Remote learning can be a daunting transition for many educators who are comfortable with their tried-and-true lecturing methods, syllabuses, and student engagement strategies. However, recent events have reinforced the need for flexibility. For those who are new to remote teaching, how can you adapt your course to this new challenge while ensuring continuity and empathy for your students?

Read on to find practical techniques and expert advice from professors who have successfully made the leap to online teaching.

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1) Embracing Online Teaching During COVID-19
2) Using Synchronous and Asynchronous Teaching Methods
3) Managing the Transition to Online Teaching
4) Advice and Best Practices from the Experts
5) Keeping Students Engaged
6) Options for Remote Testing and Exam Proctoring

Embracing Online Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Online teaching and learning can be just as effective as an in-person classroom. We talked to several educators who were able to respond quickly to school shutdowns and move their classes online. They shared their tips and best practices on how to do so successfully:

  • Stay organized: Nicole McNichols, lecturer in the Psychology Department at the University of Washington, recommends organizing your online course in a methodical way to ensure that it is intuitive to navigate. Students should be able to progress through course content easily so that their attention remains focused on learning the material, rather than searching for specific content. McNichols personally stores all recorded lectures, discussions and homework assignments on the Top Hat platform.
  • Keep a discussion thread open during lectures: Bobby Butler at the University of Houston keeps a discussion thread open during synchronous lectures to mimic in-class participation. This method allows students to engage with one another as well as the instructor, ask clarifying questions and comment on course material throughout his lectures. Open communication like this is invaluable to students navigating new learning tools and managing the transition to a different style of learning.
  • Engage Gen Z with technology: Eric Davis, professor at Bellevue College, emphasizes the importance of using online platforms to keep learning active and engaging for Gen Z students. Technology tools and platforms help ensure that students stay engaged and participate in active learning before, during, and after class—regardless of where they’re learning.
  • Embrace the change: Paul Cooper, a lecturer in the Chemistry Department at Yale University, sees the learning curve for instructors who have never used classroom technology as an important opportunity to become better educators. With a little bit of ingenuity and willingness to try something new, he’s now developing supplementary assessments delivered through his learning management system, to compensate for lab assignments he previously held in his classes.

Click here to read more: Op-Ed: Embracing Online Teaching During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Using Synchronous and Asynchronous Teaching Methods

One of the most important first steps educators should take is determining what content should be delivered to students synchronously (live or in real-time) and what learning can be supported asynchronously (recorded or self-paced).

The reality is, effective remote teaching requires a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Ultimately, the key is to play to the strengths of each approach, as well as your own strengths as an educator.

Asynchronous teaching methods are a great way to help students collaborate with peers through group work. It’s also a great way to help them feel responsible for their own learning by assigning prep work before any synchronous or real-time lessons. Convenience makes asynchronous learning a particularly effective option for diverse student populations. Not every student can afford or has easy access to the internet. The ability to learn on your own schedule gives students the flexibility they need to find a time and place where they can engage with course materials.

One of the disadvantages of asynchronous learning is student apathy and isolation. Without the benefits of live interaction, it’s important to communicate with your students—and encourage them to do the same with you. Taking time to set expectations, provide clear instructions and respond to student emails and discussion threads is critical.

Synchronous teaching methods most closely mirror the typical in-class experience. Delivering information and presentations virtually in real-time creates a sense of speed and intimacy that is especially helpful for student engagement in online environments. However, it is important to balance content delivery with interactive activities and frequent student check-ins. It’s recommended that the time to present course material is divided into 10-minute chunks followed by 10 minutes of discussion to keep students engaged.

Each course, and each educator, are different. Let your learning objectives, your students, and your personal teaching style guide you in determining the right balance between using synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods.

