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A Student’s Guide to Creating the Best Online Classes

As you may know, much of schooling in the United States has gone online due to the pandemic. Programs like Zoom and Google Classroom have taken over the traditional classroom space in educational institutions all over the world, from Pre-K to Graduate Schools. Currently, SUNY Oswego has a hybrid model of both in-person and online education in order to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 while still giving students a semi-normal educational experience. Many online classes also offer both synchronous, in which the class all meets at the same time over a live-video streaming platform, and asynchronous, in which students login to Blackboard or another platform to post discussion posts and turn in assignments, formats. For many classes that have gone online, a mix of asynchronous and synchronous meeting times and platform usage has been implemented in order to fully give students the class experience. 

However, as a student, I have noticed many professors having difficulty navigating this online format. Some professors are unfamiliar with the platforms they are given, while others are completely unaware that certain actions they are taking are alienating students and making the learning experience more difficult than it already is. Meanwhile, other professors have been incredibly successful at fostering amazing learning environments over Blackboard and Zoom. That’s why I am here to help professors and students alike create the best possible online classes. 

 

Tip #1: Learn thoroughly about the program(s) you will be using to conduct class.

This is for both students and professors: understand how to use the programs that you’ll be having for the class. Learn how to do things like screen share, change your profile picture, and connect audio before you come into the online class for the first time, or the next time. You don’t want to be the one student who doesn’t get participation points or learn about an assignment due next class because you get disconnected or your audio goes out. Similarly, professors should understand how to best use the platforms that they are on, so when students have questions about certain functions or run into (small) problems, the professor can quickly advise the student  so the class can smoothly continue.

This also serves as a learning benefit. Many students prefer to use these platforms in different ways — some students literally don’t have the ability to be on camera or turn on their audio, and for that reason, being able to type into a chat and still have your thoughts acknowledged to the wider class by the professor is incredibly helpful. As I’ll address in another comment, the ability to “raise your hand” in these platforms and have a system in place also makes discussion easier. There will always be students willing to speak, so professors shouldn’t worry that letting students use a chat will be them “taking the easy way out” or anything. Students should also not be shy about helping professors understand what works for them or their own limitations. 

 

Tip #2: Pick a synchronous and/or asynchronous platform and stick to it.

I can understand if you begin using Google Hangouts and decide you’d rather switch to Zoom after the first week or two of classes because it’s not working the best. Most students can understand and appreciate when professors own up to their mistakes and make efforts to change for the better. What most students don’t appreciate, though, is when professors hop from platform to platform, ask students to utilize more than two to three platforms, or don’t consistently stick to what will be the synchronous program every week. 

Using only one synchronous platform, like Zoom, will make it easier for students to remember what to open when class time comes. It also cuts down on the amount of time both students and instructors have to spend learning about the programs that they are using. There is no reason that a class on Tuesday is on Zoom but a class on Thursday is on Google Hangouts — both have the same technological abilities in terms of things like audio/video/screen sharing. Just pick one. 

This also speaks to keeping a consistent schedule. One of the things I do not like about some classes is their on/off again weeks of synchronous and asynchronous class with seemingly no reason other than to make us do meaningless discussion posts on Blackboard. Not only does mixing up a schedule like this confuse students, but it also makes it seem as though the asynchronous activities could be better completed in a synchronous class where lively discussions and new ideas could be fostered. I will talk about the larger trend of over-assigning work later on.

The same goes for asynchronous platforms — there is no reason students should need to use Blackboard, Google Classroom, AND tumblr or another forum/blog posting space. Blackboard and Google Classroom already allow an extremely large range of assignment submissions from documents to videos and many more. Using Blackboard for something like updating grades or holding information, while a platform like Scalar or tumblr is utilized for discussion/assignment submission is perfectly acceptable. Students, along with many professors, don’t like creating superfluous accounts on platforms that they might never use again. 

 

Tip #3: Have resources/assignment prompts readily available in one place for students.

Having a few specific resources on Google Classroom, meanwhile others are on your class website, and then you also have some of the assignments on Blackboard, is extremely confusing. This also goes back to minimizing the time spent learning many different platforms and how they work to find these resources and assignments. Inevitably, students will complain that they can’t find certain assignments or resources and you will be left to hunt them down yourself to show students where to go. Keeping things in one place will help everyone. This place should also preferably be where students are expected to turn in assignments.

