Taking It To the Screen — Lessons Learned from Teaching Online

My most popular blog post by far is, “Teaching: It’s about Inspiration, Not Information.” Readers resonated with the message that the role of a teacher is not to unscrew your skull and pour in knowledge, but to tap into your soul to spark your imagination. So, how do you do that in our new world where so much teaching is done online?

Over the past months I have had lots of opportunities to experiment with this, teaching popup classes, guest lectures, workshops, and full blown courses. Although I am not an expert, I have learned a lot so far. Here are some of my insights:

Creating a class culture — When you teach in a classroom it is much easier to build a class culture that resonates with the material you are teaching. You can “set the stage” by customizing the space and creating norms. This is trickier online, since students are in their own space, connected by a screen.

I have been experimenting with different ways to set the stage online. One of my favorites is to play music as students arrive and leave. I pick a musical theme for the day that sets the tone for our learning. Something upbeat and energizing works best, since it wakes up our bodies and our minds. If you are as extroverted as I am, you can even dance, and invite the students to join in. Other alternatives include changing your backdrop to something that resonates with the theme of the day, and inviting the students to do the same. For example, you could all decide to meet in New Zealand or Rome, and have everyone change their background to an image from that destination.

Showing that you care — As quoted in the referenced article, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Again, this must be done differently online. Without the ability to engage with each student personally in class, I have taken to doing an exercise that I adapted from a short video created by the first generation and low income students (FLI) at Stanford. It is called, “What I Wish My Professor Knew.”

On the second day of class, after the list of participating students has settled, I ask them to anonymously submit a statement or two about what they wish I knew about them. They are welcome to include their name, but it isn’t required. The results are illuminating! Not only do I get a window into the situations they are dealing with, but the students feel heard. I can share what I learned with the class in general, so that they can treat each other with more empathy.

Since most students are dealing with something challenging, I remind them all that, “We should treat everyone as though they have a broken heart because they probably do.”

Connection doesn’t have to be just with you — Relationships in the classroom are critically important, but they don’t all have to be with you as the teacher. I’ve experimented with ways to create stronger connections between the students in the class. For example, I ask the students to bring something to class that tells us something about them, and as a warmup exercise I break them into small groups of 6–8 to share with each other, one minute a piece. This 10 minute activity allows the students to get to know each other, building a deeper connection to the classroom community.

I also adapted the famous 36 questions to fall in love for the classroom by creating “10 questions to fall in love with your team.” When the team projects are launched the second week, the small groups are asked to spend time going through these questions together. The experience bonds the teams in a meaningful way, allowing them to work well together even at a distance. Here are the 10 questions:

Let the students take the lead — Now more than ever students feel out of control, so the more control I can give them the better. I do this by giving open-ended prompts that allows them to shape the project. For example, this quarter the creativity challenge focuses on “Friendship.” Instead of my giving a specific challenge, such as “how might we help college students maintain friendships during quarantine?” I will let each team figure out what problem they want to solve, given this loose framing. Past prompts have included sleep, memory, money, death, time, and wildfires. The creative problem solving tools they learn will be adaptable to any challenge they choose to address in the future.

Every other week I do an I Like/I Wish brainstorm at the end of class session.

This five minute exercise allows me to see what is working well and what can be improved. It can be done on the online whiteboard so that you quickly get anonymous responses. This way all the students can see what others are feeling and how their experience matches with others, or not. This feedback allows the teaching team to course correct (pun intended) along the way, and the students can see that their input really matters.

Change is good — It is really hard for students to stay focused when looking at a screen for a long period of time. They (and the teacher!) get Zoom fatigue and just tune out. So, it is really important to change up the activities often, and to get the students involved in the action. A benefit of switching things up is that the teacher gets a break, too. When I show a short video or send the students into breakout rooms, I get to take a breath and look ahead to what comes next.

When planning each class, I see myself as a producer of an interactive play with lots of scene changes.

We go from a warmup exercise to a short lecture, to a breakout room activity, to white board work, to a chat discussion, to watching a short video, etc. Nothing is longer than 10–15 minutes. My favorite tool is the online whiteboard, since I can ask a question and instantly get dozens of responses. And, since the responses are anonymous, there is much less resistance to contributing.

Capture lessons learned — In my in-person courses, I always end the class by going around the room to ask students to share their biggest take-aways from the day in one sentence. This works with up to 30 students. Online this works even better, and with more students! I write the theme for the class at the top of a whiteboard, and ask the students to write down their biggest lessons learned that day. I use my newly acquired “whiteboard Tetris” skills to move the submissions around to make sure they don’t overlap. Then, the students can put stars and hearts next to the lessons that most resonate with them. An example is pasted below… This, along with all the media that was shared in class, is sent out to the students afterward, along with all the follow up assignments.

Some surprises — There are some funny surprises in teaching online. First, it takes MUCH less time to get ready right before class. Instead of showering, dressing, driving, parking, walking, setting up the classroom, etc… All I need to do is brush my hair and put on lipstick, and we are ready to rock and roll. Also, you get a glimpse into your student’s life, and get to share your own. My puppy, Coco, makes a cameo appearance now and then, and I get to see my students in their homes. The memorabilia on their walls, and the family members in the background add to the texture of the online classroom experience for all of us.

Yes, I look forward to getting back to the classroom with the students. But, I am also learning a tremendous amount about teaching by doing it in such a different environment. I know that I will bring many of these lessons back once we return. My goal for the coming year is to continue to stretch my imagination to find new ways to show my students how much I care while I share what I know.

As Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford. Author, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, inGenius, Creativity Rules http://www.tinaseelig.com/