Conducting virtual defenses

University offices may close in the midst of COVID-19, but our graduate students still need to defend their theses and dissertations. I have two doctoral candidates defending dissertations in two weeks, and I’m a committee member on a third defense that week as well.

I’ve done defenses where 1-2 people have been at a distance before, and it works to an extent. However, the event is still very location-specific, and the transactional distance between the people joining virtually and those in the room is palpable. Everyone has to be very conscious of including the virtual attendees.

A fully virtual defense is different. Everyone joins from their own location, and has equal presence in the room. It’s basically a web conference with a presentation followed by a Q&A session, with a few important differences.

Here is the protocol that I’m using:

  1. Set up the defense meeting in zoom. I’m setting as a private meeting, and enabling the waiting room (I’ll explain why later).  I have the settings adjusted so that others can screen share. I want to control the meeting, but to allow the students to control the presentation part.
  2. Send reminder and protocol to committee. I will be sharing the following information and comments with the committee prior to the defense:
    • Link to join session.
    • Please find a quiet location for joining the meeting. I recommend that you use headphones to listen, because that will help reduce any feedback.
    • Please plan to have your webcam on. This is a small meeting and we do not anticipate bandwidth issues. It will be helpful to see each other’s faces, and will make it a more personal experience for the candidate.
    • Remember to be on mute when not speaking.
    • When we reach the Q&A section, we will take turns asking questions as usual. At this time I will recommend that you adjust your screen so you have the gallery view on and can see everyone’s face. Gallery view is the one that looks like the opening of a The Brady Bunch episode. If you need practice using the settings, please just ask. I’m happy to help you.
    • If you have a question or comment and it is not currently your turn, please don’t interrupt the current speaker. We will likely notice via your facial expression/body language, but you might also type “I’d like to add something” into the chat, and we’ll make sure you get to speak next.
  3. Rehearse with student. It’s important to give the candidate a chance to practice presenting and handling Q&A in this format.  I’ve already run a practice session with other graduate students attending. We ran through the presentations, did Q&A, and then debriefed at the end. It was valuable, and we’ll do one more
  4. Day of set-up. I will ask the candidate to log in at least 15 minutes in advance and set up their screen share. I will have to be monitoring so I can let people in from the waiting room. When the committee enters the meeting room, they should see a title slide.
  5. Start the defense. At the appointed hour, welcome everyone and give a reminder of the overall protocol (detailed in #2, above). Allow for social niceties. Then introduce the dissertation and hand over to the candidate. Remind everyone to mute themselves, and turn off the webcam if they wish.
  6. Beginning the Q&A. I will remind everyone to turn webcams on and stay muted unless speaking. We will choose an order for questioning, and invite the first questioner to begin. I want to take notes for my students, so I will use my second laptop or my iPad for that purpose. That way I can have one device fully devoted to the defense. If I didn’t have multiple devices, I’d take notes by hand.
  7. Transitioning to committee discussion. When the Q&A is over, I will place the candidate back into the waiting room. This is why it was important to enable the waiting room and for me to be the meeting host. An alternate approach would be to ask the candidate to leave the meeting and await a message (such as a text message) to rejoin the meeting. That’s doable, but the waiting room is a more elegant option.
  8. Transitioning back to the student. Once the committee deliberation is over, it’s time to invite the candidate in from the waiting room for the results and feedback. Normally this is the time where we all shake hands in celebration, and take photos in front of the title slide. That won’t happen in a virtual defense, but I have a plan. Before I bring the candidate back in, I’ll be screen sharing something like this:
    defensecongratulations
    I’ll also get us to all pose for a screenshot to commemorate the event.
  9. Debriefing. I’ll debrief with the candidate via zoom after the committee leaves — or maybe the next day, even. Two hours is a long time to sit in a virtual meeting.

Guests (a variation): We typically allow guests to attend the public presentation part of the defense. The Q&A is closed. This is still doable. We can allow guests in from the waiting room at the start of the defense, and then ask them to leave after the presentation. If they don’t leave (some people walk away, leaving their computer on), it’s possible for the host to kick them out of the meeting. Because the waiting room option is on, it won’t be a problem if more people have the meeting link. They can’t join if I don’t let them in. I can also shut off their cameras and mute them, if necessary (but I will also send out a protocol for joining and what to expect when sharing the join link).

