Challenges & solutions for having to abruptly teach online

Nearly two weeks ago, 1.4 million students in Shanghai started online classes, including the 30 that I teach branding at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. We had three weeks in February to prepare, which was plenty, but my real learning (as a teacher) started when the classes did. Maybe this can help other teachers too.

The main challenge I see in teaching is always to help my students understand the theory, and let them use it on their own project in their own words & tastes. So I try not to bestow knowledge upon them, but rather be a sparring partner through their projects.

Marketing hinges on specific words with very specific definitions, e.g. differentiation and distinctiveness, effectiveness and efficiency, strategy and tactics. This is already a challenge offline, and the abrupt change in online teaching makes that more difficult because:

  • Instead of a living person in a classroom, I’m reduced to pixels on a screen.
  • Contact moments are reduced. Normally I’d have one full day per week, so I can do a short intro in the morning, add some theory before or after lunch, and recap at the end of the day. Now I can upload videos, but I have no control over how they are viewed. I also have no control over whether they’re actually spending 8 hours studying at home. I think none will, because studying 8 hours at home feels very different from studying 8 hours in a classroom.
  • Besides the recorded videos, we do have a live review on Zoom. But asking a question online (on webcam or audio) is different from raising your hand in class. It seems superficial, but students seem more reluctant to ask questions. If they have a question after the review, they’ll have to add me on WeChat instead of just walk to me in the classroom, which is another barrier.

Some solutions you may try out:

  • I think online teaching can be as good as offline teaching, but the situation now is not ideal, so the first thing I did is simply cut contents. Theory builts on theory, and I don’t want to build a rickety house. I’m already happy if I can cover like 60% of the theory in the current situation. So for the second week this semester, I choose to go over the materials again instead of adding. The students really needed that.
  • No group work. The ‘offline’ plan was to have groups of five students, but they are not together either, each in their own home, sometimes across the country. So we made everyone work individually. But we still review everyone’s projects on Zoom together. We do so with 5 per hour, (so 30 students are reviewed in 6 sessions) so they also learn from each other, but that the group is not so big so that people can zone out.
  • Zoom is fantastic. I give one URL to all students, and this URL never changes. I can mute students that don’t need to talk. Plus, students can share their screen, and I can make screenshots of their screen, and then put that screenshot into Keynote, take over screen-share, and then make notes on their slides, while everyone watches.
  • My offline teaching day usually starts with some theory sharing, then letting students research and work, and then review. Now that dynamic is changed, because right away on Tuesday 9:00 I start reviewing work from students, even for the first week. So every Thursday before the class, I’ll upload recorded videos to the learning platform.
  • It’ll vary, but let’s say for a class I’ll record 60 minutes of theory. I’ll divide it into 5 videos, with an additional 6th optional one. When describing the homework, I’ll point them to the timestamps in specific videos for when something is unclear. In this way, online teaching can be much better than offline class, because students can learn more at their own pace, revisiting parts that are unclear.

It’s worth noting that I teach in Shanghai in English to Chinese students (~20 year olds), so there is a language barrier that exaggerates the challenges described above. My Mandarin isn’t good enough yet, so Charles helps me translate in both the recorded videos as well as the student reviews.