Tips for Teaching Online from The Carpentries Community

This post shares a first round of community-contributed tips on teaching online. Have a read and consider contributing more tips for teaching and learning online.

In The Carpentries #general Slack channel on Friday, 13 March 2020, several community members were discussing different approaches to employ in collaborating online, and specifically around curriculum development and teaching workshops. Lex Nederbragt and Laura Acion had a great thought to consolidate experiences in teaching and learning online from members of The Carpentries community, and share this in a more accessible space for others to read and adapt them for their needs. In the wake of COVID-19 and due to stringent measures taken to help curb its spread around the world, remote teaching and learning is quickly becoming a priority for institutions around the world. Acting on Lex’s and Laura’s suggestions, we put out a call asking The Carpentries community to share from their extensive experience in teaching and learning online.

Today, we are publishing a first round of community-contributed tips on teaching online. In case anything is missing, we will be publishing a second round of tips in the last week of March 2020, and implore you to read our prompts in this Google Doc or this GitHub issue, and add your own in there. At The Carpentries, we value all contributions and will list you as a co-author on the post once it’s published. If the need for ‘social distancing’ continues, these and other recommendations may feed into collaborative development of new ‘official’ guidelines for online training under The Carpentries umbrella.

The tips presented below are the result of invaluable input from our community members: Nandipa Sithiwe, Mario Antonioletti, Elizabeth Wickes, David Pérez-Suárez and Darya Vanichkina.

Make No Assumptions

The value of running pre-session surveys, however brief, cannot be overstated. Make no assumptions about your learners, the tools, services, knowledge or resources at their disposal. Check what hardware they will use during your session, ask about the reliability of their internet connectivity, check if power outages are expected in their location. Ask. You may not be able to accommodate all scenarios, but it will help you tailor your online session so it caters to all in some ways.

Session Formats in an Online Setting

As you start out, dedicate as much time as possible for brainstorming and designing your session to meet your learners’ needs, and attain your desired outcomes.

There are many models of online instruction, including asynchronous and synchronous modes, and either option can be adopted in different scenarios and result in the delivery of successful online sessions, but both require upfront thought and design.

  • Synchronous modes allow for deeper discussion i.e. the incorporation of question and answer sessions, demos, etc.
  • Asynchronous mode often involves lots of reading, watching recorded videos, and communicating via forum posts.

Some questions to think about as design your online session:

  • what do I need to cover in the session? what learners’ needs do I need to meet?
  • how long does it take to deliver (a) in an in-person session?
  • do I need more, less or the same amount of time as stipulated in (b) to deliver (a)?
  • how many co-instructors or helpers will be at hand to support learners in the session?>
  • with (d) in mind, consider how your support strategies will scale with class size. Where possible, manage class size accordingly

Whichever format you settle on, review your directions, prompts and session format before introducing them to learners. Carry out a dry-run of the session with some of your learners or co-instructors. Offer incentives for students who find problems. Help build a community where you and the students are working together to learn as you go along.

Challenges to expect and prepare for:

  • Software setup, even with guidelines provided before an online session, doesn’t always pan out as expected. Invite participants to come to your session early i.e. half an hour before time, and help them confirm their software is set up correctly. Alternatively, dedicate time at the start of your session to check for correct and up-to-date installations for everyone.

Communication

It is important to communicate early and in detail before your online session takes place, and to run periodic check-ins afterward.

Before your online session, consider communicating about:

  • tools that will be used to deliver the session.
    • where will your learners convene? Share a link to the video conferencing service, with instructions for set up
    • what ground rules / shared norms do you want learners to apply when using the tool in your session? For example, remain muted unless speaking or use chat to raise hands.
  • formats for discussions during your session
    • Share guidelines about specific tools to use for collaborative note-taking, raising questions, etc and
    • indicate additional etiquette to observe i.e. where should off-topic comments be made, if at all? what should (and shouldn’t) chat be used for? Is communicating anonymously acceptable?

At the start of your online session, consider communicating about:

  • who is on the call, what role they will be playing and how people on the call should interact with them i.e. k and l are co-instructors, reach out to them on tool x when…
  • all the tools that will be used in the session, with a quick overview of what each tool will be used for i.e. we will use tool x for Q&A, and tool y for session notes.
  • your session’s schedule. Sharing an outline will allow learners to plan adequately and know when they can step away to attend to other issues. This might help reduce interruptions during your session.

After your session, consider communicating about:

  • what you covered in the session, including links to all resources from your session - your slides, collaborative notes, questions and your answers for them
  • next steps - will there be followup sessions? how can learners continue collaborating / discussing material?

Challenges to expect and prepare for:

  • Losing the in-person modality may mean that you also lose the implicit classroom etiquette and non-verbal communication channels. Some of these can be replicated via text in chats, emojis, or reactions in shared video screens, but all alternatives work effectively when participants are intentional in their approach.
  • Anonymity in online sessions can sometimes result in snubbing of collaboration guidelines, or code of conduct violations. Written non-anonymous communication generally helps people adhere to set guidelines / codes of conduct, and makes it easier to follow up on specific issues when they arise.
  • where learning is expected to occur asynchronously i.e. where sessions are pre-recorded, it may be harder to fix issues or clarify things as your learners work their way through material.

Learner Support

One of the ways to create a welcoming environment for learning is to ‘normalise mistakes’. Be open about any issues you run into as you teach in the session, and take time to explain clearly why the issue happened and how learners can tackle it when it happens. It might also be helpful to anticipate issues they might run into and your suggestions for dealing with them i.e. if my internet connection becomes disrupted, I will attempt to reconnect. This may cause the zoom meeting to generate an error. I will send you the meeting invite, to your university email, to reconnect.