Oh, and one more VERY IMPORTANT thing: I’m planning a virtual party so my research group can celebrate these new PhDs. Celebrating the accomplishment is pretty darn important. I might even don my cap and gown at the beginning, and offer a little speech in honor of the soon-to-be graduates since they won’t be walking across the stage and getting hooded at the end of the term.

Online Office Hours

Online office hours can be a lot like campus office hours: Some days you sit, you wait, and no one shows up. Other days (like when there’s an assignment due) you have a line of people waiting to talk to you. And sometimes someone shows up just to chat, with no apparent agenda. In short, online office course can be boring, busy, and … perhaps fun or perhaps a little awkward.

Here are some tips for managing online office hours.

  1. Decide how you want to conduct office hours. You can have an open free-for-all, where you wait for people to show up in a virtual meeting room, or you can schedule individual appointments. It’s all a matter of privacy preferences.
    • Group meeting: Anyone can show up. It can be kind of fun when multiple students show up to hang out and discuss ideas related to the class, but it’s not conducive to conversations of a private nature. If you go with group meetings, you can also offer to set up individual meetings by appointment at mutually convenient times.
    • Individual appointments: Students can sign up for a time slot during the appointed office hours period. I recommend using a tool like signup genius if you want to offer signups. You can set it up so students won’t see anyone else’s name on the signup, just which slots are available and which are already booked.
  2. Set up the tool.
    • I have my zoom-based office hour set up with a recurring meeting link so students can use the same link every week. That keeps things simple. I can post the link once in the LMS and not worry about it again. I can even have zoom generate a calendar invite for the recurring meeting.
      OfficeHours
    • My group meeting is set up with a waiting room. This means that I enter the meeting room first, and I manually invite students to join. I choose this setting because sometimes a single student shows up to chat and the conversation takes a turn for the private. This ensures that no one else can just jump into the middle of that conversation. Instead, I get an alert that there’s someone waiting to come in. That gives me time to wrap up the private conversation and then let the waiting student in.
      waitingroom
    • In group meetings I use the setting that plays a chime when someone enters the room. This would be annoying while teaching, but when you open up office hours and no one shows up, it’s a wonderful thing. I can navigate away to another window and I’ll hear the chime if a student shows up. I usually keep my camera on but webcam cover over it when waiting for students to show up. I may also put the sound on mute if it’s possible that they’ll hear anything other than me typing away at a furious pace upon entry.
    • Be prepared for people who show up and having nothing to say. It happens. Have something in mind that you can discuss with them. They will show up and expect you to lead the conversation.
    • When I do individual meetings, I always set up a one-time private meeting link. This ensures there won’t be any meeting crashers. This means that if I’m scheduling back to back meetings with students, I keep switching zoom rooms. It’s not a big deal. In those instances, I allow the students to join before host and don’t use the waiting room. I also set an alarm so I’ll get an alert 3 minutes before the next meeting begins. That allows me to wrap up and move on.
  3. Be prepared. Anticipate what students might want to talk about. Have appropriate web sites and and/or documents open in the background so you can screen share as needed. For example, if an assignment is due in a week, have the assignment directions open. Do not have anything sensitive open on your computer at that time … just in case you accidentally screen share the wrong thing.
  4. Let students know what to expect.
    • If you’re holding group meetings, remind students that this is not the time to have a personal or private conversation. Give them an alternate means to schedule such conversations.
    • If you’ve set up a waiting room, tell students how that will work.
    • If you’re running individual meetings, let students know you will be watching the time closely and will need to shift from space to space. Tell them to enter the room and if you’re not yet there to wait for you.
    • If you’re running individual meetings, let students know they can screen share things they’re working on so you can look at them and discuss together. It can be handing for walking through a student draft.

