Online education has several advantages over “live” education. You can comfortably talk with other people all over the planet from your living room or office. You will save a lot of money on travel costs or training space rentals. You can also reach many more participants in your courses: hundreds, thousands, or even millions.
On the other hand, you may feel the lack of interpersonal contact in the online space, which naturally occurs during face-to-face courses. This kind of interaction provides energy and motivation to both the participants and us, the speakers. Suddenly, part of the communication which facilitates mutual understanding and thereby learning, is missing. Online education thus presents us with some obstacles for which technology alone is not enough. In this article, you will learn how to overcome these obstacles.
Take advantage of online video meetings
The concept of online education represents a large number of forms and approaches. The most common include educational videos, video lectures, video courses, video tutorials, e-learning, educational audio recordings, audiobooks, or podcasts. Each of these formats has its ideal purpose.
In this article, however, we will focus on one specific approach: interactive online video meetings. This format brings direct interaction between the lecturer and the participants and is the closest thing to a live meeting. Unlike most other forms, it allows for:
- non-verbal communication, which contributes to easier mutual understanding and thus learning;
- perception of group dynamics and strengthening of positive relationships in the group, which is essential both for a one-time meeting and especially for long-term work with the group;
- immediate feedback, the ability to respond actively to the course of education;
- inspiration from the knowledge and experience of other participants, increasing creativity; and
- mutual motivation and higher involvement of participants.
Use cameras for greater interaction
The burning topic of online video meetings is the use of cameras. Although we come to live seminars with our faces uncovered, many people are reluctant to turn on the camera during an online meeting. The reason may be the discomfort of seeing oneself and the resulting self-criticism. If participants are at home, they may feel that letting others see their homes is too invasive into their privacy. For some, it may also be the idea that their space is not good enough, nice enough, or clean enough to be shared.
However, we as lecturers will be deprived of an incredibly important communication channel without the cameras running. Therefore, always try to encourage all participants to turn on their cameras.. Help them by:
- notifying everyone in their invitation that camera use is expected,
- including instructions (or a link to instructions) which guides participants to use a neutral background such as a blank wall or a virtual background, and
- explaining the importance of cameras for mutual communication, understanding, and thus education.
For those who do not have a built-in camera, you might recommend buying specific types.
Limit the number of participants
As with a live meeting, there is a significant difference between educating one person and lecturing to 100 listeners. If you can set the size of the group, choose a range between 6-15 participants. In a group of this size, there will naturally be a high degree of mutual interaction supporting learning. At the same time, you will be able to maintain individual cooperation with each participant. The minimum number of 6 also allows you to divide the group into two triplets or three pairs for group work. However, a high level of involvement can also be achieved in a group of several dozen participants, and it is worth striving for once you’ve had a bit of practice.
Choose the appropriate software for online meetings
Given the limited scope of this article, the topic of a suitable application for holding online video meetings can only be addressed briefly.
Currently (as of October 2020), the following video conferencing applications are among the most widespread:
- ZOOM – (www.zoom.us) offers a large number of functions that support online meetings.
- Google meet – by Google
- Microsoft Teams – from Microsoft
These applications can be used free of charge. However, in the free version, they have restrictions limiting their use, such as a limited meeting time. The paid version is a professional tool.
Tip for experts: If you are interested in a detailed comparison of dozens of these applications, take a look at the online table found HERE.
Prepare and test the technique
High-quality, reliable technology is essential for the smooth running of any online course. However, these may not be the most expensive technical innovations. Online video conferencing can be handled well even with technology that is several years old. You will need:
- Stable computer – Be sure to have enough free space on the hard drive and at least 8 GB of working memory. Turn off any applications you don’t need for the meeting.
- Headphones and external microphone – Use them every time you meet. You will hear your participants more clearly, and you will likewise be understood more clearly. You will also avoid frequent technical problems with acoustic coupling. Get something better than mobile headphones. Clear sound is worth the appearance of a visible microphone..
- Webcam – An integrated computer camera or a simple external camera is generally sufficient.
- Stable internet connection – 10 MB of download and 2 MB of upload are enough for speed. However, connection stability is essential. If the connection fluctuates, it will result in video and audio dropouts, which significantly disrupts communication. If this is the case for you, order a higher tariff or work from a space with a better connection.
- A second monitor – This is not absolutely necessary, but it will significantly facilitate the overview of your aids, tools, and documents, which you gradually share with participants.
Expert Tip: Have a second computer or tablet logged in at your course participants’ level and check what your participants are seeing.
Solve participants’ technical issues
Nothing disrupts the online meeting more than technical problems. You have already prepared your technique, now avoid difficulties on the part of the participants. Help yourself be prepared to help them by:
- informing participants in advance about the technical requirements and suggestions about testing in the same way as you did,
- asking the participants to join the meeting 15 minutes early in order to check their connection and tech. If anything is amiss, the participant can solve the problem early, or ask for your help. Note: This does mean that you must be 100% ready for your presentation even earlier — no last minute preparation!; or
- arranging for a colleague to be present who will solve technical matters and problems for you and free you to focus on your instruction
Tip for experts: If your application allows it, enable participants to join the course using only their phone if everything else fails.
