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Podcast: Tips for Teaching Live, Synchronous Online Classes

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenFaculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities

Teaching live, synchronous online classes can be stressful and challenging, especially for teachers who are not used to this form of online teaching. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips for engaging students and creating opportunities for students to interact with the instructor and other students. Learn about polling software, screen sharing, video sharing, and other technologies that can help make synchronous classes fun and engaging. Also learn why it’s important for teachers to adopt a flexible mindset as they prepare to teach live online synchronous classes.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

In today’s podcast, I’m going to share with you some ideas about how to engage your online students during the class in live, synchronous online teaching so that you can hook their interest and help them stay motivated to learn throughout your time together.

I’m not really talking about formal assessments or discussion boards specifically, but I am talking about how you might get them to interact during the lesson itself. Many of you out there are teaching online, but you’re doing it live, where you and your students are all at the computer at the same time in real time.

This is what we call synchronous online teaching. At the same time, there are some of you out there teaching classes where you have put all the lesson content, all of the lectures and other things into an online platform for students to consume or interact with on their own schedules, whether you’re there at the same time or not. The second type is what we call asynchronous online teaching.

Engage Students in Synchronous, Live Online Classes

Today we’re looking at ways to engage your students in live real time, as you are with them in synchronous live online teaching. Why does this matter? Your students will be one step further disconnected from you online than they would be in a face-to-face situation and you cannot walk around through the group to help them stay alert and focused on what’s going on.

If they get up out of the chair and walk away from the computer for a minute, they can easily get distracted by something else going on and lose sight of being in class altogether. And when that happens, you might lose them completely.

For these reasons, part of your role when teaching live synchronous online classes is to be more engaging, and part of your role is to get your students to act. Whether it’s by moving around in their chair, clicking on their smartphone in response to something you ask, writing things down, or speaking to each other in live breakout rooms.

Whatever level you’re at, whether it’s elementary school, high school or college courses, teaching live in the online world takes a little more energy. You might have already guessed this from what I’ve described to this point. You need to be more animated and, at some points, even entertaining. You will need to look at the camera so your students think that you’re looking at them.

And of course, you might want to record yourself in front of the camera, as if you’re teaching, just as a test to see how you project your voice on camera, how you convey energy and how you project your enthusiasm.

In the things that you say, you will also need to tell students what they will learn, why they will need to learn it, and what they should expect and be able to do with the information once they have learned it. Your students are less likely to patiently sit and absorb information just because they’re in the class, especially if they are younger learners.

In today’s podcast, we’re going to cover two specific areas of your live synchronous online teaching. First, we’ll look at your preparation and mindset, and this is really split into two avenues. The preparation means that you need to clearly know what you’re teaching in each lesson, fully plan it, and know exactly how you will teach it and engage your students.

And the other avenue of this preparation is looking at your mindset about how you’re teaching and how well it’s going. This aspect is something you need to focus on before the class is happening because it can really affect the way you think about the entire experience. It also affects the way you plan and prepare for the lesson. And lastly, it impacts how forgiving and flexible you’re going to need to be with yourself and with your online students.

And second, we’re going to look at some ways where you can get interaction from your students when you’re in that live synchronous online class setting to help them move, talk, and engage. These interaction strategies are going to be super helpful to keep your students’ attention focused, but changing pace throughout the lesson can also help your students mentally rehearse and more fully learn the content as well as learning to apply it.

So before we jump in, here are some ideas about the focus of live synchronous classes and totally online asynchronous classes. If you have a choice about whether your online class is going to meet live just as you would in a face-to-face class, or whether it meets asynchronously where students can log in at their leisure, when convenient, and participate on their own schedules, here is a good way to decide between those two options.

The number one factor is what you as the instructor are planning to do. If you are not going to interact back and forth with your students like in a question/answer type of interchange, and if you’re not planning to lead various interactive activities during the time together, if you’re only planning to lecture to deliver the course content, then you don’t need for this to be a live class. You can stand by yourself in front of a video camera and record yourself lecturing to an empty room, then put that video out there for your students to watch at their own schedule. Don’t make them come and sit in front of their computers only to be passive observers of your lecturing.

If they need to attend at a set time, then use that time to the best of your ability to get them interacting with you. Get them to ask questions, interact with each other, and do something that helps bring them into the learning mode to really engage and get something out of that time with you.

Preparing to Teach a Synchronous, Live Class

So let’s begin. First, we look at the preparation phase. You’re going to create a lesson plan for each lesson, and it needs to be detailed. Decide what students should know and be able to do by the end of this lesson. And decide how you want them to be able to demonstrate their learning at the end as well.