Finally, be sure you’re available to students in other ways and articulate when and how you’ll manage that. Sometimes students will expect you to be available via phone or email during office hours. However, those activities are not compatible with sitting in a virtual room interacting with students. Help student understand expectations for communication in each of the ways that you are available.

Participation in asynchronous discussion

Here is an article I wrote in 2005 about participation in online discussion. The article reports findings from a multiple case study (nine online classes), looking at how the discussion activities were designed, facilitated, and graded, and what happened in terms of quality, quantity, nature, and timing of student posts.

Dennen, V. P. (2005). From message posting to learning dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education, 26(1), 125-146.

TL;DR —

  • Students will follow whatever guidelines you give them, so give specific guidelines.
  • Deadlines drive interaction for most students. Incremental deadlines can help support interaction.
  • If the instructor participates too much, the discussion becomes instructor-centered and students won’t interact with each other.
  • If the instructor is absent, with no clear indicators that they are even reading the discussion, students may get off topic, stop participating, and even talk about the instructor in the third person.
  • Students want feedback on their discuss performance. It can occur in various ways: privately when grading, en masse through announcements or messages to the class, or directly through instructor interaction on the discussion forum.

Checklists: Keeping everyone organized in an asynchronous class

When courses are taught in a face-to-face setting, we all tend to settle into a familiar rhythm:

  • Students show up to class, (hopefully) with homework completed.
  • The instructor leads class, and students follow along with whatever the instructor has planned.
  • The instructor concludes class by reminding students of homework for next time and/or students know to look on a syllabus to figure out what is due during the next class.
  • Students and instructors prep individually for the next class meeting, as needed.
  • Repeat.

The key part of this scenario from the student perspective is that students just show up at an appointed time and then follow their instructor’s directions in the classroom. It’s a reactive relationship for students. They show up, and participate. They aren’t making decisions about what to do and when to do it.

When classes move to an asynchronous format, the burden of planning activities and time shifts to the students. Even when the workload is comparable to a classroom format, the number of moving parts can make coursework feel a little overwhelming.

I’ve found that students benefit from checklists in their asynchronous classes. Assuming the course activities are organized around a week, the checklists then help students identify each small task for the week. Yes, I know, the information is probably all on the syllabus — but it’s all so much easier to see on a checklist. Now that I have the checklists for my classes, I find that they help me, too. I even put on there when students should start looking ahead to particular assignments, and remind them about due dates.

I’ve included two samples below. The first is from a checklist created in MS Word and then shared with students as a PDF. I used this format pretty heavily when our LMS was Blackboard, and students reported printing them out and checking items off. The second example is from a checklist created as a Canvas page. It has direct links items whenever possible. The readings link goes to a page with links to all of the readings for the weeks, and the discussion link goes directly to the week’s discussion forum.

If you make checklists, I recommend presenting each task in a logical order, with consistency from week to week. Students have told me that having clear verbs as headings (e.g., READ, DUE) is an effective way to cuing weekly expectations, and that being provided with additional information like running times on videos also helps them manage their time effectively.

Sample Checklist

Sample Weekly Checklist for Online Course

 

 

modulechecklist

Sample Weekly Checklist Page in Canvas

Backward design, so you can move forward

Right now most of us in higher ed are stuck between a rock and a hard place instructionally. Or between x weeks of productive learning and an endpoint that we can’t reach on the planned path.

At this time, backward design is a great approach to take. It’s a pretty good instructional design approach in general, but right now it’s particularly useful.

The first step is to just let go of whatever you had planned for the rest of the term. Really. Let go of it. Don’t worry about how to convert it to online or some other remote form of delivery. Once you’re able to leave your plans in the past, you’re free to focus on the end point. What do your students need to know or be able to do by the end of your class? What is the next instructor counting on the students to know? What do they have to be able to do, professionally? Let this be your guide.

Ideally, you can look toward your learning objectives and your assessments for guidance at this time. It’s possible, however, that they don’t really reflect what is truly important. Objective drift happens all the time. Sometimes we have interesting ideas, and they lead us astray. The wandering path may be a fruitful one, and we may have some truly inspiring assessments planned. Any assessment, even when aligned with the objectives, is just one of many possible ways to determine if the desired learning has occurred. With that in mind, this might be a good time to come up with alternate assessments — and even to give multiple options.

