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The best of both worlds: The benefits of online and offline teaching

threee photos of Instructor teaching students remotely, woman alone at home on computer and instructor in classroom with students
by Alison Jane Martingano, Ph.D.

Every week more colleges and universities announce that they will hold classes fully or partially online in response to COVID-19. Professors are being asked to design “hybrid” classes, that blend online and offline teaching methods. Even those who are expecting to teach solely online may have to decide to what extent they will teach live (synchronously) or have students engage in their own time (asynchronously).

In the bullet points below, I outline the benefits of these different teaching methods. Some teaching activities are actually better suited to online methods, whereas others require in-person instruction. When designing syllabi this year, professors may wish to consider what format fits their content best, and if need be, tailor their content to the teaching methods available to them.  

Synchronous online classes

Best for small, discussion-based seminar classes.

Synchronous online classes involve teaching live through video and audio. You should have all students turn their cameras on and mute their microphone (unless they are speaking) to reduce background noise. For best results use two screens, so that you can share content (e.g. PowerPoints, whiteboard, video) while still seeing your students’ faces.

  • Increasing participation. Anxious or uncertain students often remain mute in class. The “chat” function allows them to participate by typing. Ask students to summarize their opinion, generate examples, or critique a piece of research using the chat function. In this way everyone gets the opportunity to share their answers (not just those fastest to raise their hands). You can prompt even more participation by reading aloud some answers and asking the student who wrote it to expand upon their point.
  • Personalized feedback. With everyone facing camera with a visible name tag it is much easier to remember student’s personal details. Use students’ names to give praise “Excellent point Alex” and to acknowledge other work “As Tamika mentioned in her essay”. Ask students to edit their names to their preferred names and add gender pronouns in parentheses.
  • Teaching digital skills. Many of the skills we want our students to become proficient in are digital. For example, searching library databases or making calculations in SPSS. By using the “screen share” function, students can follow along with you on their own computer.
  • Student presentations. By giving presentations live online students are eased into public speaking without some of the stresses associated with standing-up in the front of an entire class. Students can take full advantage of speaker notes and use the self-view camera to improve their body language and eye contact. If students are giving group presentations encourage them to coordinate slides with group members through cloud services such as “Google Slides”.
  • Anonymous responses. Anonymous online polls far exceed the offline equivalent of asking students to raise their hands. Not only will it calculate for you how many people chose each response option, students answers are truly anonymous. In Zoom, polls need to be programmed in advance. To reduce your workload, you can reuse a poll with answers A, B, C, & D, and then write what each answer corresponds to on your PowerPoint slide or virtual whiteboard. 

Asynchronous online classes

Best for large, lecture-based classes.

Asynchronous online classes involve providing content for your students to engage with in their own time. For best results provide a wide variety of content broken into modules (e.g. webinars, readings, documentaries, TED talks, quizzes). Use regular, intermittent deadlines and copious feedback to keep students engaged throughout semester.

  • Flexibility for students. Students are busy. They are working to supplement family income, campaigning for social justice, and caring for extended family members. Asynchronous classes allow students to excel by having content available online 24 hours a day. Check the meta-data for your course to see what time your students are logging in and follow up with students who may be struggling.
  • Focused lecture content. Recorded lectures, affectionally known as “webinars”, should be short (5 – 10 minutes each). Long, rambling in-person lectures have traditionally left students unsure of what the take home message is. By contrast, short webinars require you to get to the point—and quickly! I recommend you stop the recording when you naturally want to pause to ask “any questions?” and post your webinar inside an online discussion forum. High quality webinars can be re-used in multiple classes.
  • Variety of viewpoints. With so much amazing online content available it seems only right that students should benefit from viewpoints beyond their own professor. Assign students TED talks, documentaries, podcasts, newspaper articles, blogs as well as more traditional readings. Ask experts in your field if they would be willing to share a 10-minute webinar on their latest research. Order content in a logical sequence for your students to digest. Ask students to complete a short quiz or written response afterwards to check for understanding. 
  • Diverse real-world applications. To the extent campus undergraduates were ever homogenous, online students certainly are not. Take advantage of their wealth of experiences and diverse situations. Assign homework that requires students to take a picture of a psychological phenomenon in action in their area. Or find a newspaper report from their hometown. By relating the course content to their experiences, students are much more likely to remain engaged.
  • Clarity around grading. Students want to know exactly what they need to do to succeed. Take advantage of online rubrics and grade calculation systems to make it clear what each assignment is worth. Keep up to date with grading so students can see their progress as they complete the course.

In-person classes

Best for practical, lab-based classes.

There is nothing quite like standing in front of the class and seeing their faces light up when you explain a particularly cool psychological phenomenon. It is easier to read the room and crack jokes in person and the spontaneous intellectual discussions that arise are invaluable.

  • Collaborative projects. Although group projects are possible online using breakout rooms and cloud services such as google docs, groups benefit from physical proximity. Supervising group work in-person allows you to eavesdrop on group discussions to ensure they are on task and jump in with useful guidance if you notice they are struggling. Walking over to a group and asking to be looped into their discussion is much less threatening in person and students are more likely to share with you their half-baked ideas.
  • Teaching practical skills. Some practical skillsets can only be taught in person. For example, how to administer psychometric or physiological measures. Use valuable class time to have students practice on one another with any specialized equipment.
  • Spontaneity. It is in the blank spaces that our minds become creative. Online classes are goal orientated and structured, whereas in-person classes allow you to adapt your content and its delivery to the current class mood.  In person, students can congregate before or after class and they seem more inclined to ask off-topic questions. Take advantage of unstructured discussion to allow student creativity to blossom.
     

Alison Jane Martingano is a social psychologist, specializing in research on empathic processes and communication. She holds a Ph.D. in Cognitive, Social and Developmental Psychology from the New School for Social Research as well as an M.Phil. and M.A. in Psychology and a B.Sc. (hons) from the University of York.  Her research has been published in various academic journals as well as being featured in programs such as BBC Radio 4, The Digital Human. She is the winner of early career research and teaching awards and is a passionate educator, having held various teaching positions at various higher education institutions. 

 

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