Best Practices: Online Pedagogy

This section is designed to help you think about how you’ll teach online.

We’ve tried to keep it simple, focusing on the most common teaching practices that are effective in an online environment. Below you’ll see general advice, a variety of course types, and additional tips on student engagement. We’ve broken up the teaching tips according to the common teaching styles (lecture, case, small group discussion, and hands-on). You may want to jump to the section that is most appropriate to your course.

Some General Advice

Platforms and Norms

Opportunities

  • Focus on the pedagogy, not just the platform: the attributes of a physical classroom don’t guarantee that a class is effective or engaging. The same goes for online platforms. Time spent now thinking about how you want to teach using this technology will be time well spent. In particular, we encourage you to think about which of your classroom-teaching strategies translate well to the remote setting, which don't, and what new approaches you might incorporate.

  • Take advantage of interactivity: online technologies can encourage and facilitate more “lean forward” behaviors than the traditional classroom. Moreover, most students are digital natives who already use remote technology for their own meetings and gatherings. Take advantage of these possibilities. This applies even to courses that are traditionally more lecture-based. For example, as described below, you can increase learner engagement by:

    • Surfacing questions that learners have around the material

    • Using polls to get a sense of the aggregate “temperature” of the room

    • Inviting students’ answers on particular questions

    • Having students engage in small “buzz group” conversations, or

    • “Cold calling”
       

  • This is an opportunity to innovate: although the online environment removes access to certain modes of teaching, it opens up a number of new possibilities, some of which you may be able to bring back to your physical classroom once the crisis is over. Students are likely to be more forgiving of missteps in a new environment. Take advantage of this difficult time to experiment with new teaching methods and tools.

Expectations

  • Set classroom norms: if using Zoom to convene your course, circulate clear expectations around behavior. For example, consider customizing the following e-mail (to specify how students should ask questions, whether you want them to Raise Hand, etc.).

Our class will meet through the Zoom online conference system. We will adopt the same rules and norms as in a physical classroom (take notes; participate by asking and answering questions; wear classroom-ready clothing). For everyone’s benefit, join the course in a quiet place. Turn on your video. Mute your microphone unless you are speaking. Close browser tabs not required for participating in class. Our success as an online class will depend on the same commitment we all bring to the physical classroom.

  • Determine your priorities: as you think about continuing instruction online, consider what you can realistically accomplish. Do you think you can maintain your original syllabus? What activities are better rescheduled, and what can or must be done online? Will you emphasize some things and de-emphasize others in order to add engagement and accountability? Keep in mind the impact this situation may have on students' ability to meet those expectations.

  • Audio matters: use a good headset, perhaps one with an attached microphone.

  • So do time zones: many students will not be in the same time zone as you. Consider amping up your energy to stimulate theirs. Students who don't attend a session live can be asked to engage in a peer discussion, write an individual response, or simply watch the recording.

  • Don’t expect to master everything on day 1: you will learn (fast). Your students will learn (even faster). You may even want to recognize this fact explicitly with your students, and invite their ideas for how to engage with/structure the technology for your particular course. Invite them to be co-creators around pedagogy.

Accessibility

  • Students have a range of abilities, and not everyone will disclose: there are likely students in your course with learning or sensory disabilities. They are not required to tell you, and they may not feel comfortable telling anyone. Rather than asking these students to identify themselves to you, employ practices (like those below) that reach a wide variety of learners.

  • Text is universal: assistive technologies (such as screen readers, magnifiers, etc.) are nearly always designed to work with text. If you send images to your students, include descriptions. If you use video chat such as Zoom, assign someone (ideally a TF) to create a transcript or closed captioning throughout the session.

  • Some students need additional processing time: don’t expect everyone to understand after being told once. Provide transcripts and chat logs for later review. When you show images or videos via screen-share, provide those files for students to download. This will especially help students with dyslexia and other reading impediments.

  • Select accessible resources: some online resources have already had substantial work done to improve accessibility. Videos produced by HarvardX (available through DART) are captioned, and images have alternative text descriptions included. YouTube allows viewers to suggest caption improvements on many videos. Virtual meetings can be accessible in Zoom due to the available keyboard shortcuts for navigating without a mouse and closed captioning created either by a third party service or a meeting member. Interactive simulations such as the PhET tools are usable by the blind. Check to see whether your resources indicate WCAG AA 2.0/2.1 compliance, or Section 508 compliance.

  • Be an advocate: if a student does self-identify as needing assistance, help them find it. Start at the university’s Accessible Education Office and Disability Resources page.