By staring with the end point, it’s possible to move backward and determine what really needs to happen in a class for the remainder of the term. Let yourself scale back as needed.

Start with assessments.

Let’s say you have a 10 page paper with at least 15 unique references planned. Is the ability to write a 10 page paper an objective? Is synthesizing an argument across multiple references an objective? If not, maybe you can let go of some of these details this term, and reduce the paper length or number of references, or even offer students the opportunity to be assessed in a different form. Similarly, if you had planned in class presentations but now wonder if recording a presentation might be beyond the skill set of some students, maybe you can just have students turn in detailed powerpoints, or allow a brief paper instead.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that you take a look at your planned assessments and determine if they are still feasible in their current form. Will you struggle to grade them remotely? Will your students struggle to complete them under current circumstances? If so, then they’re not the right assessments for this term. Find an alternate.

If you’re not sure what your students will be able to do, here’s a great way to figure that out. Ask them. Maybe provide a few options, and conduct a poll. Or just plan to give them multiple choices, noting that all roads lead to Rome.

Right now I’m helping folks in one course shift from a group project (a challenge to coordinate in the best of times, with class time allotted to group work) to a scaled back version of the same project to be completed individually. In another class, I’m helping an instructor alter a test that was supposed to be proctored, changing it to an open book version. And in a third class, I worked with someone to get rid of some small quizzes and instead make them online self-check quizzes.

Then consider content.

Once you know what is absolutely essential to assess, take a look at content. Is there anything that isn’t critical right now? If so, perhaps you can let it go. Alternately, you might keep it, but mark it optional. I know, I know … that means that a lot of students won’t even open a single document related to that content. They won’t read a word of it, or watch a frame of it. Under current circumstances, that needs to be okay. There will probably also be some students who will enjoy the optional work, and complete it because they are interested and have the time to do it.

Once you know which content is critical, you can streamline for your students. Maybe you can remove a reading or two. Or post a transcript of a video, so bandwidth-challenged folks can read instead of watch. Or turn a complex reading into a brief summary for the students, through which they can quickly glean the key points.

In sum: Start at the end. Figure out what is necessary. Trim and reshape as needed.

Questions to Ask Your Students

In the shift to remote teaching, especially for those schools and instructors proposing to move online (and potentially synchronous) it’s important to consider student comfort, ability and access along with instructor comfort, ability and access.

Instructor comfort, ability and access will dictate what is possible. Student comfort, ability and access will indicate what is reasonable.

Before you get too far with planning how you shift your course online, it’s a good idea to check in with your students to find out what will work for them. Here are some questions you may want to consider:

Basic Needs

  • Are you in a safe place?
  • Do you have food and other basic needs met?
  • How are you feeling? Are you stressed?
  • Are you in a situation where you are able to learn?

Class Needs

  • Do you have all of your course texts with you? If not, what are you missing?
  • Are there any items that you are missing that you need in order to learn effectively? If yes, what do you need?

Technology Access

  • Do you have / have access to a computer sufficient for writing papers?
  • Do you have sufficient Internet access to participate in a synchronous class session?
  • Do you have sufficient Internet access to use the course learning management system?
  • Do you have sufficient Internet access to watch videos?
  • Do you have / have access to email on a regular basis?
  • Do you have access to a telephone?

Technology Skills and Comfort

  • Do you know how to access online materials via the university library?
  • Are you comfortable using the course learning management system?
  • Are you comfortable participating in a synchronous class session?
  • What technology skills are you worried about, if any, right now?
  • Do you have a preference for learning online synchronously or asynchronously? Using video or text-based communication?

Time

  • What time zone are you currently in?
  • Are you able to meet online during the regular class time? If not, are there other times that would work for you?
  • Do you have any demands on your time that would make it difficult for you to complete the work for this class? If so, what are your constraints or concerns related to time?

