Time, tasks, and synchronous learning

You’re teaching a 50-minute class. You arrive in the classroom 8 minutes before class begins, get set up at the front of the room, and greet students as they arrive. The clock strikes the hour, and you begin. Maybe you have an announcement or two. Or maybe you just start with “Today we’ll be learning about …” and dive right in to a lecture or activity. You move smoothly through the day’s lesson plan. You ask questions and students answer them. As the class ending time nears, students give you non-verbal cues about the time. They close notebooks or laptops and put items in their backpacks. Everything runs smoothly.

In a synchronous class, you can do the same things with your students, but time and interactions will work a little differently. To have the smoothest experience possible, it helps to anticipate how time and interactions are different in the synchronous classroom. Here are some thoughts about what to expect and some tips to help manage the experience.

Preparing students. It’s not enough to give your students a time and a link for a synchronous session. Students need to be prepared for what to expect. Things to consider include:

  • Will students be sitting and quietly viewing? Or will they be interacting?
  • What technology do students need to participate? Will a camera and/or microphone be needed?
  • Will you expect students to have webcams on?

Let students know these details in advance. If they will be speaking, they need to be in a quiet location. If they will be on webcam, they should be mindful of what they are wearing (you know these things become tips for a reason), the lighting, and what is in the background. Tell them how to prepare.

Before class begins. Leave yourself enough time to get everything set up for your students. In some tools, like zoom, it’s possible to have students sit in a virtual waiting room until you are able to open up your virtual classroom. You might plan on logging in 15 minutes before class time, so you can get your computer set up, check your camera and microphone, set up slides or screen sharing, and gather all items that you might need into your workspace. If you’ll be doing screen sharing, open all of the necessary screens in the background so you’ll have a smooth transition. Close programs and screens that you won’t be using and turn off any alerts that might interrupt the class. Set up your screen the way you want it (e.g., adjust chat and participant windows so you can see them, if you want).

Once you’re all set up, you can let students join you in the virtual classroom. If you tell students you’ll be online 10 minutes early so you can interact with them and help them get set up, some will join you at that time. Consider it the online equivalent to being available for a few minutes during class, with one key difference: No privacy. That means it’s not a good time to discuss a student’s personal problems or progress in class. It is, however, a great time to ask how your students are doing and get informal feedback on how the class is going.

When class begins. You may plan to start right on time, but expect students to show up during the first minute or two of class. People generally underestimate the amount of time it will take them to get logged in and set up.

Take a moment at the start to make sure everyone is comfortable using the conferencing tool and can hear you and see your slides or whatever other materials you might be sharing.

If you will be recording the session (and you should, because students may want to review it and some students may not be able to attend in real time), let everyone know that you are recording, and then start the recorder.

It’s also a good idea to begin the class session (EVERY class session) with a reminder of the rules of engagement in the online class. These are some good ones to follow:

  • Leave your microphone on mute unless you are speaking.
  • Do not unmute your microphone until you are called on.
  • If you want to be called on, indicate that by (typing in the chat / raising your virtual hand).
  • Feel free to type questions and comments in the chat, but make sure they are on topic and remember that it is a public chat.
  • If tech problems arise and you cannot hear or see me, type in the chat.
  • Questions typed in chat may not be answered immediately, but there will be time to review and answer them.

I have a slide with these rules on them, and regularly ask students if there are other rules they would like to add. I also modify the rules as needed based on the class and the activity.

Expect that the “getting started” part of class may take anywhere from two to five minutes.

During class. If you’re lecturing online, it will feel strange at first because you won’t have the same feedback you get in the classroom. You won’t be able to easily scan the room and see who is paying attention and who looks confused. You won’t be easily able to tell who has a question or a contribution. It may feel like you are staring at the screen talking to yourself.

Sitting still and watching someone talk online is nowhere near as interesting as watching someone lecture in a classroom. You should expect that attention will wane after 10 minutes (if not earlier) unless you’ve been able to engage student attention in some other way. To help students maintain focus or attention, consider some of the following options:

  • Plan to invite students to participate at regular intervals. This may not be the time to get fancy and learn how to use polling tools. Just pause and ask a question or invite student contributions. If you’re using slides, display the question on a slide. Invite students to post their response in the chat, or to speak. To indicate that they want to speak, invite students to raise their virtual hands or, if that’s too much to deal with technologically speaking (and it may be), ask them to type something like “raising hand” in the chat, so you can call on them.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and make comments along the way. Tell them that every so often you will pause to review the chat and catch up with any questions. The change of pace will help break things up enough so students can refocus when you dive back in too content. You can read the chat conversation and respond to it. Invite student to interact with you more while you do that. It might start an interesting class conversation.
  • Offer a 7th inning stretch. Take a short break and invite everyone to get up, get a glass of water, and return in X minutes.

When you invite student to participate, it will take time for them to formulate a response and the type it into the chat. This radio silence can be a little anxiety-inducing if you’re not used to it, and it can be tempting to just keep moving forward. One strategy that can help is to tell students that you will give them a set amount of time (90 seconds?) to formulate or answer questions and submit to the chat. Having a defined purpose for and period of silence makes that silence more comfortable. Sit back and time the break. Have a drink of water and turn your webcam off for a moment if you would like. Return after the appointed time and start responding to what your students have posted.

If you invite students to speak, it will take a moment for them to unmute themselves. That’s normal. Try to get into the habit of saying providing the reminder to unmute, and making everyone comfortable with the silence. “I see Mike’s hand raised. Please unmute yourself and share with us, Mike. Speak whenever you are ready.”

Beware of lag time. Sometimes the audio and visual channels of conferencing tools do not move at the same speed. If you change slides on your computer or share a new document, it may take a moment before everyone else’s screen catches up. Be patient.

At the end of class. If you finish your planned agenda early, that’s fine. Open the session up to Q&A or discussion, and if no one has anything to say, bring the session to a close.

If the allotted time is almost over and you haven’t finished everything you had planned, that’s okay. You can make the decision to go on and finish, inviting people log off if they need to leave, or to wrap up wherever you are.  The latter is probably preferable, because students who have to leave will feel some anxiety about that. If you keep going, remind everyone that you are recording and be sure to share the recording after it is done.

When you wrap up, stop recording. You may wish to stay online for a few minutes (with the recording turned off) for any students who want to interact informally.

Evaluating the session. After the session, take a few moments to reflect. What worked well for you? What could you improve? Did you feel in control of time? If you had too much planned, remember to scale back the next time.

Invite students to offer you feedback, too. What worked for them? What could you do differently the next time?

Finally, don’t forget to share the recording with your class.

Don’t forget or penalize the students who couldn’t join or fully participate in the session. We’re moving online under emergency circumstances. Just because students had been able to show up in a physical classroom at a set time doesn’t mean that they will be able to do the same in a virtual space under their current conditions. Some may not have Internet access at home, or sufficient devices to participate actively (or at all). Under the current circumstances, it’s not reasonable to ask them to go out and find a wifi hotspot or a public library with available computers. In other cases, students may be able to watch but not fully participate. They may have small children at home, or be in a noisy environment that they cannot control. Invite them to participate in whatever ways they can, but also to not feel pressured or upset about what they cannot do. Be sure to have an alternate plan for these students and reassure them that they will not fall behind or be penalized.