Prepare documents that will make your work easier
Minimize the amount of activity you need to do during the meeting. Otherwise, you will waste time and risk losing the participants’ focus. Have all materials for participants prepared in advance. You can prepare, for example:
- diagrams, graphs, or sketches to introduce a complex topic;
- photos and videos, for the further interest of the participants;
- polls and voting for stakeholder involvement;
- forms and tests to complete, to verify the level of knowledge; and
- a list of links to online documents and resources that you want to share with participants.
Involve participants and keep their attention
During an online meeting, it will be much more difficult for you to gauge and cultivate the participants’ attention than in a face-to-face course. This is due to the different format, fewer communication channels, and lower social interaction. The following tips can help you maintain your awareness and engagement:
- Limit the length of meetings and breaks – You can forget about a full-day training course, as is typical in live seminars. However, if you take a gap of at least 15 minutes every 90 minutes, you can maintain a high level of attention for up to 4 hours.
- Use gestures and non-verbal communication – With the cameras turned on, you can teach participants to use many common cues, such as:
- Thumbs up to “agree”, thumbs down to “disagree”, thumbs horizontally to mean “I don’t care.”
- Raised hand – “I’m asking for a word”
- Arms forming an X – “I can’t hear / Something doesn’t work.”
- Waving – “Hello.”
- Leave microphones switched on – In a group of up to 15 people, leave the microphones permanently switched on. Any verbal transmission will be understood well in such a group, and the participants will be more involved. For larger groups, it may be necessary to mute the microphones of those who are not speaking.
- Eliminate multitasking – Unless you continuously involve participants, it’s almost impossible to prevent them from working on something else on your computer. To limit as much as possible, at the beginning of the session, ask your participants to pay full attention to your meeting, turn on fullscreen, and turn off other interfering source applications.
- Ask questions – Ask the participants frequent questions, ask the group a question to ponder and “work with silence.” You can also question participants directly by name, especially if you feel they may have particular expertise to share.
- Work in small groups – Involve all participants by dividing them into small groups (pairs, triplets, quartets) and assigning them a common task. Participants have the opportunity to discuss more and participate in the work on the task. You can then share the results across the group. Working in small groups is easily done, for example using the break-out rooms in ZOOM, or you can create multiple rooms into which participants are divided.
- Provide feedback on the interaction – Talk about what you see and hear. This type of feedback can motivate participants and remind them that you are part of the conversation.
- Request feedback – Ask participants for their input throughout the meeting. You can involve everyone through surveys, polls, and questionnaires.
- Use visualization – Convey as much information as possible visually and allow participants to work with it. You can use the following online tools to do this.
Take advantage of available online tools
Working online offers a large number of tools that replace and sometimes surpass the usual physical tools. In particular, use those tools which participants can actively manipulate, write on, and share. Involve participants in your work and teach them more.
- Whiteboard – A shared whiteboard on which participants can write, draw, and comment together. The whiteboard is part of many video conferencing applications, but you can also use a separate application such as Open board (openboard.ch).
- Jamboard – (jamboard.google.com) This shared whiteboard is part of the Google app for google account holders. If you like to use post-its at work, share a link to the Jamboard for participants and let them create and organize tickets together. Participants are not required to have a Google account.
- Mentimeter.com – An online application for creating surveys and polls. It offers a large number of formats for voting and displaying results. Activate all participants at once by participating in the survey.
- Google Docs – (docs.google.com) This app is limited to Google account holders. Create shared texts, spreadsheets, questionnaires, and tests with precise, instant results. Participants are not required to have a Google account.
Enhance social interaction
Social ties between the participants help increase motivation, attention, and communication and thus have an excellent benefit for the group’s education. Unfortunately, in the online environment, social interaction has many obstacles. We have to create what the participants of a live meeting can often do on their own during a coffee break. Strengthen trust and profitable relationships in the group throughout the conference with these ideas:
- Beginn with some “Get to Know You” activities — Learning each other’s names and a bit about each other will take some time, but after the introductions, participants relax, cooperate more, share, and take away more than in an “anonymous” group. Therefore, leave room for the performance in at least one sentence at the beginning.
- Suggest taping – Communication will be more relaxed, and participants welcome such a proposal in most cases, but leave room for someone not to agree (and have a plan of how to handle this!).
- Allow the participants to choose their own virtual name tags – Each participant can name themselves in the meeting. It can be just a first name or even a nickname.
- Have fun with the participants informally as well – Take the opportunity for informal discussion, for example, before the start or during breaks. Get to know your participants as people, and let them get to know you as well.
- Listen empathetically and respond to the participants’ emotions and needs – In a smaller group, and when using cameras, you can take the time to watch and hear each person, especially as they work in small groups. Use the chat feature of your meeting application to communicate with specific members of the class. They will know that you care about their satisfaction and their success .
Learn, experiment, and grow
Given the scope of the article, the list of recommendations is far from exhaustive. Take the time to find more resources, attend online courses yourself, join discussions, and be inspired by other lecturers. In this way, you will undoubtedly continue to improve in online education. As we all know, there’s always room for improvement. I wish you courage, perseverance, and learning from the mistakes that are an essential and inevitable part of teaching.