Brave New COVID-19 World of Online Classes

As have many of us in the education world, the COVID-19 crisis has forced me to figure out ways to deliver my classes online. In doing so, my goal is to provide my students with a learning experience that is as similar as possible to the experience of attending my in-person classes. My typical in-person classes are highly interactive with students working on case problems in small groups of three or four. I speak to my students as a whole class and also in their small groups. 

In the last couple of days, I held my first two online, synchronous classes.  I used Webex by Cisco which is an online meeting platform adopted by my college. Webex has a type of meeting called a “training session”.  It is an unfortunate and confusing name. It is NOT a session to learn how to use Webex. It is a type of online meeting that can be used to provide training, such as a college class. For my purposes, a key feature of a Webex training session is the ability to have breakout groups.

In each of the two online classes I held using a Webex training session, I was able to successfully interact with the class both as a whole large group and also in small breakout groups.  I was able to draw on a whiteboard using a drawing tablet I recently received from Amazon. I could share my laptop screen and apps such as Powerpoint and Chrome.  Within the breakout group rooms, students collaborated by having voice discussions, using whiteboards and sharing their screens and apps. I dropped by to visit each of the break groups to provide guidance and assistance. Overall, I would say it was a success with only some minor hiccups or missteps. 

As we all know, technology is only as good as the humans who use it. I want to share some more specific thoughts and observations that are categorized as either “technological” or “human”.  

Technological Observations

Going into these online classes, my biggest concern was the potential lack of bandwidth. Due to the overall greater demand for online connectivity, the worst-case scenario was not having enough consistent bandwidth to be able to conduct an online class in any useful way.  That worst-case scenario did not happen. (Fingers crossed.) The only connectivity issue I experienced was some intermittent loss of audio at my end during one of the classes. In other words, at times, I could not hear or verbally say anything. At those times, I compensated by using the text chat function on Webex. 

The whiteboard available on Webex did not respond very well to the drawing tablet.  There were gaps and lags between what I wrote on the tablet and what appeared on the screen.  A better alternative is using Microsoft Whiteboard (which is built into Windows 10). Drawing on MS Whiteboard was smooth and seamless.  Anything you can do on a whiteboard in a real classroom, can also be done on an online whiteboard. 

Human Observations

Whatever instructions you give students in advance on how to access and use an online classroom will be ignored by at least some of them. On a Webex training session, almost any device can be used to access the session but only a computer laptop can access a breakout group and other functions such as screen and app sharing.   I specifically advised students to use a laptop computer instead of a smartphone or tablet. Some students still used their iPad or phone and quickly ran into problems.

Doing stuff online usually takes longer than doing it in person. Learning how to interact online for both me and my students was a bit of a challenge. It took some time to learn how the technology worked.  For example, learning how to “unmute” to be able to speak was a challenge for some students.  In one instance, I was speaking and drawing on a whiteboard for about five minutes before a student mentioned that they could not see what I was drawing.  I then realized that I had forgotten to “share” my screen.  Even after overcoming the technological learning curve, online teaching and collaboration still needed more time and patience than meeting in person. I had to scale back my expectations of how much material can be covered in a class.

The online environment did not seem to affect pre-established student behaviours.  Students who normally arrived to class early or on time also did the same for the online class.  Students who are usually late for class were also late for the online class. Students who normally participated in class discussions also were more likely to participate in the online classroom. Student groups who worked well together in a regular classroom were also very engaged and active in the online breakout group rooms.  Students groups who were very quiet and inactive in a regular classroom also behaved in the same way in the online rooms.

About Wayland Chau

Post-secondary educator involved in teaching and course design for face-to-face and online learning.
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