How I'm Preparing to Teach Online
Hundreds of colleges and universities will reopen their campuses this fall and are scrambling to operationalize plans to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19.
Most courses will be online, or in a best-case scenario offered through a mixed-model: some elements offered in-person, others exclusively online.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to re-design an online learning experience that not only rivals in-person, but in some ways is uniquely better.
In this three-part series, I’ll cover:
- Part 1: Teaching Online 101, what does great look like?
- Part 2: The role of technology and what investments are actually worth it
- Part 3: How to be a great participant (for students)
Part 1: Teaching Online 101, what does great look like?
With the impending move to online, students are expecting less:
- Less interaction
- Less of an “experience”
- Less content
- Less 1:1 time
To be honest, I can’t blame them for thinking this way. Students fear that taking a course online is going to be like attending a bad Zoom meeting.
I spent years managing a remote team distributed over 10 countries, and online meetings (mostly) suck. Over the last few months, the better part of our days are consumed with experiences on conference calls like this one…
What’s more, most online courses suck.
The Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which became popular in the early 2000s show a mere 15% completion rate. Research from HarvardX shows that MOOC users sign up, download the readings, and watch a small subset of videos — but never complete or upload the assignments.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
If you are hoping to make your online learning experience great, stop looking to online meetings and other courses for what great looks like. Instead, find what great looks like in other areas.
I spent the better part of the last decade in the live entertainment industry, The biggest learning from this industry that I bring into my teaching philosophy is this:
The onus is on me to keep the attention of my students.
The average price of a concert ticket in the US is now ~$100. By my math, my students are paying between $300–500 for my 3-hour classes, and I feel the obligation to deliver at least that much value for my students.
How do musicians keep audiences engaged and over-deliver?
At live events, the musicians that keep me most engaged are thoughtful about varying everything from song selection, stage setup, and even pace, volume, and lighting.
The three-hour in-person lecture becomes unbearable for students online. The elements of an online course to consider varying are:
- Format: Short punchy lectures, guest speakers, cases, live activities
- Attention: Teaching to the entire class vs. smaller group, or 1:1 settings.
- Setting: Different color and format for backgrounds
- Sound: Cleanly mixing in sound drops, music, and video clips
Getting the crowd involved in a set transforms an experience from passive to active, and forgettable, to memorable.
Defqon1 in the Netherlands brings together 100,000 raving fans a day for one of the largest EDM festivals in the world. In the example below, audience participation has the magical effect of making 100,000 people at one time feel like friends as they move together and literally (in this case, below) cause the ground to shake.
Allowing students to direct the learning by providing the right prompts before class, asking great questions, taking live polls, and creating the right (safe, non-judgemental) environment is paramount.
One of the most rewarding parts of a class done right is getting students to tell you what you so badly want to tell them.
Youtube is home to millions of content creators, and vloggers with wide-ranging levels of experience.
Recently, John Krasinski (star of The Office) started a low-production channel called Some Good News to highlight good news from around the world. It was filmed in his home office, with hand-made signage (by his own children), and low-budget user-generated content.
In just two months, the show garnered over 71 million views and 2.57 million subscribers.
Don’t get me wrong, having a star-studded cast (including Steve Carrel, Oprah, and Brad Pitt) certainly helps, but the idea behind the show: that our world doesn’t do a great job of highlighting good news — is a great one.
Krasinski put time into stitching together great user-generated content and highlighting the stories of real people around the world. He didn’t put time into making the perfect set, or hiring designers for a logo. The content is short, punchy, and well organized.
Big Takeaway: Content over everything.
In May of 2020, Joe Rogan struck a $100M multi-year distribution deal with Spotify. The Joe Rogan Experience had been the №2 most-downloaded podcast on iTunes for two years running with millions of weekly active listeners.
While I don’t align with all of Joe Rogan’s opinions, he has done a phenomenal job of creating a group of raving fans, and I think there is much to be learned from many top-performing podcasts in the move to online teaching.
