Rules for Remote Teaching

“Dr. Heywood Floyd in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey calls his daughter on Earth” –

As part of my personal pandemic adventure, I’ve taught three courses at Georgia Tech using video conferencing. One term I taught an undergraduate class in biomedical engineering (BMED 2250) and the other two terms I taught Robotic Caregivers. The most surprising outcome was how well things went. In some ways, the classes were better than in-person classes. 

The following rules worked for me. A good approximation is to take the standard practices of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and invert them. These methods don’t scale. They won’t make venture capitalists happy and won’t make you rich, but they can create compelling educational experiences. 

  • Keep your class small.
    • Ideally, you’ll have 7 people or fewer in the virtual room. You should see all six  faces on the screen at once with good resolution. You can unmute everyone for discussions with only quick games of “Where’s the noise coming from?”
    • For many classes, this will only be feasible with breakout groups that instructors visit. If you’re in this situation, use breakout groups frequently and visit them.
  • Keep your class interactive.
    • Initiate activities that encourage social interactions among your students. You’re meeting together, make the most of it. 
    • Discussions and collaborative problem solving with guidance will make the video conference worthwhile. 
  • Keep your lectures live.
    • What’s the difference between watching a live basketball game and a prerecorded basketball game? The bits are the same! Yet, we react differently. Even if you neglect to make your lecture interactive, a live presentation is immediate and presents the possibility of the unexpected. It’s the difference between lip syncing and singing.
  • Keep your class short.
    • Video conferencing is tiring. There is a distinct fatigue associated with video conferencing. Keep your class short and provide breaks. Shorter is better!

One of your greatest enemies is the swarm of apps and devices vying for the attention of your students. Video conferencing puts your class perilously close to the swarm. When I turn off my video and mute my audio in a meeting, I often fall prey to an email or social media. Protect your students from the swarm! Keep them engaged. Reward their attention. They’ll be glad you did.

Published by Charlie Kemp

I am a roboticist. I founded the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech and co-founded Hello Robot Inc. with Aaron Edsinger. I earned my PhD at MIT with Rod Brooks as my advisor. I’ve had the pleasure of advising outstanding PhD students, contributing to published research, writing code, and teaching. I’ve also invented a few robots.