Adventures in Synchronous Online Teaching

A few weeks ago I discussed some of the questions on my mind as I prepared to teach my first online class. I’m now a few weeks into teaching my online-only graduate seminar, and I’m getting used to the quirks that go with eliminating the classroom.

Technology-wise, I’m relying on the university’s hosted Sakai. Our version suffers from lots of problems, including an over-complicated organization system that’s better suited to asynchronous courses than my synchronous model and a tendency to break the browser’s back button. I fixed several sections of the course that weren’t even available to the students based on feedback the first night and discovered how strongly Sakai believes in module dates as “release” dates.

Sakai doesn’t include video, so I have to rely on a separate platform for our synchronous meetings. There are several options for class-sized video chat, as Adeline recently examined. Most of us don’t get much of a choice in the matter. My division shares a subscription to GoToMeeting, so that’s the only platform so far easily available to me that supports screen-sharing, video chat and a limited chat room. I find it works pretty well, although the chat interface is awkward and it is sometimes hard to tell how clearly my screen is coming across. Showing video is also a nightmare: students have to start the video on their own computers in order to see it clearly and hear the audio. There are apparently solutions for sharing audio through GoToMeeting, but they seem pretty awkward. I haven’t tried them yet.

As my class meets late at night, I teach on a headset from an office in the basement. The echoing emptiness of those dark evenings is daunting, and in my first class I stopped to ask if  anyone was still there. The chorus of yeses typed into the chat room window didn’t do much to reassure me. Despite the fact that everyone logs in with a microphone, I struggled in my first class with getting students to actually talk. GoToMeeting (like most chat interfaces) makes it easy for each participant to mute their microphone. That’s great for avoiding echoes and noise, but it’s a problem when it comes to having a conversation. Without the social cues of hand-raising or eye contact, students are hesitant to just jump in–and when they do, it’s often complicated as multiple people unmute and start at the same time. I’ve been relying a lot more on directly calling on students, and I try to structure my weekly asynchronous discussions so that students commit to master particular topics.

I’ve started addressing these early obstacles by planning out questions paired with students in my notes and making some students clearly responsible for certain sections of the content. It’s a less natural discussion than I’m used to in the more free-flowing classroom so far, but I’m hoping it will improve as everyone gets comfortable with the form and with one another. Some of my students join me in using video, which can cause connection problems and just isn’t an option for everyone yet. However, looking out on the screen and seeing the faces is reassuring, and helps with those moments when I’m worried the only student I’m having a discussion with is my cat.

Have you tried synchronous teaching online? What are your tips for ensuring that it goes well? Please share in the comments!

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flickr User Earthisthering]

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