Observations from My First Time Teaching Online

In Fall 2020, I taught my Internet Law course online, using Zoom for synchronous sessions and Canvas as the course management software. I had taught Internet Law 23 times in physical space, but this was my first time teaching any course online. This post recaps my observations from the experience.

NOTE: In summer, I took an ACUE course on online teaching, with additional training from CALI and our university’s instructional development team. (For more on SCU’s pivot during the pandemic, see this ACUE story). In contrast, some professors have been teaching online for many years, and entire academic disciplines focus on online pedagogy. They are the real experts you should trust.

Course Structure

I flipped the course. I pre-recorded all lecture material–about 90 minutes of lecture material per week in segments that ran about 10 minutes each on average. (ACUE recommends 5-6 minute videos because students’ attention wanes, but I couldn’t slice the material that finely).

Then, I held two 80-minute synchronous sessions per week, though I soon dropped to only one per week. Each synchronous session generally followed this script: (1) explain the session’s agenda, (2) remind students about upcoming deadlines, (3) open the floor for student questions, (4) provide general comments on prior student assignments, and (5) do two group exercises. I explained a discussion prompt, sent students into breakout rooms of 4-5 students each for roughly 6-8 minutes (it depended on the prompt), brought the students back, and asked designated reporters to report on their room’s discussion with my interspersed commentary.

Before the synchronous sessions, I asked students to:

  • Read about 30 pages per week in the casebook. I expected that to take about 1 hour/week.
  • Watch the prerecorded lectures (about 90 minutes/week).
  • Explore optional topical exercises, such as online artifacts and databases. I expected each task would take a few minutes.

Each week, I provided open discussion threads where students could ask questions and comment on the exercises. Because participation was optional, they saw relatively little usage.

After the synchronous sessions, students completed an easy 5-question multiple choice quiz each week.

Students completed 9 papers over the semester (plus the final exam):

  • a self-introduction on the discussion board.
  • six reflection/journaling papers graded P/NP.
  • a midterm, after which they evaluated one of their peer’s answers using a rubric I provided. This was P/NP. The midterm gave students a chance to practice what they learned, encouraged them to synthesize the material mid-semester, and helped me flag students in trouble.

At the semester’s end, students took a comprehensive multiple-choice test (also P/NP) and then the graded final exam.

Some Lessons

I worked hard. Teaching the course online felt like a new course prep. I did the following tasks that I would not have done for a physical-space class offering:

  • Set up the Canvas course modules
  • Create the online exercises
  • Create 13 weekly wrapup quizzes (a total of 65 new multiple-choice questions)
  • Build a comprehensive course calendar with deadlines
  • Build the online discussion forums and the assignment pages in Canvas
  • Set the agenda for the synchronous sessions
  • Record the lectures

I should recoup some (but not all) of these investments in future online editions of the course, and some of these will remain even if I teach again in physical space.

I learned how to record the lecture videos. I’ve given thousands of class lectures and talks, so I’m generally comfortable presenting material. However, I had minimal experience self-recording without an audience, and I found that difficult. My in-person presentation style benefits from audience feedback–eye contact, body language, laughter (I hope). Without those audience cues, I felt stilted and self-conscious. Furthermore, I could erase the videos and try again–a trap for perfectionists. The welcome-to-the-class video took a dozen tries, and the final version still sucked. Over the semester, I became comfortable with a pre-recorded video persona, but it’s different from my live presentation persona.

My lectures overcompensated for the lack of interactivity. My recorded lectures typically ran longer than the time I would have spent covering the material in physical space. I felt I needed to anticipate and preemptively address students’ possible questions. In physical space, I can speed up/slow down my lectures based on student non-verbal feedback, plus students can interject questions on the spot. Without that interactivity, I (over)compensated.

I need to better explain my pedagogical decisions upfront. Some students never understood my pedagogical goals. For example, breakout rooms sought to elicit diverse student thinking and have students teach each other. Yet, some students thought that watching the recording of a synchronous session could substitute for attending the session, or they said they preferred to hear from me, not their peers. In the future, I will be more explicit about pedagogical design in the introductory materials.

Students benefit from well-structured modules. Per ACUE’s recommendations to make things predictable, I followed a template for each week’s module: reading assignment, videos, exercises, board to discuss the exercises, a link to post questions, quiz, and slides. I also adopted a consistent schedule every week: I posted the upcoming week’s module and videos each Wednesday; each week’s quiz was due Friday at 10. I also integrated all course obligations into Canvas–there weren’t other requirements referenced only in the syllabus or elsewhere.

Balancing video-watching and synchronous time. Initially, I used all of my scheduled synchronous time, but that didn’t go well. The students felt time-stressed, and an hour or two of mandatory videos on top of other course requirements overwhelmed them. That’s why I dropped one of the two weekly synchronous sessions.

Most students liked the recorded lectures. Many students liked pre-recorded lectures because they can watch them on their own time and at their own pace. (Students also like to rewatch lectures). However, a couple students told me they prefer real-time lectures.

Students who fell behind had trouble catching up. I set a relentless pace for the course. Every week: new readings, videos, exercises, and quizzes. A student who fell behind struggled to catch up. Plus, our academic calendar cancelled our typical Fall break. I might deliberately include a mid-semester catch-up week in the future.

Breakout room participation was dubious. My synchronous session discussions focused on exploring gray areas from the lectures or readings. Students who hadn’t prepared that week couldn’t fully participate in the breakout rooms–often 1-2 of the 4 students in the breakout room.

I also inadvertently encountered an unwanted gender dynamic. Initially, I randomly assigned students to rooms and asked them to self-designate a room reporter. Apparently, some male students claimed reporter status and then inhibited participation by women. I redressed this by designating a reporter for each breakout room.

Many students experienced out-of-class crises. Fall 2020 was brutal for students: the pandemic shutdown; devastating fires that left some students or their families homeless; COVID anxiety (and students/their families got sick); money stress; job search stress; and daily political crises. Collectively, a toxic environment for student learning. Normally, I am unforgiving about deadlines, but this semester I made some exceptions.

Few students took advantage of my availability. Normally, I get to know students through casual interactions–immediately before or after class, in the hallways, and unscheduled office visits. Without those, I scheduled lots of office hours and stuck around the Zoom room after class. Unfortunately, only a few students took advantage of these options.

A TA made my life better. My TA, Jess Miers, helped with:

  • Troubleshooting Canvas (see below)
  • Beta-testing my quizzes
  • Reviewing my midterm, midterm sample answer, and final exam sample answer (to preserve confidentiality, she didn’t see the final exam beforehand)
  • Watching the recorded lectures and providing feedback
  • Attending the synchronous sessions, where she responded to chats/DMs, visited the students’ breakout rooms, and troubleshot technical issues
  • Holding office hours for students (which got more attendance than my office hours)
  • Fielding individual student questions. Before the final exam period, she got more student questions than I did
  • When the grades came out, unhappy students vented their angst at her rather than me!

Having a TA was super-helpful, especially because Jess was so talented and committed.

Canvas is powerful but poorly designed. Canvas has powerful features, but its design sucks. Sometimes, I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish my goals, so I delegated the problem to Jess. I could do more with Canvas to benefit the students, but only if I can figure out how it works!

For student perspectives on the semester, see Jess Miers’ perspectives as the course TA and this video from a Swiss exchange student.