Online Science Teaching Tips

Following VicePhec2020, one of the participants, Angela Ziebell from Monash University in Australia, wrote us a blog piece with some tips about teaching science online, with Dr Steven George-Williams contributing some reflections on online labs.

In the southern hemisphere, we have had a very different online teaching experience with the start of our academic year being in February or March. In Australia, we are six weeks into our second semester teaching remotely. While the constantly changing situation means that some of these actions are still firmly in the emergency category, staff have generally gotten used to teaching in the online world. We use Zoom so that’s what I will talk about here, but there are many video conferencing platforms.

There are even some advantages! Who hasn’t thought how much easier it would be if students always wore name tags in large classes. Not only does teaching online mean the student always has their name listed, it also means that they have their preferred name which is ideal. (One of my students has worked out a way around this and uses a full stop, but my observation is that this sort of desire not to interact is rare.)

So below are a few simple observations that might give you some ideas about things you can and can’t do in an online tutorial or workshop group. Please keep in mind that these online platforms are adapting each week. So, while I don’t want to scare you, it is possible that you get on and a function that looked like X now looks like Y. So not assuming you can take a break from teaching for several weeks and have it all look identical when you get back, is my first tip.

You can do most things that you would normally do in a tutorial or workshop class in an online class. My favourite gain is how much easier it now is to organise students into different groups. That sigh and grumbling that happens when you say “now it’s time to hop up and organise yourselves in to groups of …” is totally gone. As is the 4-5 minutes that are wasted while they look at you, realise you’re serious, realise that there is no way out of it, and move groups. In Zoom (and most if not all other platforms) you can organise students easily based on random allocations. You can bring students back for discussions during the session and still send them back to the same room if you want to keep them together, building rapport. I suspect it would be quite jarring for more introverted students to be pulled in and out of groups at random several times across a class, so I don’t change the groups unless there is a distinct need to. There is a way to upload preprogramed group lists, however as our ed tech guru made a face when describing how hard it was, I suggest we stay away from that function for now. Keep an eye out though as this would be a major breakthrough.

My next point actually related more to your colleagues. You have probably already been having all the video calls you could handle. This is a great venue to make all of your Zoom mistakes. Have a group meeting or a class meeting and put people in and out of breakout rooms and move them between breakout rooms until you can’t forget. Mute a student, make sure you can see the chat and your slides, even find the “boot the person out” button. Hopefully you will never use it. Most of your colleagues will be just as keen to practice these things. And if they aren’t and they already have the answers, they become the tutor for the rest of you for the session.

In other ways you can treat Zoom breakout room just like you still have table groups in a large workshop class. In fact, I still call them table groups by mistake sometimes as they really still have that feel. These groups will often have to be encouraged to talk to each other. You can turn off your mic and video quite quickly and simply direct yourself from one chat room to the other check if students are actually interacting. This works remarkably effectively and often students don’t notice. You can of course then turn your mic and video on and “appear” to them if there is an issue that needs to be discussed. This is a good time to encourage students to turn on their video. There’s no need to hit every room each time. They will get used to the idea that you might pop in and check up on them. No one really wants to be busted by the lecturer talking about what shoe shopping they’ve just been doing (why is it always shoes!). Just like the physical classroom students get the idea that there is someone floating around to keep them on task.

Just like you still have table groups, you can get the students to use supplies or props. If you want them to make a chemical model think tooth picks and Blu tack, botany leaves and flowers, geology local and garden (likely not local) rocks. You can guess what students will have, and get creative with it for your specific activity. It doesn’t matter if not all group members are equipped as long as the activity is sensitive to that and what ever is investigated, discussed or constructed can be shared (video, screen shot etc.). For a brainstorming exercise we get students to extend the design of an everyday product (e.g. pencil, cup, ball). This worked just as well although I’m not sure the affective domain lit up quite as much as doing it in person. Do make sure the students have clear prior warning and of course the materials need to be cheap household items or free (think recycling).

Surprisingly, Zoom can also be very helpful when considering the complex teaching needs of our laboratories. This doesn’t replace the actual experience of getting into a lab (and it never will!). However, having conversations with students about practical techniques either being performed live or through a pre-recorded video is immensely powerful. In fact, having an opportunity to discuss the finer points of glassware usage (or dissection or instrument set up, etc.) without having to monitor overall safety was a surprising benefit to being forced online. As was the absence of anxiety usually seen as students try to rush through an experiment. This is also relevant for general scientific observations, data analysis, logbook creation, and even scientific writing in general. In fact, one could argue for the continued use of some of these online laboratories in the future as a powerful supplement to the face-to-face experiments that many of us dearly miss.

The above are just a few tips to help you orientate yourselves in the new video delivery of class. There is a lot to learn and those pesky goal posts occasionally change – beware institutional changes to Zoom that can sneak up on you (e.g. mandatory password additions). And of course, they don’t replace teaching dissection, a field trip or learning how to run a separation column. However, there are lots of things that you can keep doing, and the students will cope as well as the academics