How to teach online and face to face at the same time

From acknowledging Covid stress to having every participant logged into Zoom, Paul Moss breaks down the art of mixed-cohort tutorials

November 20, 2020
Online lecture Zoom
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So, you have a dilemma: you have 30 students and normally run three tutorials of 10 participants each, but five students are remote. You can’t afford to run a fourth with only remote students, so you need to include them in the third tutorial − but how can it be done in a way that feels like the remote and face-to-face (F2F) students are connected as one, are equally engaged in the tutorial and are getting a quality learning experience?

Recently, I had a conversation with Dr David Wilson from the University of Adelaide, where he outlined his approach to mixed-cohort tutorials. David presented several takeaways, but perhaps none more important than the need to acknowledge that Covid stress is real and that we must have empathy for both students and ourselves while adapting practice in moving towards the new university normal. 

Letting students in on your challenges and listening to theirs creates a shared understanding of the obstacles to effective teaching and learning, and it also strengthens bonds with students that will ultimately improve learning outcomes in general.

A central focus of tutorials at the University of Adelaide  is the need for student participation to be “active”. Active participation may include practising problem-solving, collaborating on topics, discussing concepts or exploring applications of content.

David knows that getting the mixed cohort active will not happen if remote students are simply positioned on a laptop in the corner of the room and the bulk of the session is directed at the F2F students. His solution is to have everyone bring their own device to the tutorial and have them logged into Zoom.

When everyone is logged into Zoom, the remote students are a part of every conversation and can engage with the F2F students as though they were physically present – they can see them, and they can hear them. F2F students would have their microphones muted to avoid feedback issues, and then unmute when talking.

David wisely acknowledges that it’s not a natural thing for the F2F students to unmute themselves before they speak, but with practice and gentle reminders to unmute themselves and repeat the question so all can hear, the students get more used to it. This is not a bad thing anyway, as repeating the question allows those who didn’t hear to be involved and for others to process the question further with the extra time to think about it.

It’s all about the collaboration

Some tutorials use a lot of collaborative work − and Zoom breakout rooms facilitate this nicely. Rooms should incorporate a mix of remote and spread-out F2F students, all of whom would have headphones to engage with the breakout room.

In this way, the buzz and noise level of an active tutorial discussing ideas and sharing thoughts would be the same. The tutor can mingle between joining breakout rooms in Zoom or joining a F2F student and using their webcam to engage with the breakout room that way.

As in a regular tutorial, the sharing of ideas after the group work is completed pedagogically consolidates understanding of the topics and generates further discussion; students are now privy to the thoughts of a range of classmates and can assimilate or accommodate their thinking.

Connecting the cohorts

It may be the case that the F2F students naturally tend to ignore the remote students. But there are ways to encourage deeper connections.

Mirroring your screen with the Zoom participants onto a larger screen in the tutorial room gives the F2F students a better sense of the online students. Associate professor Adam Montagu from the University of Adelaide has a fantastic set-up in his teaching space with his students on a huge screen that helps to create a truly immersive atmosphere. But if mirroring isn’t an option, then at least students have their individual Zoom screen.

Consciously leading F2F students towards forming the habit of engaging with the remote students in discussions will teach them to seek out the remote students more often to benefit from their ideas. Asking remote students to answer a F2F question encourages this.  

Sharing work in and out of the breakout room by screensharing a file or hovering their phone as a document camera over workings on paper can encourage both cohorts to interact with each other. Students would soon become proficient at using technology this way, and this would undoubtedly lead to solving issues that may arise from such a methodology.

Mixed cohort doesn’t mean that the tutor is buried in their laptop for the entire session. F2F queries can also engage remote students, as they can be called on so easily to help. This is not so easy in a regular tutorial.

David is proof that all the most desirable aspects of a well-run, active tutorial can be maintained with a mixed cohort. The technology can be manipulated to serve the pedagogy, and even though this has taken practice, he is managing the changes very well. His students have become comfortable and accept it as the new norm. They see little disadvantage to their learning and, in fact, see new opportunities that may enhance it. 

Paul Moss has been teaching for 15 years and manages the Learning Design and Capability team in the Learning Enhancement and Innovation unit at the University of Adelaide.

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