Baptism by Fire: Tips and Tactics from My First Time Teaching Remotely

By Francesca Albrezzi

This spring I taught two classes online for the first time, due to our current pandemic conditions. While I’ve had many years of experience working with digital tools and creating digital art history projects, the transition to distance learning provided me with an opportunity to get creative and try some things that were new. Here are a few tips and tricks that I used, which others may find useful as we continue to teach and learn in an online environment.

  1. Provide a technical assessment and a technical guide before classes start

Since not all my students were going to be living on campus, I recognized that I needed to know a bit more about what their working environments were going to be like. To do this, I send out a survey to conduct a Remote Learning Inventory to better assess and evaluate my students’ needs. I found that while most students had equipment access, having a quiet environment to work and learn may prove challenging to many. (Even though most of my students had access to equipment, there was a set of emergency grants through the school to help students purchase hardware and software that they needed for their classes. Check if your institution is providing this level of support and make sure your students are aware of their options. Keep in mind, too, that many students may have lost their jobs or their family members have. With this in mind, I also included financial support resources to my students as I was able to locate them, in case they were looking for additional assistance.)  It also became clear that their exposure to and confidence with using zoom greatly varied between my two classes.

Forms response chart. Question title: Please indicate the degree of access you have to the following items:. Number of responses: .
Forms response chart. Question title: Please indicate the degree of access you have to the following items:. Number of responses: .
Forms response chart. Question title: Have you participated with your own device in an online Zoom session within the last year? . Number of responses: 49 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: Have you participated with your own device in an online Zoom session within the last year? . Number of responses: 15 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: If your answer to the previous question was "Yes," are you confident you will be able to easily participate in remote platforms like Zoom again?. Number of responses: 49 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: If your answer to the previous question was "Yes," are you confident you will be able to easily participate in remote platforms like Zoom again?. Number of responses: 15 responses.

Additionally, some were moving back home where there was a 15 hour time difference, which influenced my decision to record my zoom sessions and not make class sessions mandatory in terms of attendance. To do this, I requested permission from each student through a google form to record the lectures. I also did not make it mandatory for their web cameras to be on, knowing that some may not feel comfortable sharing their at-home environment (though I did encourage them to use zoom’s virtual background feature, as an alternative). I established these technical policies and as well as information about other technical resources in a Technical Support Guide google document that we could continue to update all quarter, as new resources were needed.

  1. Flip the syllabus information

I have become increasingly concerned with the ethics of care in the classroom. In response, I have started to flip my syllabus information so that support services come before class details. When we cover the syllabus on the first day of class, I explain that this organizational choice is due to the fact that I want my students to know that I see them as human beings first and foremost, and students second, especially in this time of global crisis. If they are experiencing food/housing/financial insecurity or mental/physical/emotional health challenges, these things make being in the classroom, even a remote one, all the more difficult. I also hope that it emphasizes that I, too, am a human being first. My hope is that this stresses that we together must build a foundation of mutual respect and care before we approach our learning. While I expect effort and rigor from all my students, I understand that life throws us curveballs, so I encourage them to communicate with me if something comes up and we can hopefully help find the resources to allow them to be the best person and student they can be.

  1. Avoiding the awkwardness of zoom for introductions and discussions

Trying to hold a discussion on zoom sometimes feels like speaking into an endless void. For introductions or discussions, I’ve found a few things that are helpful. For introductions, take the lead and tell people that you will go through the participant list one by one to indicate when they should introduce themselves. This avoids people having to jump in on their own and feeling awkward if two or more try to speak at once. I also suggest this technique for group discussions or shares. In those cases, I always remind people in advance that they don’t have to share if they don’t want to, but that I will call on everyone to make sure each person has an opportunity to contribute to the discussion if they want.

To make things more dynamic, use the chat. This is a great way to have people speak up without feeling like they are interrupting. I usually had my TA keep an eye on the chat during lecture and if any questions or comments came up as I was lecturing, they would share those when we paused for questions or discussion. (If  you don’t have a TA, I suggest letting students know that you will plan breaks in your lecture to check the chat for questions. That way, they can feel free to add questions or comments in the chat as they have them, and you can address them when you’re ready, without breaking your flow too much.) Then, I would follow up with those students to see if they wanted to add any more and we could build a group discussion from there. Finally, I have found acknowledging the awkwardness of it all often helps students adjust and feel less anxious.   

  1. Collaborative note taking

At my university (UCLA), we have a subscription to Kanopy, which I took advantage of a few times to change the pace of the class. Kanopy is a video streaming service that is free to use through public libraries and many universities. The database has  historical and contemporary films, documentaries, and educational videos on countless subjects and disciplines. 

To switch things up, we would watch a video together during class time, and collaboratively contribute notes on the material to a google doc. (I would always make sure to provide the link to the video to the whole class before we started, in case my streaming of the video was hard to hear, began lagging, or breaking up for them. This way, they could watch it separately if they needed to, if there was an issue with the connection.) Then we reviewed and organized our notes together afterward to zero in on the main takeaways of the topic at hand, connecting to other class discussions and readings as we went along. 

