Opportunities for students to engage in active learning can significantly enhance the effectiveness of their learning experience. The use of video conferencing and virtual classrooms can provide learning environments which are active, collaborative and engaging for students where the tutor and other students are not co-located. There is a wide range of software tools to support teaching in an online environment; the focus of this resource is on video conferencing and virtual classrooms, however many of the principles and the guidance will be relevant to using other digital teaching tools. Video conferencing tools allow students and staff to synchronously communicate online anywhere in the world where there is an appropriate internet connection.
Video conferencing tools
There are different levels of interactivity supported for the host and the participants depending on the software tool used.
This is a generic term that refers to virtual meetings or sessions online. The video conferencing software tools can vary significantly in what functionality and interactivity they allow the host and the participants. Within UHI there are a number of tools available to staff, some intended for use with other staff such as Microsoft Teams and some intended for use with students and staff, such as Webex Meetings and Bongo. Microsoft Teams may be rolled out for use with students at a future date.
This generally refers to a video conferencing tool that allows an enhanced level of interactivity for participants, such as breakout rooms, polls, the ability to display, share and edit work collaboratively online through features such as interactive whiteboards. UHI staff have Webex Meetings, Webex Training and Bongo available for use with students. Each of these tools has some or all of the interactivity features.
Planning the learning
This learning resource explores virtual collaboration and the application of a flipped classroom approach to enhance levels of student engagement and activity within the virtual environment. The student engages with the knowledge aquisition at home and the virtual face to face time is spent doing activities and collaborative work that deepens, embeds and reinforces the knowledge aquired before the virtual class. One of the key features of structuring the learning in this way is the use of 'active learning'.
There are two main ways which video conferencing can be used in a virtual classroom setting
The software can be used as a virtual classroom for a tutorial, to support student learning in a ‘flipped classroom’ model. The tutorial can be structured to provide ‘active learning’ with participation, group work and feedback from the students rather than passive transmission of information.
In the Flipped Classroom model, the acquisition of new knowledge is undertaken at home prior to the tutorial. The students will have worked through reading, viewed media and completed any set work or activities. This frees up the tutorial time for participation in activities and group work within the virtual collaboration space. This can be used to facilitate the students’ understanding of prior learning, rectify any gaps in knowledge or understanding, reinforce important concepts or allow student presentations. The camera of a video conferencing system can also be repositioned so that a student can demonstrate or perform an action.
How you structure the session will depend to a certain extent on how large the group is that you are addressing. Some video conferencing software only supports a limited number of simultaneously active video and audio channels, depending on bandwidth. If it is a small group (around 10 people or less) then you may structure the session slightly differently, than if you have a large group of 10-15.
When using video conferencing as webinar tool, the focus is on the presenter delivering a presentation, or sharing a screen, to the virtual room. The presenter may be the moderator or if a guest presenter, another person may be the moderator. If the number of participants is high, you may need assistance.
The presenter may use software features such as file sharing or desktop sharing to show PowerPoint presentations and images. The sharing of video within a virtual session should be used with caution as it places high demands on bandwidth. The presenter may use any interactive tools such as polling or messaging, to involve the audience and get feedback. The difference is that the main emphasis is on transmission of information to the audience and the format is considered a low collaborative environment.
The pedagogical approach in structuring the session differs from the tutorial model where the main emphasis is participation by the students within the virtual environment.
Other uses for video conferencing
The virtual space can be used to provide one-on-one support or feedback to students or to provide students with access to an online collaborative environment for ad-hoc communication, self-support and tutor support office hours.
The virtual space can also be used for assessment, where students are doing an assessed presentation to tutors, classmates or externals. This presentation or test could also include a real-time physical demonstration e.g. a correct medical procedure.
Planning for a Flipped Classroom
Use Blooms Taxonomy to help support you in the planning of activities that match the correct level of higher order thinking skills.
The Flipped Classroom is really about completing much of the lower levels of Blooms, such as knowledge and comprehension, at home and demonstrating the understanding of the more complex higher order skills of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation in a physical or virtual classroom environment where targeted support can be given.
Home learning content
The home learning content consists of the material that you would deliver in class in a face to face or virtual lecture. The lecture may have been placed into a video format by either filming a lecture, recording a lecture through a desktop Screencasting facility or by converting a PowerPoint presentation with audio voiceover into a video.
However, it is not essential that the home learning content is presented in video format. It may also consist of recommended readings, activities, workbooks, reports or case studies.
The important factor is that whatever the format of the learning material, the required knowledge is available to the student and addresses the learning outcomes.
Virtual class activities
The virtual class activities in a flipped classroom model are used to deepen or clarify understanding of the core learning material through discussion with peers and activities facilitated by tutors.
The production of virtual class activities does not require a large quantity of ‘writing time’ but rather ‘thinking time’, in order to devise meaningful and good quality resources. Planning the classroom activities for a flipped classroom model may take more time than for a traditional ‘chalk and talk’ but this results in quality learning by the students through ‘doing’ rather than ‘sitting and listening’. Using an iterative process, activities are revised and improved continually with the input of students and peers.