In addition to having great content that is well-organized, the best podcast hosts seem to find a way to psych themselves up before going ‘on air’, and their energy is infectious.
So, what’s your pre-game (class) routine?
In the book Psyched Up, author Daniel McGinn talks about what businesspeople can learn from top performers and athletes about how to prepare for big moments.
Before I go into physical classrooms or give big presentations I have a pregame routine that I follow. Mine involves a power pose, breathing exercises, and a secret (not so secret) pump-up song that I listen to.
Yes, I actually do this.
One of the biggest challenges that I had when switching to teaching online was being restricted to a desk. Think about it, do you ever see top musicians sitting to perform their greatest hits (aside from small acoustic sets)? Never.
Being able to stand up, and get your body moving, and blood flowing is key. My advice: never give a presentation sitting down.
Investing in a standing desk (which I cover in Part 2) can significantly boost your energy level and overall communication effectiveness.
While I don’t advocate getting distracted by technology investments, bad audio can be a huge distraction from the actual content. The best podcasts have invested in a baseline level of (at least) mid-quality audio production.
My main recommendation here: don’t use the built-in speaker. Investing in a basic desktop microphone will allow students to focus on the content, and not struggle to hear you.
(My audio setup is covered in Part 2).
Since 2019, the Collision Conference (a spinoff of Web Summit in Lisbon) has been hosted in Toronto. Touted as one of North America’s largest startup conferences, it has grown rapidly from 1,500 attendees in 2015 to approximately 30,000+ in 2020. The conference features thought leaders, CEOs, and Presidents from companies like Microsoft, Twitter, Under Armour, and Netflix, and many high-profile celebrities like Rob Gronkowski, Shaq, and even politicians like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
This year, Collision made an early decision to cancel the in-person components of the conference due to COVID-19 and moved to a “Collision from Home” model.
Behind the scenes, the team at Collision had been working on proprietary software that would reinvent the online conference experience. The platform is essentially a series of channels streaming different pre-recorded panel discussions, similar to what you’d see at a ‘normal’ conference — except all participants and panelists would be talking into webcams at home.
But, how was it — really? Can you replicate the in-person chance interactions, and build new relationships, without (literally) rubbing elbows with other attendees in an online format?
The resounding feedback is…Yes!
People go to conferences (primarily) for two things: fresh perspectives/ideas, and an opportunity to network with other like-minded people.
A switch to virtual in some ways allowed attendees to feel even closer to the action as speakers sat behind a webcam versus on a stage in front of tens of thousands of people.
While the context certainly changed, the content didn’t. The big ideas, fresh perspectives, and candid conversations [can happen] online from the comfort of your home.
To allow attendees to interact with one another, Collision from Home offered a two-screen experience: a web app to watch the panels, and a mobile app to plan your experience and engage in conference networking or attend breakout sessions.
Building your network is one of the top reasons to attend a top-tier college or university, so what can we learn from how the best conferences facilitate interactions between participants online?
Allowing students to interact with one another in a simple, and straightforward way asynchronously outside of ‘normal’ class hours is critical. I plan on leveraging Slack as a way for students to communicate with one another, contribute to topic threads, and ask me questions which I can respond to with brief video recordings.
Using virtual breakout rooms also allows students to get to know one another and work in smaller group settings. Many of my classes will allow students to participate in brief breakout sessions, which I can pop into virtually, before bringing the entire class back together.
To be clear, an online learning experience will not be the same as an in-person experience, but I think Paddy Cosgrave, founder of Web Summit said it best:
You can’t replicate what’s happening in the offline world. Spotify reinvented consuming music online, but they didn’t replicate a music store experience. They’ve created an entirely new way to consume music in a pretty satisfying way…[but] it’s not about replicating every feature.
If we look beyond traditional online or in-person courses for inspiration while creating an online course, we can create transformational learning experiences that are uniquely different, and in some ways better than traditional learning.
In future articles, I’ll cover:
- Part 2: The role of technology and what investments are actually worth it?
- Part 3: How to be a great participant (for students)