Tips for remote teaching

Published: September 11, 2020   |   Read time:

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Universities across the world are adapting to remote learning for higher education as students return for classes. At the University of Toronto, I have given talks and seminars remotely via Zoom. Presenting this way is very different from presenting in person, so I’d like to share some tips on how I have found to do this effectively. There are many similar articles and blog posts being published on this topic, I will link some ones I have found helpful as well.

The Setup

Having a good office space setup will make your job easier. Here is how I try to do that.

My home office setup. Multiple monitors on my standing desk with a notepad and water bottle -80%

Get comfortable

I am used to standing and moving around a bit when I speak. Having a standing desk helps make that process feel more natural than sitting in a chair. Ergonomics is key here, you can’t focus is something around you isn’t functional or is bothering you.

Mic check

Your audience needs to hear and see you. Do some prior checks with a friend beforehand to make sure you are clearly heard on the other end without straining your voice.

If your computer doesn’t have a great built-in microphone, consider a headset or stand-up microphone.

Contrasting perspectives

Try to contrast you from your background and avoid having distractions back there. You want your audience to focus on you, which is tough to do if they can’t see you well or you have other stuff going on behind you. Here’s the wall behind me. A pleasant, unassuming beige.

My back wall -80%

Honestly, the fake Zoom backgrounds are often more distracting than what they’re worth. Use one if you don’t have a good background and can’t really change it.

Multiple screens

There are many things you have to monitor when presenting. Fielding questions from the audience, being aware of technical problems that pop up, having your presentation or any specific notes is key.

All that information is tough to fit on one screen. Having mulitple allows you to spread out that information and quickly glance at something to check that everything is OK.

If you are partaking in a seminar with many people, see if the organizer can moderate for you. It’s much easier to focus on your presentation when you don’t have to deal with all the other stuff around the presentation itself.

Hydrate

Even if you are talking at a comfortable volume, talking for hours will strain your voice. Get coffee, water, something to soothe your throat from time to time. Small breaks in speaking also gives your audience time to catch up if needed, or ask questions.

Prepare to take notes

Have another application, or simply a notepad, next to you. When fielding questions, jot down the theme of questions that students ask you, or be sure you can record vital information for an audience member that you want to follow up with afterwards.

I like to take notes on my Surface with the Surface Pen, but I’m already using that device for its camera, so I need something else for notetaking in the meantime.

Self-isolate until futher notice

Isolate yourself from your surroundings. Close your office door or window to reduce noise. Mute notifications from your phone or computer (you don’t want emails distracting you in the middle of your presentation).

The production

Now that we’ve got the setup nailed, let’s focus on your presentation itself.

My camera is up here

Your content is on the screen, but your camera is somewhere else. It means you’re going to have to glance around the camera for what you’ve prepared. But returning back to the camera with your eyes make the conversation a little more normal, a little more personal.

How you look when glancing at different locations, relative to the camera -80%

This does mean you’re going to need to know what’s on your slides, or whatever you’re presenting. That’s just practicing your presentation beforehand, which is obviously the biggest key to success here or anywhere else.

Keep an eye out for questions

This can be checking the chat for questions as they come up, looking for raised hands, or something else to let you know that someone wants to ask a question.

Having the person ask their question through their microphone is usually quickest, but it may get lost in transmission, depending on your/there internet connection. The chat is more permanent and less likely to be interrupted, but it takes longer to type out a question, so be sure to leave time for that.

Leave breaks

Remote presentations are often better attended than in-person ones, oddly enough, and large crowds always struggle to voice questions. Putting multiple breaks into your presentation, and waiting for a little bit longer than usual, gives people the time to turn on their mic and ask questions or type them out in chat.

If presenting for a long time, say over an hour, put a 5 minute break in somewhere to separate the content of your presentation and to give yourself a bit of a break. Get some water, finish jotting down an important question, or check that your next set of material is displaying properly.

Reading the room

Audience members are generally better behaved over remote sessions, often because you can’t see or hear them. This is a double-edged sword; you don’t have to worry about them distracting you, but you also can’t read the room to see if what you’re saying is sinking in. It’s like a comedian going on stage blind-folded and with ear plugs. You might have a great time on stage, but it may mean nothing to the audience.

A crowded room without any way to read it -80%

Leaving breaks also helps with this issue. It gives the audience the chance to ask questions, which gives you feedback on your presentation.

Sharing via the chat

Remote presentations can give a different style of interaction with the audience. They can view material on their devices at home, such as web pages or videos. If there are links or resources you want to share with them in real time, post links in the chat for all the audience to see, if needed.

Dealing with trouble

When presenting in large seminars, there is always the trouble of someone bombing the presentation. Here are some ways to deal with them.

  • If presenting a seminar, mute all audience member microphones and disable the chat
    • Only unblock them when pausing to ask for questions
    • Give ample time for the audience to respond
    • If trouble arises, mute the individual, kick them from the meeting, and apologize to the audience
  • Secure meetings with a password and share the password sparingly
    • eg. distribute meeting information after a user has registered to attend
  • For classes, you want to encourage dialogue and questions, so don’t mute people by default
    • Encourage the audience to raise their hand so you can field questions in a useful way

Ask for leniency

There will always be technical glitches. From software freezes to internet hiccups, some things will cut into your presentation and there’s no way to prepare for them. Be kind to your audience and ask that they be kind to you, in turn.

Post-production

Once you’ve given a presentation, you can take some actions after the fact to encourage engagement with the material. Here are a couple ways to do that.

For the record

Many tools allow you to record your online sessions. Doing so and posting them online can help you share your material with a wider audience that couldn’t attend at the time of your presentation. Be aware of this ahead of time, and how widely you will share it. You don’t want to accidently expose sensitive information that you didn’t mean to. The same goes for posting presentation slides or other material.

Enabling follow-ups

Having a separate communication channel for discussion after the presentation is often helpful. The chat and any links you’ve posted in there often vanish once the call ends. An email address, a class communication board, or webpage for more information is usually pretty good to post information that viewers can check out afterwards. If you want to share this sensitive information, but don’t want it in a recording, pause or stop the recording early before giving out this contact information.

Debrief

If possible, solicit feedback from the audience using the external communication channel above. If you have a moderator for the session, get a rundown from them afterwards to see how it went. This can be helpful for tailoring your lectures, finding out what to adjust with your setup for next time, or simply getting good scientific feedback from the audience.

Conclusions

You can see how presenting remotely is a trickier beast, in some ways, than presenting in person. It’s a different feel and completely different style, and it takes practice. Look for sources where you can learn how to present remotely in an effective manner. That includes this post, and some other excellent examples like these:

Footnotes

  1. Streamers and computer gamers have, oddly enough, been pioneers in this area. They’ve encountered all the problems with streaming that you’re probably going to run into; internet interruptions, external noise, stream-bombing and audience interference, microphone issues. You name it, they’ve seen it. As much of a sub-culture Twitch and other streaming sites create amongst themselves, there are good lessons to pick up from these people that you can use in your own work.