Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

How do I capture the presence of my classroom, online?

By The SHARE Team

Editor’s noteLearning in the Time of Coronavirus is a multi-part video interview series where, in each episode, we interview folks with a unique perspective on how Covid-19 is affecting education across the world – and how we can keep learning in spite of it.

Like many educators across the world, Zach Fruhling, Instructional Designer, has been asked to take his curriculum online. Luckily he has some experience with this. Zach shares some of his practical tips to help people with less experience get up and running online. (Hint: Zach is a big fan of organization and structure.)


Click or tap here to see the full transcript.

Patrick: Welcome to Learning in the Time of Coronavirus. I’m Patrick York, Head of Learning Design for SHARE professional learning. In each episode, we interview folks with a unique perspective on how Covid-19 is affecting education across the world – and how we can keep learning in spite of it.

My guest today is our old friend, Zach Fruhling, Senior Instructional Designer working on the SHARE professional learning platform. He’s also a philosophy instructor at the College of Eastern Idaho.

Hey Zach.

Zach: Hey Patrick. Thanks for having me. We talk every day, but it’s great to talk about current events together!

Patrick: That’s right. So one of the current events – you’ve recently been asked to move your philosophy course at the College of Eastern Idaho online. And this is a traditional classroom course that you’re teaching.

Zach: Yea, that’s right. This is an interesting situation. It’s a more unusual situation than I’ve ever seen in education. I’m teaching a face-to-face class; Idaho doesn’t have that many cases of coronavirus in the entire state, just a couple of cases, but everyone is being incredibly cautious. So, I’ve got plenty of time to put [the courses] together; but we’re being asked to move all of our courses to fully online following spring break. I had class in person on Tuesday, which itself was a little bit risky, perhaps. No class today, which is Thursday. Instructors are supposed to use this time to convert their classes to online courses. Then spring break is next week. Tuesday after next, when I teach again, it’ll be fully online for the rest of the semester.

Patrick: So what’s your strategy? How are you trying to condense what you do, face-to-face with your students, to a modality that has some limitations?

Zach: Yea, I actually just don’t think of it as very limiting, honestly. The thing I worry about most is just losing the facetime. Any instructor can hand information down, and any instructor can receive assignments from students, and you grade them, right? The thing I’m worried most about losing is the face-to-face interaction; the discussions; the things you bring to the classroom as an instructor.

So, right off the bat, one choice I had to make was to decide whether I was going to try to do the online course synchronously or asynchronously. Do I hold a virtual class session in some way? Or pre-record lectures and materials in, and have students basically show up and do the materials whenever they want? You can kind of guess which side I aired on, given I’m worried about the facetime. It’s a philosophy class, so I care about discussions. I care about the things I bring to the classroom to systematize the material for students.

I decided to hold virtual sessions. There’s really not much to this, I don’t think. Basically, you need a forum within which students can all gather. We’re going to be on camera being able to see each other. And I’m going to hold class largely as I would do in person, except I won’t be there in person! They’ll get to stare at me on the screen. They’ll still be able to ask me questions. I’ll be able to ask them questions. I’ll be able to see them. They’ll be able to see me. And all the things I would do in class, more or less, I can do online.

Thankfully a lot of the assignments I was already using were online already. Students have some daily reading assignments they have to do. I was already requiring those online. They have to write papers, which they can do offline and submit through our university’s LMS anyway. So there’s really not much of my class that has to change.

For me, the $64,000 question is: How do I capture the presence of a real-life, face-to-face interaction – the liveliness, the vitality of that – online? And I think that’s just a matter of me being me doing it on camera instead of in class. I’m not actually very worried about it. I’ve never done it before. But, for me, I think of teaching as teaching. I think some people draw a dividing line between face-to-face teaching and online teaching. And I’ve always thought this was a bit of a false dichotomy. Good teaching is good teaching. Learning is learning. I don’t think there being a distinction between learning online or learning face-to-face; the same qualities should happen in both environments. It’s just a different modality.

Patrick: Right. I got a couple of technology questions for you. What platform are you using for your synchronous, real-time sessions? And what learning management system does your college use?

And kind of a follow-up question: What advice do you have for people who are using those particular technologies?

Zach: I decided to go with Zoom. Google Hangouts is cheaper, in a way. I have a free Google account, like everyone does. I could do a Google Hangout. But, Zoom, which I use for my podcast.. Listeners out there may want to know this – you know this already, Patrick – but I do a couple of weekly podcasts, so I’m already set up in a way. You can see I’ve already got a microphone here, headphones.

The Zoom account is what I use to record podcasts. Zoom has a couple of features that I really like. It has a whiteboard functionality so you can write stuff on the screen. You can share your screen, which you can do in Google Hangouts. I like the way Zoom tiles the participants a little better than what Google Hangouts does. I think there’s a free Zoom account, but it’s pretty limited. You can have two participants, and if you have more than that, it puts a time limit on it. You can have class up to 45 minutes.

