So, as many of you know, I teach a class online that looks something like this:
Webcams, chat pods, notes pods, graphics, video, etc. All good stuff. There’s a unique aspect, however, to this type of classroom. In a brick and mortar classroom, my room extends to the walls, and whatever the students can see or hear outside. In the virtual, video based classroom, though, my classroom now extends into each of their homes. Their sofas, desks, posters, cats, and children all become part of the classroom. Some professors fight this tooth and nail. They inform students that pets and children need to remain off camera, and they warn against eating or smoking (yes, smoking!) in class.
I take a different perspective. I think that, as educators, we need to embrace the elements of this extended classroom. We need to balance professionalism and comfort. Acceptance and distraction.
So how do I do this? I let students know that I have a few guidelines for online behavior:
1. Stuff is going to happen. Someone is going to ring your doorbell. A repair guy is going to need access to the attic. Your dog is going to start barking. You’re going to need to use the restroom. A bear will wander into your backyard, and you’ll have to go save your dogs (yes, that happened to a student of mine!). When that happens, just pause your camera, mute your phone, and go take care of whatever it is. It is no different than running to the restroom during a brick and mortar class.
2. If you start to get sleepy (some of my students attend from across the world, meaning my classes are in the middle of the night for them), first, I apologize for not being more engaging, and second, feel free to pause your camera, go grab a cup of coffee or tea, or just get up and stretch, and then rejoin us. How great is it that our extended classroom has coffee makers and teapots as amenities?
3. Quiet pets are awesome. When they get noisy, just escort them elsewhere.
4. Eat, drink, and smoke as needed. Seriously. Unless you’re doing a full close up of your mouth chewing on camera, or we’re hearing you slurp a milkshake, then why not? Get your basic needs met so you can concentrate on learning. I used to be a smoker. You know what I’d think about if I needed a cigarette during class? It wasn’t the course content. It was smoking a cigarette. We’re not breathing it, so go for it.
5. If your child is banging on the door to come in, or running behind the camera to catch glimpses of what we’re doing, by all means, PUT THEM ON YOUR LAP! Let them see what we’re doing, and soak up that great modeling of you pursuing lifelong learning! Here’s what will happen. They’ll make faces at the camera for a minute, then they’ll watch and listen to us, and then they’ll either move on or contentedly sit there. Both of those seem like great outcomes to me.
In general, these guidelines are meant to address the distractions that might arise from these situations, and allow for compromise. Sometimes, however, something really beautiful happens.
I was teaching a course a couple of weeks ago, when one of my students, who is also a mom, commented on her kids (I believe he is 10 years old) making noise in the background. I encouraged her to invite him to join us at a class session sometime. The next week, she turned on her camera for class, and he was sitting right next to her. He made a couple of faces at the camera (they all do), and then he watched and listened thoughtfully. We were discussing how we, as educators, can help students become critical consumers of online content, and encourage the New Media Literacy skill of judgment. When I split the students into small groups to discuss, I jumped into her group to listen. I saw something that made me SO happy! The other students in the group had engaged this child in discussion about how he uses the internet.
“What is your favorite subject?”
“When you go on the computer, how do you learn about reptiles?”
This resulted in lots of great, first hand information about this child’s experiences. My students had a thoughtful, nuanced conversation about the content. This child was FAR from a distraction; in fact, he enhanced our class session in a way that I never could have.
So my advice to those of you teaching over webcams is this; don’t try to replicate a brick and mortar setting. Embrace your extended classroom, and your students as whole people, so that you can enjoy beautiful moments like these.