Learning the ropes with Angela Maiers and Richard Byrne

Education & Technology

So far, Angela Maiers, Richard Byrne, and I have taught three of the four classes in our course, So You Wanna Be a Leader. The experience has been outstanding – I had my share of great classes and interesting students when I was teaching math, science, and technology at my local high school, but the online classes we’ve taught in this course have been some of the best.

What makes a class “great”?
In a physical classroom, you know if you’ve taught a great class. The students are on top of things, asking and answering questions, you’re not yelling to get their attention, no one gets assigned detention for misbehaving, whatever technology you’re using (be it a projector, a set of science probes, or a graphing calculator) works flawlessly, and, most importantly, students “get it”. They manage to show you, usually through discussion rather than a quiz or other sort of assessment, that you’ve done your job.

In an online class, a rolling, ongoing backchannel chat is the best indicator that things are going well. For So You Wanna Be a Leader, our team teaching approach lends itself particularly well to managing and capitalizing on the undercurrent of thought and conversation that would normally be distracting in a physical setting. While one instructor is presenting a particular concept, another can be contributing ideas and extensions either vocally or in the chat box, and a third can focus on questions, student issues, monitor technical details, and interact more directly with students who are chatting and asking questions.

Even a single instructor, though, with practice, can keep an eye on the chat window in the virtual classroom and tailor lectures accordingly or stop and follow a specific conversation if it will benefit the class.

All three of our classes so far have lengthy chat transcripts, with threads that make it clear that the students are actively listening and thinking critically about what we’re saying. In fact, if the instructors can manage it effectively, the chat window is actually a compelling reason to hold classes online instead of in a physical setting or to even use a virtual classroom as a presentation and collaboration tool during a physical class session. I’ve seen the same thing done very effectively using Twitter hash tags during in-person classes so that this ongoing conversation can be a vital part of the instruction and learning rather than a dull roar of noise during class.

The followup is just as important as the class
Students in this course have also told us that the followup assignments and resulting discussions are as useful or even more important than the class sessions themselves. The classes start the conversation and get students thinking, but since we have students post homework assignments and general thoughts, comments, and questions to a discussion forum, pages of student-teacher and student-student interaction are generated during the week between online class sessions.

In our case, Richard set up a simple Buddypress instance on our website, and students are asked to accomplish a particular task each week. The homework then, is more along the lines of introspection and critical thought, relating the class sessions to their own lives and activities. No multiple choice worksheets here! And absolutely no busy work. Busy work does not make for active discussions.

Of course, the right students help
This particular group of students happens to be made up of highly motivated educators who paid to learn from our experiences and be part of this temporary community where just such a group of people could come together and work to advance their careers. The same sorts of activities won’t guarantee awesome classes 100% of the time with your average group of 8th graders.

The challenge, then, is finding ways to engage any audience, whether or not they are in your class by choice or are compelled to be there. They say, for example, that teachers make the worst students. I agree with this, having delivered more than my share of professional development. However, more often than not, teachers aren’t attending professional development classes by choice. Then tend to be conditions of employment, which is a huge barrier to active engagement.

Providing appropriate channels for discussion and dipsticking, though, can make a big difference with even the toughest of crowds. Interestingly, when an audience is encouraged to “talk amongst themselves” during a presentation, but is required to do so via an established backchannel like WizIQ’s text chat, the conversations aren’t about what’s for lunch or how soon the lecture will be over. Rather, they’re about the topic at hand, with participants learning from and through each other, as much as more as via the presentation.

Leave them wanting more
One final thought for now from this course. Each night when we wrap up the class session, students aren’t ready to leave. Invariably, we end up extending our class session. Students are already posting in the forum even as the class comes to a close and the conversations continue. Students are asking about followups rather than when the last day is or when class will be over.

Again, that won’t be easy to achieve with the average group of 8th-graders I mentioned above and we admittedly picked a very big topic that begs for deep dives into the topics we cover each class. But each time I teach a class, I’d always rather have too much information to cover than too little, and too little time than too much. It doesn’t matter if I’m online or in person – the goal is the same.

However, I would argue that the right technology can make it easier to achieve and maintain the sort of engagement necessary to make the class session fly. All three of us are always surprised when we reach the end of an hour. Perhaps that’s a better mark of a great class than anything else.


Christopher Dawson

Chris is a full-time online teacher since then, focusing on teaching Business English to Adults. Rather than pushing the boundaries of technology, Chris seeks to simplify the online learning process by focusing on authentic human connections as a way to make online learning accessible for learners of all ages.

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