Encouraging collaborative debugging sessions for the most common or recurring issues is a great way to support your learners in an online environment. Because time may be limited, consider inviting your learners to jot down technical issues they have encountered in your collaborative document, and allow them time to upvote a few that they would like tackled in the call.

  • for the upvoted issues, control is given to the instructor in the video conferencing tool and they can try to fix the problem and everyone else can watch
  • for issues listed but not tackled in the call, co-instructors can take time to respond under each one, providing links for resources that can help learners troubleshoot the issues raised
  • in cases where a co-instructor or helper is not available to support debugging of additional problems, it may be necessary to limit the size of sessions or split large groups to permit collaborative support for all.

In an online setting, it is important to be flexible to accommodate learners in different ways. Some may need to step away from a session half an hour before it is over, for example, in which case, you can consider recording the session and sharing it with them to revisit in their own time. Ask what accommodations your learners may need, be explicit about ways you can accommodate them, and where you cannot.

Be diligent about pausing occasionally to get a feel of the room, and field questions. Ask often ‘does anyone have a question’ as well as ‘can I clarify anything or re-explain something?’ Which will allow people who can’t quite verbalise their issue the chance to slow the instructor down and catch up if they are falling behind. Without room to read others’ body language, checking-in often is critical.

Never teach alone is a learner support recommendation that The Carpentries strongly advocates for in our workshops. In academic courses without available co-instructors, this can mean relying on TAs or assigning limited support roles (e.g. collecting questions or leading collaborative note-taking) to students. Having two instructors on the call is ideal, and where possible having them in the same physical space for the duration of the online session makes it easier to communicate. The best way to replicate the ability for instructor-to-instructor chats is to have another application open (on another monitor if possible), so co-instructors can flag things to the instructor while the teaching is happening.

Interaction in Online Sessions

Online interactions in a formal setting can be awkward. To make it easier for people to interact during your session:

  • offer clear guidelines. In addition to asking people to interact, be clear about what you want from them and how you want it done. End your requests with clear directions for where to put the response. For example, “Go ahead and put your prediction in the chat” or explicitly invite someone to take the microphone if they have a question
  • punctuate your online session with activities like polls, quizzes and discussion prompts periodically to provide ample opportunities for learners to interact. Where sessions are recorded, you can still ask your learners to pause to make a prediction or experiment. There are also low bandwidth methods of doing this, where you have them pause to draw a diagram or write an example, and then ask them to post it on a forum. Think creatively! But don’t think that you always need to ask for proof of attention to make them pay attention. Also keep lag times in mind. Response times can be increased by several multipliers, depending on connections.
  • provide space for informal conversations. One of the biggest benefits of in-person workshops are the informal conversations that happen between learners, as they work together as a group on the challenges. To try to reproduce the peer learning environment you can try using zoom breakout rooms, and sneak around in them to encourage group discussion, much as you might in a normal classroom.

Inclusivity

There are tools to help you include live captioning in your online sessions. Google Slides is one of them, and here’s how to integrate live captioning as you work your way through your session. Where automated options fail or are unavailable, other tools exist that help provide subtitles in a collaborative way, and amara.org is one. Some universities also have Learner Management Systems that are available for use by students, so be sure to check if this is an option available to you.

Encourage different ways of contributing. So many factors influence the ability for a student to be in a classroom, attend to the information, and learn. Likewise, a similarly long but different set of factors influence an online student’s ability to be present and attentive. As instructors, we need to recognise that physical presence is not the bar of success. Similarly, speaking up should not be the only way for learners to contribute in your online session, and it is imperative for an online session instructor to emphasise the importance of the shared notes document and validate this mode of silent communication repeatedly in the session.

Time

Especially where you expect participants from different timezones to take part in your call, communicate clearly about set time for your online session. We recommend using Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) when sending calendar invites for your online session.

Your online session program should factor in time for unexpected occurrences i.e. if one tool fails, consider how long it will take to switch to a backup tool, or in case an urgent issue needs troubleshooting for a majority of your learners, prepare ways to recover that time and meet your goals in the time you have left.

Break time is an important part of your program, leave room for rest breaks in your online session. Provide options that allow people that choose to spend it in the call to have informal discussions.

Tools

For video conferencing, consider using Zoom, Jitsi, Slack calls, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, GoToMeeting or similar. The Carpentries has had a good experience with Zoom. Here is how we use it.

Where video is not an option, for example, due to slow internet, mumble can host audio calls with lots of people and without a lag in connectivity.

Where whiteboarding is needed, Slack and Zoom have whiteboarding options integrated, and A Web Whiteboard (AWW) is a standalone alternative that works well, and can double up as a Q&A forum with provisions for anonymity where preferred.

To share quizzes in real time, consider using Menti.com or Socrative which also afford you instant feedback.

For collaborative note-taking, Google Docs or Etherpads are a good option. Here is how we use Etherpads in The Carpentries.

As a rule of thumb, where online sessions are for learners from one institution, choose the tools supported and provided by your campus first. Keep in mind that student privacy is important as is accessibility. For example, google drive is not approved for student or research data, neither is Slack. Always check with your institution first.

For co-instructor coordination, Slack or Microsoft Teams work well for back-channeling.

If…Then…Else

In case any key part of your online session delivery fails, it is important to prepare alternative approaches to fall back on. Think about worst case scenarios and how best you can prepare for them, for example, creating a Google Colab or Rstudio account in case there’s need to use the backup software option, pre-recording your session in case video conferencing proves to be a challenge on the day, etc.

Additional Resources

Dialogue & Discussion