What I’ve Learned About Teaching Effectively Online

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Last month, the president of the American University in Cairo sent an email to all instructors announcing the suspension of study on campus and an early spring break as a precaution to support efforts to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. He also announced that study would be resumed online

All professors and instructors only had one week—the spring break—to transform our academic curricula to conform with the requirements of online teaching.

We’re fortunate at the American University in Cairo because we already have technical support for this kind of education.  The university provides Blackboard, a “learning management system” or software backbone that guides professors in building courses, connecting with students, and discussing and sharing educational materials. The software is popular in the United States, which makes sense given that AUC prides itself on offering an American-style education.  I also have the advantage of having previously given many online training courses. Last year I prepared content for the Digital Media Diploma at the university’s Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism.

Nevertheless, the transition was still challenging, given the limited time we had to make the change amid health concerns and fears over the future of the educational process and our lives as a whole.

The Classroom to the Computer: Tips for Teaching Online

Teaching in lecture halls is heavily dependent on the teachers themselves, not surprisingly. In the classroom, the teacher is the main vehicle of knowledge and can motivate students through direct face-to-face contact with them and evaluate their interest by monitoring their facial expressions and emotions during the lecture. On the other hand, in e-learning, guidance and monitoring are the main drivers, with knowledge and science transferred through various media such as video recordings, slides, exercises and applications.

I think the transition from the first kind to the second is possible, but it requires a lot of preparation to redesign the curriculum’s content to make it suitable for transfer via technical media, especially given that I, as an educator, will lose my direct contact with students and their visits to my office after the lecture for further discussion and questions.

Given the limited time available, I worked on developing a new methodology for my courses based mainly on communication, motivation and measuring the level of understanding and interaction.

Given the limited time available, I worked on developing a new methodology for my courses based mainly on communication, motivation and measuring the level of understanding and interaction. I will describe my experience here in an effort to share my educational tools and methods.

Setting Student’s Expectations

In the Internet age, a little is worth a lot. Since everything focuses on setting goals precisely, in the beginning of the course I did not devote much time to the information that I needed to provide and focused more on how students could become motivated, interactive, and active learners. I needed to share my goals with students in a way that enhanced their sense of participation and responsibility and that answered many of their questions related to how to access the scientific subject, the schedule for their discussion, the assignments they must accomplish, the dates of submitting work and the criteria for their evaluation. These are the sorts of questions that usually preoccupy students, who are worried about passing a course or getting a good grade. Clarifying all of this in an email was a good introduction to building common ground from which I launched the new learning experience for them.

Making Sure Students Interact in the Online ‘Classroom’

In lecture halls, it is easy to identify the disinterested student, who often sits in the back row, avoids eye contact with the professor and avoids participating in discussions. Of course, the situation is completely different in e-learning. But this doesn’t mean losing contact with students. On the contrary, communication takes on double the importance due to its role in supporting and encouraging students who, like teachers, are living in social isolation imposed by the novel coronavirus pandemic. So, I think it is necessary to take advantage of live broadcasting programs, even if not everyone can share the camera at the same time, and to allocate the opening minutes in each conversation to check on the students and open a way for them to talk and communicate, which increases their desire to interact later.

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I also dedicate some time in each lecture to cooperative learning exercises, where students collaborate in small groups to accomplish some tasks. This ensures their involvement in the discussion and motivates them to communicate with me and interact with each other.

Technically, many colleagues use Zoom but I am personally inclined to use the Jitsi app for virtual chats because it provides lecture recording and a special link that can be named after the lecture. Students can also access it through a special password granted by the lecturer to ensure that all participants maintain privacy.

Getting information to students is the goal of every educator, but that is not all. It is important to make sure that students understand this information and are able to benefit from it.

There is also a set of supportive applications available such as Google Calendar; I added the dates of online lectures to it as it has a pre-alert feature that gives students a space of time to prepare themselves well before the lecture. I also shared all the presentations of each lecture through a shared folder on Google Drive, so that they can browse them in advance to keep the live broadcast sessions for discussion and asking questions.

Of course, there are dozens of applications and tools that can be used. Personally, I prefer not to use too many applications to avoid confusing students. Despite students’ passion for technology, many of them and of us as teachers are new to it.

Measuring Students’ Performance Online

Getting information to students is the goal of every educator, but that is not all. It is important to make sure that students understand this information and are able to benefit from it through application, simulation, analysis, criticism, comparison, design, or any other act that reflects their using the information they obtained in a practical way. It is also essential to assess their acquired skills and knowledge.

Of course, exams play a big role in measuring the results of teaching and learning. In online learning, we rely heavily on “open book” tests, in which students have access to their books and notes but have to demonstrate they understand it by writing an essay or doing another practical exercise.  But I prefer that the evaluation be based on the projects that students do making use of the course content they are supposed to have learned. I like to involve students in evaluations, with all students having their projects reviewed by their peers. Later on, students will have an opportunity to discuss and evaluate, which increases interaction and feedback between them.

Not enough time has passed to judge if what I am doing is effective. Still, over the past two weeks I have witnessed a good interactivity from students, which increases my enthusiasm with this educational transformation and motivates me to search and think continuously about ways to improve it. Here, I cannot ignore the role of the academic institution’s management in supporting professors and students and communicating with them on an ongoing basis to solicit their opinions about the experience and try to avoid any technical problems that may confront us.

What we are experiencing today is a global ordeal at many levels, but I hope we can turn it into local research to build a new era of effective online learning.

Amr Eleraqi is a journalist and lecturer at the American University in Cairo’s the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.


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