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Can you do as good a job online as you do face-to-face?

28 September 2020
By Cecilie Tejnø

GlobalDenmark had to convert its courses to online learning in record time when it shut down on 11 March. Now, about six months later, teachers are feeling at home in the new virtual environment. Here, three of them give their take on how to give students the same good experience and academic benefit online as when they meet in person.

"All good teaching is about being present. So for me the big question was: 'Can you be present in the virtual?' And the revelation was that you can!", says Claus Adam Jarløv, Director of GlobalDenmark, who has taught business leaders, researchers and politicians in communication and international negotiation for more than 30 years.

It requires a conscious effort to give students the same experience of presence when they can only see the teacher and each other on the screen. But if the course is planned to allow for social interaction, much can be done to compensate for the social loss that comes with physical distance. This is one of the most important lessons learned at GlobalDenmark, says Claus Adam Jarløv.

An equally important point is that the same professional value can be created for participants in an online course. But this requires the trainer to be very explicit in their instructions and to give even more of themselves - so that participants can feel the engagement right through the screen.

Social gathering on the programme

"We have strict rules about how we have fun. We sometimes say to the students, 'Let's have fun and talk about something that's not relevant,'" explains Claus Adam Jarløv.

That's why time is set aside during the day for breaks where the floor is open - just like a regular course where you chat over the coffee table or lunch buffet.

Mark Simpson, who teaches written academic communication and presentation techniques at GlobalDenmark, emphasises the importance of the social and human aspect, as does Claus Adam Jarløv:

"My job as a teacher is to create intimacy and community among the participants. And one of the most interesting things I've learned is how important it is to frame the process to create a social community. I always start by saying to the students: 'What we lack online is presence. So let's commit to being present with each other. And then I can see in people's faces that they have such an aha experience."

New physical setting - but the content is basically the same

Although the physical setting is different, the essence of the teaching is the same. That's a key point," says Mark Simpson:

"The most important thing for me when I teach is that every second of the participant's time with me is relevant. And basically, it's exactly the same questions you ask yourself online as offline: is it working for you? Is my message getting through? Are you learning anything?"

The three teachers agree that it is always the content that counts, and when teaching moves online, you have to try to adapt the physical environment as best you can to give participants the same academic benefit. And the experience so far is that it is actually possible to deliver the same content and create the same value for students in the virtual space as in the physical one.

More difficult to read participants' reactions

The online format makes it more difficult to sense how students are responding to the teaching. But if you take your time and are aware of it, you can feel people's reactions even if you're not physically in the same room - at least when you're dealing with a smaller group, says Mark Simpson.

Specifically, he always asks participants - technology permitting - to turn on video in Zoom so he can see their faces, and then he continuously monitors their facial expressions. Does anyone look like they have something on their mind? Anyone who looks away or seems absent? If so, he might engage them by asking a question or asking them to give their opinion - just like in a regular physical course.

If you're dealing with a large group, it's particularly difficult to read people, says Ann Britt Donovan, who teaches academic communication and English for administrative staff:

"When you are physically present in the same room, you can almost always see if someone wants to get in touch with you, because then you have a kind of panoramic view of the room. It's difficult when you're online with a large group of 20 or more students, because you can't keep an eye on everyone on the screen at once - and there's a lot of other stuff you have to keep track of as a teacher."

A good way to alleviate this problem is to always have at least two trainers, at least if you have a lot of students. Then one can keep an eye on the participants (both the pictures on the screen and the comments in the chat), answer their questions, help with any technical problems and give the floor to those who want to chime in, while the other teacher can concentrate on the teaching itself.

Opportunities for interaction in teaching

"Normally when I teach, I can suddenly find myself asking someone a question, even if they haven't marked it", says Claus Adam Jarløv.

But when you're on Zoom, be careful not to 'unintentionally' draw participants into the discussion without warning, he warns, because when people are sitting relaxed at home at the kitchen table, it can seem overwhelming to suddenly be 'singled out' - more so than if you're sitting in a classroom and out of your private sphere. So those who don't speak up themselves can be harder to bring into the discussion when teaching has moved online, he believes.

A good way to activate students is to ask them to take part in a poll on Zoom (GlobalDenmark's preferred platform), where they have to take a stand on a particular issue, says Ann Britt Donovan. It should preferably be something very concrete, which the participants can then discuss afterwards.

