In late January, when most people around the world viewed the coronavirus as a remote medical crisis afflicting residents of China, I knew better. As a veteran journalist now teaching at China’s top university, I could see that the epidemic was likely, slowly but surely, to become a global pandemic. With no cure, rapid spread in new “hot zones,” and limited information available to the public, I realized that my professional and personal life was going to be changed significantly.
As co-director of Global Business Journalism, a master’s degree program created by the International Center for Journalists and Tsinghua University in Beijing, I knew that we would need to plan to conduct our spring semester “virtually” through an online platform rather than in the classroom in China. Like almost all of our international students, I was outside of China and unable to return to the locked-down campus.
For my program, this crisis became an opportunity, and Global Business Journalism began its spring semester on schedule and with all students in attendance via the Zoom online platform. Now that the coronavirus is understood to be a global threat, more than 100 American universities and hundreds of others around the world switched from in-person to online classes in the first two weeks of March alone.
This unanticipated disruption need not be a burden, if you are adaptable and innovative. “Online education is an opportunity to make coursework more customized and flexible,” writes journalist and educator Lisa Waananen Jones.
Here are 10 tips to make an online learning experience more rewarding:
- Pick the right learning platform
Your online learning site must be able to handle the number of people in your classes or meetings. You need to consider whether your budget can afford a “premium” plan or whether you are willing to accept the limitations of free sites (usually capping the number or participants or limiting the time of your sessions). Different sites offer various features, including images of each participant, chat capabilities (for the full group or individual members), and group meetings taking place at the same time inside of the class session. In addition to Zoom, other platforms recommended by techradar.com include Docebo, Udemy, Skillshare, WizIQ, Adobe Captivate Prime and SAP Litmos. Other choices with free options include Moodle, ezTalks Webinar, Fastmeeting and Articulate Storyline. Some platforms are offering discounts to schools and nonprofit organizations.
- Beta test your platform
As I was working with my Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication colleagues to set up our virtual classrooms, the Iowa Democratic caucuses demonstrated to the world the risks of adopting new technologies without sufficient beta testing. The failure of the Iowa vote-counting app, which was not rigorously tested, was a massive embarrassment. I realized that failure was not an option for me. We moved quickly with small-scale beta testing of several platforms and chose Zoom. We followed up with a beta test of five staff members and then our first-year graduate students. Each was successful. We were ready for our official launch – all within a week.
- Focus on your community
If you don’t already have a social media chat group for your class, create one. (My Tsinghua class uses WeChat, but WhatsApp, Facebook and other platforms can work for you.) I interact with my students far more often than when we were on campus together, answering quick questions and offering tips and suggestions. As you focus on your community, it also is important to tailor your lecture content the new communication medium you are using. Don’t just transfer your lecture notes or PowerPoint presentations to an online format. You need to communicate differently than in class. There is no natural interaction of professors and students. Students online don’t raise their hands or give you a non-verbal clue that they’d like to participate in a discussion. You will need to invite people into the classroom give-and-take and make them feel welcome. You can build student feedback into your lectures through simultaneous social media chats or online surveys.
- Think visually
Yes, I advise journalists to “think visually” in my new Multimedia Reporting textbook (Springer, 2019). But it is important to think visually as an online professor, too. The most boring way to teach is to be a talking head. I started with my virtual classroom set. As the son of a scenic designer for Broadway and opera, I created a backdrop for my lectures. A pair of life-sized terra-cotta warriors that I shipped home from Xi’an frames the shot of me in my makeshift home studio. On a more substantive note, I try to vary the images on the screen at any one time, whether still shots or videos. I have scrolled through best-practices examples on my screen and even conducted live searches of online databases to illustrate points I am trying to make. Of course, there’s always a risk that one of your visual exercises could go awry, but that’s part of the excitement of live TV.
- Lower expectations
Inevitably, something will go wrong in real time: The streaming video, someone’s audio, someone’s internet connection, the live chats, the advanced functions on your platform. Patience is important. As long as your students understand that this virtual classroom might not be perfect, everyone will be a bit less anxious if they experience an “oops” moment.
