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David Chandler's Journal of Java Web and Mobile Development

  • David M. Chandler


    Web app developer since 1994 and Google Cloud Platform Instructor now residing in Colorado. Besides tech, I enjoy landscape photography and share my work at ColoradoPhoto.gallery.

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Archive for March 23rd, 2020

How to teach an effective virtual class

Posted by David Chandler on March 23, 2020

Disclaimer 1: These opinions are my own, not those of my employer. As a technical trainer for Google Cloud Platform, I have taught both in-person and virtual classes for years and wish to offer my experience.

Disclaimer 2: Sorry this is so late. Much of the equipment I recommend is probably out of stock for the same reason that you are likely reading this post now.

TL;DR

  • Turn on your camera, especially when starting class.
  • Have students mute themselves unless they’re speaking.
  • Present one window at a time or a second screen in lower resolution.
  • Use chat and quiz tools to engage students!
  • Join the meeting with a tablet to share drawings.
  • You can record your live class and share it with students after.
  • Keep it live. No webinars!

Lots of folks are working and learning from home these days, so I’m offering a few pointers and best practices to help your calls run smoother and more efficiently, ranging from etiquette to equipment to tips for popular software (Zoom and Google Hangouts Meet, which is free for schools through July 1, 2020). Hangouts is 100% Web-based so you can run it on any operating system, including Android and iPhone applications. Zoom requires a download for Mac, Windows, and Linux, but can also run on Android and iOS as well as a Web browser so it works fine on ChromeOS, too. Zoom has extra tools designed specifically for virtual classrooms.

Etiquette

First things first, students: always mute your microphone if you are not speaking. No one needs to hear your dog barking or your baby brother crying. Even if you have no background noise, any unmuted microphone can produce echo for everyone on the call, even with a headset. Here’s how to mute yourself:

In Zoom, click the microphone button in the lower left corner or press Alt+A. To mute your video (turn off your camera), use the Stop Video button or press Alt+V on the keyboard.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.22.50 AM

In Hangouts, mouse over the bottom part of the window and click the microphone that appears on the left. Or click anywhere in the window and press Ctrl+D. To mute your camera, use the icon on the right or press Ctrl+E. Don’t click the red button in the middle. It looks attractive, but it will end your call.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.46.16 AM

Should you leave your camera on? The teacher decides. As a technical trainer myself, I like to see a few faces in order to help make that personal classroom connection instead of talking to my screen. For the same reason, I always leave my own camera on when presenting. However, video does take up more Internet bandwidth for everyone, so you may need to turn your camera off. As a teacher, I often ask everyone to turn ON their camera when first joining the call or when asking live questions.

Tips for teachers

In Zoom, there is a Mute All button on the participants panel. Use this to turn off everyone’s microphone at once. Or press Alt+M.

Hangouts doesn’t have a Mute All button, but any participant can mute any other, so you can ask students to help out by muting anyone who is making noise while you’re teaching. Click the People panel in the upper right to see who is making noise.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.00.59 AM

This shows that I am muted. If the red microphone doesn’t appear for a participant who is making noise, use the drop-down arrow to the right of their name, then click the mute microphone button in the middle. Again, any participant can mute any other, but only participants can UNmute themselves, so they might be surprised if they want to talk later and find that someone has muted them. You might want to ask everyone to practice muting and unmuting on the first call so there are fewer surprises and delays later on.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.03.32 AM

Screen sharing

Using Zoom or Hangouts, anyone can share their screen with all participants. Here’s how:

In Zoom, click the Share screen button at the bottom of the window.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.23.16 AM

You can then choose to share your whole desktop or only one application (window).

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 11.24.17 AM

See notes below on which to choose.

In Hangouts, mouse over the lower right of the window. The Present Now button appears.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.17.17 AM

You can then choose to present a whole screen or just one window.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 10.19.52 AM

If you have one screen, I recommend to share only a window for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s more polished. Students don’t need to see everything on your screen, and it gives you the freedom to move the window and use other windows on your screen without changing their view at all. I try to keep everything that I want to present in a separate window for this purpose. In Chrome, you can use Ctrl+N to open a new browser window. Do this ahead of time and load your content, then present only that window.
  2. It saves bandwidth. A window has fewer pixels than your entire screen. I use a Chrome extension called Window Resizer to set my shared browser window size to 1440×900. That way, students with a full HD screen can see my whole browser window without shrinkage and still see the side panels like People and Chat for the call.

If you have two screens, you can present your entire second screen for the most polished look. This way, you can put your windows in full screen mode so students won’t see any window trim, bookmarks, etc. To share something new, simply open it on your main screen, then drag it over to your second screen to share it with others.