This will likely lead up to your design for assessments and knowledge checks or smaller formative activities leading up to something bigger coming up. Of course, today, I’m addressing only the way we deliver synchronous online lessons and not the actual assessment activities specifically.

If you’re teaching online, you must prepare the content ahead of time, even if you’re teaching live at a specific time. It’s not pretty to improvise in front of a camera feed with your students all sitting there. And it’s also very easy for your students to disengage, turn off their cameras, and find something else more interesting to do.

If they start doing this, they might even stop attending your class. To help them learn the best you can, you will need to be interesting, and engage them with you and with each other. Of course, the class doesn’t have to be live if you choose some other method.

You don’t need to see this experience as if you’re sitting on a stage delivering your lecture or monologue in real time as if you’re in a live classroom. Instead, if you’re going to just put everything online and let students come and go to participate at their own convenience, you can create many different types of content for that and you can make it an asynchronous class.

Maybe one of those, if you go that route, is going to be a short set of videos where you’re explaining or demonstrating a concept. Then there can be some reading material, and maybe you have a few videos that also help teach the concept. And students might be in a discussion area chatting among themselves in an asynchronous discussion as well.

There are a lot of options to help you, if you realize that you don’t really need them to be there live in real time. Whatever you do, be prepared and plan the lesson content, and the way you would deliver it as well, in advance.

Share Expectations with Students, Out Loud

You should be more specifically prepared in your online etiquette expectations. You can begin the class by sharing your standards about what they can expect from you and what you can expect from them in terms of how often and in what ways they will interact during your class. These instructions could include some kind of guidance about muting and unmuting their microphones, as well as what kinds of things can be written in the chat box, and whether they need to be on video or just have an image on the screen and their cameras turned off.

You should share these expectations out loud. Tell your students in front of the camera, when you’re actually there in the live class. Don’t just send them by email and expect your students to read them. You’ll want to reiterate them a few times and emphasize them, especially if you’re going to have these live courses throughout the semester where you’re meeting online, yet at the same time.

There are some additional ideas, like telling your students that online engagement is expected and required as class members. Camera issues and technical issues are not as common of an excuse for not engaging. Students can always use their smartphones as a backup if they have tech issues on their computer, and it can be helpful to engage the classroom support team early and often if there are any issues with technology access.

If you share your beliefs about why they need to engage and about how it’s going to actually cement what they’re learning, this can help your students purposely engage and be much more involved in your live classes.

Make Participation Part of the Grade

I also make participation a part of the grade during a live class, and you might consider doing the same thing, especially for younger students and if it’s a Gen Ed college class. You can use all kinds of brief exercises to interact or chat or get ideas from students throughout the class. And you can even call on students individually and take volunteers to answer questions.

So there are a lot of strategies to help you prepare. And as you think through what types of engagement you might want to use; you can plan your content throughout the lesson around these different methods available to you.

Adjusting Your Mindset

Now, the other half of the preparation is looking at your mindset. What are you thinking about your own teaching generally? And what will you expect to happen when you’re teaching online? How do you see yourself when you’re on video or when you’re coming across an online platform? And what might you do if everything goes wrong?

Let’s talk about that mindset a little more. Even though you will plan and prepare, be prepared for backup plans. In the past, you might have been able to deliver masterful classes and engage your students face-to-face remarkably well. But online, sometimes what you think will be a wonderfully developed and clear lesson turns out to be flat, confusing, and unengaging.

If you are new to teaching online, you will need to prepare with a beginner’s mind. Realize that you might not be as polished or put together as you would like to be. Have a plan B. You can share this plan B any time with additional content, different methods to teach the content. And if you have these backup plans, this is going to help you to feel calmer and help you stay calm if things don’t go according to plan. This is especially helpful if major adjustments are needed.

Because you might need to move to a backup plan, also realize that if it’s your first time teaching online, you might need to be more patient and flexible with yourself while you’re teaching. And you will also need to be more accommodating to your students who are trying to learn your teaching style as well as how to navigate that online space.

It’s really easy to clam up, get a little tense and hold students to a higher standard when things become frustrating for you. So, dial it down just a bit and be more accommodating to yourself and your students equally.

Improving Student Interaction with Polling Software

Lastly, we’re going to look at some ways you can get interaction from your students when you’re in that live synchronous online class to help them move, talk and engage. So how can you interact with these students during this live class?

One of the ideas I’d love to share with you today is to use polling software. There are many kinds of polling software. I’m going use four different kinds today and the first one I’d like to tell you about is called Poll Everywhere. This is one great option. They have interactive activities, attendance methods, quizzing, and ways to check understanding in real time.