  1. Communal class term definitions

In one of my courses, I used a technique that I learned from Miriam Posner. I provided key terms that were connected to our readings for that week. The following week, we would spend a few minutes discussing and contributing in a shared google doc our own definitions for each of the terms. While students could include quotes from certain readings with cited page numbers, I encouraged students to put things in their own words. This exercise culminates in an open book/note/internet terms exam, where students are asked to choose two out of three questions.

I give them examples of the type of questions I will ask ahead of time. In my opinion, exams should not be anxiety-producing (there’s enough of that going around already), but should instead be an opportunity to showcase what they have learned and connections that can make as a result. In fact, studies have shown that anxiety around assignments and exams can cause students to abandon their studies. When trauma is involved with learning, it’s neither compassionate nor effective.

Sample questions include:

  • Please explain how [key term x] is related to [key term y], referring to specific authors and arguments.
  • Please define [key term x] and explain how it figures into a project we’ve examined.
  • If you had to suggest a key term to contribute to our list, what would it be and why? Please be sure to explain how your suggestion relates to the other terms on our list and how your key term fits into our class readings and discussions.
  • Select a primary source — an advertisement, a book, a movie, etc. — that you think best exemplifies [key term x] and explain why you’ve chosen it, referring to specific authors and arguments from our readings and discussions.
  1. World building creative writing exercise

To alleviate the zoom fatigue, I decided to use some class time to introduce a creative writing exercise, introducing the concept of world building. In my course on Myth and Ritual, I asked students to consider what we have learned about ritual processes, spaces, speech, music, action, and objects and then imagine a ritual or parts of a ritual around COVID-19 that incorporates these elements.  I asked students to consider the circumstances (the where, how, and who) of their proposed rituals as well. After about 20 minutes of writing time, students were asked to share their work. It is critical at this time that we remember we have the opportunity in the classroom to create avenues for processing both class topics and current events and encourage students not to lose their hope or imaginative/creative skills.

  1. Guest lectures

I was lucky enough to have a number of colleagues agree to guest lecture. Now that we are all remote, this expanded the possibility of who I could invite. Guest lectures help to break up the monotony of zoom and bring some fresh approaches, whether it is in person or online. As always, compensating people for their time is important. In one case, I was able to provide a guest lecture in exchange. In other cases, their position may allow for guest lectures to be part of their normal work. If someone is providing a guest lecture outside of their normal working hours or duties, there are usually instructional mini-grants through your campus that you can apply for to help you compensate people for their time and efforts.

  1. Check in surveys

I did three short check-in surveys using google forms to allow students to provide me and my TA with anonymous feedback about what in class was working and what was a challenge or burden (Class 1 surveys: survey 1, survey 2, survey 3; Class 2 surveys: survey1, survey 2, survey 3). This was helpful on several fronts. I was able to make adjustments to the course based on their feedback, so that our sessions and assignments remain productive and useful. Additionally, I was able to see what learning techniques students appreciated most. 

Some Responses from Check in Survey 3 for Class 2

Forms response chart. Question title: What was your favorite class activity?. Number of responses: 6 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: What was your least favorite class activity?. Number of responses: 6 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: Is online learning acceptable to you?. Number of responses: 6 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: Do you feel you missed out because our class was conducted online?. Number of responses: 6 responses.

Some Responses from Check in Survey 3 for Class 2

Forms response chart. Question title: What was your favorite class activity?. Number of responses: 29 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: What was your least favorite class activity?. Number of responses: 29 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: Is online learning acceptable to you?. Number of responses: 29 responses.
Forms response chart. Question title: Do you feel you missed out because our class was conducted online?. Number of responses: 29 responses.

In the comments, what mattered most to students is that we continuously checked-in, that they felt heard, and that myself and the teaching assistants adjusted to their input and feedback. I received many emails separately from the survey thanking me for my kindness and understanding of what they were experiencing under the circumstances. I was repeatedly told that this was the only time they had received such treatment in a classroom and that they were grateful for it.  It shouldn’t take crisis circumstances for us to listen to our students. I hope educators will continue these techniques in times that are less chaotic as well.  

  1. Do no harm: adjusting for a crisis

Our finals this spring coincided with an important demand for change that swept the nation in response to the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, on top of a long history of others. As a result, I made immediate and big changes to my grading policies and approach to final exams and final projects. In one class, I cancelled our final term exams. In both my courses, scaffold with milestones that move students progressively toward completing the final project, which has many benefits. It was particularly helpful under these circumstances, as students didn’t have much further to go to finish their class work. However, I did make adjustments to my grading rubric. Here is an example of the document that I put together for one of my courses to “do no harm” in terms of grading and classwork as we completed the quarter. 

I hope that these tips and tactics are helpful to others as we will likely be teaching remotely for the foreseeable future.

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