Five things I’ve learned (so far) about online tutorials

five things I've learned (so far) about online tutorials

The last few weeks have been exciting and challenging in terms of teaching law school online.  I have never worked with groups larger than three or four online. And despite having trained in virtual teaching, there have been some issues that I didn’t even expect when teaching online. Here are just five things I’ve learned (so far) about online tutorials at law school.

 1.  First tutorials are even more awkward online – make contact early

First tutorials are always a bit uncomfortable.  Law students don’t know you (or might have heard things) and you don’t know them.  Students generally loathe ‘icebreakers’, no matter how creative they are. But, in person, you have the opportunity to start to create a relationship with students through social and verbal cues.  Introducing a screen, distance and sometimes inconsistent technology make all of those things much harder.

I had the opportunity this semester to use some technology to contact students before the first tutorial in a more informal way. When I set it up, I didn’t realise how significant the benefit would be in managing that first tutorial.

Using Parampara, I sent out an informal introduction and an invitation for students to let me know anonymously about their expectations for the tutorials. The response was incredibly positive. Some students were pleased about being able to find out who I was before they started the tutorials. They were also really positive about the informal way Parampara works as an introduction.

2.  Students are as anxious as you are – take the lead

Even though the media keeps labelling students ‘digital natives’, a lot of the technology is as new to them as it might be to you. They are also sceptical about the stability of the video-conferencing software. Sound breaks up, connections drop, and there are the inevitable mute/unmute problems.  As a result, they’re also a little pessimistic about how useful online tutorials are going to be.

Even though you might also be a little anxious about technical problems, your students are looking to you to lead the way in using the technology.  You don’t have to be an expert, but being aware of some of the fundamental problems can be incredibly helpful. 

It’s also useful to let them know what you can and what you can’t see. For example, using the Zoom whiteboard function means that for a large tutorial group, you’re not going to be able to see all of them at the same time. Tell them that, and that if they want to ask questions, use the ‘hand up’ feature or talk, since Zoom will push them up the list of faces you can see.

3.  Keep your energy up – and then add a bit more

Tutorials and seminars mirror the energy of the tutor. Adopting a dull or sullen approach is going to be reflected by students. You need to keep your own energy up to encourage students to engage and participate.

Online, that’s even more challenging.  Because facial expressions are hard to read, the sound drops out, and there is some anxiety about the technology, communicating that energy through a screen is even harder.  As much as teaching isn’t acting, you’re going to have to exaggerate some of your expressions, movements and responses to make their meaning clear. I’m not suggesting for a minute that you have to ham it up. Just be mindful that, for example, a humorous comment without a bright smile can just come off as sarcasm.

4.  The technology might not suit your teaching style – so look for add ons

I really like being able to use a whiteboard. I tend to teach concepts alongside diagrams and pictures as a way of adding ways of remembering them. But I quickly found that it was tough to use Zoom’s whiteboard with a mouse!  While I have access to a tablet, and I could draw on it and share it, writing in a confined space was difficult (and almost illegible).  And it meant I wasn’t looking at the camera.

But, the ability to share a screen meant that I could use something else that might suit what I was trying to do better. There are plenty of options out there if you take the time to look for them. Teachers all over the world are sharing different technologies. And there are lots of others to try. After trying a few, I picked Sketchboard as the best tool for what I was trying to do.  So, if there is something you want to do and the technology you’re using doesn’t help, there are options.

5.  Practise – and then practise a little more

You might have taught the same thing several times in person. But that doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate online. And if you’re using something new, that adds a layer of complexity as well.

Take a few minutes to practise what you’re planning to do.  For example, Zoom lets you start an unscheduled meeting with no-one else there – just like an empty seminar room.

Take the opportunity to click ALL the buttons and see what they do. There might be something not clearly labelled that you want to avoid or maybe you could even use.  Practise transitions from screen to screen so you know what’s going to pop up and when.  Check your lighting and screen position so you know what works best.  You can set it up before the tutorial starts, not hold up the tutorial while you make adjustments.

They’re just five things I’ve learned (so far) about online tutorials. I suspect that through trial (and error) I will pick up more as I go along.

I’d also love to hear more about your tips.  Or you can even add your tiny teaching story about an experience so far.

About Andrew Henderson

I am a lecturer, lawyer and researcher in Canberra with an interest in the 'hidden' or informal curriculum of law school. I am passionate about developing engaging and authentic educational experiences for law students.

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