  • Take care of your hands: you’ll be typing a lot more. Pay attention to your tendons (and your shoulders). Take breaks. This applies to your students as well. Harvard’s Environmental Health & Safety group has a self-assessment for computer ergonomics.

Course Types

Lecture-oriented Courses

As you prepare to move your lecture-based course online, one question to consider is whether you want to teach entirely live (synchronously), or create pre-recorded lectures and then reserve the live sessions for more interactive discussions, small group work, or office hours. These aren’t necessarily substitutes: the live lecture session can be supplemented with pre- and post-recordings of shorter clips too. The one approach to avoid, however, is a live lecture that leaves little time for student interaction during your presentation. The limitations of the lecture format will be magnified if you do not take advantage of the “lean in learning” possibilities that online technologies allow.

Creating and uploading your materials

  • Put your slides in a consistent, distributable format (e.g., pdf). To save time, consider pre-made templates, such as SlidesCarnival for Google Sheets and PowerPoint, or Behance for Keynote templates.

  • Break up your presentation slides: be aware that online, perhaps even more than in the classroom, students will read first and listen second. Consider PowerPoint’s “Animation” feature (or equivalent) that allows you to show just a bullet or two at a time.

Pre-recording

The most effective prerecorded lectures can be as engaging as the best live lectures since they can be created with multiple takes, can be edited, and can integrate graphics or animations. They are also less vulnerable to unanticipated bandwidth issues that may arise with live sessions. 

  • If you are creating a pre-recorded lecture in a short time frame, consider a few simple tips.

    • Provide an explicit roadmap at the beginning.

    • Break down the lecture into shorter segments. A long pre-recorded lecture can be deadly to watch.

    • Intersperse the lecture clips with reflection questions for the students to consider. Try to make the learning experience “inductive” rather than entirely didactic.

    • Speak to the student, not to the camera.

    • Insert yourself – a personal story, humor, or editorial commentary – into the lecture.

  • You don’t need to pre-record the entire lecture. Instead, you can pre-record certain segments of your lecture (perhaps some material you want the students to reflect on before class, as homework) and leave the rest to the in-class session. Pre-recording and live needn’t be substitutes; they can serve as powerful complements too.

  • Here are some tips on the various technologies you can use to pre-record your lecture. These are drawn from a post by Prof. William Fisher, Harvard Law School.

    • The simplest is to use the recording function in Powerpoint. This method enables you to overlay a narration on a sequence of slides. Detailed instructions concerning how to create a recorded lecture this way are available here. There are obvious limits to this technique: your face never appears on the screen, and you are tied to slides. But it produces a perfectly acceptable recording.

    • Apple’s Keynote program has a similar, slightly more sophisticated function, instructions for which are available here.

    • Substantially more sophisticated and flexible is the Screenflow program. Its advantages include the ability to combine video from the camera built into your computer with images drawn from several sources and audio captured either by your computer’s microphone or by an external microphone. It also contains intuitive editing functions, which would enable you to refine your lectures. It does cost money (roughly $130) and takes more time to learn than either Powerpoint or Keynote, but can do much more. Good instructions for using Screenflow to create lectures can be found here and here.

    • Harvard faculty also could use for this purpose the Panopto system, instructions for which can be found here.

    • Finally, if you have lots of time and a bit of money, you can create reasonably high-quality multi-media lectures using a combination of a DSLR camera mounted on a tripod, Powerpoint, and the Adobe Premiere Pro video-editing software. Online instruction in this approach can be found here and here.

Presenting your lecture

  • Practice (at least once) in advance: in conjunction with your TA, rehearse using the Share Screen and switching among windows you intend to display. If you’re using your own laptop, remember to close all the windows you won’t be using (particularly personal email, etc.) prior to the class.

  • Keep your normal pace: just because things are delivered electronically does not mean you should speed up or slow down. Your students will still absorb and process information at the same rate. But you should check in with your students more frequently than you might normally, to make sure that they follow the material and remain engaged (see Additional Tips on Engaging Students).

  • Be visible: even when using Share Screen, it’s good practice to make sure that your face is visible on a side screen while the materials are being displayed - otherwise, engagement can decrease.

Engaging students

Having students listen to a lecture attentively on a small screen can be challenging. Consider taking advantage of various features in Zoom to keep them engaged, such as reflections, Chat, or invited Q&A (using Raise Hand).

  • Reading the room: unmuted students can inadvertently start talking at the same time, you will not be able to read body language easily, and those less inclined to speak may disappear more easily. To address these issues, be more diligent about pausing and asking if anyone else has more thoughts before jumping to the next topic.

