Finding the Rhythm of Remote Learning

Four of Tufts’ distance education veterans share best practices for a smooth transition online
“The big new thing is using online tools synchronously, with real-time interaction in the chat room and breakout rooms," said William Masters, a professor at Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. (Photo: Ingimage)
“The big new thing is using online tools synchronously, with real-time interaction in the chat room and breakout rooms," said William Masters, a professor at Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. (Photo: Ingimage)
April 13, 2020

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When U.S. universities closed their campuses and switched to online learning, Tufts had a significant head start. 

Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy already offers a fully online graduate certificate program, with classes geared toward health professionals, communications professionals, and those interested in healthy communities and sustainable agriculture, led by program director and professor Diane McKay. It also offers a hybrid Master’s in Nutrition Science and Policy (MNSP), led by program director and professor Lynne Ausman, which includes five-day residencies in the fall, spring, and summer, but goes online the rest of the semester.

 “One of the things that made moving everything online in spring 2020 feasible is that Tufts Technology Services really has invested in the right enterprise educational technology tools and support structures,” said Patrick Connell, director of online learning at Tufts Technology Services’ Educational Technology Services. Connell, who developed both the certificate program and MNSP programs at the Friedman School, assumed responsibility for developing many of the university’s online courses five years ago. “In addition to the faculty’s dedication and willingness to learn the tools, Tufts had all the infrastructure in place to do this very quickly.”

Connell has spent years coaching Tufts faculty, including McKay and Ausman, on best practices in designing and delivering online courses, taken from an evidence-based set of standards used throughout the country and the world. And although doing a mass transition of Tufts’ in-person classes to live Zoom-based classes within a short timeframe isn’t the same as working one-on-one with faculty over a period of months to design courses meant for online learning, many of those best practices carry over, he said.

“The idea is to provide various ways for students to connect with each other and with teachers, and to create a highly interactive, engaging experience for both students and faculty,” Connell said. 

With the right approach, online education can be as effective as in-person teaching, said Friedman School professor William Masters, who teaches the same material in the hybrid MNSP program and for residential students. “At the Friedman School, online teaching is the opposite of what people expect. Instead of a massive course with hundreds or thousands of students, it’s an intimate, high-touch program with a lot of attention to each individual student,” he said. 

Bringing the in-person courses online this semester could pave the way for a transformation in education in the future, Masters said. “The unique magic of looking people in the eye and being together in the room is not going to go away,” he said. “But when there’s a big disruption like this one, there are often a lot of innovations, workarounds, and coping strategies that turn out to be really good. The big new thing is using online tools synchronously, with real-time interaction in the chat room and breakout rooms, and a lot more instant feedback. We might keep doing a lot of those things even when students are back on campus.”

Best practices in remote learning

“My number-one piece of advice for teachers is don’t try to simulate an in-person class,” said Friedman School professor William Masters, who is pictured in the above screenshot teaching an online class.

For teachers:

Don’t try to teach the way you would in person. 

“My number-one piece of advice is don’t try to simulate an in-person class,” Masters said. “A good teacher works the room like any politician — watching people’s faces, recognizing how people are feeling, modulating their voice and presence. But online teaching deprives you of the ability to see students’ reactions and body language in real time — especially if you have a larger class and can’t see them all on the Zoom screen. You’ve got to adapt and do it differently.”

That means stopping every few minutes to ask questions, whether they’re simple yes/no queries that can be answered via the poll function on Zoom, or more involved questions that can be answered in the chat box, said Masters. He’s particularly excited about the possibilities here —  he recently asked students to use the chat box to offer examples of the concept of externality, or how one person’s actions can affect others who have no control over the matter. “The chat box is a real game changer,” Masters said. “In an in-person class, I can only call on one person at a time, and students don’t speak very fast. But texting is the new talking, so they all type very fast. And I can read their answers quickly, and ask, ‘What patterns are you seeing?’ There’s an opportunity for a much richer dialogue.”

Finally, in the absence of a physical classroom, it’s important to include extra-clear cues that everyone is here to work and learn, according to Masters. On his first day teaching his Zoom class, Masters made himself a standing desk with a board and some books and did something he hadn’t done in thirty years. “I actually dressed up for class. I wore a suit, just to signal the seriousness of it,” Masters said. “I think it’s important to say this is not something you should do in your pajamas.” 

Communicate promptly and privately. 

“Orient your students to how the site is organized, how to navigate it, and how things are going to go in the course,” McKay said. “Throughout the course, introduce what’s coming up, remind them of deadlines, and summarize what you covered — but be judicious about sending emails too often, or students will get overloaded.”

Answer individual students’ emails promptly, she said. “Getting a quick response and knowing someone is on the other side of the screen keeps students engaged and motivated and reassures them they’re not doing this in a vacuum,” she said.

It’s essential to check in with students early if they’re not logging in, submitting assignments on time, or keeping up with the class, McKay added. “Reach out to them early and privately, offer to meet with them virtually to help orient them to the course assignments, be kind, be encouraging, and offer support,” McKay said. “Maintaining that connection is really important.”

