The COVID-19 pandemic has created numerous disruptions to the normal routine. The most serious impact from the student perspective is the absolute disarray of their academic calendar. In mid-March 2020, students of most institutions evacuated campus and the learning process was disrupted to a great extent. Since then, from primary to higher education, most classes have gone online, and students have had to get acclimatized to a new process of virtual learning. Sitting in front of a computer monitor is not new for students. Nevertheless, learning course content for eight hours a day through virtual mode is indeed challenging. Of course, it is equally a new experience for faculty, too. However, to shed light on the current situation, there are ways that online teaching can be made more vibrant by imitating a classroom environment. Based on my experience in teaching an undergraduate chemistry course, I found there are diverse ways of making an online course a pleasant experience for students.
My online inorganic chemistry class for the fall semester began on a pleasant rainy Thursday morning. My internet connectivity with LAN was good, and I told my students to activate their video through the Google meet course link. Seeing them face-to-face gave me an opportunity to gain good acquaintance. To start the ball rolling, I put forth the question, “What are your views on virtual learning?” The majority of them felt they were missing the reverberations of a vibrant campus life and the real academic ambiance. They opined that “chalk and talk” had its own charm even when a gamut of online platforms were available as a surrogate to real classroom teaching. They also posed the question, “Prof, is it possible to create a classroom environment in online teaching?” I assured them they were not going to miss the classroom vibes significantly. In response, I devised a few strategies to make online instruction enjoyable.
Breaking the norm
Roddy, et al. reviewed the best practices in online teaching and how virtual learning has expanded globally. Lederman has also outlined insights as to how online teaching is going to impact the overall learning process.
As a general practice, online teaching is done by sitting in front of the monitor. The first thing I did to break the norm was to stand in front of my desktop monitor, rather than sit, to deliver my 50-minute lecture. I turned on my webcam and made sure I was well within the frame. I shared my PowerPoint slides through Google Meet. I also kept the Dualless Chrome extension browser window split option (Figure 1) as 60:40.
I kept moving occasionally within the camera border and this helped capture a classroom setting. I gave a live demo of the extraction procedure for industrially important metals like cobalt and zinc and also linked the topics with anecdotes from science-fiction movies and TV shows (Rajesh) to lighten the mood. Mimicking a classroom setting, I asked intriguing questions on acid-base concepts and waited for their response. Here came the challenge: Many students did respond but a large portion was not vocal and instead gave their response by enabling the chat option. Of course, I got distracted when they communicated frequently using the Live Chat option. Nevertheless, I offered my appreciation to the students who responded as it might motivate others not to be passive.
After six lecture classes, I mailed a Google Form to my class and conducted a 10-minute, short-answer quiz. It is quite challenging to frame questions involving chemical structures through this mode. Hence, I had to consciously avoid asking structure drawings. A few students who reside farther from the city limits faced intermittent Internet connectivity problems, so in response, I extended the quiz time limit to 15 minutes. Additionally, since students spend more time seated in front of a monitor, I gave a pep talk on the benefits of doing simple aerobic exercises at home. We have a course management system (CMS) wherein I uploaded each of my lecture recordings on this student portal. In addition to lecture recordings, tutorial discussion problems and hints to solve these were also regularly uploaded on the portal.
Positive outcomes have been recorded in undergraduate online learning for health science students (Rensburg) in the University of South Africa. In her recent article on distance learning, Josep has given five distinct reasons as to why online learning is going to be norm of future education. She has assessed it critically from several angles such as ease of access, custom-made learning, and flexibility.
In the current scenario, I am trying my best to make online teaching more dynamic. The bottom line is, “I am teaching—are they listening?” Two weeks into the fall semester, we had a Student-Faculty Class committee (SFC) meeting and it was noteworthy to hear that students found my approach to be genial and interactive. I realized that standing and delivering lectures enhanced a connection with my students. Although I am on a virtual microphone, I found that my students were more receptive to the lectures. Fine-tuning my teaching strategy certainly created a positive impact in virtual learning.
Different amendments to online instruction in such trying times can also go a long way in bridging the gap between a teacher and their students. Based on my personal experience, here are a few tips for a more vibrant online teaching experience.
Suggestions for an enhanced online experience
- Create an ambiance that is friendly.
- Make students feel that they are connected with the lecture throughout the class.
- Make your online class interactive and discussion-oriented rather than resorting to lecture mode.
- Encourage students to use their video when they answer or ask questions.
- Standing and delivering lectures can give students a feeling of a real classroom setting.
- Create your own “classroom vibes” through live demos of concepts whenever possible.
- Motivate students by giving general advice regarding physical fitness and reiterate the importance of reading things that will inspire them.
- Upload lecture recordings on the same day each week in the student portal.
As faculty, it is important to value that students are going through a difficult time and we need to make virtual learning an enjoyable experience for them. To break apart the monotony in a lecture, it is also important to boost the morale of students by giving an occasional motivational lecture on overcoming stress during this pandemic period. Making your virtual learning atmosphere more pleasant helps to build better rapport with students. Ultimately, it depends to a great extent on the effort of the instructor to ensure that online teaching is a pleasure and not a pressure for students.
Despite being behind the microphone, it is possible to feel the energy and pulse of your students.
Rajesh Nagarathnam Department of Chemistry, Birla Institute of Technology and Science,(BITS) Pilani, Hyderabad campus, Hyderabad 500078, India.
I would like to appreciate the efforts of Teaching Learning Centre (TLC) of BITS Hyderabad campus for introducing the faculty to a range of platforms available for virtual teaching and learning. I would like to acknowledge my young and enthusiastic M.Sc (Chemistry) students who are traveling this online journey with me.
C. Roddy, D.L. Amiet, J.Chung, C.Holt, L.Shaw, S.Mckenzie, F.Garivaldis, J.M.Lodge, and M.E. Mundy, Applying Best Practice Online Learning, Teaching, and Support to Intensive Online Environments: An Integrative Review, Frontiers in Education, Vol.2, pp.1-10, 2017.
D. Lederman, (2020) Will Shift to Remote Teaching Be Boon or Bane for Online Learning https://www.insidehighered.com/digitallearning/article/2020/03/18/most-teaching-going-remote-will-help-or-hurt-online-learning (Accessed on 3rd Oct 2020)
N.Rajesh, Making Inorganic chemistry interesting, Analogy based pragmatic approach to learning, Resonance, Vol.25, No.9, pp.1241-1249, 2020.
E.S.J.van Rensburg, Effective online teaching and learning practices for undergraduate health sciences students: An integrative review, International Journal of Africa Nursing Sciences, Vol.9, pp.73-80, 2018.
G. Josep, (2020) 5 Reasons Why Online Learning is the Future of Education, https://www.educations.com/articles-and-advice/5-reasons-online-learning-is-future-of-education-17146. (Accessed on 3rd Oct 2020)