Other 

  • What are your biggest concerns related to this class right now?
  • How can I help you succeed in this class for the remainder of this term?
  • Do you have any concerns related to school right now? Are these things I can help you with?

This is not an exhaustive list, and not all questions are relevant to each context. However, asking these questions may help you determine what you can reasonably ask of your students for the remainder of the term, what kinds of learning activities and materials might work best, and what kinds of learning assistance and other you might provide for your students.

It would also be a good idea to cycle back to some of these questions in a few weeks, to see if your students still have their basic needs met sufficiently, and to ask some new questions to evaluate how well the reworked class experience is meeting their learning needs.

People first. Content second. Technology third.

Copy of people first content second technology third-2

People first. Content second. Technology third.

This is the way to handle the shift to remote teaching that is happening due to COVID-19.

Instructors who are nervous about shifting online for the first time, students who chose to be campus students, not online students, and people who are feeling unsettled and/or isolated during this crisis: I see you.

In the midst of our educational response to a public health crisis, it’s easy to fixate on the technology. I’ve seen lists of tools that are available to use for teaching online. I’ve used several of them in the past, and they’re good tools. I won’t dispute that. Several of the tools are already available for free in some form, and many technology companies have offered their tools for free in the midst of this crisis. That’s very generous. But it still doesn’t mean that our primary job right now as educators is to learn how to use tools.

In the midst of this time, our response as educators should focus on the people first. Per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we know that it’s difficult for people to focus on tasks like learning if their basic physiological and safety needs aren’t being met. Many of us are worried about our health right now. Finances may also be a struggle, and nothing feels quite normal. Plus social distancing is not easy. We cannot make these issues go away for our students, but we can provide them with safe people and spaces to discuss and process their feelings. We can also consider each student’s ability to learn under the current conditions. For some, learning may be a respite from worry, and our classes may provide a helpful social connection. For others, the distraction may be too great, and keeping up with courses may be an additional stressor.

Of course, we have an obligation to support learning whenever possible, and in that sense we need to focus on the content second. In our courses we already have learning objectives related to that content. Look to those objectives to determine what the teaching obligation is at this point. In other words, the question right now shouldn’t be “How do I put my class online?” Instead, it should be “How do I best help my student meet these learning objectives during what’s left of the term?” You probably can’t take your class as it was originally designed and put it online. Maybe you can do that with parts of it. However, right now the key is to do whatever works.

With people first and content second, technology is third. Technology can provide a means of connecting people, delivering content to learners and facilitating assessment, but it can also be a barrier. When I design an online course, I want the technology to recede into the background so the people and content can connect effectively. If my students are focusing on how to use the technology, then they’re not focused on learning. What we’re all doing right now isn’t even designing online courses. We’re just figuring out how to help our students meet the learning objectives while we’re all social distancing and trying to keep ourselves and others healthy. So, while the Internet and apps can help, they’re not the only way we can make this work. I say this last part with great confidence; as a high school student in the 1980s I took a correspondence course, communicating with my instructor via Canada Post. I learned.

With this philosophy in mind, I’ve been writing this series of blog posts, all of which are being rounded up here. Some of these posts focus on people and their needs, Others on figuring out what to do with the content. And yet others on the technology, because we are using it. I love to geek out on the technology, but I am not doing that right now. Instead, I want to keep stressing how important it is to keep in perspective that it’s okay to use the technology imperfectly right now, and to use as little of it as possible and in the simplest of ways. If you have great ideas, save them for later. Propose properly designed online classes, and seek development assistance and funds to accomplish that goal. But for now? Keep it simple, and use just what you need to help your students learn.

Finally, as an instructional designer, I should point out that “people first, content second, technology third” is not just a statement for getting through COVID-19. It should always be our mantra as educators. It is only after we find out what people need and are ready to learn that we can determine what content should be learned. Then technology should just be brought in as a support, not as the showcase itself.