Click here to read more: Remote Teaching: When and How to Use Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Methods

Managing the Transition to Online Teaching

While transitioning to remote learning can be nerve-wracking, it is helpful to know what to expect. We’ve highlighted some of our best practices to help you manage the transition for yourself and your students:

  • Be clear on your priorities: Question whether there are elements that are essential for you to deliver “live”. Are there components that can be recorded for students to view on their own schedule? This may be an important opportunity to ‘flip’ your classroom and put more emphasis on assignments and readings. This way you can use live remote communications to clarify course material and address any challenges students may have.
  • Communicate with your students: Make sure you take time to reach out to students to set the right expectations, including any limitations that come with technology or the challenges of having to move quickly to an online environment. The key is to get everyone on the same page and keep them there.
  • Facilitate remote collaboration: Interaction among students may be the single most important element of successful online education. Collaborative engagement motivates learning and promotes a deeper and more critically aware approach to subject matter.
  • Embrace a learner’s mindset: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you’re moving quickly to a new style of teaching. If you’re not already tech-savvy, the reality is that you’ll have to do some amount of self-directed learning. Figuring out what works, dealing with technical issues and engaging students effectively is more of a marathon than a sprint. Be prepared for both successes and misfires and cut yourself some slack. The key is to learn as you go and get better over time.

Click here to read more: 7 Ways for Professors to Manage the Transition to Online Teaching

The Best Tools and Platforms for Online Teaching

For professors with experience teaching remotely—or for those comfortable with the wide variety of tech tools and platforms available—remote teaching maybe a piece of cake. However, those with minimal experience teaching virtually may find the abrupt shift to remote teaching a daunting prospect.

Here, we outline the best free tools for making a seamless transition to the digital classroom, all while ensuring you and your students are fully supported throughout the process. These include tools to support live collaborative discussions, hosting and recording video lectures for synchronous and asynchronous delivery and document management. Get the details here on Flipgrid, Loom, Google Docs, Zoom, and Top Hat—and how to make them work in an online learning environment.

Click here to read more: 5 Free Tools for Remote Teaching

6 Tips for Thriving in the Virtual Classroom With Top Hat

With the mass move to online teaching, active learning is more important than ever. By leveraging the tools and features unique to the Top Hat platform, professors can preserve the quality of their instruction with active learning techniques, activities and exercises in an online environment. The following are some best practices related to using Top Hat in a virtual learning environment—to elevate your teaching skills and enhance your students’ learning experience.

1) Embrace a blend of synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods: There is no “one size fits all” model when it comes to learning. That’s why our recommendation is to embrace a combination of synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (self-paced) delivery. Top Hat has robust features that make it easy to incorporate both methods in your online instruction. To teach in real-time, livestream your lecture via a video conferencing solution while presenting your slides, questions and discussions in Top Hat for students to follow along on their own devices. Record the live session and upload it onto YouTube or Vimeo and embed the video into a Top Hat page afterward. You can also allocate the questions as homework to be completed on their own time.

2) Provide meaningful feedback in a timely manner: Regular feedback helps students succeed, giving them the opportunity to adjust their study approach. In an online environment, this can help indicate to students the skills they need help improving. Whether you are asking questions during synchronous lessons or collecting answers from homework assignments, Top Hat’s gradebook automatically stores all students’ responses and grades, providing you with a holistic view of performance metrics and progress. In just one click, you can access questions and student reports to easily identify topics the class is struggling with or drill down on an individual student’s performance.

3) Intuitively organize course material: Housing course materials in neatly categorized folders can help you and your students easily track and review items. Online course organization is paramount to ensuring students can effortlessly find the materials they need on their own without having to email their instructor and wait for a response. You can use folders in your Top Hat course to organize your course content similar to how you would have structured your face-to-face classes. This could be by unit, by week or by another method that you prefer. A clearly identifiable naming convention in these folders can eliminate students’ confusion or time spent looking for content.

4) Establish an online presence: To maintain student engagement and an effective learning community, it’s key to let learners know when you’re available to meet with them and provide them with necessary resources—both academic and otherwise. Virtual office hours are one way to remind students that you’re available to meet on an individual basis and can reinforce the care and concern that you have for them. To host virtual office hours using Top Hat, assign a time each week that you are available to answer questions or have a discussion in real-time. Then, create a discussion and either present it or assign it as homework for a specific time period. Use the discussion settings to adapt the environment to your preferences.

