Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online courses have exploded, and Zoom has become a household name for students everywhere. But instructors have discovered the transition to online learning isn’t always easy. From technical challenges and ‘Zoombombing,’ to keeping students engaged, to presenting professionally on camera, teaching with Zoom offers a completely different set of challenges (and opportunities) than in-person sessions.
If you’re teaching an online course for the first time—whether you’re a university professor, a business consultant, or just someone with knowledge to share—and wondering how to use Zoom for online classes, we’re here to help. Bestselling author of The Coaching Habit Michael Bungay Stanier delivers virtual sessions on leadership development to some of the world’s largest organizations, and knows what it takes to captivate audiences of all sizes. We spoke with him to learn his principles for successfully teaching with Zoom.
Teaching An Online Course For The First Time? 7 Zoom Video Tips
#1: Ensure a professional presentation on video.
To deliver an online presentation successfully, take care of the basics first: You need to come across as professionally as possible. That means investing in the proper equipment—a reliable camera (or two), high-quality microphone, and an attractive-looking backdrop—and setting up in a private, quiet space with a strong internet connection. “You want to have a good studio and as good a microphone as you can afford,” says Stanier. For a professional background, Stanier uses an Anyvoo webcam backdrop.
For first-time online teachers, getting used to presenting on webcam can be a little tricky. Keep your camera or webcam at eye level, and look directly into the camera when speaking. “When presenting, I’m looking down at the camera all the time, even though I really want to look at my screen, because that’s the obvious place to look. But you will maintain better eye contact with people by looking at the camera,” says Stanier.
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#2: Practice and prepare for technical challenges.
Take the time to familiarize yourself with both your hardware and software. “The first time you set up with a different microphone or camera, it’s always a little weird and you have to get used to that. The more you practice with it, the more comfortable you get with the technology,” Stanier says.
If you’re teaching with Zoom, review your meeting settings before the class starts. Determine whether you need to assign other hosts, record the session, or mute participant microphones (this is recommended for larger groups).
Even with the best preparation, something may go wrong. “There’s always the danger of Zoom crashing or the Internet going down, so it’s useful to have a backup plan. If the internet crashes, what do you do? If your computer freezes, what do you do? It’s useful to get someone else involved as a co-host for instances like these. Explain that it’s their job to keep things going while you address your issues and get back online.”
#3: Limit the amount of course content.
When it comes to creating content for your online course, Stanier recommends keeping it simple. “One of the greatest mistakes people make is trying to cram in too much content. The human brain just can’t take in that much, and people will tune out.”
To avoid overwhelming students, focus on the most important information only. “One of the most effective things you can do as a teacher is to be rigorous about what is most useful to teach. When I’m teaching my online classes, the question I ask myself is: What is the least I can teach that will be the most useful? That inevitably means that I have to leave stuff out rather than put stuff in.”
And what about the format of your content—are some content types better than others? Stanier says it’s not about the format, but how you use it.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way of delivering content, it all depends on the context. We’ve all suffered through terrible PowerPoint presentations, but we’ve all hopefully seen the occasional good PowerPoint presentation as well. So it’s worth asking yourself, what does a good PowerPoint presentation look like to you? Typically, it’s fewer words, less content, more visuals, and the slides are in service to the audience.”
#4: Use interactivity features to engage your audience.
One of the biggest challenges in teaching an online course for the first time is facilitating the dialogue that happens naturally in person. Interactivity is key not only to holding your students’ attention and keeping them focused, but also helping them absorb the information they’re receiving and ask for clarity when they need it.
Harness the power of your video conferencing platform to engage students. Zoom and other popular platforms contain features such as chat, polls, and hand-raising that allow students to ask and answer questions during the course. Experimenting with these features can help you find the right mix for your particular course.
Stanier finds the chat feature indispensable, especially during large sessions. “This week I ran a session for 1000 people, and after 90 minutes, we had more than 10,000 comments in the chat box. I’m constantly asking people to add things to the chat box. When everyone sees others engaging, it’s more likely that they, too, will engage. It also allows them to better process the content because they’re actually using and digesting it, making them more ready for the next bite.”
#5: Use breakout rooms for more intimate discussions.
One of the best ways to get students to engage with the new ideas they’re learning is to break up the class into smaller discussion groups. Small groups allow students to share their impressions, dig into concepts, and bounce ideas off each other in a more intimate setting. Zoom makes it easy to do this with its breakout rooms feature.
Breakout rooms allow you to create up to 50 separate sessions from a Zoom meeting. As the meeting host, you can split participants up into these rooms either manually or automatically, and switch between sessions at any time—just like a teacher in a classroom setting.
“I do a lot of breakouts, typically with a group of three, and then come back to the main session. It’s part of the commitment to teach less content but give them more space to engage with it,” says Stanier.
#6: Market your course with a video trailer.
For those selling their course online, putting some effort into marketing and presenting your course is key to getting sales. But even for school teachers or internal company courses, a little marketing can go a long way in getting your students excited about a class.
“One thing that’s easy to do is to shoot a 30-second or one-minute trailer for the program you’re running, where you invite people in and tease them a little bit—for instance, posing a question like, “Want to know the three essential questions that will change the way you lead your team forever?”). Make them curious about the program. If you’ve done it right, people will say “Oh, I might come along to that—it sounds pretty good.”
#7: Stay focused on your audience—not the technology.
Competition for our time and attention has never been fiercer. When teaching an online course, you ultimately want to provide an experience that students are interested in, learn from, and feel was a good use of their time. It’s important to remember that technology is only a means to achieve that end.
“I’m a big believer in keeping things low-tech rather than high-tech,” says Stanier. “I always ask myself: ‘What are the basic dynamics that will make this meeting or course better?’ The answer to that is usually: Less content but awesome content, a high degree of interactivity, being aware of the group, sharing knowledge and staying engaged, and being a personable, interesting teacher who comes across in the most engaging way that I can.”
“We’re competing against Netflix. We can’t afford to just monologue with a boring PowerPoint deck—you’ve got to be almost as compelling as your favorite show on Netflix. That’s a high bar, but it’s a useful way of framing the challenge.”
Like any new adventure, teaching an online course for the first time can be a little intimidating. But by following the tips above, you can rest assured that you’ve done the work to ensure your Zoom teaching experience is a success!
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