Patrick: And this might be wrong, but I think they might have removed that limitation, just for the present moment.

Zach: Oh, that may be! If that’s true, I haven’t heard about it. That absolutely could be. A lot of companies are waving things like that.

I already pay $15 a month for my Zoom account because I use it for other purposes. So I’m already set up. I just set up a recurring meeting in my Zoom account, post a link to it. One thing I have to do, in fact I have to do it tonight, I need to post a bunch of instructions for the students: “Here’s how we’re going to have class. We’re going to do it synchronously. You’re going to have to log in. Check the software beforehand. If you have issues, here’s where you go to the Zoom help functionality. Here’s how class sessions are going to go. Here’s how your other class assignments are going to go.”

For me, the burden as an instructor, is to lay out step-by-step-by-step-by-step, everything that’s going to happen for the rest of the class because students are largely confused. They’ve never gone through this. We’ve never gone through this. I had a bunch of questions from students about how the rest of the class is going to unfold on Tuesday. So I feel like I just need to be nose to the grindstones to type out all those instructions so students know exactly what’s going to happen for the next eight weeks.

We use Blackboard as our LMS, which we use on our team for a couple of our university partners like Concordia, Nebraska. And other partners use Blackboard. So I’m highly familiar with Blackboard already. And I think this is probably the big challenge. If you’re working at a school or college or university that either has an LMS that you may not have used, especially if you’re used to teaching face-to-face classes, you may not even use the LMS even if your college has one. For me, I was already familiar with it and I wasn’t using it very much. And I have to up my usage out of it because the entire class needs to be moved into the LMS.

Thankfully, to get a barebones class set up in an LMS is pretty straightforward. Think of the things you need to do. You need to be able to provide information to the students. The videos, or the materials, or the readings, or the whatever that you’re going to have them read or watch before your class session if it’s going to be synchronous. You need a place for them to submit their assignments. So you need to be able to create assignments and have that tie into the gradebook. I like doing it through the LMS – that way, everything adds up in the gradebook if you take time to create and set assignments as assignments in the LMS, then they go into the gradebook and you don’t have to do very much math at the end of the term; all that manual grading work you might have to do is automated if you frontload that work.

I know how to do all of those things. None of those things is particularly hard. I think the hardest thing is, if I hadn’t already done a lot of the upfront work to set up the structure, make the course in the LMS, providing folders for different class sessions, then it would take quite a few hours to sit there and structurally replicate everything I would do in the class, you know, creating a folder or a separate area for each unit or each day of the class; creating all of the assignments and structuring it in a way that’s logical and makes sense. That just takes a little bit of time.

Patrick: Got it. I suppose that’s an interesting thought experiment. There is likely a lot of people out there who don’t have experience with learning management systems; new to online education.

So for a thought experiment here, imagine all you have is your phone. And you have to teach the course that you’re teaching right now at the College of Eastern Idaho. How do you set up that teaching experience?

Zach: Yea, thankfully I could do everything in the LMS I need to do. Blackboard has a mobile app and you can just log in through a browser through your phone, so I could still do a lot of the setup work. I’m a logical person, I like things to be broken down into fine grains. So rather than having it be a jumble of materials, I like to just keep it super granularly organized. Here’s a separate folder for every class session or every topic. That’s where you go for the material for that class session. Here’s what the assignment is, right inside that folder.

I could do Zoom from my phone. Zoom has an app, and you can probably access the web version. Worst case scenario, I could probably call into the Zoom meeting from my phone as a phone call if I absolutely had to without the video. So it’d be an interesting challenge, but I feel I could actually run the entire class from my phone, given the combination of Zoom and Blackboard’s app. I’m not sure if I would want to, but it might be an interesting challenge to make the video look good. Yea, I could do that.

Patrick: Let’s take this a step further and say, maybe the College of Eastern Idaho wasn’t equipping the instructors with access to Blackboard. And maybe you weren’t a podcaster like you are and had no need for Zoom, and you still only had your phone. I know this is going to get a little challenging…

Zach: Yea, yea, yea! I could do it! I probably would go right to Google’s free services because Google provides so much. I would probably, totally from scratch, go into my Google Drive, create a Google Drive folder for the class. Inside that, I would create subfolders for every unit or every day in the class, just like I would do in Blackboard. You wouldn’t have the kind of assignment-submission functionality, but you could at least provide the assignment instructions. You could use Google Docs to provide feedback on students’ work if you want to provide feedback. You could create your own mockup of a Dropbox; you know, create an assignment submission folder for each assignment.