5) Interweave multimedia throughout your content: GIFs, videos and photos can help reinforce concepts and reduce students’ cognitive load. Without in-person classes, instructors’ nonverbal cues can go overlooked and thus media can help solidify a concept. In Top Hat, incorporating media into your course materials is a seamless process. Start by creating a page, then use the insert menu to embed videos, simulations, images and web pages via iframes to include all of your materials in one place. By adding and diversifying content, students can interact with the materials while reducing the distraction of multiple platforms.

6) Create a connected community: The transition to remote teaching is just as much a challenge for your students as it is for you. Providing opportunities for students to connect with each other is crucial in order to create a sense of belonging and, ultimately, motivate students to participate in the course. Frequent, informal check-ins can provide students with a space to discuss how they feel about their program or non-academic concerns. At the beginning of each class module or livestream, take a temperature check by using a word answer question in Top Hat to ask students how they are feeling. By strengthening community in class, students are more likely to communicate with peers and feel comfortable sharing and collaborating with one another.

Click here to read more: 6 Tips for Thriving in the Virtual Classroom with Top Hat

Advice from the Experts

When it comes to online learning, Andrea Hendricks, Associate Department Chair, Online Math and Computer Science Department and Associate Professor of Mathematics at Perimeter College at Georgia State University is something of a veteran. Hendricks has taught online for 19 years and shares her advice to help those taking the plunge.

“You are not alone. There are a lot of resources and people willing to help make this transition easier for you. Start off small and make a plan. And be easy on yourself. Do not be afraid to ask for help,” Hendricks said. “I would also say to focus on one or two features that you will use for the rest of the semester. It is not practical to think that you can master all the tools in such a short period of time.” 

Hendricks also employs several strategies based on the tenets of learning science. 

  • Generation is the process of thinking and struggling with a concept prior to being formally introduced to it. Hendricks starts each section with a real-world problem in which students have to think about a problem and how they could solve it, even if they don’t yet have the tools to do so.
  • Elaboration is the process of summarizing concepts in your own words and connecting these concepts to prior knowledge. Hendricks ends each section with a discussion question she calls Elaborate and Connect, giving students time and space to answer leading questions about the concepts and to relate how these new concepts build on or connect to prior material. 
  • Spaced practice is the process of returning to a topic periodically over time. She employs this tactic by adding questions on each homework assignment that students missed from earlier tests and/or concepts from earlier sections that are essential to the course.
  • Retrieval practice is the act of recalling facts from memory. Hendricks implements this practice by incorporating quick checks throughout the assigned readings. After students read or watch a video, she requires them to answer a simple question about that concept.
  • Interleaving is the process of mixing up your assignments with similar but related topics. Rather than “block” practice where students work on the same type of problem in the same way, she intersperses a related type of problem that requires students to retrieve information from their brains. 

The goal of these tactics is to help students reach deeper and more long-term learning. For learning to take place, Hendricks believes it must be effortful. These strategies can help overcome the illusion of competence which occurs when students become familiar with course concepts.

Click here to read more: How Online Educators Get it Done: A Conversation with Andrea Hendricks

Remote Teaching Tips from the Twittersphere

Remote teaching is unfamiliar territory for many professors. Good thing the social media universe has exploded with tips and ideas to help educators and students make the transition to online learning. Our roundup of the best tips and ideas for remote teaching from the Twittersphere includes sage advice on communicating with students, prioritizing empathy, self-care and keeping students engaged during a difficult time. Read the article to get connected to thought leaders in the world of remote teaching along with the info you need to follow the #RemoteTeaching conversation.

Click here to read more: Remote Teaching Tips From Professors on Twitter

Eric Davis on Teaching Remotely with Top Hat

Eric Davis is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Bellevue College, in Bellevue, Washington. Davis teaches four courses, each with about 35 students. Two of these courses use Top Hat and two do not. 

