Over the coming days and weeks, millions of students and teachers will be transitioning to online classes. That adjustment won't be easy.
“Open floor-plans increase sales productivity,” one of my classmates says over a webcam, referencing the reading assignment from the other night. The chatroom running on the side of the screen lights up. He gets 5 upvotes!
"For now, this is my new classroom experience at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business".
The text chatter continues to scroll up the screen, and one student points out that this is like trying to learn business via Twitter: 140 characters at a time. The comment gets “+1’s” and “laugh-til-I-cry” emojis.
To be sure, no one who started this MBA program (and took on the student loans that go with it) expected that we’d find ourselves learning online. School is supposed to be as much about the people you meet as the things you learn.
However, these are unprecedented times, and we’re fortunate enough to have unprecedented technology to answer the challenge.
As America’s students and educators begin to transition to a virtual classroom, here are a few early notes from my experience.
Get a good microphone headset: It’ll help avoid listener-fatigue both for you and your classmates. Also, order it now — good ones will be harder to come by than toilet paper when people realize how necessary they are.
Wear what you would wear to class: No suit-and-tie top and gym-shorts bottom. I know they can’t tell on the webcam, but you can tell, and that’s what matters.
Keep your morning routine: If you shave every morning, then keep shaving every morning. Brush your teeth, and comb your hair, too. Don’t let the little things slide, or the big ones will follow.
Good AV practices: Mute yourself if you’re not talking, and be cognizant of your background noise. Fifty people in an online classroom is challenging. Fifty microphones feeding back off of each other is deafening.
Now, for teachers:
Ask for help: Don’t try to teach class and monitor responses in the chat function. Focus on covering the material and keeping it interesting. Assign a student or TA to facilitate aggregating comments and questions from the class.
Keep people engaged: Hour-long lectures might have been ok in the old days, but it's so much easier for students to zone out now. (You’re competing with email, Minecraft and Netflix now.) Ask questions, solicit feedback and keep things lively. Nothing wakes up a virtual class like cold-calling on people!
Control the room: Have students “raise hands” in the chat function, enforce muted microphones and lay out ground rules at the beginning of class. Also, people feel emboldened to say things over text that they’d never say in person. Make clear what is acceptable and what isn’t early on.
A few closing tips:
Think about what’s behind you: Not as in, “Look how far we’ve already come!” More like “Is your dog chewing on your underwear in the background?” Remember: You will see these people in person again. Let them remember you for your wit and insight, not your dirty laundry. Think about what’s in your frame, and tidy up before going online.
Be flexible: When you get frustrated, remind yourself that this really is a big change. Everyone is adjusting. Shrug it off, and keep in mind that you’re living through a historic moment. Friction is to be expected.
Take the small wins: Enjoy the little things. Here’s an example: I smoked a cigar and drank a scotch during my MBA “Foundations of Teamwork” class. Based solely on my personal experience and nothing else, I am certain that in the school’s 140-year history, that was a first!
If you’re like me, trying to stay engaged, focused and motivated is going to be a challenge. Getting the most out of the time ahead won’t be easy. But life will go on and so will the learning that comes with it. Just remember: Education is about growing from new experiences, even when they aren’t necessarily the experiences offered in a course catalog.
Garrison Haning lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is an MBA student at The Wharton School of business at University of Pennsylvania. He is an Army officer and Iraq War veteran.