AWS Public Sector Blog

Tips for educators to master virtual instruction

Guest post by Michael Soltys

As educators, we need to approach the transition to online teaching as permanent change and innovate for the future. At California State University, we have moved to virtual instruction repeatedly throughout the last five years for a variety of reasons. I encourage educators to have an online version for all your classes, not only for emergencies, but also to be responsive to students who want online offerings.

Here are some tips for successfully teaching online:

Leverage technology to replace face-to-face interaction. Teaching without students physically present in a classroom space can be challenging. To compensate for the lack of traditional interaction, I found Slack to be the best tool to create a collaborative environment in the class. You can dedicate a channel to the course and include all of the students. Students can interact with the instructor, but even more importantly, they can interact with each other, and they do! Often, as the students sit to write down a difficulty they encounter in the course, by the act of writing it in a public forum, they concentrate more than they do when asking verbally in class. The question is better formed, and often the answer appears in the process. Also, having those interactions recorded in the channel allows you to point them out later if the question comes up again. Further interaction comes by using video conferencing solutions on a regular basis, both to teach, and to have office hours.

Make the tech work for you. For computer science instructors, shifting to a new set of tools is relatively easy from the technical perspective. We are familiar with cloud-based tools, and our students like IT tools, and so the move is seamless. The deployment of the tools can be problematic when you rely on them heavily, because the tools become central to the discussion instead of ancillary to the objective of the course. The solution is to automate features of the tools not intrinsic to the topic. For example, we use AWS Cloud9 to teach our programming classes, but our introductory class only needs a limited set of features. AWS Cloud9 allows all students to have the same interface experience, regardless of the computer they have, and democratizes the technology in that everyone has the same features and performance.

Get creative. You can teach more material online than you would think. For example, we have a senior elective in mobile robotics, which includes hands-on lab work. To simulate this course online, we can use the material in AWS Educate RoboMaker class to create virtual labs. Students can receive relatively inexpensive robots, like AWS DeepRacer, then participate in a lab by doing the hands-on activity at home. Then, they test and compete in a virtual environment in the cloud.

Throw out the rulebook. Online teaching is a different entity, with advantages and disadvantages; concentrate on the advantages. For example, simply delivering an in-person lecture virtually will not work effectively. Your lecture could come across dry, and you will feel frustrated when it seems like you are talking into your own screen instead of a classroom full of students. Use video conferencing solutions to create an interactive environment, including quizzes. Use tools like Kahoots and Quizzez to deliver interactive quizzes, which always awaken a sense of fun competition along students. You can also take advantage of video conferencing solutions to hold breakout rooms, question and answer sessions, and presentations by students.

Change the way you approach grading. Rely more on assignments, rather than a final exam. You can still give tests and exams, but I suggest giving them as multiple-choice quizzes with limited time per question, so they do not become exercises in who can Google-search faster.

Balance organization with passion. In my experience, online teaching has to be very well structured and organized. The communication with the class has to be excellent: frequent, repetitive, and complete. Students should know exactly what they need to do each week and where to go with questions. With that, you need to communicate enjoyment, passion, and enthusiasm for the material you’re teaching. One of the most important roles of a teacher is to reassure the student that time spent with you, and the effort required to master your difficult material, is a worthy pursuit. Tell the students what treasure they will possess upon completion. Present your online offering not as “the second best given the circumstances,” but rather a great opportunity to work with others in an online setting. Remember, the IT world is moving this direction, and students will benefit greatly from having the experience of being self-motivating, accountable, and working with others online.

Bonus tip for computer science instructors: Some material is easier to teach online. I prefer to provide programming classes in a blended online environment. As mentioned, AWS Cloud9 is a cloud-based integrated development environment (IDE) that has many advantages over a machine-in-a-lab IDE. One of the most popular courses in computer science at California State University Channel Islands involves design and setup of a WordPress site on a LAMP server, integrated with social media. This class is ideal for online teaching, where grading is done in terms of deliverables.

Instead of thinking of virtual instruction during COVID-19 as temporary, educators should think of this transition as an opportunity to build an online offering that can serve your department and students for years to come. Check out my webinar above and watch more educator to educator webinars from AWS Educate.

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael is a professor and chair of computer science, information technology and mechatronics engineering at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI). His vision is to build a world-class department where cutting-edge research is put at the service of students and community. His Ph.D. is from the University of Toronto, and he was chair of computer science at McMaster University (2001-2014), an Ulam professor at the University of Colorado Boulder (2007-2008), a visiting scholar at UC San Diego (2013), authored two books, and published over 60 papers. He specializes in algorithms, cybersecurity and cloud computing.