Make the first day of your online class count

Try these tips to make the first remote class of the semester one to remember.
By Dawn Wotapka

As the coronavirus pandemic continues sweeping the globe, more accounting professors will have to teach online classes, something that may fuel more jitters than stepping into a traditional classroom. This coming semester, many will face an additional challenge: teaching students they’ve never met face-to-face.

In this situation, getting the semester off to a strong start is all the more important. Building a connection with students right from the first class can set you up well for a semester of remote teaching.

While we can’t promise to turn your virtual lessons into a viral online sensation, these tips might help you rock the first day of e-class:

Communicate in advance. First, start with the basics. A few days before the first class, reach out to students to make sure they know what to expect, how to log in, and what to do if they need help, said Tisha Parker Kemp, the founder of shiftED Academy in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, who has spent nearly two decades training online educators.

Arrive early. You wouldn’t walk into a regular classroom at the very last minute, so don’t do it with online classes, either. Fifteen or so minutes before the class starts, open up the room and start chatting by text, or more optimally, by video, said Chris Ryan, executive director of product strategy for Kaplan, an education company that delivers online courses in more than 100 countries.

Small talk is fine. As an icebreaker, you could ask a question such as “Where are you in the world right now?” (or a more localized question if you have more local students), or put up a slide or poll. As a bonus, from chatting with students “you’ll gather useful clues about their prior knowledge and engagement level,” Ryan pointed out.

Help students get comfortable with the technology. When class is officially in session, begin with a thorough sweep of housekeeping items, particularly those related to technology, Parker Kemp said. Invite students to play and test the functionality as you run through how to use the microphone, webcam, chat, and engagement features. “There are practical and tactical elements that should be covered before diving into the course content, particularly if the methodology of online instruction is new,” she said.

Let students get to know more about you. Be sure to introduce yourself in a friendly fashion, said Christie Novak, CPA, DBA, an assistant professor of accounting at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Novak put together a photo collage to show students that includes photos of her graduation, family trips, and favorite foods. She also plans to talk about her love of travel and detail where she’ll go once it’s safe to seek adventure again. “I let them get to know me as a person, not just their professor,” she said. “Especially in a time of such uncertainty, it’s important to me that they know I’m a person too.”

Have students introduce themselves. Ask students to introduce themselves aloud and on camera, Ryan suggested. Have them briefly (20 seconds, maximum) tell the class their name, year in school, and hometown, and ask them to name a favorite childhood book, game, or TV show. “That last question may seem silly, but it opens up students’ personalities and creates moments of authentic connection,” he said.

Set standards. Remember that your students may have little experience with online classes, so take the time to set expectations, Novak advised. For instance, she added a section to the syllabus explaining that students should not attend class while in bed and that they should keep video on for the entire class.

“Every professor expects something different,” she said. “It is important to set those expectations upfront and in writing.”

Keep students engaged. In the digital classroom, it’s less obvious if someone is not understanding or not paying attention. Remember to ask students to respond early and often by employing polls, sidebar comments, or even an actual thumbs-up on camera. “Ask frequently for little responses, and you’ll keep your students on their toes,” Ryan said.

You can also break the class into smaller virtual groups, Novak said. This allows students to work together on a smaller team while getting to know and learn from one another. You can bounce into a virtual room to answer questions or help solve a problem. When the entire class meets again, you can prepare students for the chance of being called on. “Randomly ask a group to explain to the rest of the class how they came to their answer” as a way of keeping them on task and accountable, she said.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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