Teaching a Large Lecture Class Remotely, due to Coronavirus

– Dr. Jason Petrulis –

What is it like to teach a large lecture class remotely, due to coronavirus, when you didn’t plan to? In this post, I’ll talk about some challenges I’ve faced in transforming a standard in-person lecture course into a course I teach remotely. (We started teaching remotely in early February.)

I’m a historian at the University of Hong Kong, a large public university, and I teach about 125 undergraduate students in “How We Move: Migration, Border-Crossing, and Identity.” It’s an interdisciplinary course in our mandatory Common Core Curriculum composed of large lectures given by me + tutorial discussions run by a tutorial assistant. When the University started teaching at the end of January, we had only one week of in-person teaching before we were suddenly asked to start teaching remotely.

The first and biggest challenge was to deal with uncertainty. When we were first asked to teach remotely, we were told to operate under the assumption that in-class teaching might resume in a couple of weeks – that remote teaching might be temporary. That “temporary” period was extended several times until finally we were told it would continue for the rest of the semester. While it was understandable that our schedule kept changing – everyone hoped to return to class and acted as if that was realistic – in practice it meant we could not plan ahead.

A key part of the challenge was planning a course that would work under two dramatically different scenarios: What if we returned to the classroom? And what if we didn’t? It meant that at first I changed the class only in two-week “bites.” First, I changed a couple of lectures. Then, I changed the midterm assignment and a couple more lectures. Then a little more… It’s not great! But now that we are committed to remote teaching for the rest of the semester, I can finally plan along a single path. In retrospect, I wish we had been given larger “chunks” of time for planning (a month instead of a few weeks) so we could transform entire units of teaching at once.

A second challenge was figuring out how to teach a lecture class + tutorial sessions in a way that would reach students who were learning from home under non-ideal conditions. (You shouldn’t think of this as a standard online learning environment; the students were just as unprepared for remote learning as we teachers were, and have improvised just as much, under really stressful conditions.) I had expected that students would have differing levels of internet access and computer access, but I didn’t fully understand how time and space would pose challenges.

When Hong Kong buckled down, many of our students had gone home for Lunar New Year break – to the UK and Indonesia, to Nepal and Mainland China. As I spoke with students and with my tutorial leader, I learned about many everyday challenges to learning. A significant number of our students were working from Mainland China, and we had to design something that would work through the Virtual Private Network (VPN) access they used. Likewise, for students working from around the globe, there was the problem of time shifting.

But the challenge I anticipated least was the problem of space: Many of our students – especially the many students who live with their parents, grandparents, and siblings in tiny Hong Kong apartments – must learn in a space they do not control. Siblings are learning online; parents are working from home; grandparents are watching TV; in middle-class families, a domestic worker is making lunch; and all of this swirls around the student as they try to commandeer the family computer for their classroom slot. Students noted that learning from home is noisy, unpredictable, and imposes on everyone else around them. Some also reported that it was difficult to join a lecture via video – due to busy or bad internet connections, or due to the problem of forcing their siblings or grandparents into “exile” while the student monopolized a room or a computer or wifi. How could we structure lectures and tutorials to minimize this disruption and maximize learning?

While many teachers at the University are giving lectures live over a video feed, I decided to record my lectures, giving my students flexibility. I use Panopto software with an external microphone; it allows me to record my lecture as a voice track that syncs with the visual of a PowerPoint presentation. (Panopto also makes it easy to insert YouTube videos, which can be excerpted as brief clips within your lecture.) The end result is a “video” of a narrated PowerPoint – the students see my slides and the video clips but not my face. I record in 10-15 minute sections – so I am not droning on for two hours, and so any technology mistakes I make ruin 15 minutes of my time instead of two hours. I link to these videos on our course management software, Moodle, so I control my intellectual property; Panopto allows settings that restrict students from downloading the videos, though I can save them for myself.

A warning: It takes a long time to rework a lecture into a recording. You can’t just lecture from your notes and hope for the best. A lot of the “looseness” of my lectures – moments when I invite participation, discuss current events, or tell stories – need to be written down (or deleted!) when I lecture off a script. And the way I emphasize points has changed, too: Without real-time feedback from students’ faces, and without my standard tools of emphasis (writing on a board, waving my hands), I have needed to adapt. For instance: When I worked in an earlier business career, I learned to minimize text on PowerPoints, but now I flash brief text on slides to underscore important points. (I’m also finding out where I should have organized and signposted my lectures more clearly in the first place!)

To ensure students are processing the lecture material, and to replace the for-credit in-class activities I had required when I lectured in person, I ask students to complete a short multiple-choice quiz after the lecture that I administer through Moodle. The questions are basic but cannot be googled; I ask about central course themes and ideas they can learn only from the lecture, and they must score 100% to get credit. I also close the quiz after two weeks to encourage students to keep up.

Tutorials are another story. My tutorial leader has been a critical partner as we have gone online. As a local Hong Konger and a University alum, she is hyperaware of the working conditions for students. (And in tutorials, she talks to all 125 of them!) At first I asked her to use a real-time video platform to conduct face-to-face tutorials. But she quickly recommended that we use Moodle’s text-based chat function instead – to great effect. When she first tried video, it was very messy. It was early in the process of moving online, and the technical kinks had not been worked out. A technical difficulty in one tutorial cascaded into the next; and every new tutorial hour, a new batch of students needed hand-holding to get online. Chat, on the other hand, was familiar to the students, and was a stable, low-bandwidth technology besides. When connections are bad, text-based interactions work better – delays don’t matter as much, and instead of garbled audio you get legible chats. (And some reluctant students seem more willing to participate!)

Finally: It has helped me to write up all of my course communications as Word documents that I email as attachments and also post to Moodle. I used to send basic instructions through course email, but now that we are making such frequent and dramatic changes to schedules, readings, assignments, and more, it seems to help students (and me!) to have a repository of communications. Given the length and complexity of my new instructions, it is also easier to read a well-formatted Word document.

Teaching remotely in this emergency situation is far from ideal. You have a lot of hiccups, you make a lot of mistakes, and you often feel overwhelmed. What’s gotten me through is the knowledge that the students and I are in it together. We are all dealing with this new and challenging situation – and if we help each other, we will get through it.