I think the key with these kinds of things, even in Blackboard, the key is in really good, clear labeling. If you use cryptic labels that no one can understand for your folders and your documents, that’s a nightmare if people have to go hunting for stuff. If you’re just really, really explicit in your naming conventions – like “Week 1 Content Folder. Week 2 Content Folder. Week 1 Assignment. Week 2 Assignment” – the more descriptive and structural you can be about where students need to go, so the second they log in, they go, “Boom, boom, boom, boom. Oh, that’s the folder I need to go to today.” [It helps] especially if you’re putting it together from scratch, and you haven’t had the chance to walk them through it at the beginning of the term, like I would do the first day of class anyway in our Blackboard system.

I would probably use Google Hangouts instead of Zoom for the face-to-face meeting, which would be free. And I would do, largely, what I just described, except I wouldn’t be able to hook it up to a gradebook like I can in the LMS.

Patrick: So it sounds like, distilled to its essence, the philosophy of Zach Fruhling and teaching online is in really clear organization, really clear labeling and communication with students, and a creative use of whatever tools are available to create some sort of teacher presence for the learners in your class.

Zach: And, yea, this is the biggest thing I worry about. I feel like there is more to education than just learning the material. I mean, yes, they’re supposed to learn philosophy in my class. And if they’re in a math class, they’re supposed to learn math. And I feel like anyone can do that. But I feel like the value that a human teacher adds is to be a model.

I look back at my entire educational career. I’ve had amazing teachers and I’ve had terrible teachers, and I’ve had everything in between. What I really see are models or anti-models for living. There’s someone who I can really take away something from; someone I can emulate; that’s someone I can gain some wisdom for life. And you don’t get that from learning math or learning philosophy. You get that from the people! And even anti-models, “I absolutely don’t want to be like that teacher because that teacher was terrible!”

Students lose something if they don’t have that teacher presence before them; not just to be a teacher but a mentor in life. I hope my students look back at me as something of a mentor; they’ve learned some practical wisdom for life about what life is about and how to get through it and all of its challenges; what’s really important about it. If they don’t remember anything I said about Descartes, and they took away something practical that makes their life better, I feel like I’ve done my job. You can only do that face-to-face! You can’t instill wisdom and be a real mentor unless you have that connection. For me, sitting in class, if I tell everyone to sit in a little circle and sing kumbaya, it’s almost as if I have my guitar singing campfire songs, “Let’s sit here and do philosophy in a circle!” Such a hippie from California, haha.

I feel there’s a presence there. There’s an environment that’s not just “education.” You’re creating an educational environment for [the students]. Something hopefully memorable that they get something out of for the rest of their lives. And I worry about that as just going away. It’s hard to get that on a screen.

This is my first rodeo. I’ve never taught an online class before. I’m not particularly worried about it in any way. For me, if I had to boil it down to its essence, it would be [to not] think of it as a different environment. Think of it as a different medium to replicate what you already do as a teacher. And then just find those one-to-one correspondences. What’s the correspondent to a lecture? It’s a Zoom meeting. What’s the correspondence to writing a paper? Oh! Submit your paper through the LMS. What’s the correspondence to fill-in-the-blank?

You just have to draw these one-to-one correspondences? What’s the online equivalent to what you already do? And then try to make them as qualitative similar as possible to the face-to-face experience.

Patrick: And I think it’s worth noting that we’ve been working together for years now.

Zach: Four years, I believe. Yea.

Patrick: And we’ve only actually been in-person with each other twice. But, despite that, and despite day-after-day being on Zoom calls or Google Meet calls with one another…

Zach: Every day, yea..!

Patrick: … we’ve come to know each other. So it’s interesting to note that, even in times like this where I absolutely agree with you, it’s very, very important to build teacher presence and have that sort of impact on the classroom. And it’s an interesting challenge, especially in times like this, to have to do that digitally. But there is some hope in the fact that it’s possible.

Zach: Yea, and this is something that’s not just coming up in education. Every company everywhere has to deal with this right now. All of their employees are working from home, and if you want to have some semblance of company culture and productivity and all the things you do face-to-face, you have to find a way to replicate that online.

And you’re really good at this! One of the simplest things you do for our team – using these very tools we’re talking about, we’re in a Zoom meeting right now – one of the simplest things you do is just to have a morning meeting where our entire team gets together and we talk about work; everything on our plates. Sometimes we delve into personal things. We build a team in our half-an-hour morning meeting, and that binds our team together.

I hope I can do that same thing in my virtual classroom. And for teachers everywhere, this is the kind of thing you should do. You need to find a way to connect your students even though it’s through a different medium. And if you’re watching this, and you’re running a company, you’ve got to do the same things with your employees in these perilous times.

Patrick: Well, thanks for taking the time today, Zach. I really appreciate it, and I think the advice you gave for people in your situation will be really valuable.

Zach: Great. Thank you, Patrick. Have a good day.

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