Due to COVID-19, millions of college students are making the switch to online learning, but many may not know how to get started.
If you are like many college students across the nation, your courses suddenly moved online as campuses closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This online switch is happening on an even larger scale if you account for the millions of employees who have moved from traditional offices to home offices.
It may seem impossible at first to quickly learn how to use web conferencing technology in your now-remote college classes. But as you get used to virtual participation, you are building skills for the future — even for your future career. A 2019 study from Owl Labs found that 62% of its study participants worked remotely at least some of the time, and 30% worked remotely full time. And this was before COVID-19.
Communication and collaboration are critical components of remote working and learning, and live online meetings are one way that virtual groups connect. No matter which tool your school and professors decide to use (e.g., Zoom, Collaborate, Webex, BigBlueButton, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams), there are steps you can take before, during, and after live sessions to make the most of the experience in your courses.
Before Your First (or Next) Session
Test your access.
Make sure you can log in to your school’s web conferencing system from your location and the device you plan to use. Some of the systems have smartphone apps as well as online access through a laptop computer. You can search for ways to test your setup well in advance of your meeting. For example, Zoom offers a test meeting space that you can try on your own at any time and GoToMeeting provides a system check.
Identify your sources for tech support.
Your school’s library and technology help desk, as well as other support services, likely already provide online materials that walk you through how to use the tools the school has access to, including web conferencing systems. These materials, such as tutorials and quick reference guides, provide step-by-step instructions and tips for troubleshooting — a great place to start.
Report any problems or concerns.
Let your professor know as soon as possible if, for example, you don’t have access to the internet where you are or not enough broadband speed to stream a live meeting. Professors can work with students to find alternative ways to connect, such as through recorded class meetings. At the same time, they won’t know you need help or are having challenges if you don’t take the initiative to share this information.
During an Online Class Session
Log in early.
Have the link to your professor’s meeting space saved somewhere easy to retrieve and plan to log in at least 10 minutes before the scheduled start time. This is particularly important for your first meeting and for any subsequent meetings where you plan to log in from a new location or with a new device. Allow time for troubleshooting should it become difficult to connect.
Adjust your settings.
Take a moment to make sure that you’ve muted your microphone and camera. Depending on how each session is set up, you may need to do this every time, or it may be the default when you log in. You can also use the web conferencing platform’s tools to test your mic and video before the session gets started to ensure you are ready when the class begins.
Avoid interruptions and distractions.
It can be all too easy to wander off, physically or mentally, from an online meeting. Stay focused on the session by avoiding things like eating, checking your email, or working on household tasks when you are logged in. If you wouldn’t do it in your physical classroom, avoid doing it online, too. Be an active participant in these live sessions.
Consider using your camera.
Not everyone will have access to a webcam for live sessions, but if you do, think about whether or not you want to use it. Your professor may or may not ask you to turn on your camera at some point during the live session. What will your professor and classmates see when you do? Consider what (or who) will be behind you. Using your camera can also slow your internet connection, so if you are already having issues with speed, keep this in mind and use your camera sparingly.
Understand how private messaging works.
Web conferencing systems offer multiple ways to communicate during a meeting, including text chat. When you open the chat function, you can usually choose to send a message to “”everyone” or a private message to the presenter (i.e., your professor) or individual attendees (i.e., your classmates). Each system handles these messages differently, but it’s good to assume that your professor can see all private messages and that these messages may also appear in a recording or transcript of the session.
After an Online Class Session
How did it go?
As you log out of each session, take just a few minutes to assess what worked and what didn’t. Identify ways in which you might make the next session even better. This could happen in a number of ways from being more prepared for the topic of discussion to improve your internet connection — more on that below. Remember that there is a learning curve for online meetings, and both you and your professors are developing skills as you go.
Improve your internet connection.
Web conferencing systems require a lot of bandwidth to run smoothly, but there are a few things you can try if you already know you’re dealing with slow speeds. First, coordinate with roommates or family to let them know when and for how long you need to be in a live session. Limiting other streaming efforts (e.g., music, movies, gaming) that may be going on during this time will help improve your experience. Check with your internet service provider to see what options you may have for increasing your speeds, even temporarily, while your courses are online.
Set up your profile.
Will you be using the same system again and possibly for the rest of the semester? You may be able to set up your own account profile with details such as changing how your name appears and adding a photo. These can be small, but helpful ways to connect with your professor and classmates online.
Switching to Online Learning Takes Time and Patience
Overall, it is important to give yourself, and your professors, some time to figure out how this is all going to work. Many of your instructors will explore ways to lead live meetings more effectively through different types of activities and interactions. You should explore the possibilities, too, and provide feedback when you can to help improve the process.
As you finish your spring semester courses online, your professors and schools are thinking about the future. What will your summer and fall classes be like? Predictions vary, but many anticipate a gradual transition back to campus, perhaps through an experience that includes both online and on-campus requirements.
In the meantime, you can expect virtual learning to continue through courses that include online meetings, as well as other strategies beyond live video. While we don’t know now what will happen, or how long the current switch from campus to online learning will last, we can all get a little better at connecting at a distance.