  • Invite and respond to questions: if your class normally is a large-class lecture format with Q&A, consider inviting students to ask their questions in Chat. (See Additional Tips on Engaging Students.) To help you not having to browse through all the questions in Chat in real-time, your TF/TA can help you by picking a few questions for you to answer at the appropriate moments or, say, every 10-15 minutes. You can also consider asking students to use the Raise Hand feature in case they have an urgent question. (Zoom makes this easier than a standard lecture hall.)

  • Encourage students to reflect: for example, say “I’d like you to think about ….”, take a short pause, and then if appropriate, provide an answer, or solicit answers from the students. Again, the Chat feature can be helpful in having students record their reflections.

  • Post answers later: You or your TF might consider offering to post responses after the class to certain Chat questions that you didn’t have time to address during the session.

Case-based Courses

Several features of small or large case-based courses can transfer well to an online setting since Zoom and other technologies have various interactive features built in. Here are tips to consider when teaching a case-based course:

Calling Patterns

  • Keep your students in front of you: Zoom’s gallery view lets you see thumbnails of usually 25 students at a time (depending on your screen). You can also move from screen to screen to see the next 25.

  • Discussion transitions: it may be harder than usual for students to know when you have shifted between discussion topics, so be sure to state clean, well-defined transitions.

  • Using Chat to decide on calling patterns: tracking the Chat feature can be useful in deciding which students to call on next - for example, if a particular student notes through Chat that she/he disagrees with the student speaking, or has some additional data to provide. As one faculty member noted, the advantage of Chat is that it’s like “reading students’ thought bubbles” - an advantage over the physical classroom.

  • Role plays/debates between students: you can request two students to “role play” a situation like you would in the physical classroom.

  • Warm and cold calls: you can “cold call” a student just as you would in the traditional classroom, instead of waiting for them to raise their hand. For “warm calls,” you can message them privately in Chat before you call on them.

  • Raising hands: this feature works like the physical classroom. Have students use the Raise Hand feature in Zoom to answer questions. When you open up a conversation to students, you can pause a beat to let a number of people raise their hand and then pick according to whatever calling pattern you want. Call on a student by name.

  • Polls (private or public): with Zoom’s polling features you can get group results in real time, then reveal them later.

  • Buzz groups: consider giving students more time than you normally would to formulate ideas jointly in one-on-one conversations (perhaps over Chat or in Zoom’s Breakout Rooms), and then have them share those ideas into the broader discussion.

  • Checking in/Reading the room: unmuted students can inadvertently start talking at the same time; you will not be able to read body language easily; and those less inclined to speak may disappear more easily. To address these issues, be more diligent about pausing and asking if anyone else has more thoughts before jumping to the next topic.

Board Plans

if you usually do “board work” as part of a class session, you have a number of options. Note that if you’re accustomed to multiple simultaneous boards you may need to adapt to showing a single screen’s worth at a time. See Boardwork from the Bok Center for suggestions.

Closing the Case

  • Summary slides work as they do in the physical classroom. In addition, though, you might invite students’ reflections on the case too (through Chat). This can be a useful addition in an online setting vis-à-vis the physical classroom - the collective reflections of the class can provide a powerful summary of the discussion. Consider archiving these reflections for the class.

Assessing Participation

  • In case-based classes, participation is a heavy component of the grade. Student comments can be more easily recorded since Zoom retains a video archive of the entire class.

  • In an online setting, consider using students’ Chat comments and reflections as additional inputs to a student’s participation grade, and a supplement to the spoken word. This can help draw in students who may be somewhat quiet in “speaking,” and can also help limit frivolous chat. If you decide to use Chat in participation grading, you should be sure to let students know about this norm before you start teaching.

Small Group Discussions

  • One-on-One or Small-Group meetings: virtual one-on-one or small-group meetings can be held using Zoom almost the same way as in-person. But it is important to maintain the same norms around minimizing distractions as in the classroom; your level of engagement will determine students'. Easily share documents or anything else on your computer via screen sharing. The Waiting Room allows you to provide a single Zoom session ID and the ability to invite only selected individuals into the discussion.

  • Code review: you can use Screen Sharing to meet with an individual or group of students to review code. Authorizing Remote Screen Control enables one to take control of the other's shared application and allows for navigation, text entry, etc. on the remote computer. When you cannot meet synchronously with a student to provide feedback, consider resources such as Pastebin and JSFiddle, where students can upload their code and you can create revisions to it with comments.

  • Collaborative problem solving and brainstorming: digitally annotate using the Whiteboards feature. Allow others in the session to annotate on the same board to share ideas and problem-solving methods. A tablet is useful for handwriting.

  • Ask questions: have students use the Raise Hand feature in Zoom to answer questions. Call on a student by name and “Allow to talk” (unmute).

