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Teaching Remotely in Response to COVID-19: 10 Tips to Improve Your Digital Classroom

By Michael A. Gisondi (@MikeGisondi

On March 6, 2020, Stanford University announced that classes would be taught using virtual learning platforms in order to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Students began returning home the next day, told that their courses would continue remotely through virtual learning.

… a growing number of colleges and universities … announced a major shift to remote learning … canceling all in-person classes and, in some cases, asking students not to remain on campus, as a sense of urgency about the coronavirus gripped the nation.

New York Times, 3/12/20

What is Virtual Learning?

Virtual learning is the use of remote video conferencing software, web-based learning management systems, and other digital technology to teach students from a distance.

Many college professors are struggling to decide which elements of their courses can be taught online. Not all class sessions can seamlessly move to the digital space. For instance, performance classes at universities, such as theatre and dance, are understandably difficult to teach online.

In the health professions, clinical clerkships and lab-based research training still need to occur on campus. Many physicians are being asked to limit student exposure to patients under investigation for coronavirus, or cancel clinical courses entirely. Visiting student electives and observerships are non-essential teaching activities for host institutions and could be suspended.

Clinician educators may have some familiarity with virtual learning platforms, but few use these tools in their day-to-day teaching of students and residents. For many faculty members, there is a steep learning curve to teaching remotely.

Here are 10 tips to effectively move your classroom online:

Learn the Tech

Remember your last video conference call…

Is my mic on?

Can you hear me?”

What chat box? There’s a chat box?

Experienced lecturers show up prepared for any tech emergency: slides on a USB, backup files on your computer, wireless clicker, dongles… we are trained to put on a great show. This responsibility extends to virtual lectures, as well. Never ask your students, “What does this button do?


Set Expectations

There’s nothing worse than video conferences that start 10 minutes late because of tech challenges. Virtual classrooms are challenging enough, and tech delays only add to the frustration of students and teachers.


Engage Learners

Do you prefer to attend remote meetings with your computer camera off and microphone muted? Are you truly engaged in those meetings, or are you instead deleting emails and shopping online? The in-classroom equivalent to ‘camera off’ is a room full of students using their devices and not paying attention to your lecture. Frustrating, right? Now imagine lecturing to an online class in which all of the students are camera off.


Promote Respect

Students generally raise their hands before speaking in class. This is a longstanding cultural norm that demonstrates respect for classmates and reduces distractions. The same can be done in the virtual classroom.


Build Inclusive Online Classrooms

The decision to move courses online is not simple. Issues of digital equity and access complicate virtual learning. Do all of your students have home computers, high speed internet, and the accessories needed to fully participate in your online class? Do some students experience challenges using computers that affect their learning?


Frequently Assess Learning


Your students will experience many challenges by the unexpected and swift move to virtual learning… and so will you. Explore the resources above, revise your lesson plans, and develop new skills as you teach outside your comfort zone.


About the Author: Michael A. Gisondi, MD is an emergency physician, medical educator, and education researcher who lives in Palo Alto, California. Michael currently holds a position as Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Education in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University.


The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. For more details on our site disclaimers, please see our ‘About’ page

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