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Tips for Teaching with Video for the First Time

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When I started to write this, a handful of universities had already announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all in-person instruction would move online to minimize the virus' rapid surge. By the time I finished this revision two days later, things had gotten bad enough that March Madness is planned to televise from otherwise empty arenas. By the end of the month, I expect a majority of universities will have long since followed suit. My sincere hope is that COVID-19's impact on human life ends up being small enough that soon there is a widespread belief that society overreacted in making this bold choice to aggressively slow the pandemic's spread.

But even in the most benign scenario, I defend this decision by universities, at least, for three reasons. The first is that COVID-19's spread is expected to ramp up simultaneously as college and high school students leave campuses for Spring Break and travel around the country and back again, incubating viral infections as they go. The second is that the mortality rate for COVID-19 is very low for those under 50 with uncompromised immune systems, but dramatically increases for those over 50. The average age for a tenured professor in the United States is right around 54 years, so slowing the spread of the virus as much as possible around college campuses is critical to protecting half of our top researchers and teachers. The third—and the far less morbid focus of this column—is that the educational technology available for teachers and students is ready for prime time and a full-scale crash test, even if we didn't get to plan that opportunity how we would have preferred

Streaming media will be expected to carry much of the weight as teachers are unexpectedly compelled to jump into teaching online with thinly stretched support staff and little time to prepare. High-quality educational video is everywhere, and the tools to produce it are built into our phones and laptop computers. Teachers who never intended to become educational video producers will likely find that doing so offers the lowest barrier to entry for continuing their instruction until the crisis ends. For the most part, I expect that this will be done with a collegial spirit and that faculty and students will muddle their way through this crisis and have an unexpectedly rich learning experience.

In that spirit, I offer some advice for teachers forced to teach online against their will under these highly unconventional circumstances.  If you believe that your course will require some video to keep the class moving along, immediately get your first one out of the way: Make something that simply works and worry about making something that works great once you get more comfortable with the technology. Start by communicating how you hope things will operate in your dramatically changed class during the crisis, and make it clear that you're going to do your best to not let them fall behind where you'd expect them to be were the class not disrupted.

That boast provides a natural transition into the material for the first week. Provide an overview of the readings and activities, and point out common pitfalls and misunderstanding students tend to have with this material to guide their learning. If you have particularly effective alternative explanations for a tricky concept, go through them either in the same video or another. Be prepared to deviate from your original plan for the course in light of the changed circumstances, and keep your focus on helping students succeed in spite of them. Learn and lean on your learning management syste—and its support documentation and staff—to give students opportunities to demonstrate their understanding or misunderstanding of the material and intervene as necessary.

One final tip that I've recommended during this crisis is to point your webcam at your desk instead of your face, mounted on whatever support arm you can improvise. Many teachers are reluctant having their face on camera: teaching with your hands and low-tech props—even a piece of paper and pencil—make highly effective visual aids.

Unfortunately, many teachers will be disappointed with the experience of having technology intervene for a time between themselves and their students. Some of the technology will fail entirely when put under this load. All of these results will help improve online instruction and are a welcome, minor side effect of the real end goal of this massive undertaking—doing our part as learning institutions to avert a public health disaster.

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