Advice for First-Time Virtual Instructors

Jeff Rubenstein
Updated March 29 2020
Jeff Rubenstein
Updated March 29 2020

I first started teaching online, and training teachers to teach online, using a real-time virtual classroom tool back in 1999. Back then, the best we had was RealEncoder, and the lag time in the delivery was so long that I trained teachers to count 1… 2… 3… after saying something, so they would know the moment when the students would hear it. It still worked, with a few modifications to the lessons, and it was slow; but it was infinitely better than having no teacher at all.


There’s been a whole lot of resources (more than I, or probably anyone, can keep track of) in the past few weeks, thanks to an incredibly generous community of instructors all trying to help each other navigate the transition to teaching in a virtual environment. At some point I hope to highlight a few of my favorites.


But as this is happening as we speak, I’ll settle for jotting down on paper my perspectives about interacting with students in a virtual classroom tool.


1) If you’re presenting something, don’t worry about the camera. At all. You can even turn it off. Keep your focus on your screen (if you’re showing something) and your voice. Every one of these tools will prioritize voice quality over video quality anyway, since choppy video is acceptable, and choppy audio is not. So make sure you have a good microphone, much more than a good camera.

The value of the camera is for more social reasons – to give a face, an expression, emphasis, and social cues. These are important globally, but not necessary all the time. (This can be especially important, though, when you are having a meet-and-greet, or counseling a student, or doing office hours simply answering student questions.)


2) Try to stick with as much of what you know as possible. If you know how to use PowerPoint or Google Slides (and already use these tools in your classes), bring them as-is into the virtual classroom. Or have an instructional designer modify them if needed for better screen display. If you use some kind of drawing device (whether it’s an overhead projector with scrolling acetate, or a whiteboard, or a lightboard) there are equivalents you can use as well: You can use an iPad note-taking tool and a stylus, or for more precise work, using a WACOM-type tablet, in a virtual classroom tool that has a built-in whiteboard. Another solution is to use a document camera and simply write by hand on a piece of paper (with the camera pointed at the page). These document cameras are exceptionally cheap and plug right into a USB port on your computer.


3) If you do something in your bricks-and-mortar classroom that would count as a demonstration or performance (showing a chemical reaction, or a dance step) this is the sort of thing that you will want to do yourself on video in advance, and then ask the students to watch the video either in advance, or watch it all together in real time, and then discuss. A few small demonstrations might be suitable for a document camera in a virtual classroom, but this isn’t an ideal solution for anything larger.


4) Note that a great source of content to use are OERs (Open Educational Resources), which I’ll take on in another post. You may not be able to find a perfect OER — either perfect in the demonstration or perfect in the explanation — but this doesn’t matter. By showing it, you create a pre-text for discussion around it, and that’s the essence of what you bring to the lesson. If it’s partially wrong, ask students to discuss why it’s wrong. In this way, even imperfect resources can be perfectly good didactic resources.


I think you’ll find that virtual classrooms open up more possibilities than they close off; it may just take a few cycles to get the hang of it.

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