The Survival Guide to Online Teaching

By Brian Soika

An expert in online teaching, Artineh Samkian stands before a class of students at USC Rossier

Artineh Samkian, PhD, addresses her students

As schools move classes online, many teachers are scrambling to navigate unfamiliar territory known as the online classroom.

To help guide you into the world of online teaching, USC Rossier’s experts are sharing their insight.

Artineh Samkian, PhD, is Associate Professor of Clinical Education, and teaches in the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership, and Global Executive EdD programs.

While she has extensive experience in qualitative methods and evaluation, she’s also a seasoned online instructor, having incorporated elements of online technology into her teaching since 2003. 

USC Rossier’s Instructional Design and Technology Group (IDT), which helps faculty use technology to enhance instruction, also weighed in.

Check out these suggestions from Samkian as well as the IDT group for how to smoothly transition to the role of online teacher. 

Try to Embrace the Transition 

“If you’re new to online teaching, recognize it’s different,” suggests Samkian. 

Instructing through a computer probably won’t feel natural at first. It may take some time to become comfortable with the physical distance from your students, as well as the new all-digital environment. 

However, keep in mind that many students are also going through a period of adjustment. You’re navigating this new experience together. Sympathizing with each other’s challenges will make the transition easier for everyone. 

Acknowledge the Differences

Whether you use Zoom, Adobe Connect, or another online teaching platform, you won’t be able to exactly replicate the experience of teaching in a traditional classroom. 

Here are a few differences between online and on-ground teaching: 

Observing students in break-out sessions 

Online teaching platforms let you divide your class into small break-out sessions. However, without shared physical space, tracking their progress may be challenging. And while you can check on individual groups mid discussion, this may feel disruptive to their discussion.

Samkian recommends creating a collaborative Google slide deck for each small group discussion and asking students to take notes as they discuss. 

This will allow you as the instructor to look at the document and gauge where each small group’s conversation is, whether there are misunderstandings to clarify, etc.

Only one person can speak at a time

Online platforms emphasize one speaker at a time in a group setting, especially because it’s recommended students mute unless they are sharing. However, in a lively class discussion where students talk quickly, comments may be delayed, or need to be repeated. 

Pro tip: Samkian recommends using two monitors if possible. That way, you can see all students, rather than the ones prioritized by Zoom. Also, encourage students to use the “Raise hand” feature when they wish to jump into the discussion.

More preparation is required

Online instruction typically requires more preparation for teachers. IDT’s Hue Wang notes that instructors who like to conduct class off-the-cuff may need to adapt to an online environment where it’s more challenging to pivot to unplanned topics.

However, “faculty can still improvise and not be formulaic. It just means they need to be prepared to deal with the additional layer of technology,” says Wang.

Using a white board / chalkboard 

Zoom and Adobe Connect have a whiteboard feature, which is intended to simulate the process of outlining a lecture or taking notes as you would in an on-ground classroom. However, writing and drawing with this feature can be a bit clunky. 

In lieu of Whiteboard, Samkian recommends using a collaborative Google document instead. Your students can see your notes update in real time, and then they can download or copy and paste the document.

How to Incorporate Google Documents Into a Zoom Class

Here’s Samkian’s step-by-step process:

Step 1: Create a Google Drive Folder for each class/section (File > New > Folder)

Step 2: Share the link to the Google Drive Folder with students at the start of the term (it is recommended that you share the link on the Learning Management System (LMS) so students can go back and find the link later).

Be sure sharing options restrict access to only those logged in as a student in your institution, but allow for editing. 

Step 3: Create Folders for each unit/week of instruction (File > New > Folder)

Step 4: Inside each unit/week, Add a new Google Doc (File > New > Google Doc). You may want to title it ‘Unit X Plan and Notes.’ Include the Purpose of the unit, the Learning Objectives, Discussion Questions and Activities.

Step 5: During class, share your screen through Zoom to display the Plan and Notes Google Doc.

Now, as your class engages in the discussions, you can type notes into the existing document and your students can see the co-constructed responses. 


Take Advantage of The Benefits

As an online teacher, you’ll have access to specific benefits that may be unavailable in a typical classroom. 

Unique tools

A Learning Management System, or LMS, is an online hub that lets you share educational resources with your students, and much more. You can use it as a communication tool, as well as a resource for tests and assignments. 