Learning materials should be provided in a variety of formats where possible to aid accessibility and allow the student to choose the format that most suits their way of learning.
Planning for a virtual session
The benefit to students is in using the virtual environment for activities that apply and extend the knowledge gained by working through the set learning resources at home rather than only using the session to revisit the content. The inclusion of activities and group collaboration are the key to running ‘best practice’ virtual tutorials. Here is a virtual Session planning timeline sheet that might help you with organisation.
- Ensure the session has a focused topic.
- Plan activities that are simple, short, focused, and learner centric.
- Avoid slipping into the broadcast mode of delivery where you are ‘delivering a lecture’ rather than allowing the students to participate in active learning.
- Design your session with some sort of student activity approximately every 10 minutes. In a tutorial session of one hour for example, this may mean planning around 6 activities or so, depending on their length. If you do have to present material, try not to present more than 10 to 15 minutes of content at one time without some sort of interaction, sharing of experiences, or group activity.
- Plan an opening icebreaker- it could be personal introductions or a more structured exercise. Plan the icebreaker to make sure that students are comfortable with the virtual classroom features and understand the etiquette. If there is more than one session, in subsequent session the icebreaker can shift from a more introductory/’getting sorted out’ emphasis to something more substantial - perhaps a recap or quiz question that relates to information from the previous week’s session.
- Plan activities that assess student understanding of the content studied at home, particularly activities that extend and reinforce what they were set to learn that week. You could also plan activities towards the end of a set of sessions that are useful for revision purposes. Plan activities that allow peer-to-peer and student-to-lecturer sharing and encourage comments and discussion.
- At the start of class, open-ended questions are frequently asked, such as “Has everyone read the week 1 home learning content?”. The answer is often a resounding silence. So change the question to an instruction and give it at the previous class; for example, “Read chapter 8 and I want each of you to tell me at the start of next class, what you felt was the most important factor in the case study.” Then at the start of the next session ask each person for their factor. This will soon sort out who has not read the material as well.
- Plan in prompts for discussions and use these to introduce new topics, encourage feedback and bring ‘off-topic discussions’ back ‘on-topic’. However, this is a balancing act; try not to over ‘manage’ the student discussion with too many prompts and interrupts but still keep students focused on the topic.
- If you are finding it hard to juggle the moderator role of taking care of all the practical button pushing, with the tutor role of directing and facilitating the activities, try experimenting with having a nominated student to assist with the moderating task. If trying this approach, practice at least once before any sessions.
- Plan so that you do not have situations where you ask (particularly in a quiet class) an open-ended question and receive complete silence from the class! This is where a polling tool is useful as it forces the tutor to frame questions with succinct answers so, for example, if a tutor is not getting much discussion or feedback from an open discussion question, they could re-frame it and insert a poll into the session to start drawing out the students and getting them to participate.
- If you have no polling tool, look at what other software feature you could use such as a live comments column.
- Combine videol conferencing sessions with other tools (e.g. email, wiki, discussion fora), to run shorter concluding live discussions, following lengthier asynchronous collaborative working.
An example of the steps for a simple tutorial plan
- The tutor starts with an introduction to the topic, updates the participants on any other necessary course information and goes over the etiquette rules. An icebreaker activity could also go in here (5 -10 minutes).
- The tutor shows an image or other media, relating to the learning content the students have worked through at home and poses a question. This may also be an item that students indicated that they had difficulty with. The students discuss the item and the question (10 minutes).
- The tutor does a poll with a question relating to the media that was shown and the discussion (5 minutes).
- Students are given another question, problem, scenario and use email, IM or use the video conferencing break out room or comments column to discuss, then each group comes back with an answer (15 minutes).
- The class discuss the answers they fed back, with the tutor giving prompts and keeping the discussion ‘on track’ (10 minutes).
- The tutor explains how this question relates to the learning outcome and the upcoming assignment (10 minutes).
- The tutor allots time to answer student questions about the activities or the content (5-10 minutes)
Think about the teaching challenges you might face and work out some strategies to address them.
For example: Planning for the students who have not done the reading/coursework at home or those with technical troubles.
|Learning challenge||Teaching strategy||Technology feature|
|Students are not prepared for the session.||
Use more frequent quizzes on the readings in the sessions to ensure students understand that they need to come prepared.
|Use an approved polling tool to make the short quizzes.|
|Students unable to use camera because of broadband or other issues. With no visual clues, they may become disengaged and you will not see.||Structure your sessions so that there are at least some learning activities that do not rely on the student using their camera.||Use a polling toll, use the chat column for question responses, use a whiteboard where you can pass control to students (to complete parts of a diagram for example).|
Always have an alternate plan or 'Plan B'
Technology does not always perform as expected and there are may be sessions where the technology fails. Plan for these times!
- The tutorial does not need to be a 'write-off' if you have a good tutorial lesson outline and a plan of what steps to take if you or your students are cut-off.