Video conferencing from home, distractions and all

I’ve seen a lot of people worrying about teaching via video conference tools from home among the many distractions. It’s a real concern, especially if you have children who are home from school or other family members who will be in the household. In my case, my biggest problem can be the dog. Whenever I’m on zoom and someone new joins, a doorbell sound goes off (yes, I could turn it off, but I like it on for office hours and then forget to turn it off at other times). The dog gets so excited because he thinks the UPS guy has arrived. He also barks when people walk down the street. It’s loud and super distracting.

photo of dog

Gratuitous photo of the high energy puppy who likes to bark at doorbells and people walking down the street.

 

I also have a tween. She knows that I shouldn’t be bothered when I’m teaching, but she might come stand behind my laptop with impatient eyes. Or make faces at me. And then there was the summer that every time I tried to do a video she walked behind me and made rabbit ears, kissed the top of my head, pretended to be a model walking down the runwalk, etc. You get the picture. I tried to find you the actual picture, because I know I grabbed a screen shot from one of the videos, but I can’t find it right now.

I won’t tell you that your anxieties about the distractions are unfounded, or that you’ll have ideal conditions, but I’m here to assure you that your less than ideal conditions are probably okay, and can probably work if you need them to. There will be exceptions, of course. I don’t know what to do if you have a three kids under 5 climbing all over you and no one else to help out.

What’s the anxiety all about, then? What immediately comes to mind is the BBC interview with a professor in South Korea during which his young child wanders in. It’s a dreaded moment — your 15 minute of fame come along and instead of being known for your intelligent commentary you go viral for your kid interrupting you.

However, for most of us a class session is not our 15 minutes of fame. It’s not a TED Talk. It’s a class lecture. Classes are just a part of our jobs, and thus a part of our lives. So are families, pets, and so much more. If you teach (or learn) from home, the line is going to blur a little.

I chatted with a fellow academic mama about this topic over the weekend. We were laughing about how much we’ve dealt with over the years while working from home. Some of the more notable ones from my list:

  • Joined a dissertation defense via Skype while on maternity leave. Nursed an infant while on camera. Kept that camera pointed high. I’m not sure anyone ever noticed. If they did, they didn’t say anything.
  • I also remember nursing a crying babe while on the phone with a dean somewhere getting a job offer. She was crying. It was the only way I could think of quieting her so I could take the call.
  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to excuse myself for a sec to go let the dog out/in. It’s a great time to tell my students to take a few seconds to answer a question and/or give them time to come up with questions and type them in the chat.
  • I have a video — that I used, because I was too tired to re-record — with a little girl belly laugh in the background. It’s a cute laugh. Apparently something funny happened on TV in the next room. I just paused for a second, said “And that’s what I get for recording this from home,” and moved on.

I’ve also just given in at times, told folks I was at home with a kid, let her have her moment on camera, and then (satisfied with a little attention) she moved on to her own amusements. And admittedly, I’m also not above bribery (extra screen time if you use headphones!). I’ve hid out in a bathroom to narrate slides, too. Do what you can. Remember that I’m confessing just how “unprofessional” some of my video appearances have been for years, under regular circumstances. These are not regular circumstances. You’re supposed to be social distancing and/or at home. If you have the big distractions, like being sole caregiver for a number of small children, maybe live video is something to avoid (and you can try to record videos late at night, if video is necessary). For the rest of us, I think we should just accept the conditions and allow worlds to merge a little. If a cat winds its way in front of you while you teach, it’s okay. If a dog barks, no big deal. If a toddler shows up and wants to be on camera for a few moments, why not?

I’d like to think there’s an upside of all of this. At the end, we’ll all seem a little more human to our students, and it’s through seeing everyone’s human side that we find ourselves in a better position to band together and support each other though the crisis.

You’ve got this!

PS: Did a zoom with faculty at another university earlier today. I had headphones on, mic off when I wasn’t speaking. There was a wall behind me. My 11 year old was mostly in the next room, quietly watching TV. The dog miraculously only barked once, and I was already muted. My husband walked in and out a few times, but never spoke. At the end, we all joked about working from home. They said they saw the shadows of my family on the wall as they walked past my workstation. I had no idea!

Setting up for video / synchronous broadcasting

So you’re staying home due to the Covid-19 response and you’re going to record videos for your class, or run a synchronous session. Here are some ideas about setting up a recording station at home.