Pro tips for presenters

  1. If you’re using a second screen, set the video resolution on the screen you are going to present to HD resolution (1280×720) or something close to it. This saves network bandwidth and ensures that your content will fit on students’ screens, as well. You can set display resolution in your operating system’s control panel.
  2. On MacOS, when presenting your entire screen, use multiple desktop workspaces and the four-finger swipe gesture to switch between them. This lets you easily switch between different types of content like a full-screen presentation in Google Slides and a separate browser window for demos.
  3. In ChromeOS, swipe down with three fingers to seamlessly choose another window to present.

Recording

Both Zoom and Hangouts Meet allow you to record meetings. As long as your account administrator allows it, you’ll see a record button or menu option to start recording. After you close the meeting, you’ll get an email with a link to the recording that you can share with students. The recording captures just what any student sees: audio and video (including unmuted students), and the screen you present. This is an easy way to share each class with any students who may have missed it, and is in fact one of the great benefits of virtual classes.

Equipment

Internet connection

To watch a video call, you really need only 2-3 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and upload speed doesn’t matter. However, to present, you need at least 2Mbps upload speed, and 5Mbps is recommended to send HD quality video without noticeable lag. Many DSL (phone company) connections cannot offer even 2Mbps upload speed, and even then the video you transmit will be a little choppy. Cable services typically do offer at least 2Mbps upload. If you’re presenting only slides with audio (no camera), you can get by with 2Mbps upload, but for a face-to-face meeting with minimum lag, you’ll want more upload bandwidth.

Audio

In order to maintain the best audio quality for everyone, an excellent and reasonably priced (~$25) option is a wired USB headset with built-in microphone. I have used the Logitech H340 for years and can wear it comfortably all day if necessary, though I prefer not to be chained to my desk that way. Wireless (Bluetooth) headsets are also an option for shorter calls, but the batteries typically don’t last for a whole day of teaching.

Alternatively, you can use a standalone USB microphone, but beware that the microphone should be somewhat directional and not pointing at your speakers or you will create echo and possibly even screeching feedback on the call. I’ve had very good success with the ~$50 Blue Snowball mic. There are more expensive options, but in my opinion, you don’t need to spend a penny more on conference calls unless you’re trying to record broadcast quality. On many laptops, the built-in microphone quality is actually fine.

Video

Your built-in Webcam is fine. Most videoconferencing systems only transmit video at 720 pixels resolution max, so there is no need for a full HD webcam. If your computer doesn’t have a webcam, any USB webcam will do. I use a pretty old Logitech C615 which cost me less than $35. It has a clever mounting system that lets it sit atop practically any screen.

Computer

Videoconferencing software can tax your computer’s processor, so the beefier the better. As a student, even the cheapest Celeron processor will be fine, but for presenters, a more powerful processor is recommended. Otherwise, if you are sending video and sharing your screen, your computer may feel a little sluggish. I’ve presented via Google Hangouts with a 2015 MacBook Pro dual core i7 and my browser demos were super sluggish. With a 2019 Acer Chromebox having a quad-core i7 and 16GB RAM, I have no delays at all. My sense is that Zoom is easier on most CPUs than Google Hangouts.

Tools for teachers

Chat

Zoom and Hangouts both offer a chat panel where anyone can post to everyone in the call. In addition to the group chat, Zoom also allows students to communicate privately with the teacher and vice versa, which is often handy to preserve privacy of questions.

The chat panel is an easy and useful way to engage students. You can ask questions as well as encourage students to ask questions in chat. Here are a few ways to use chat effectively:

  1. I encourage students to ask questions in chat while I’m presenting, which is a great way for them to take note of something without interrupting. When I’m feeling game, I answer questions right away in the audio channel; otherwise, I wait until I’m finished presenting a section and then address questions.
  2. The chat panel is a great place to post Web links to related materials like a class document.
  3. Any time we take a break or are working on an activity, I post what we’re doing and when we’ll resume for students who may have stepped away for a minute.

Nonverbal tools

Zoom offers some great nonverbal tools for teaching. Students can raise a hand, answer yes/no, indicate they’ve stepped away for a moment, etc. You could ask, “Is everyone ready to move on?” and ask for a thumbs up/down, then see at a glance who’s ready (or whether anyone is paying attention!)

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 12.06.57 PM

To enable these tools in Zoom, see this support article.

