So you’re going to teach remotely…

Remote meetings and teaching are an unfortunate necessity of the times. For those of us already using these platforms in positive ways, perhaps we can share some lessons on how to enhance your toolset.I thought I’d put together a quick post to address some of the ways things the classroom experience changes and suggest some technology support  for online classes.

I apologize for the stream of thought and incompleteness of this post. I wanted to put something out there right away. I’ll try to add, edit, and revise when time allows.

All Cameras On

I found the biggest struggle was my inability to wander through the classroom, peek over shoulders, and talk quietly to individual participants. I’m a walker and the online classroom is very much one of staying still.

My first rule is all cameras on with a further all cameras on faces. People are often uncomfortable with this, either switching their cameras off or pointing them up to the ceiling, essentially isolating themselves as students in a way they cannot do in a normal classroom, even by sitting at the very back with a phone in their lap. Push back and be insistent.

This rule goes a long way towards bringing the classroom together and making up for the fact that so much of the teaching experience is limited to a single viewpoint. The teleconferencing Zoom site offers a camera grid feature, which displays all participants at once (although not necessarily on the same screen, you will have to page through for large gatherings). This feature is especially important when you give in-class exercises, allowing you to keep track of the emotional temperature and find students who may be struggling.

Unfortunately, Zoom does provide an equivalent “screen peek”, so you cannot look over shoulders. Each screen must be shared and viewed individually.

As you teach, make sure you encourage participation, even more than you would in a normal classroom as there is always a danger of getting lost in your monotone without the immediate ability to “read the room” as you teach. Be extra conversational with give and take, much more than you would in a traditional class or seminar. This helps offset the technology and creates a warmth and inclusivity that otherwise would be missing.

Take Breaks

If you’re teaching extended classes, workshops, or labs, make sure to offer regular breaks to stretch and hit the bathroom. Put a timer onscreen. Most search engines allow you to enter “5 minute timer” and produce that timer for you automatically. Teaching, even remotely, is much more physically active a task than learning so remember your student’s endurance will be less than yours.

Prepare

Create a preflight list to ensure you’ve hit all the setup points before you go live teaching, including testing your camera and microphone and cleaning up your teaching platform. Don’t overshare. Depersonalize your desktop and your workspace.

Where possible, use a second unshared screen for teaching notes, outlines, and coordination. It’s far easier to lose track of time and go on tangents in a remote classroom because of the immediacy of the face-to-face conversation. Make sure you know what time it is, and what you have to cover in your lesson plan.

Have on hand a list of teaching objectives, scripts for live coding demos, working and starting code configurations. Don’t forget wrap-ups, next steps, and so forth. If you can, rehearse before you teach.

  • GitHub Place shareable starting source on GitHub or another publicly available site so students can follow along with minimal setup time. I use GitHub’s gist a lot.
  • Snippetty: Minimize typing with Snippetty. This menu-bar-sourced utility collects, orders, and offers the code or text snippets you’ll need during your session. Snippetty also lets you add presenter notes to those snippets. The less you type directly, the fewer typos you’ll encounter directly, and you limit long pauses during your lesson.
  • Snippety is end-of-life’d, sadly. I love this tool.

Display Tools

When displaying slides, whether from a second screen or a tablet, use the presenter notes feature to remind yourself of important topics.

A highlighting tool such as ScreenBrush (ScreenBrush for Mac and ScreenBrush for iOS) is great for circling, underlining, and drawing arrows to onscreen information.

I’m particularly fond of LargeType from Gold Mountain Software, which enables you to emphasize text or code at a readable huge size. This is a great way to call out key information. I’ve customized System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Services > Text > LargeType to add a custom keyboard combination to perform selection enlargement without using menus. I currently have it set to Command-Control-Option-L, but you can pick whatever keyboard shortcut best works for you.

Don’t forget that your screen will be hard to read. macOS’s accessibility features enable you to use the mouse, trackpad, and keyboard to zoom parts of the screen. This allows you to zoom in on code and other important details that could be missed by showing an entire large screen. The zoom centers around your cursor by default, so it tracks your interest point and allows that field of vision to be shared with others. Visit System Preferences > Accessibility > Zoom to set your preferences

Demoing

Reflector 3 wirelessly mirrors an iOS screen, enabling you to load, launch, and demo apps from your deployment device. I also use Reflector 3 as a wireless screen-mirroring app from my iOS device.

If you don’t mind being tethered, QuickTime allows you to present your device screen for a connected iOS device.

Whiteboarding

On my iPad, I use Linea Sketchto draw. It has a present mode that hides all the normal iOS app details and just shows a plain whiteboard drawing screen. I recently upgraded to a lastest-gen iPad mini with 1st gen pencil and that has been fantastic. I also got good results before my upgrade with the rubber tipped Heiyo stylus. Use a firm stylus for writing. Most stylii are designed for drawing and to simulate brushes.  The Heiyo doesn’t scratch the screen like the metal-tipped ones, is easy to charge (microUSB), and works with older iPads.

Zoom

Zoom offers a number of great built-in features for questions, messaging, raising hands, and so forth. I particularly like using it to know when students are done with a particular task: clear the participant list and have them use a check mark or thumbs up when they have finished. This way you can continue the class without having to wait a full number of minutes.

The same tool is great for “Who thinks that X is Y” style questions. Always encourage the student to answer before looking at what others have voted.

If you can, supplement Zoom with Slack. It’s much better for creating a record of q&a (start a thread specifically for that), and for when you need to distribute text/code from teacher to students. In terms of q&a, a great approach is to allow 3-5 minutes where everyone can add their questions and then you review the questions and choose which ones you wish to answer. I got this technique from Andrew Madsen and it’s terrific. He also recommends using sli.do for audience participation.

3 Comments

  • Snippety is dead…

    • Also, my link was bad.

      What a pity. It was a lovely app. 🙁

  • Erica,
    Have you considered expanding your thoughts into a modest eBook? There are a lot of profs out there, who have never even used Zoom and could use something beyond operating instructions.
    Stay safe,
    Don O’Shea

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