 

Tip #4: Have a preferred method of virtual hand-raising to speak, along with attendance.

This one is the most annoying to me as someone who is sometimes too polite. PLEASE, have a hand raising method. Professors who declare “anyone can just talk” works fine in an in-person class where you can tell who is getting ready to talk by looking around and everyone is in the same environment. It does not work when you are looking at half the class as profile pictures, some peoples’ connections are fuzzy, or when you accidentally talk over another person because  both people stop and then try to talk again because of the lag time between the  audio. Professors should be guiding the class through discussion, which includes things like having a system where students can raise their hands, and guiding who goes next if multiple students are raising their hands. If you understand how Zoom works, you can always show students how to click on the ‘Participants’ button on the bottom bar of Zoom, where it will show a button for students to raise their hands that will appear on the screen as a blue hand. Other professors I’ve had use the chat function to put in “!!” to indicate you have something to say if using a program like Google Hangout. Of course, for other students who use the chat to put in their participation, professors should be reading their comments aloud for the class (as they contribute to discussion). For students with anxiety like myself, knowing I won’t interrupt someone while still getting my participation is important.

As for attendance, the best method of taking attendance in online synchronous classes is to simply have people put their names in the chat for the professor to collect after the class is over. It also allows for timestamps to see when people came in late. 

 

Tip #5: Do not demand students to turn their cameras on, sit in a certain room/space of their home, or dress a specific way for class. 

This is also extremely annoying as a student, as it appears that professors do not care about our personal limitations. While you as a professor may have a personal study or library room in your home, many students do not. I know in my own home, there is no other personal space I have that isn’t my own bed to go to for Zoom classes. Many students barely have the laptops or computers they have. While I have yet to experience this, some of my friends have. Requiring students to turn their cameras on is an impossible task for some whose laptops don’t have cameras and they don’t have the money to buy one to hookup. Live video and audio also puts a lot of pressure on our computers & wifi and sometimes can stop Zoom or Google Hangout entirely if too many people are connected at once. 

Furthermore, some students are not in environments where they want to show their personal spaces, like their bedrooms or parents homes. Some could be taking care of younger siblings, parents, or even children as they are in class. Though you may think since you are giving your undivided attention to class they should be too, it simply isn’t possible for some people who are at home and have real-life responsibilities that can’t be ignored for an hour or more. Life happens, and unless you see the student not trying at all in the course, there is no reason to have strict and unreasonable expectations like this. 

If you don’t like “teaching to a screen,” it is perfectly acceptable to ask students to change their profile pictures so you have some sort of visual of them. 

As for the clothing bit of this, most students who will be on-camera are smart enough to understand they shouldn’t be half-naked in their class. Unless a student is giving a strip-show, there is no reason to demand them to wear “business casual” or anything else ridiculous when people wear pajamas and sweats to in-person courses all the time. 

 

Tip #6: Don’t over-assign. 

I know the urge to assign more work right now is strong because you believe being in Zoom classes is not enough for students. However, work is not meant to prove a point — it is meant to help students learn the material. If you believe students are getting off easy right now because everything is online, I promise you that we’re not. Most of the students, like myself, are struggling just like professors with everything being online. The ever-looming threat of the pandemic on top of economic collapse when so many of us are trying to enter the workforce for the first time is horrifically scary. Students with disabilities often find themselves accommodated more in some areas while completely left to fend for themselves in others. We are isolated and often lonely not being able to see the people we love as much or travel. This is a time for compassion, understanding, and working with each other to reach better learning outcomes.

Consider the practical application of the work you are assigning — can you make this optional instead, for students who are struggling? Maybe students don’t even have to turn it in and can do it on their own for their own benefit if necessary. Could you perhaps do an assignment instead where you have students conduct small group sessions over Zoom sometime that week and submit a few sentences about the discussion they got out of it instead of a Blackboard discussion? Might it be better to have students do personal anecdotes that they relate to the material that help them (safely) get out rather than filling in a boring worksheet? Could students creatively make something, like a graphic or art piece, to demonstrate how they’re understanding the material? Could you just...not assign anything at all if there is no actual learning goal beyond proving to you that they’re not getting off easy? Think about it. 

