In the near future, we will start instructor-led, live courses but on a remote basis. Students (and instructors) will attend class from home or work. They will avoid airplane travel, rental car agencies and taxies, and they will go home every night.
That’s the good news and, by and large, we expect that a large proportion of our customers will prefer that method of delivery.
But as with most choices, there are some tradeoffs.
For example, when the instructor and students are in the same space, it is easy for the instructor to look around and in a few seconds, see if the material is being understood by the students or if they are all “out to lunch.” In the latter case, an in-person and conscientious instructor will figure out the cause of the problem and then institute corrective steps.
Remote classes, however, are much more difficult in this regard. First, the instructor has a much smaller view of the audience, if any. In some classrooms, the instructor may have a video monitor showing the remote classroom(s), but even then, the monitor is considerably smaller in size. In such a small view, it’s hard to see body language that says “I’m bored” or “I’m lost” or “When is he going to shut up!”
But in our case, there won’t be any such monitor.
In our case, the class will see my computer’s display and hear my voice, but the “return channel” from class to instructor is essentially off. I’ll get nothing back unless I initiate the contact.
Although the occasional student will initiate a question, instructors have been taught to draw out the class from the very beginning to get the flow of questions going. And if they don’t, questions are infrequent. And if the few that are asked are not given positive rewards, even those will evaporate.
It is, therefore, the instructor’s job to pull out those initial questions.
And in a remote classroom environment, that initial practice will be all the more essential. It will be the “pull” that makes or breaks this form of delivery.
In an in-person class, there is a lot of back and forth “communication” occurs without a word being spoken by the students. A teacher knows, if he or she is paying attention, who is interested, who is bored, who is distracted with some personal issue or daydream, and who wants to understand but is terribly lost. It all shows in their body language.
There are some cultural differences in these languages but there are also some universal signs.
A cultural difference is a head nod. In the US, Canada and most of Europe, a nod means, “I understand,” and a continuing nod means, “Please go on to the next concept – this is starting to bore me.”
In asian cultures and especially in Japan, that same nod means, “I find this incredibly interesting – please tell me more.” In other words, it is the exact opposite of the American nod.
Instructors who travel internationally eventually learn these, and many other, differences.
But some body language is universal.
The student who is on the verge of falling asleep is sending a universal message. Whether he or she is bored or physically exhausted, the message is, “I can’t stay awake for this.”
But all of this requires that the instructor can see the student.
In a remote classroom environment where the instructor can’t see the students well enough or not at all, body language is useless no matter what the “language.”
So we have do things that cause information to be sent from student to instructor in a different way.
One such method is an in-class survey, a poll that is taken while the lecture and teaching are in progress.
Specifically, students are explicitly asked, “How is the pace of material? Is it (choose one) too fast, OK, too slow, or this material is not of interest to me.” And while the instructor talks, the students check and submit their answers.
When a high percentage of the class has answered, the instructor looks at the results and adjusts the delivery.
In the case where most of the answers are toward the negative end of the scale especially with several “irrelevent” votes, and even more so when the return rate is less than 100%, the instructor may choose to stop and ask the class, “What’s wrong?” And, from the answers, choose whether to continue or move on to a different subject.
Another method of getting feedback to determine if the delivery is effective is to call on specific students and ask content-specific questions. If they know the answer, then the information is being understood. If not, then some kind of problem exists and the instructor can probe the student to try and determine what’s wrong. With cooperative listeners, this is usually successful if the right questions are asked in a non-confrontational manner.
And although the goal here is not specifically to embarass those not paying attention, it does, nonetheless, serve to put the class on notice that they need to make an effort to understand what is being said because, well, they could be next.
Both of these techniques illustrate the same general strategy, that of eliciting feedback from students.
In pedagogical terms, this is the Socratic method, named of course for Socrates who described the technique.
This method is, without reservation, the most successful way of passing knowledge from one person to another. In essence, after the teacher explains some concept, the student explains it back but in different terms. A successful “translation” of that concept from the teacher’s thoughts and words into the framework of the student’s life experiences demonstrates the transfer of knowledge has taken place.
In a live classroom, much of the communication is done by body language.
In a virtual classroom, surveys and direct questioning are two techniques of opening up a reverse channel of information so the instructor can adjust the delivery.
We recently gave a humorous demonstration of the direct question approach at a conference. Sitting behind curtains with my computers and a microphone, I played the teacher. My only “student” for this class was on stage before the audience who could only hear my voice and see my computer’s desktop.
The demonstration served to “teach” the audience that remote instruction doesn’t mean no interaction. On the contrary, it means that it is no longer possible to sit in the back and be ignored. Rather than becoming a less intense environment as most intuitively expect, the remote classroom motivates students to pay more attention, take better notes, and be ready to give that information back on demand.
Because I am going to call your name.
And I am going to ask you to explain.