Things to Consider When Converting Your Live Class Into an Online Version

I have been teaching online for several decades now, starting with America Online back in the dark ages of the Internet, and nowadays using a combination of platforms that includes Teachable, Youtube, and Zoom. With schools closing across the country, teachers are facing the need to turn their live classes into versions that their students can access online.

I’m lucky to be way ahead of that curve. My online school, the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, has been around for over a decade and focuses on classes aimed at fantasy and fiction writing. I have multiple instructors, whose tech expertise ranges from non-existent to far ahead of me. We do both live and on-demand classes. Over the course of the last two weeks I have had literally dozens of people asking me about teaching online. So here’s some things you want to think about when trying to convert your class.

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Teaching online can be a very different experience from a live classroom.

What’s your expertise level?

If you don’t do stuff online much, then stick to simpler things, particularly if you’re already familiar with how they work. For example, if you are only familiar with Facebook, then Facebook Live may be your best option. On the other hand, if you’re technologically adept, there’s plenty of avenues available to you and you may want to do something more complex, such as setting up a Twitch channel.

As a former tech worker, I tend to start poking at things as soon as they’re available, but the best platform I have used so far for teaching is Zoom, which has significantly better customer support than Google Hangouts, particularly if you have a paid, rather than free, account. A basic Zoom account of the kind I use costs $14.99 per month.

How big is the class?

Class size is a major determinant in how to shape a class. If it’s 300 people, you may want to do a livecast that includes a way for people to ask questions in a chat window. If it’s six, you may want to have a session where they can ask questions and screen share. If it’s a big lecture class where people don’t get to ask questions, it’s valid to record your lecture and put it up on YouTube. If you do that, you may want to consider posting it as an unlisted video and simply giving the students a link. If you want to teach the world, go ahead and make it public, but you may want to turn off comments first.

Is special equipment needed for the class?

A chemistry class where you want the students to show you how to titrate a solution is going to be difficult unless you either get the equipment, figure out a household approximation that works, or require them to purchase it.

In my opinion, putting unexpected financial strain on students in these times of economic fears is unfair, and that includes making them buy a webcam if they don’t have one. Find out what they have access to, and try to work with that. Be aware many platforms offer educational discounts or free versions.

How do you currently share information with the class?

Some people will have access to teaching platforms like Blackboard already, in which case you’re ahead of the game and I’m not sure why you’re reading this. If students hand in papers and projects physically, though, you will need a system for them to submit stuff, such as email or a shared Google folder. Personally, I would encourage a system where you put stuff in a shared space and students are then responsible for accessing it rather than mailing things out, but no matter what, be prepared to troubleshoot students who are having trouble with the technology.

How does class discussion work?

If you’re all on a video call, figure out a a system where students can signal that they want to ask a question or speak. Zoom has this functionality built into the chat window that accompanies video calls, but you could use a visual signal, such as holding up a hand. Such a system does mean you have to keep an eye on what’s going on rather than just lecturing away.

You will find that there is often a slight lag in conversations where people are talking over each other. You need to force yourself to pause at first until this becomes more natural to you, but it will become more comfortable for both you and your students with time.

How do the students work together?

If they have discussion groups, facilitate them by making sure students have a standard way of communicating with each other, rather than relying on them to figure it out. The temptation may be to let them work it all out, but avoid creating a virtual Lord of the Flies situation. You’re there to help them, not to enact Darwinian processes so only the most technologically adept survive.

Other considerations to keep in mind

Make sure you teach your students how to keep their data private. They may well be able to teach you a thing or two. But if you’re not technologically adept, you should learn two concepts right off the bat and practice their tenets. 1) Use a strong password and 2) two-factor authentication. Tell your students to do the same.

Social media belongs to the social media companies. I would personally avoid using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etcetera for several reasons. One is that some people avoid them for personal reasons that may range from political/ethical beliefs to having a stalker or some other privacy-related circumstance.

World Fantasy and Nebula-nominated speculative fiction writer/editor. I read and write a lot.

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