Tips for teaching a course with both face-to-face and distant students

Robert G. Brown, Lecturer, Physics, is teaching Physics 53 both on campus at Duke, and simultaneously at the Duke University Marine lab in Beaufort, NC, using video teleconferencing. He can see students in his room and at Beaufort, while his lectures are transmitted to the students. The students at Beaufort have a live instructor for the lab and recitation.

He would like to share what he learned while teaching to this course.

The single biggest lesson, I’d say, is ALWAYS list the course as a remote lecture course if that’s what it is going to be. Students do NOT like to be `surprised’ by this.

The second thing you need to do is ensure that you are set up from day one to provide remote video contact “office hours” — this means reserved access to teleconferencing hardware on BOTH ends for some specific times plus (if possible) a la carte access for students that cannot make your usual office hours. The Marine Lab has a “video phone booth” that we reserve for that purpose and that is usually idle otherwise. Providing plenty of opportunity for out-of-class student contact is important at all times, of course, but in a remote-taught class it is especially important as students tend to be shy (at least at first) about asking questions across the link during the lectures and need extra contact afterwards to resolve the questions they didn’t ask.

If this is the first time you’ve remote taught using teleconferencing hardware, there are a few other things you might want to think about ahead of time:

  • Do you want to record your lectures at the same time and (say) post them on the web? If so, make and test arrangements. Students at BOTH ends very much like having the entire recorded lecture to review. In difficult classes such as physics, that means that they CAN actually pay attention during lecture instead of functioning as a lecture-transcription machine, if they know they can go back and flesh out their notes by rewatching parts of the lecture later.
  • The omnidirectional microphone works very well, but your voice definitely diminishes when you face the board and talk instead of the mike. Remote students may not be able to hear questions from students in the back of the regular classroom; think about repeating them before answering.
  • If lecturing will involve lots of camera motion, zooming, algebra, stuff on the board, demonstrations, that remote students need to keep in view, you will probably need an agent on the far end who runs the camera on your end, directing the “eyes” of the remote class. You may also need more or less IT support depending on how “integrated”  your multimedia presentations are. Practice ahead of time!
  • On that theme, you aren’t JUST lecturing, you are on stage with a very definite camera eye in a certain direction. You need to try to lecture in a way that is aware of this — speak to and look into the camera — when you do this you are “looking your remote students in the eye” which is an important human attention cue. Don’t put things on the board with your back to the camera if you can help it. Be sure to look at the camera and openly invite remote questions at the same time you solicit local ones.
  • If your teleconferencing setup lets you see the remote-eye view in an inset (mine does) then try to stay aware of how far behind the remote “attention” is compared to what you are saying or writing. Don’t make enormously meaningful hand gestures or mini-demonstrations when the camera isn’t on you — it isn’t fair to the remote students relative to the local ones.
  • Sooner or later, the equipment will fail for a day, sometimes in mid-lecture. This can be very disruptive locally, and for the remote students it’s like having a fire drill and being kicked out of the building while the lecture continues. Think about how you are going to handle this ahead of time. Be prepared to redo your lecture (if necessary after hours) JUST for the remote class.
  • It doesn’t hurt to practice a bit, or even more than a bit, before starting. Otherwise you could easily fail to get the equipment running correctly the very first day. Not a good way to impress the remote students…

Dr. Brown feels that he learned — the hard way — to teach to the camera and be aware of distant students. He says:

…overall, it is remarkably successful — there was a one point difference between the mean at Beaufort and the mean in Durham at midterms (with a standard deviation much larger than that). There is no advantage or disadvantage visible in student performance, at least not yet…

In retrospect, he adds:

Next time I do this, I’m going to meet with my entire remote class via the classroom video link at least one time BEFORE the class actually starts, for a “remote video orientation” session. Taking notes and participating in the lecture from the remote site is a bit different than it is in the classroom — you have a kind of “tunnel vision” that is controlled by a third party, and there are psychological barriers to asking questions (and possibly physical ones, if the remote camera director leaves the remote microphone off to limit “noise” from the remote classroom). Teaching this way is very definitely a matter of forming a partnership of sorts with the remote students that can transcend the communications bottleneck, especially in a very large class, and that needs to happen specially, “just for them”, not as part of a big and busy first general lecture.

The classroom of the future includes different ways of learning content, including video teleconferencing; a recent special report from the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the benefits and drawbacks of various methods, including online learning and on-demand video. Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology will help you take full advantage of the technology to help your students learn; please contact us for ideas! Our staff has experience in distance education, online learning, video teleconferencing, hybrid education and many ideas for face to face teaching.