The COVID-19 pandemic has educators racing to transform their “live” courses into content that can be taught at a distance. Some plan on conducting classes as before, albeit remotely. Others, however, are busy recording.

The question for educators who are taking the recorded route is, have you considered how your students—Zoomers, especially—process online content?

I ask because having taught both ways, I know there is a significant difference in the manner information should be communicated to a generation of learners who casually scroll through dozens of Reddit posts in the time it takes for an instructor to spit out one complex sentence.

What follows are a few suggestions for those who are approaching this for the first time.

Modality

In the hierarchy of communication practices, face-to-face is best, of course, whether in-person or via videoconferencing. We have the ability to interact in real-time—reading body language, picking up on tonality and animation. Next best is prerecorded video, where the only thing that’s missing is real-time interaction. Audio recordings follow, although these rely on tonality to communicate nuance. Visual learners may also struggle with this modality. Finally, there is the written word, in which some attempt to communicate tonality via font size and style (ie, all-caps, bold or italicized), which is comical at best.

Duration

Lectures typically cover one or more topics and a variety of subtopics. But that doesn’t mean these all should be stitched together in a single recording. Many of my online students take a buffet approach to video streaming—a little of this right now and some of that later—which is why it is important to break up lectures into bite-size segments. Recordings that run 10 to 12 minutes are more likely to hold the average student’s attention for the content to be successfully absorbed. You should be able to get your point across in that time. If not, rethink your approach. Which leads me to my next suggestion.

Scripting

Content must be delivered crisply and with purpose. Audiences will tolerate live lecturer/speaker missteps. Video viewers — Zoomers in particular — will not grant the same forgiveness to a recording, which is one reason why a script is important (the other is to comply with the American Disabilities Act). Scriptwriting is different from authoring for publication because of the way listeners process spoken versus written content. (I write my scripts “out loud,” much to my wife’s ongoing amusement, so I can listen to how the words sound.) Well-crafted scripts keep lecturers on time and on-point, particularly when the sentences are kept short. They also help students who don’t get the concept on the first go. Roughly half my online students routinely reference the script either while the instructional video is playing or afterward.

Animation

I once worked with a grad student who was taking a core-curriculum course being taught online. The instructor spoke a bit at the start, which seemed promising—then, slide after PowerPoint slide. It was brutal. Students need animation. Use the blackboard or a graphic tablet, embed videos for added emphasis, but whatever you do, don’t just sit behind a desk or stand at a lectern for the whole recording.

Assessments

Several years ago, I decided to do away with all the quizzes, midterms and finals that were part and parcel of a traditional course I began teaching several semesters before. Instead, I introduced weekly assignments that were, in effect, open book, and where limited collaborations were also permitted, for two reasons. First, because that’s the way the real-world works: When we don’t know something, we ask the person in the next cube for help or research it online. Second, because the cram-and-forget approach is both counterproductive and wasteful. I assess student performance on the basis of their ability to demonstrate comprehension and informational synthesis. Simply put, I want to hear the concepts explained in their own words and how they plan to apply what they’ve learned. I incorporated this same approach in the online course I designed and currently teach at Rutgers University with excellent results. The weekly assignments help students to better manage their workflow, the sheer number of these provide ample opportunity for grade improvement, and the continuous dialogue that is a naturally occurring byproduct of all these interactions encourages longer term retention.

Communication

This last point is critical. Online instructors are also on-call and turnaround time is key. As students acclimate to your new teaching format, they need to feel as supported remotely as they were in physical presence. Also, take care with the way you respond to their queries, comments and complaints. As temptingly satisfying as it may be to cut short a habitual complainer, don’t underestimate the reputational damage you may suffer when a pointed response is shared with scores of others or worse, the harm you may cause to a quarantined student who’s doing the best he can all by himself.

Look, online teaching isn’t easy. I spend more time exchanging emails with my remote students than I have speaking with those in my traditional classroom settings. And while some may view that as a reason not to take this approach, I would argue that the enhanced interpersonal connectivity is its own reward.

Mitchell D. Weiss
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