller groups; you’ll know how many people are attending your class.’  

Don’t forget that quite a few international students have since returned to their respective home countries. ‘Be precise in mentioning times plus time zone’, suggest FEB’s Liane Voerman. ‘Our students might be in different time zones.’

7 Interact

We’re all going a little crazy from staring at our computer screens all day. If you want to keep your students’ attention, you have to interact with them as much as you can. 

Once you’ve figured things out and know how the basics work, you can explore the other tools available in Blackboard Collaborate. ‘Only listening for an hour is probably even more boring online than in real’, says Gattinger. ‘There is a nice function in Blackboard to make a poll and show the results afterwards. And there is also the “breakout groups” function to let students discuss in random small groups.’

Make sure to explain to your students how the tools work. ‘Tell the breakout groups that they won’t be able to see the slides in the main room, but that they can still ask questions in the Everyone chat’, says Van Rij. ‘I’d advise students to have an interactive moment once every fifteen minutes. You need that in online classes to make sure the students are focusing and give them the opportunity to actively process the material.’

8 Blackboard can’t do everything you can

Quickly adding a slide just before your presentation, clicking on a YouTube video, or sharing a link; these are easy in everyday life, but not during a Blackboard Collaborate session.  

‘Look over your slides to see if you need to change anything about your answer graphics or other objects’, says Hak. ‘It’s easier to just make a separate slide with the answers.’

Blackboard is not a great place for PowerPoint slides anyway. There’s a good chance they’ll end up looking distorted. Turn them into PDF files to solve that issue. 

At the same time, Blackboard can do a lot of things you can’t. For example, it can track whether students actually click things. It can also keep track of how many people have their virtual hands up in the air. Super useful.

9 Leave room for questions

Back when we still taught in person, students could come up to you with questions after the class.  They still want to ask questions. Give them that option by not immediately logging out when your class is over. 

‘This is also a nice time to get feedback from the students’, says Gattinger. ‘My favourite comment so far was someone writing “Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button!” in the chat, as if I had a YouTube channel now!’

Ask yourself whether the answer to a question from an individual might benefit the entire group. ‘If so, answer it through Nestor Announcement’, suggests Hak. 

10 And… relax! 

 Perhaps the most important tip: expectation management.

‘Don’t expect everything to go according to plan straight away’, Van Rij tells lecturers. ‘It’s entirely possible a roommate walks in on a student sometimes, or one of your kids walks in on you. Teaching online is new to most of us, so just be patient with everyone.

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