- Consider the possibility of using a UHI approved social media tool or discussion board to cover all or part of the intended tutorial work and activities in a technical outage of the video conferencing platform.
- At the start of the session, when covering the outline content and objectives, mention what to do if the video conferencing gets cut-off and what the alternate plan is.
- A quick 'Plan B' might consist of a couple of readings or a video clip to watch with an activity to complete. The information could consist of a few lines on a word document that is then emailed to students for example. This extra material can be activated at the time of the incident or sent pre-emptively. The alternate plan should be meaningful. For example, rather than say 'revise the last session's work', use a more targeted approach, directing them to specific revisions questions and activities that have formative outputs. This could be written work or using an online tool such as a wiki or blog.
Before the session starts
It is useful to have a planning sheet so that you can tick off the tasks that need to be completed before a virtual session.
|Planning pre-session student support||Complete|
|Check that each student has the correct technology to participate in the virtual session. If there is any doubt that the student's device is suitable, get the student to check with IT services before the session starts.|
|Students should ensure that they have the correct extensions and add-ins installed and keep the operating system up to date with any updates or patches if they are using their home devices.|
|For sound, ideally, a headset (headphones with an integral microphone) plugged into the audio port should be used rather then the computer or laptop's audio pick-up (which allows background noise to be heard).|
|A webcam, either separate or integral to the device is recommended. If no webcam is available, a student can join on audio input alone. Students can also join by telephone with some digital conferencing systems. Mobile phone users may have restricted ability to access digital conferencing systems and should seek advice from their IT services and trial the functionality first.|
|Support students with using the technology- both prior to the session and with any activities that teach them how to use the digital conferencing software. Even if you are unsure of the technology yourself, you can direct them to the correct IT staff for help and give them the confidence to take the step and engage with the experts.|
|Make sure the students have all the required information such as joining instructions, the session programme and your organisation's digital etiquette policy. You might also include 'Plan B' in the information.|
Tips for preparing for a good tutorial
- If using voice or video (to present or ask questions), a high-quality headphone/microphone headset is recommended to eliminate feedback through PC speakers and remove background noise.
- Plan the session thoroughly - this does not mean that you have to plan every minute or detail but at least have a framework to work within and a bank of pre-prepared activities and interactive material that you can use with the students. Session moderators will need to become comfortable with multi-tasking in a live online environment.
- Practice delivering with the video conferencing system at least a couple of times so that you know where all the tools are and how to use them. Ideally, if it is your first time running a session, try to do a rehearsal. This will also give you a chance to confirm timings so that you can estimate more accurately how long each activity or segment of your session will take.
- If not using the video feature, provide a photo of yourself in the icon space; this adds a personal touch and provides the students with something more than a blank icon to look at, enabling them to envisage you as you speak.
- Set up the teaching environment prior to delivery by turning off devices, closing unnecessary applications, diverting phones and putting up ‘do not disturb’ signs. It is important that multiple applications are not open at the same time as they may interfere with video conferencing software.
- Join the session early, check audio, participant privileges and have any necessary content ready. You can share the content once the session is open. There may be a limit to the file size that you can share. In some video conferencing software, items in many file formats may be preloaded into the session such as PDFs, Excel sheets, images and PowerPoint presentations.
- It is recommended that during lessons you close all unnecessary applications and stop any downloads. If you are on your own computer at home, turn off automatic updates and virus scans scheduled for the same time as the session, as all of these can interfere with the lessons. This information should also be on the information that is given to students.
- The majority of problems occur at the student end, usually with the audio not being picked up by (some) participants. Ensure all participants check their systems well before sessions to receive/transmit both audio and video.
Delivering the session
Start of session
- Check all students have the joining information (the etiquette should be part of this or a separate sheet) and clearly explain the content and objectives of session.
- Ensure that you have the contact numbers ready in case you need to call for technical assistance.
- Record the session if applicable but make sure that the current UHI recording policy is follwed so that you comply with legislation. Studies have shown that recorded sessions are an important tool for the students who may use the recorded sessions in a variety of ways, for example to catch up if they missed the session, for revision or for reviewing because they might not have understood a point.
- Outline your session with an overview.
- Introduce sessions with an icebreaker activity and use the time to make sure students are comfortable with the virtual classroom software features and understand the etiquette.
Middle of session
- Keep activities simple, short, focused, and learner centric. Prompt frequent discussion. Sessions should be of reasonable duration; 60 minutes is an ideal time.
- Energy and enthusiasm are more important with virtual classrooms than in a face to face presentation so there should be no reduction in the quality of the session if the students have to turn off their video to improve reception. Even if the connection is slow and you have to turn off the video, try using your web cam only at the start and at the end as this helps maintain a good rapport with the students.
- Decide if and when to schedule any breaks.
- Know what your plan is if a student drops out or you drop out of the software.
- Have a ‘Plan B’ ready to put in place if the session is unable to continue.
End of session
- At the end of the session, take a screen grab of any chat column if possible, to reflect upon. This might also be a useful resource; for example, to use the points raised in the discussion board or as the basis for a further activity.