What about all these ‘On-line/virtual' classes?

A couple of years ago the university I currently teach for told me I had to start running on-line tutorials. I am a political philosophy lecturer. I think of myself as a descendant of Plato and Aristotle. I sit with my students and question, tease, and prod until I see a flash of lighting cross their eyes. I was more than sceptical when they asked me to translate this to a virtual environment. How can I translate the magic of watching students ponder, reading their faces and body language, into an sterile electrical interaction… Two years later I am a convert.

There are a few things needed to create an excellent on-line class, however when a ‘virtual class’ is properly set up, it can be as rich and nuanced as any live interaction between learners. First, and this is particularly important for young learners, you need a good visual set up. Teaching, I strongly believe, is in great part acting. I draw my students in with stories to help them imagine, to help them feel and enter into different spaces, to imagine different outcomes, to embody other possibilities… I support their exploration by reflecting doubt, by allowing surprise on my face…and, again specially with younger ones, I use physical humour to break the ice and encourage involvement. For all these reasons, I need my learners to see me. Being seen through a screen seems to amplify, rather than reduce, the impression of teaching-acting on students.

Second, one must create a safe and kind space where sharing and vulnerability are possible. These are the necessities for true, deep learning. Again, I have found virtual learning does not impede this in the least. Clear instructions are needed at the beginning of class to set expectations – we will not interrupt each other; we will not use aggressive words; we will keep our conversation on the class topic; we will wait to be called on to speak in class. I use chat as a means for more camera/microphone shy students to engage with the class.

Finally, one needs to create discussion prompts that can be adapted to a virtual classroom. This are the equivalent of classroom ice breakers. Online I can lead quick surveys on the chat, a quick show of thumbs up/thumbs down, even a drawing contest on our whiteboard. I also choose fun and interesting images as background for our conversation – my purpose with these is to support creativitiy rather than to place images in student’s minds.

In short, creating great on-line courses is possible. With some lateral thinking and the necessary technological support, excellent teaching can reach hundreds world-wide!

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