Establishing Online Class Norms

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Establishing clear norms and expectations around online learning is important for ensuring a smooth and successful class delivery. While every professor has their different style of teaching, this article explores some of the important expectations to consider establishing to help deliver a smooth and successful class.

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Use of webcam

Webcams play an important role in online teaching, providing subtle cues to enable coordination in discussions and ensure that students are paying attention to the class. Specifically, reminiscent of the old days of voice-conference calls, when students don’t have their webcams on or are not able to see the webcams of others, it becomes very difficult to know when someone is wanting to speak, increasing the likelihood that students will talk over each other. In addition, without webcams on, it is difficult to know whether students are actually engaging with the material, or are primarily focused on a different activity, such as walking on a treadmill or traveling. Students without webcams on may well be preoccupied with other tasks, and may not be viewing the class video. Requiring that a webcam is on helps reduce the likelihood of these behaviors, while also putting the expectations from the peer environment to focus on the class discussion. 

While the phone call in option to Zoom can be a useful feature for enabling students to attend class who otherwise would have missed (for example if a student is running late, but able to phone in), in general, classes are more likely to be successful when everyone is clearly engaged, and able to ascertain when is a good time to talk. 

Default microphone setting

While it is beneficial to ensure that students maintain their webcams on through the class, having microphones permanently set to being on is more dependant on class size. While encouraging students to leave their microphone may help with free-flowing discussion, one of the dangers of this approach is that the slight background noise from a non-speaking participant (who has their microphone on), can disrupt the class, both causing noise and the focus of the video feed to switch to them. As such, in general, an ‘all-on’ microphone policy is best suited to situations when the number of students in the class is particularly low.

Expectations for discussion

Related to the decision regarding students keeping their microphones on throughout the class is the extent to which they should either raise their hand prior to speaking, and whether to do so physically or using the blue digital hand-raising button in Zoom. While we discuss this consideration in more detail in our article on managing discussions in the class environment, in general, free-flowing conversation can work great with very small groups, physical hand-raising for medium groups, and digital hand-raising when the number of students exceeds that which can be displayed in gallery view (i.e., up to 49 with settings adjusted), since it elevates students who have their hand raised to the front page.

Class start (and end) times

For in-person classes, there is a clear well-established expectation among faculty and students that classes should begin and end on time. While the same basic principles hold true – students don’t want to waste time with a late starting class, and often have other sessions to attend shortly after the class is due to finish, without careful attention it is easier to fall into the trap of a late start and end. For example, for starting the class, it is easy to see the number of students yet to arrive and to get into the habit of delaying the beginning of the class to accommodate (and in turn encourage) late arrivals; for the end of the class, without the pressure of having another professor and students trying to enter the room, it is easy to justify going on long. While there may be merits to waiting and going long, in general, both start to set bad precedents, annoying students that their time was wasted before getting going at the start of the class, and that they were late leaving (or had to end the call before the class officially finished) at the end.

Opportunity to ask administrative questions

In-person classes have an unwritten rule that small administrative questions, or examples regarding assignments or an exam, can be asked in person at the end of the class. While many of these questions could likely have been answered from the syllabus, the ability to resolve small issues is both important for student satisfaction and for resolving small things quicker than through email correspondence.

Although it is easy to discount the need for students to ask administrative questions, not providing opportunity can introduce much more frictions, and maybe especially so in the current teaching environment, with students more isolated and not less able to directly interact with other students for support. A good opportunity to resolve basic questions, if possible, is to remain on the call after the class ends, to provide students the option of asking follow up questions. 

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