And group work works at least as well online as offline, the three trainers have found. In Zoom, which they have chosen to use at GlobalDenmark, it is quick and easy to set up virtual group rooms where participants can meet and discuss a topic or work together on an assignment or text.

New requirements for the teacher

The transition to online learning has been a challenge for both teachers and students. Both parties had to get used to the new technology very quickly and it has not been without teething problems.

"It was a completely new medium for me, so at the beginning I was always worried whether I was doing it right and had remembered everything. There are many more things to keep track of than when you are in a classroom and can have your full attention on the course participants," says Ann Britt Donovan.

At the same time, she feels the need to be even more present in order to capture and hold participants' attention in the virtual space:

"You have to be up close and personal. Literally be close to the camera. What often works well on people is a live face. And you have to give a lot of yourself so that the participants can feel that you are committed to the subject," she says.

Another thing to be aware of as a teacher is to be extremely clear in your instructions. All the things that are self-explanatory or easily clarified when you are physically together need to be said out loud or stated in writing when the course is online. Therefore, before the course, participants receive very detailed descriptions of the framework of the course, and during the course the trainers are careful to be explicit about everything that happens and is going to happen:

"It's no good just saying, 'Let's take a little break. You have to say, 'Let's take a 10-minute break and then we'll meet in this online room at 10.25'," says Claus Adam Jarløv. And then you must never be quiet, adds Mark Simpson:

"For example, if you have to switch between different slideshows or find a file on your computer, you have to say out loud that that's what's happening, otherwise the students might think the connection's gone or there's something wrong with the sound."  

On the other hand, you have to be able to handle the fact that it's completely quiet at the other end, and that can be a challenge, says Claus Adam Jarløv:

"It's a strange feeling to sit and give a webinar to a large group and talk with passion and interest about a topic without knowing if anyone is listening to a word you say. And if you do come up with something that's a little bit funny, you don't know if anyone's laughing. So in that way I can sometimes feel a bit awkward in the virtual."

Good things we can take with us

Despite the various bumps and unfamiliar situations, the trainers agree that online learning is here to stay at GlobalDenmark.

"Even before corona, we had been working on offering distance-based training, for example to researchers or business people abroad. With the shutdown in March, the plans suddenly got a boost and there is no doubt that we will continue with online courses, even in a world without corona restrictions," says Claus Adam Jarløv, pointing to three main reasons:

  • There are no geographical restrictions
  • You can give your students the same professional benefit and also restore the social value to a large extent
  • The technology offers many flexible possibilities for e.g. group work and interaction with and between participants

So, to return to the question in the headline - 'Can you do as good a job of teaching online as you do face-to-face?', the answer is a long way, yes you can, according to the three trainers.

However, some subjects are more suitable for online teaching than others, and a general rule of thumb is that the more concrete the course content, the more suitable it is for virtual teaching.

The individual student's experience of an online course can depend on how you are put together as a person, says Claus Adam Jarløv. If you're a bit introverted, you might be fine following a course from home, but if you're very extroverted, you might miss the social physical interaction you normally experience on a course. Overall, however, the feedback from course participants has been overwhelmingly positive.

Despite the many positive experiences, online training will in future be a complement to - and not a substitute for - physical courses at GlobalDenmark, and the trainers look forward to meeting more students face-to-face again as the situation allows.

5 tips for your online teaching:

  • Put socialising on the agenda.
    That way, you can recreate some of what's lost when you don't meet physically. For many, a good chat during the coffee break is an important part of being on a course, and you can actually maintain this if you plan it. At the same time, it is important for participants to have a break and rest their heads in between.
  • Always have more than one teacher.
    This way, the main teacher can concentrate on the content itself and interact with the participants, while another teacher can keep an eye on the chat, help with any technical problems, etc.
  • Ask participants to be on video (if technology allows).
    This way you can see people's facial expressions, sense if they seem absent, and possibly ask a question to engage people.
  • Be explicit about everything that is going on.
    In this way you avoid uncertainty and confusion among the participants. Send out detailed instructions before the course and be clear during the course so that participants are never in doubt about what is going on and what is about to happen. Also ask participants to make themselves clear if there is anything they do not understand.
  • Get close to the camera.
    That way, participants have a live face to look at, and when they can feel your engagement, it helps increase theirs.