  • Cold call: you can “cold call” a student just as you would in the traditional classroom, instead of waiting for them to raise their hand.

  • Keep your students in front of you: Zoom’s gallery view lets you see thumbnails of usually 25 students at a time (depending on your screen).

Hands-on Courses

This section will be updated as additional guidance is developed.

Lab courses: one of the biggest challenges of teaching online from anywhere is sustaining the lab components of classes. Since many labs require specific equipment, they are hard to reproduce outside of that physical space. Consider the following as you plan to address lab activities:

  • Define what the lab should achieve: different lab activities serve different purposes. See Remote Labs from the Bok Center for scenarios.

  • Take part of the lab online: many lab activities require students to become familiar with certain procedures, and only physical practice of those processes will do. In such cases, consider whether there are other parts of the lab experience you could take online (for example, video demonstrations of techniques, online simulations, analysis of data, other pre- or post-lab work). Save the physical practice parts of the labs until access to campus is restored.

  • Investigate virtual labs: online resources and virtual tools might help replicate the experience of some labs (e.g., virtual dissection, night sky apps, video demonstrations of labs, simulations, YouTube videos). Those vary widely by discipline, but check with your textbook publisher, or sites such as Merlot for materials that might help replace parts of your lab during the closure.

  • Provide raw data for analysis: in cases where the lab includes both collection of data and its analysis, consider showing how the data can be collected, and then provide some raw sets of data for students to analyze. This approach is not as comprehensive as having students collect and analyze their own data, but it can keep them engaged with parts of the lab experience during the closure.

  • Increase interaction in other ways: sometimes labs are about providing time for direct student interaction. Consider other ways to replicate that type of interaction or create new online interaction opportunities, including using available collaboration tools like Breakout Rooms, Annotation Tools, and Whiteboards in Zoom, Slack, etc.

Additional Tips on Engaging Students

During Class

  • Encourage community: the sense of presence will be enhanced when everyone shows their face via their webcam. Consider requiring students to turn on video as a key part of participation, since it is easier to engage with the class if you can see them, and students are more likely to pay attention if they know they’re on camera. The gallery view can be helpful here.

  • Stretch times: consider permitting students to “stretch” every 20-30 minutes for 30 seconds. It can be harder to focus attention on a screen than in a classroom!

  • Polls: Zoom’s polling features to see the distribution of perspectives on a particular question. When used well, this can be a powerful complement to the lecture or discussion.

  • Chat: Zoom’s Chat feature can be either very useful for the instructor, or a distraction if it’s used continuously, so thinking about how and when to engage students is helpful. Additional tips can be found here.

  • Breakout groups: if you want students to reflect in smaller sized “buzz groups”, you can consider using Slack or twitch as a chat platform that complements Zoom. Alternatively you can use Zoom’s Breakout Rooms functionality.

  • Writing on the board: if you usually do “board work” as part of a class session, you have a number of options.

Outside Class

Discussion boards for asynchronous forums:

Not all classroom discussions need to be synchronous. In these cases, Canvas has a discussion forum feature. Decide what kind of discussions will be most beneficial to your course: topic-driven or social-driven. Your discussion prompts and how you evaluate your students’ responses should reflect that decision.

  • Topic-driven: this type of discussion board works especially well for highlighting readings or helping your students focus on key parts of your course content. Provide specific conversation points and prompts that may relate to a reading or a lecture. Make sure to build in space for reflection or debate in your discussion prompts. Students should want to know what their classmates are thinking about!

  • Social-driven: this type of discussion board works especially well if you want your students to connect the course with current events or their own projects or work. Your discussion board serves as a digital “water cooler” for your class. Your discussion prompts can be more general, such as asking them to post about the specific topic of the week.

Additional Resources

Below are additional tools and materials that you may find useful depending on the kind of course and pedagogy you use.

  • Case-based courses: Harvard Business Publishing offers a portfolio of resources to help you move your class online.
  • Reading-intensive courses: Perusall allows instructors to upload documents for learners to read and annotate. These annotations become discussions on the document as students comment on each other’s ideas.
  • Lab courses: Remote Labs>from the Bok Center
  • Digital resources: Using digital resources to augment course materials
  • Math and physics simulations: PhET, QuVis, Falstad
  • Flipping your course: the term “flipped classroom” describes the case when instead of using an in-class lecture format, instructors make their pre-recorded lectures available for students to view online, then use in-classroom time for discussions. If you teach lecture-based courses, consider adopting this approach in coming months so that your Zoom sessions are more interactive than the lecture format. The Harvard Kennedy School SLATE program has developed resources that may be useful as you consider this shift.