Quizzes and polls

Quizzing students is a great way to engage students in virtual classes. My favorite tool is Google Forms, which is free with any Google account. To get started, find a tutorial online or use the official guide from Google. There is a Blank Quiz template which makes it easy. You can create a multiple choice or short answer quiz, then click the Send button to create a link that you share with students by posting it in chat. Students instantly see their score and the quiz creator can see all individual answers as well as a helpful summary grouped by question. I like to present the summary to students on the virtual call to foster further discussion.

You can use Google Forms for graded quizzes, too. Don’t forget to include a field on the quiz for the student’s name. The easiest way to reuse a graded quiz is simply to make a copy for each class. Choose the three dots menu next to the Send button, then “Make a copy.”  You’ll have to generate a new link for each copy using the Send button, but this way the answers and scores for each class will be kept separately.

If you don’t need to keep grades and want to reuse the quiz for each class, just click the three dots menu in the upper right, then select Delete all responses.

Screenshot 2020-03-23 at 12.55.28 PM

Zoom offers a built-in polling tool; however, you have to (re)create the poll in every call, whereas Google Forms are reusable and provide a richer summary, so that is my tool of choice for online quizzing.

Drawing / annotation

Math teachers, this section is for you! If you don’t have access to a tablet (or even if you do!), Desmos is a fantastic tool for graphing equations that will do all the drawing for you. With a tablet, you can easily share your own drawing or other handwriting with your students. All you need is a stylus and your favorite drawing app. You can host the call on your primary computer, then install the Zoom or Hangouts app on your tablet to join the call on your tablet also. Remember to mute the microphone on your tablet AND turn the tablet volume all the way down so you don’t get feedback between it and your main computer. Zoom and Hangouts both support Android devices and i-things. Draw in your favorite app and share the app window or your whole tablet screen using the Zoom or Hangouts app just like you do on your desktop.

For tablets, I’m a big fan of the ~ $300 Chromebook flip tablets like the ones I’ve written about previously. They run Android apps in addition to Chrome apps, so you have a wide choice of drawing tools like Google Drawings, Jamboard, Squid, and others. I’m told the default Notes app works great on iPads.

There are many options to annotate slides or Web pages, as well. Zoom lets you draw over any screen you are presenting. If you’re using Hangouts, you can save a PDF of your slides or Web pages and then open the PDF in an annotation tool and present that window. Chromebook flip tablets have a built-in PDF viewer with drawing tools, or you can opt for more sophisticated tools in an app like Xodo, which is my personal favorite. With Xodo and a stylus, you can enable a smart mode where you use your finger to advance the page and the stylus to draw on the page. It’s really smooth.

Class documents / resources

Google Docs is a convenient way to share a syllabus, FAQ, or other lists of resources with your class. If your school already uses GSuite for Education, it’s easy. Just create a Google Doc, then click the Share button and “Get shareable link”. You can paste the link into a group chat or email to share it with students. If your school doesn’t use GSuite for Education, you can still use Google Docs effectively. Create a doc in your personal Google (Gmail) account, then click the Share button and “Get shareable link” and copy it to your clipboard. The link contains a random identifier so that only people with the link will be able to view your document. To provide the link to students in a virtual class, simply paste it into the chat panel.

Google Classroom is another great tool for sharing resources and assignments for the duration of a class (as in a semester, not just one virtual session).

Parting thoughts

With a little practice, virtual teaching can be as rich or even richer than in-person classes. Your subtle sense of humor may not come through as well on video chat because the class isn’t as “live” with mics muted, but I find that in some environments, students are actually more likely to ask questions via chat than they are in-person. In addition, tools like quizzes allow the teacher to get a quick read on how everyone is doing, not just the few who answer questions in class.

In my own experience, it took a while to get used to virtual teaching. It’s still not my favorite; however, I welcome less travel and the opportunity to go for a bike ride at home before or after teaching. More importantly, virtual students who have never seen me teach in person have told me that my online classes have been among the best technical classes they’ve ever attended, so I’m encouraged that it is possible to deliver a high-quality learning experience online. Sometimes you have to present to your invisible friends. It might not feel like anyone is there, but if you regularly stop and ask for questions, there will surely be some. And if you’re a regular classroom teacher, go ahead and ask specific students for their input just like you would in class. That’s what microphones and cameras are for, and the technology works pretty well to create a sense of virtual presence.

One final tip: I start every online class with a slide that says “It’s a conversation, not a webinar.” I think it helps to let students know that you as the teacher are expecting an interactive class just like you would in person. If you welcome their questions, they are far more likely to engage.

Speaking of questions, I’m happy to answer any via the comments below.

Happy virtual teaching!

Posted in Teaching | 1 Comment »

 
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