To keep things simple, it’s possible to just use your internal microphone and webcam. You may not end up with the best audio/video, but it should be functional.

If you have the interest and inclination, and in a few instances a small budget, you can easily improve your recording setup.

Here’s one of the web-conference set-ups that I regularly use from home:

WebinarSetup

Let me break it down by component:

Audio

  • I have an external microphone (a lavalier one here, sitting next to the computer). I don’t always use an external microphone because my MacBook Pro has a pretty decent built-in one, more than sufficient. However, my other laptop doesn’t have a great built-in mic, so if I use that laptop I need the external one.
  • Sometimes I use a USB headset with noise canceling mic if there is likely to be extraneous noise in my house. I also keep my mic on mute when I am not the person speaking.

Video

  • I use my built-in webcam most of the time because it is convenient. If just recording a video, I may use my phone camera.
  • My laptop is on a stable surface and raised to a level where I will appear well framed and at a pleasing angle when the webcam is on. Note that a key part of framing is having the computer level with or slightly above eye level. That’s why I have the laptop sitting atop a tray desk. It’s cranked up to a height that will be eye level for me (I’m short). If you’re seated at a table, you may want to put a few books or a small box under your laptop to raise the camera height.
  • The background that shows up on camera is simple and uncluttered. In this case, it’s just the corner, and a pile of art books on a table. I’ve chosen this spot because it is a corner. You can’t see family members (including and especially the dog) walking around behind me, nor do you see where a backpack got dumped on the floor or a pile of mail sitting on the table, etc. This spot is always tidy and ready to serve as a background.
  • I use a ring light (aka my glamour lighting), which is positioned in front of me to illuminate my face without shadows. No matter how tired I am, this glamour lighting always makes me look pretty good. Best $30 I’ve spent on technology, hands-down. You can also place a lamp you have around the house in front of you. What you don’t want is strong light coming from behind or the side.

Personal comfort and preferences

  • I have a comfortable chair and a drink of water nearby.
  • Printed slides or notes are positioned where I can read them (just in case I get lost or need to look ahead).
  • My iPad is at my side because I like to have a second screen available and sometimes I log in to the session twice and use one device for the camera and to monitor the participants and chat panes and the other for the screen share. (This is really quite extra … but I always feel better with a second device by my side.)

When recording a video (not live)

  • If using a script, I tape the script on my screen, just to the side of the webcam lens are. That way I won’t be fussing with paper and my eyes will be generally looking in the right direction).
  • If I need to read a long, continuous script, I’ll use a teleprompter app on my iPad / phone so the words just keep scrolling along.
  • If not using a script, I tape a little photo of someone right next to the webcam lens area so I have a reminder to look at the camera (i.e., make eye contact with the viewer) and not at myself or random things on the screen.

My Equipment

Here’s a list of equipment that I use fairly frequently. This equipment is NOT NECESSARY, but if you think you’ll be doing a lot of video work it can make your life a little easier.

  • Selfie Ring Light on stand — $30 on Amazon — This is what the YouTubers use, and it will make you look good. It’s much easier to set up this light than to try to adjust regular household lighting and window shades. The stand has a clip that can hold a smartphone, which is also handy if you want to record a brief video on your phone. It runs on USB power, so you can either plug it into a laptop or use an external power supply. You can see my external power supply in the photo above (the light blue brick).
  • Selfie Ring Light — $13 on Amazon — This is a smaller, cheaper ring light. It clips right onto the top of your computer/tablet/phone. It isn’t as nice as the freestanding one, but it’s very portable and it gets the job done.
  • Lavalier Mic — $22 on Amazon — This inconspicuous mic clips on your clothing and helps get a cleaner sound than the typical built-in mic.
  • USB Headset — $24 on Amazon — This headset has a noise canceling mic, which helps reduce pickup of extraneous household noise. I live near the train, the hospital (ambulance sirens), and a high school where the students like to rev their engines loudly as they drive away at the end of the day (why????). I never notice these sounds except for when I’m recording videos or on a web-conference. The noise canceling mic helps.
  • Blue Snowball Mic — $50 on Amazon — This microphone is pricier, but has a great, warm sound. It’s really nice if you plan to record narrated slide shows or podcasts.
  • Teleprompter Lite — free for iPhone/iPad — Nifty little prompter app. Also helpful when giving a scripted speech in person.
  • Webcam Cover — so many options, less than $5 — I used to just put a sticky note over my webcam when not in use, but I’ve shifted to a cover. I like the ability to just leave my camera on but slide the cover down over the camera when I take a break in the middle of a class.