 

Tip #7: Make sure breakout rooms have a larger class purpose, and keep outside group projects to an absolute minimum.

I know a lot of professors love these, but with the current world of coronavirus, group projects are practically impossible. Some people never came back to campus because they have no in-person classes, some people have responsibilities like work that make it so they can’t do a lot of meetings outside their classes, other people don’t feel comfortable meeting in person to discuss a project, while others don’t even have the technology beyond typing to contribute to a video/audio meeting. I had a group project last semester that almost ended in flames because we couldn’t effectively communicate only over texts. I understand we need to work on team-building skills for the real world. However, these can still be cultivated in much smaller groups and projects. 

Breakout rooms, which are a feature Zoom uses to put people into small groups, also have become popular with professors. They are a great way to foster small group discussions, in all honesty, and I’ve enjoyed them. However, I enjoy them more when the professor takes what we said in these small groups and lets us apply it to the whole class through an interactive component over Google Docs or by simply asking each group to share. The one thing, of course, is to give a prompt to guide discussion. Similarly, if you’re a student in a breakout group, please contribute to the discussion in whatever way you can! Leaving your group members hanging is just as bad as leaving the work to everyone else in the group project (which you also shouldn’t do). 

 

Tip #8: Use by appointment only office hours. 

Although open office hours are fine when students can physically sit and wait to see who is in line and how much time they have left, having open office hours over Zoom can be a nightmare. While having students make appointments might seem like it’ll cut down on who will come to see you, it’ll actually make it easier for everyone. Some students want to be able to discuss their concerns or questions in private, while others just don’t want to be interrupted by people coming in and out and seeing you’re already with someone else. One of my professors used a great program called Calendly and linked it to their Blackboard so students could easily click and schedule. This still allows groups of students to come and visit at the same time even by letting one of them book the appointment and share the link with the others. 

It also shows you how much time you’ll be with students during office hours — perhaps if your office hours are 2-3:30pm, and students schedule appointments 2pm-3pm, you can plan on leaving early, or even still have a half hour left for open office hours. However, having students make appointments decreases confusion and wait times. 

 

Tip #9: Check in with students often and understand limitations.

I could write two million tips here and it wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t in the class myself to see what isn’t working and what is. Every single class across the country is different, no matter how many similarities they have, because every single student and professor is different. Remember as a professor to check in with your students often to make sure they like the setup you have. Some students with disabilities may need more checking in to discern what specific needs they have for the online class you’ve set up. Students should also speak up if they feel something isn’t working or they specifically need personal accommodations. It’s almost guaranteed another student feels the same but is too scared to say anything. Even if you don’t have a documented disability, these are strange times, and the most important thing is the ability to learn to the best of your ability. 

It is also important to understand the fact that this is not a normal classroom environment. A reason I wrote this article was because of the fact I saw so many professors yearning for the old ways of teaching and trying to shove them into the online environment where they don’t work. What they’re really yearning for is a return to normalcy. We are all yearning to go back to how it was before truthfully; it is a part of why colleges opened back up at all. Yet we need to recognize that won’t be at least until a vaccine is produced, and even then, the adjustment back to life as we knew it still won’t happen because this pandemic changed all of us for good in different ways. Instead of trying to stick to the old methods, understand the limitations both you as an instructor have and your students have, and attempt to see if something new could work better. Don’t worry, I promise that students will go along with you as much as we  can, and we  might even become more engaged by the end of it. 

 

Those are all my tips! I hope they are helpful.

Shannon Sutorius was an award winning 23-year-old English major, over 40-time-published author, editor, and former Teaching Assistant who graduated from SUNY Oswego in December of 2021. Shannon was one of the Campus Correspondents for Her Campus Oswego, previously Senior Editor, and wrote the Advice Column, "Dear Athena." Shannon worked with and had been published in Great Lake Review, Medium, and Subnivean. Shannon's awards included the Edward Austin Sheldon Award, Pride Alliance's Defender of LGBT+ Rights in Journalism Award, and the Dr. Richard Wheeler Memorial Scholarship. As well, Shannon was an active member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society.
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