The back-and-forth over live lecture sessions can be a particularly effective way of communicating, according to Ausman, who makes a point of holding live review sessions in her otherwise asynchronous online courses. “That way people can talk to each other and say, ‘This is where I got hung up,’” Ausman said. “Or I can bring up a particular lecture where everyone is confused, and re-explain it, which is harder to do by email. When you’re explaining things in real time with a diagram in front of you, you can hear when the light bulb goes on —’ahh, now I get it!’”

Make sure you find out how your class would prefer to communicate, Ausman added, noting that she had been prepared to pre-record lectures for a class this semester, before learning that they wanted her to lecture live while they asked questions. “For people who are used to that style of learning, listening to tapes might not be good for them,” she said. Mandatory live sessions are not feasible for all situations, Ausman said, pointing out that MNSP students tend to live in very different time zones—but the general principle holds: “Just try to adapt to the rhythm of the class.”

Maintain control of your classroom.

McKay stressed the importance of informing students of proper “netiquette,” or how to be respectful and open-minded in discussion forums and comments on other students’ work, while Masters advised having a teaching assistant moderate the chat box to guide the discussion.

Keeping control is especially important in larger classes. “A class of seventy students is going to be challenging, more so than in a lecture hall,” Connell said. “It can be difficult to control the audio, and it’s going to be a bit rough in terms of building an interactive experience where students are actively participating.” 

If possible, break your class into two sessions, Connell said, or use the breakout rooms feature of Zoom, which divides students into smaller groups. “Then the groups can come back to the main class, and one student can report back,” Connell said.

If the class can’t be broken up, Connell said instructors should make sure to prepare their Zoom settings so students are muted on entry and encouraged to remain muted unless they want to contribute. Students with comments can use the “raise hand” feature, and the instructor can then unmute them. “It’s not quite as natural as in-person classes, but it prevents background noise, which can be a huge distraction,” Connell said.

Cultivate a welcoming presence.

In the studio available for instructors to pre-record lectures, Connell’s staff  members have worked with faculty on smiling more, relaxing, and presenting in a personable way, Connell said. It can often help to pre-script one’s remarks and read them, perhaps using the studio’s teleprompter, he said.

Masters also highlighted the importance of maintaining a warm presence in Zoom lectures, recalling when he went back and watched the recording of his first class. “In the part that was recorded before we actually started, I was scowling at the screen trying to figure out how the buttons were supposed to work. I thought, ‘God I look terrible,’” Masters laughed. “It’s important to be someone people are happy to look at--to be reasonably animated, caring, smiling, and friendly.”

Part of connecting with students is calling them by name, Masters added, which Zoom can actually help with. “In an in-person class, it’s really hard, especially with a large number of students, to call everyone by their name. But in the chat box, you can see people’s names and use them,” Masters said.

Balance facilitating with getting out of the way of discussions.

In online and asynchronous discussions, it’s important for instructors to allow students to answer each other first, Connell advised. Then they can come in at the end and summarize and wrap up the exchange. It’s also a good idea to craft open-ended questions, which don’t necessarily have one right answer, Connell said. “That way students have the opportunity reflect and bring some of their personal experience,” he said.

But questions shouldn’t be too open-ended, Ausman cautioned. “My discussions require students to read things and do a little research before putting out their research and opinions,” she said. Likewise, while instructors should pull back, they shouldn’t go too far. “The professor can’t disappear from the discussion,” she said. “I’m always poking my head in and saying, ‘You know, you’ve got a really good idea,’ or ‘No one mentioned this, what do you think about that?’”

When done correctly, online discussions are a great forum for learning, according to Ausman. “There’s nothing like having your peers tell you something isn’t clear,” she said.

McKay agreed. “I think the asynchronous discussions are really the heartbeat of our online certificate courses,” she said. “It allows for that peer-to-peer interaction and learning from each other, which is just as important as student-to-instructor interaction.”

For students:

Take a deep breath.

Many students learning online now didn’t necessarily expect to be doing so this semester, McKay acknowledged, and it can be a challenging transition to make. She encouraged students to step back and think about what they already know how to do online.

“Students have been learning online for a couple of decades, successfully so,” McKay said. “You don’t have to be an expert in all these technological tools. Just knowing how the basics work will enable you to get pretty far in your class. Just know that learning online works, and you can do it.”

Find your sweet spot. 

Students should make a point of keeping up with the work from week to week, said Ausman, who teaches a biochemistry class in the MNSP program. Students who fall behind in that course find it almost impossible to catch up.

“Right away, students should find the best time within the week to do their learning,” Ausman said. “I had one student who disappeared into her home office every Saturday and did all the work for the week. I had one who liked to wait until everyone went to sleep. Others listened to lectures during their lunch hour. Find your own sweet spot that works for you.”

Reach out to your teachers.

For students who are having trouble making the adjustment to online learning, or who are simply craving some one-on-one guidance, McKay urged them to reach out.

“We want to engage with you. We’re waiting for you to send us an email and let us know how you’re doing,” McKay said. “We’re here, and we want to know you’re on the other side of the screen, too.

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.