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4 Lessons Learned in Leading Effective Online Classes

Written by Molly Forman on Mar 26, 2020

Related content: Graduate Programs, Digital Education

Kellie Savard has been a practicing speech-language pathologist for 22 years. She had an itch to teach pre-professional students, but there was no speech pathology program at the university closest to her. Fortunately for Kellie, a former colleague reached out and asked if she would be interested in teaching a course for master’s degree candidates within the online Speech@Emerson program. Her answer was simple: absolutely!

Looking back, Kellie now has an arsenal of tips and tricks that make it easy to engage with remote students. Here are the top four things she’s learned throughout her online teaching career.

Engaging students starts with taking control of the classroom.

In her first class teaching online, Kellie realized the importance of drawing boundaries that aren’t necessary in a physical room.

“I’ve learned the hard way that it’s important to minimize distractions to set students up for success,” Kellie said. “You have to establish a no cell-phone policy, and ask that students designate a quiet room away from pets and children. You have to help them create the mindset that they’re coming to the classroom, just like they would on campus.” Setting these clear boundaries at the start of a new course allows students to understand what is expected during class, even though they may be participating while comfortable at home. Kellie said this creates a sense of decorum, a sense of respect for the fact that they are in a learning environment where everyone should be engaged.

To drive up student engagement further, she helps each student find their voice and pay attention in class. “I love the idea of having ‘no back row,’” she said of the virtual classroom, which is set up in a way that requires all students to be live on the screen—whether they’re talking or not. “Online, no students get left behind. If I see someone is zoning out, I call on them and get them thinking about the lesson. I make sure everyone’s participating. My students have to be very present when they log on for class.”

Never underestimate the community you can build online.

For Kellie, one of the greatest advantages of the online experience is how it brings people together. Everyone in the online program chose to be there because of their circumstances—and the close-knit sense of community enriches every class.

“You might think it’s more difficult to get to know your class online—and for them to get to know you,” Kellie said. “I was surprised by the personal relationships that blossomed between the students and myself. I really make an effort to get to know the faces behind the screens through one-on-one meetings—I’ve even met students’ kids during calls. Rather than only relying on office hours, I use my schedule flexibility and free time to get to know students’ unique situations, strengths, and weaknesses.”

Kellie’s classes include recent college graduates, stay-at-home moms with multiple children, and working professionals—and they all add a unique perspective. Every student has something to provide, ranging from career to life experience.

Don’t just use technology to teach; teach with technology.

Thanks to 2U’s seminars and ongoing education opportunities, Kellie has learned ways to leverage technology and make lessons more exciting and accessible.

The course Kellie teaches is a clinical practicum that prepares students for clinical placements in community settings. She uses a platform called Simucase that provides interactive client scenarios where students can evaluate and make treatment decisions based on what they learn. In class, they discuss their findings and results.

“I used to ask if anyone had thoughts on the lesson, but no one wanted to jump in and speak,” Kellie said. “Now, one of my favorite ways to open up the class is the Zoom Whiteboards feature. Students can anonymously post responses or questions related to thought-starters about the weekly client, which takes the pressure off. They love the Whiteboard and are more likely to take part in discussions.”

Kellie also incorporates polls. She can set up a question about a treatment approach ahead of a class and ask students to share their opinions through polls to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Have fun with the experience.

There’s no getting around the fact that online instruction feels different—especially if you’re used to teaching an on-campus class. “I tell myself that when I log on, I’m going into a classroom,” Kellie said. “My biggest piece of advice to any teachers transitioning to online instruction is to embrace the experience and have fun with it.”

Kellie loves to change her Zoom background so students can gaze at a beachscape or city skyline instead of an uninspired blank office wall. This helps lighten the mood, as students discuss tough topics like making challenging client recommendations. She also opens up the virtual classroom early and plays music while putting up an announcement or showing a funny meme related to speech-language pathology. This helps to break the ice so students feel comfortable in class the moment it begins.

Now, Kellie is helping educate clinical instructors for the on-campus graduate degree program at Emerson College so they can teach online using Zoom, Simucase, and other virtual classroom tools. She’s also teaching them how to create a more interactive classroom so they can offer a rich student experience. She hopes to demonstrate that online education is accessible, effective, and just as rigorous as any high-quality educational program.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.