What works for you? Feel free to leave a comment with your video tips and tricks.

Writing good discussion prompts

In a classroom setting, an instructor can walk in with a general question, like “What did you think about this week’s reading?” and then weave student responses into a meaningful, complex discussion in real time.

On a discussion board, that same question will fall flat. Students won’t know how to respond. There’s the honest response: I thought it was long. The complementary response: I thought it was very interesting and important. The factual one: This reading was about x, y, and z.

Other discussion questions that don’t work so well on a discussion board include:

  • Who invented the ____________?
  • What does the author mean she says “insert quote from reading here”?
  • What were the three main points of the reading?

The first one has a single correct answer. Once that answer is given, there’s nowhere for the discussion to go. I’ve seen questions like this asked in the past, and I’ve seen a dozen students proceed to give the same response. One of the last to reply even wrote, “I’m not really sure, but I think it’s …” before giving the correct answer, showing that they hadn’t even bothered to look at what others had written before responding. The second and third ones may be open to interpretation, but will reach the saturation point for responses pretty quickly. Again, there will be nowhere for the discussion to go. Additionally, all three questions orient the students toward the instructor rather than their peers. When students respond, they’ll wait for an instructor to affirm their response.

These questions may work in a classroom because a skilled instructor can take any student response and redirect it, fill in missing details, or connect it to another thought. It’s pretty amazing how live facilitation works. In contrast, on a discussion board a student response that falls flat just sits there in an unsatisfactory way until someone else responds to it — if someone else responds to it. Often such contributions are just ignored.

The key to developing fruitful discussion prompts is writing a set of directions that:

  • tells students what they should write in response to the prompt
  • offers the opportunity for each student to have a unique and appropriate response
  • tells students how they should respond to each other, in order to continue the conversation

Here’s an example a discussion prompt that meets these criteria:

TOPIC: Dispelling the Learning Styles Myth
Now that we’ve learned about the learning styles myth, let’s practice dispelling it. First, create a challenge for someone else. Write a brief post from the perspective of someone who believes in the learning styles myth, explaining why you must or cannot learn in a particular style. Then respond to two of your classmates. In your responses, try to break down their beliefs and dispel the myth. Help them understand why such beliefs are neither productive nor empirically supported by using logical arguments and evidence from research. Finally, look at how others have responded. Point out arguments that are particularly effective, and add evidence and arguments in spots where they may be needed.

Note how this prompt has students set up an initial scenario, then respond to each other’s scenarios, and finally evaluate their responses. Throughout the course of this discussion activity, students have to look at both sides of the topic we’ve covered in class (learning styles) and practice developing arguments and using evidence from their readings.

Other options for starting discussions might include asking students to select and interpret a passage from the readings, or to find and share a real-world example of a concept that you’re learning about in the course. From there, the students can find plenty of opportunities to enter the discussion and practice using the key terms, concepts, and skills that you’re learning. There are many variations on this type of discussion activity that you can come up with, all of which push students to dig deep and take ownership of the content.

Alternately, if you have students working on individual projects or papers you might have them use a discussion board to share initial ideas, abstracts, or drafts and then provide each other with peer feedback.

The posts that students produce in response to these prompts may not look anything like a face-to-face class discussion, but that’s okay. As long as the students are working through course material and getting an opportunity to practice applying it, the discussion is serving a useful purpose in the learning process.

Note: There are ways to facilitate asynchronous discussions that more closely resemble natural dialogue, but this really should not be your goal when moving a class online temporarily. Facilitating robust online discussion is a skill that takes time and effort to develop.