Best practices for remote teaching: give clear instructions, support communality

How can university teachers maintain their high standards in teaching when they can only see their students as faces in Teams or Zoom? How can they get their message across and make sure the students are learning?

The Department of Computer Science asked its teachers and researchers to share their best practices on remote teaching during the exceptional circumstances of 2020. Here are the top tips given by computer science lecturers Teemu Kerola, Antti Honkela, Erkki Kaila, Arto Klami and Antti Laaksonen.

Remote lectures using e.g., Zoom:

  • Give exact information on how to find the correct Zoom event. Instruct students to turn their video and microphones off when not needed.
  • Use chat or e.g., Presemo for students’ questions. This will most likely spark more questions than during live lectures, as students can ask questions privately.
  • Take a 5–10 min break after each teaching hour. The students will take this break anyway and you will not know it.
  • In practice sessions, model solutions together and use Zoom’s breakout rooms to discuss problems.
  • If possible, use an extra teacher as a cohost. They can take care of practicalities such as the chat.

Course structure:

  • One format that has worked well is to have e.g. two weekly, pre-recorded lectures combined with students’ independent computer work.
  • Arrange workshops in Zoom breakout rooms for weekly exercises, so students can get help from their peers. Students can send solutions via Moodle.
  • Consider using videos in demonstrating solutions for problems. Especially in Finnish, there are not many such videos available. Take into account that making videos is time-consuming.

Project courses and seminars:

  • Make good instructions for groupwork. Proper version control and a joint digital workspace are mandatory. Students might also be interested in formal project management tools.
  • Students’ pre-scheduled, regular video meetings should be encouraged. Make sure the students also have an effective common channel outside these meetings, e.g., Telegram.
  • For presentations, ask students to record fixed-time presentations beforehand, e.g., 5–10 minutes. They will be better than live presentations! Students might also feel more comfortable because they will not have to present in a lecture hall. Grading pre-recorded presentations is also easier, as you will not have to type while listening.
  • Videos should not replace all live presentations, but for communicating results elegantly, videos work better than live interaction. Having said that, you can’t be sure how much time and effort students will use for editing.
  • Encourage students to deviate from traditional modes of presentation and to use audio, etc.

Evaluation and exams:

  • Peer evaluation for submitted homework works well: students can evaluate themselves but also e.g., two other students.
  • Making and grading exams in Moodle will take more of the teacher’s time than normally.
  • Make a practice exam with which students can practise using the interface.
  • Give students a flexible time window for completing the exam, e.g., 2.5 hours between 14.00–17.00.
  • Assume the students will use any help available: books, their PC, internet, etc. Plan the exam using applied questions, which makes it impossible to pass the exam using only external help.
  • Give short personal feedback to students.

Sense of community:

  • Especially for new students, it is important to support them in becoming part of the community. Moodle forums and Telegram are good discussion channels for students. It is good to remind the students not to simply share answers to their tasks, as this will harm their learning process.
  • In Telegram, students can get peer support. Teachers can also be available several hours per week, and many courses have had separate groups for questions and open discussion. Telegram groups can be joined anonymously.
  • In Telegram, it takes only one or two negative commenters to change the whole atmosphere of the group. Try to answer negativity politely. Make your point, but at some point start ignoring negative commenting.