As the coronavirus quickly spread through the state, Davis got an email from the Associate Vice President for Instruction reporting that Bellevue would move all classes online. “Immediately, I had to respond to a flood of student issues,” Davis says. Watch the video to learn how Davis and his students adapted by using Top Hat for textbook readings, lecture slides, discussion functionality, quizzes and tests.

Keeping Students Engaged in Remote Learning

There are a number of ways to ensure remote learners stay up to date with course content—no matter where and when they learn. As an instructor, you can use Top Hat alongside other video and messaging tools to facilitate content delivery and assessments, preserving the key benefits of in-class learning while teaching remotely.

Top Hat supports video and slide capabilities to let professors seamlessly hold synchronous lectures. Through integration with video-conferencing software tools like Zoom, you can schedule and run live remote learning sessions with your students to replace in-class time. 

Top Hat also allows for an asynchronous learning experience. Once slides or pre-recorded lecture videos are finalized via Zoom or YouTube Live, they can be saved and uploaded into a Top Hat course. This way, instructors can take advantage of the flexibility of working with a recorded lecture by breaking a video up into segments and interspersing with Top Hat questions to test comprehension. This helps make content digestible and gives students the opportunity to think critically about the lecture material as they are learning it.

The Pages feature in Top Hat lets you create an open book assessment—a flexible measure necessary in remote teaching environments. With a variety of question types available, Top Hat’s online open-book assessments provide a unique opportunity to test students’ critical thinking skills, as well as their understanding of course material.

Click here to read more: How Top Hat Keeps Your Students Engaged in a Remote Learning Environment

Options for Remote Testing and Proctoring

A key challenge of online learning is determining how to deliver exams and other assessments remotely. To support educators and students, Top Hat offers three types of remote summative assessments: remote proctored exams, open-book exams, and asynchronous assignments:

  • Remote proctored exams: Students can take secure proctored tests and exams on their own computers, at a pre-set time and from any location. By ensuring the integrity of remote tests and final exams, students are able to receive the same high-quality assessment experience delivered in a secure, remote environment. Before taking the plunge, it’s important to consider the student experience. Many are in the process of moving home or finding accommodation. You may have different time zones to consider and different levels of accessibility depending on computer and internet access. Some flexibility in terms of timing or exceptions based on individual circumstances may be required. 
  • Open-book exams: This assessment style is typically of the same short duration as a proctored exam, but allows your students to have their course notes with them. The ability to include digital reference materials like images, video and audio clips also allows for more freedom and creativity in constructing an exam than ever before. It is recommended you aim to design these to be slightly more difficult than an exam with no aids. You want to make sure that searching the web won’t provide any advantages by focusing your exam on your course content and discussions. Again, with students being in remote locations, scheduling can be an issue. Make sure to factor this into your design. For example, if the exam takes two hours to complete, you may want to allow a window of four hours to provide the needed flexibility.
  • Asynchronous assignments: The structure is similar to a take-home exam but with a longer window to complete the work. With this approach, students needn’t worry about adhering to a set schedule, which is especially important given the current circumstances. It is recommended that instructors adopting this method intentionally challenge students with more difficult questions. Think of creating questions that encourage students to apply knowledge, and analyze content, rather than just demonstrate understanding through memorization. Also, consider using collaboration to your advantage. Designing a more challenging assignment, and allowing peer collaboration on the final submission, can be a very rewarding learning experience. 

Click here to read more: How Top Hat Supports Different Approaches to Summative Assessments

Summing Up

Now more than ever, staying focused on learning outcomes and the student experience will go a long way to make the most of a difficult situation. Whatever your course of action, it may not be perfect. But with a little creativity and a little ingenuity, creating a meaningful end to the semester is within your grasp.

We are always here to help. We’ve made the Top Hat platform available free of charge for the rest of the semester to active classes transitioning to Top Hat. In addition, we are also offering free, secure, remote proctored tests and exams. To learn more about how Top Hat is supporting educators in transitioning to remote teaching.

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