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?

  • TIP #1: There are many resources available to prepare teachers and students for virtual learning. Find an online tutorial for the video conference software that your school prefers and familiarize yourself with the key features. Check out Teach Anywhere from Stanford University as a guide.


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.

  • TIP #2: Provide clear instructions to students and guest speakers in advance of class. This includes links to video conference platforms, participant identification numbers if necessary, and internet browser requirements. T1 connections or highly-reliable Wi-Fi are a must. Students should test cameras and audio before class, and they should determine if external headphones with mics are needed. Consider tech delays to be the same as tardiness to your classroom.


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.

  • TIP #3: Require participants to keep their cameras on, call on students by name when asking questions, and use gamification or other strategies to increase student engagement in your online classroom. Divide lectures into smaller segments by asking students to present portions of the class. Improve your online teaching through practice, experiment with various instructional techniques, and be creative.


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.

  • TIP #4: Orient students to the special features of video conference platforms, such as the use of chat rooms and ‘raise hand’ functions. When cameras are on, students can simply raise their hands as if they were in a traditional classroom. Participants who are not speaking should mute their microphones to reduce background noise.
  • TIP #5: Students come from all around the world to study at our universities. If sent home, they may be unable to attend live class sessions due to time zone differences. Record your lectures, and offer virtual office hours early in the morning and late in the day. Use learning management systems to promote student discussion with peers who cannot attend live sessions.


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?

  • TIP #6: Ensure that your students have the necessary devices for virtual learning. Contact your dean’s office for assistance if students have financial hardships that prevent computer ownership.
  • TIP #7: Apple, Microsoft, Google, and many other tech companies offer assist devices to improve accessibility for students who are differently abled.


Frequently Assess Learning

  • Teaching online may be uncomfortable at first. Your teaching effectiveness will be challenged in unexpected ways.
  • TIP #8: Frequently assess student learning and student enjoyment until everyone in your class becomes accustomed to virtual learning. Pause your lectures to assess comprehension of material and address questions. Students will generally have their microphones muted, so ask for ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ or head nods throughout class. Include several planned breaks to solicit student questions.
  • TIP #9: Testing practices may need to change significantly. Assignments submitted on learning management systems and the use of asynchronous multiple choice exams should be considered ‘open book.’ Virtual learning requires creative teaching and creative testing.
  • TIP #10: Ask for feedback about the course and your online teaching effectiveness as frequently as possible. You may want to solicit student feedback after each online session initially, then every week or two thereafter. Don’t wait for mid-semester and end-of-semester course evaluations. Ask students to suggest improvements to the course and share best practices with your colleagues.


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.


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