Your school likely has an LMS partner. Take some time to explore how you can use it to create an efficient workflow between you and your students. 

Popular LMS brands include Blackboard, Brightspace, and Canvas. 

Asynchronous learning

The difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning is important to teaching online. Synchronous refers to live instruction, whereas asynchronous is teaching that happens outside of the classroom. 

An example of asynchronous instruction might be a pre-recorded lecture that students need to watch before attending class, or discussion forums that they are asked to engage in.

Class recordings

Online teachers can record their classes, making it easier for students to go back and review discussions (this can be a major perk for students who missed class). The recordings don’t track individual breakout rooms, but content from whole-group segments will remain accessible. 

Certain students feel more comfortable

Tara Harding of IDT notes that online classrooms can accommodate different student needs. Students who don’t usually participate much in class may be more willing to do so online. 

Samkian also suggests the chat feature can allow those not comfortable contributing verbally to do so in writing. 

Guest lectures from anywhere

In an online class, guests with difficult schedules or from distant locations can easily appear in your class to speak with students. 

Global perspectives

Online classes create more access for students from other regions, and other countries. Your class can benefit from the point of view of students who may not be able to otherwise take your class because of geography.

A student participates in an online class via his laptop

An online classroom at USC Rossier

Get Creative as an Online Teacher

As you get more comfortable with online teaching, you may want to try flipping your lectures. This is an asynchronous type of instruction where you record a lecture for students to watch before class. This creates “lots of opportunities [in class] for discussion and active learning,” Samkian notes.  

Using your LMS, you can also link students to Ted Talks or other important videos to prepare them for class. Another creative option is to give them quizzes beforehand and discuss the results in person. 

Unique Challenges Have Unique Solutions

Lisa Evans of IDT stresses that there’s “very little that can’t be addressed in an online classroom—with some modifications.”

IDT was tasked with generating a creative solution for a course in USC Rossier’s Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program. 

The on-ground class typically includes mock therapy sessions between students, while other students silently observe. 

To address the challenge of translating the experience to Zoom, IDT suggested showing the mock session between participants, while hiding video and muting sound of all non-participants. 

Mary Andres, co-director of the MFT program and instructor of the class, told the Los Angeles Times that she was relieved that the solution worked, and student feedback was favorable.

Discuss Etiquette for Your Online Classroom

Teachers and students should be patient and accommodating during this transition to online classes. That said, it may be worth discussing etiquette with your students. 

Here are a few best practices for participating in an online class:

  • Audio and video should always be functioning. This is recommended to get full participation points.
  • Mute yourself while other people are talking. Avoid distracting speakers with sound from your microphone.
  • Dress appropriately. On-ground classroom dress guidelines still apply.
  • Attend class in an isolated environment. Choose a quiet place free of noise and visual distractions.

Keep Your Tech Tools Simple

While there is abundant technology available to online teachers, you don’t need to go overboard. Here are a few simple but effective tools that Samkian recommends:

  • Poll Everywhere. This app lets you engage your students by surveying their opinions, and visualizing their responses.
  • Dropbox. Easy-to-use app for file storage.
  • Google Slides. If you have breakout sessions, Slides lets you toggle between each group’s notes (if they’re using a Google document). 
  • Google Drawing. Similar to how you might draw on a poster in class, you and your students can add text boxes to a shared document. 

Final Thoughts

The transition to online teaching may be scary, but it also presents the chance for teachers to transcend their perceived limits. 

“I do think that this time, as difficult as it is, will help us see that we have capacities to do things that we may have been resistant to doing,” says Samkian. “There’s a lot you can do with online platforms that, while different, can accomplish [many] of the learning goals we set forth.”

Testimonial for USC Rossier’s Online Teaching

“It is because of my three years of classes in the Rossier program, I was confident to transition all of my undergraduate students to this platform without stress or panic.

My positive experiences in my courses with the Rossier faculty provided me with an understanding of how excellent online instruction should look, and I strive to do the same for my students. Thank you for this ‘unintended education.’ #FightOn”

-Mandy Rodrigues, EdD, Kean University


Achieve Your Professional Goals

Want to empower students while advancing your career? Check out our Master of Arts in Teaching program.

For teachers who want to become leaders, the Leading Instructional Change concentration of our Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program prepares you to teach other teachers how to teach.

If you’re interested in training teachers to leverage technology in the classroom, our Learning Design and Technology program may be right for you.

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