You can add Poll Everywhere into a PowerPoint presentation that you already have. This makes it an easy way to add polling or any kind of interaction there. Once you’ve collected the responses, you can save them on the slide deck so if you’re going to share them with students later, those responses will be right there in the slide deck.

This Poll Everywhere also works with Keynote and Google slides. So with Poll Everywhere, you can make live synchronous online classes far more engaging and interactive without really having to change your slide deck very much from your traditional lesson you might’ve given in the past.

A second piece of software is called Mentimeter. Mentimeter lets you build interactive presentations right there on their platform, so you don’t have to go to something like PowerPoint. You can also collect polls, data and opinions from your students using their smartphones. They have 13 different types of interactive questions that can include word clouds and quizzing. The word clouds are especially beautiful because as students add their comments, any repeated statements become bigger in the word cloud and it starts to form right before your eyes.

You could put your whole lesson presentation in a Mentimeter presentation, and the engagement parts could appear throughout this lesson where students will respond, where they will interact, and where they will reply to your questions through Mentimeter. This platform includes themes for your presentations and free stock images to spice it up. And once you’re done, you can analyze the data, export it in a PDF file or in Excel, look at the trends and do some deeper analysis.

A third area is in the Zoom platform, which many of you might already be familiar with. Zoom has polling software built in. And if you’re having your live sessions in Zoom, these can be set up ahead of time and then they can be put on the screen when they’re needed and you can show the poll results to everyone afterwards. The Zoom polls can be conducted anonymously, or you can have participants names recorded, especially if you’re going to download them afterwards and take a look at those responses.

The last thing is the chat feature, which probably comes in whatever video platform you’re using for this live lesson. So the chat feature in the video platform allows students and you all to add your comments and ask questions.

You can monitor what’s going on there and include some of these comments as you’re teaching the lesson in your own speaking to connect to what students are also saying. You can also call on students who are there on video and just ask them to unmute and speak out loud as they would do in a traditional face-to-face class.

Some students are uncomfortable with this and very shy on camera, but once you encourage this kind of participation repeatedly, it grows. And it encourages more students to also participate in the same way. Those four ways of interacting, polling and getting answers from students can really help your students to wake up, stay alert, and really engage with the content.

Engage through Screen Share

Another way to engage your students is a screen share. There are many ways to do this and of course, if you’re in a platform like Zoom, you can either share an app through the platform or your entire screen from your computer right there in Zoom, and you could also share the interactive whiteboard.

When you use the whiteboard, you can just write on it like you would in a face-to-face class although it’s on the computer instead of on the wall. If you’re using Google, Google Classroom, Google Meets, or any of those types of platforms, you can also screen share there. There’s a Jamboard app that you could bring into your Google Classroom to also allow your students to collaborate on those whiteboards.

Video Share with Students

And then of course you can video share. You can stand up in your home office, just like you might in a classroom, put a whiteboard on your wall, and draw concepts on it while you’re teaching during the lesson and as you’re engaging with your students, just as if you’re standing in a regular classroom in front of that class.

These are all ways to engage your students, to get them to stay alive, alert, awake, to help them manipulate the content and interact with each other, explore ideas, and really learn during your live synchronous online class. I hope this has helped you think about how you might include students to engage them during that live synchronous online class.

Summarize the Lesson at the End of Each Class

As you close the lesson and the class for the day, find a way to summarize what they have done, what you’ve learned together and all that you’ve covered. Ask a student to tell you what their takeaway is from the lesson. You can either call on individual students to speak, or if you’re in a video platform with a chat feature, you can ask everyone to type a one-sentence takeaway from the lesson. Here again, this is going to cement their learning and help them repeat it again and again to remember what was taught, but also what they worked on.

You could ask your students to respond through polling software, if you prefer, to this section of your lesson, or you could have them add their answers to a Mentimeter word cloud. Whatever you do, asking students to help you sum up the lesson is another great way to help them engage more and solidly sift through their learning by sharing out.

Reflect After Each Class, Send out Email Reminders to Students

After everyone’s offline, take a moment to reflect on what went well. Was your preparation adequate? Was your mindset in the right place for this kind of situation? And did you prepare the situation itself with all of the steps needed for success? What would you like to adjust before the next go round? And then send a follow-up email to your class with a few key points and reminders about the next time. This will help them remember how to contact you as well when they have questions and it’s going to help them keep thinking about class when they’re away.

Thank you for being with me today. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week, especially if you’re teaching live synchronous classes.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

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