- Get plenty of rest
Teaching online takes more energy than teaching in the classroom. It’s like being on live television. Try to get a good night’s sleep before each performance. (And always have a cup of water, tea or coffee nearby.)
- Be forgiving of your students’ complications
My remote-teaching experience is unusual. My students span 22 time zones. My class begins at 9 a.m. on the east coast of the United States. For my students, that means 10 p.m. in Japan and Korea, 9 p.m. in China, 5 p.m. in Oman, 3 p.m. in South Africa, 2 p.m. in Europe, and 6 a.m. in Vancouver and Los Angeles. Some students, cloistered in their parents’ homes, have to whisper so they don’t awaken slumbering relatives. I have allowed some students to present “oral” reports through the group chat function. Remember: It’s not the students’ fault that our spring semester has become so complicated.
- Give your students individual attention
It’s important to build or maintain relationships with everyone in your class. That becomes particularly important when you cannot engage in the basic social interactions of a classroom setting. Instead of having my regular weekly office hours, I feature “virtual office hours” at times arranged with each student. Because some students are shy, I have reached out to schedule meetings in advance of major assignments. I leave a few minutes after every lecture for students who want to hang around in the virtual classroom and ask me any questions on their minds. I also respond to social media messages or email from my students within the day (or sooner, if practical). I believe it’s important to show students that you care about their learning experience and their progress.
- Remain physically active
Over the first few weeks of my online teaching experience, I found that I sometimes felt lonely or irritable. I was accustomed to the give-and-take with students, and the social camaraderie of my office. To overcome a sense of isolation, I make sure to exercise regularly. My colleagues and students in China have developed much more creative coping mechanisms during their weeks in quarantine. Those of us free to move around in our hometowns must act responsibly, but we don’t want to cloister ourselves and live in a world of irrational fear.
- Rely on your teaching assistant or office staff
Teaching remotely requires more work than teaching in the classroom. It requires more coordination, communication and logistical planning than normal courses. It is vital that you empower your teaching assistant or office staff to remind students of upcoming assignments, guest lectures and schedule changes. And remember to say “thank you” to the staff that helps you.
“It will be hard to give up, even temporarily, the close colloquy and individual attention that defines Amherst College,” she wrote, “but our faculty and staff will make this change rewarding in its own way, and we will have acted in one another’s best interests.”
This article was written for cross-posting on the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).
Little by little, there are signs that I’m adjusting to life in China. I still speak terrible Chinese, but I’m making (slow) progress. Some other signs point to a shorter-than-expected period of adjustment in my new country. A few examples:
- At my apartment, I’m eating more meals with chopsticks than with forks, knives or spoons.
- I take the subway and wander the streets of Beijing without fear of getting lost.
- I venture off campus on my bicycle into the chaotic swirl of Chinese traffic.
- I add money to my subway fare card without the help of my Teaching Assistant.
- I price things in yuan and don’t convert to dollars anymore.
- I leave my passport at home when I go out.
- I don’t get upset when the Internet connection is really slooooooooooooooooooow. Like the Texas weather, just wait an hour and it’ll change.
- I don’t get upset when a car is driving down the wrong side of the road and appears to be heading straight for my bike.
- I’m posting on Weibo as often as on Twitter.
- I’m beginning to understand the difference between the four Chinese speech tones.
- I’m beginning to understand a few street signs. In Chinese.
- I’m starting to get the hang of sign language. Or maybe charades.
- I’m starting to think it’s normal to ride your bike after dark without any lights.
- I’m starting to say “ni hao” to people rather than “hello.” (With Caroline Ward, it’s still “ni howdy!”)
- I can introduce myself as “DOO-NUH REE-KUH” rather than “RICK DUNHAM.” (I’ll pass along my real Chinese name when my colleagues show me the spelling.)
- I don’t check the Internet every day to see what’s happened to the Phillies … or Nats … or Eagles … or Redskins.
- I come home every night and turn on CCTV in English to discover what good deeds President Xi has done today. And what’s new in Turkmenistan.
- I thank my lucky stars that I took this job.