The purpose of this page is to share some ideas and tips about
teaching online: tools, options, how to get started quickly, lessons
learned, and links to useful things.
The suggestions herein come from: (1) my experience putting together a
few online courses; (2) taking an online-course workshop from GW;
(3) following the SIGCSE discussions on teaching online.
Caveat emptor: (1) I'm not an expert in the "tech tools", nor have
the experience of teaching across a variety of online modalities.
(2) My experience is on Mac OS.
So, most often
I'll try and point out what others, more experienced, have told me
(including Windows tips).
High-level things to remember
- We're in a forgiving environment now, which means you don't need
to worry as much about polished materials as communicating with
students and attending to their concerns.
- Don't fret about making slick videos. They are hard to do,
and anyway, studies show that students don't passively watch videos
beginning-to-end as we'd imagine; they skip/skim and will focus
on parts they believe relevant to immediate deliverables.
- Don't underestimate the value of having students read.
The rate of "text processing" is quite high with reading.
- For some concepts, a good (and simple) diagram with some talking
over can make a big difference.
- It's perfectly fine to re-use existing materials. Many people
have opened their videos for all to use, and of course, the whole
world has been linking to videos by the likes of Khan Academy and others.
- A useful mindset to have is this: "what can I have students DO
after they read/watch/whatever for 10 minutes?". What this means:
- Avoid the "dump and test" of a long video (or read) followed
by an assessment/homework.
- Instead, aim for short reads/videos, immediately followed by
something the students can DO (an example, a small coding
exercise, a tiny problem).
- You will see that Blackboard and other tools offer all kinds of
ways of "souping up" videos with inserted quiz questions. However,
studies have shown that these "I'll test if you've been paying
attention" quizzes aren't as engaging as concrete mini-exercises.
- There is a continually evolving zoo of online tools, each trying
to out compete the others. The one thing to be careful about: if you
"buy" into one such system, you may not be able to easily extricate
yourself from it in the future.
Some options for high-level organization of your course:
- Fully asychronous. This means having all your materials
online, with any student able to do this at any time independent of
- Fully synchronous. This means you lecture/interact
"live" via webex or something like that.
- A combination of the two. For example, in my linear
algebra course, students have asked me to post videos, so I'm doing this:
- Asychronous part: students read, watch my videos,
- Sychnronous part: I'm going to review key ideas, and
hold group office hours.
Third, some examples of "easy" to "hard" (which I'll get into later):
- Post the slides you have for your regular lecture.
- Add written materials: something you write, or excerpts
- Look over the homeworks to make sure they are do-able with
- Hold synchronous long-ish office hours or even teach synchronously.
- Add: Learn the most basic ways of making videos.
- Math-y courses:
- Use a tool that lets you write math while you talk and record.
- Learn video-enhancements: editing, writing on screen as you
talk, post on sites that let students comment on video.
- Learn other sophisticated online tools, for asynch and synch.
My general approach is to mimic flipped-classroom with active
learning in class:
- I ask students to "Read/Do, then Watch, then Review" for each
section of one week's material. A typical week has 8-10 sections.
- The "Read/Do" part is my written materials that are interspersed
with small in-class exerises. So, I'm expecting them to read and
work on small programming or written problems.
- Then I ask them to "Watch" my video of the section, and come
back and review. The idea is, they've invested a bit by reading and
trying the exercises and so, are better primed for the video.
This is somewhat the reverse of what I do in class (talk for 10
minutes, then have students do an exercise).
- The "Review" is where the real work gets done because students
are of course not going "get it all" in the first read through.
Lastly, a few thoughts on getting started:
- Start small! For example, make a few silly 1-minute videos,
just for the sake of making something.
- Don't go overboard with getting too fancy with tools at first.
Your time is better spent on pedagogy: remember, have
students DO things and OFTEN (at least every 10 minutes).
- If you're like me, you'll squirm hearing your own
voice. Unfortunately, you just need to get used to it.
Making and editing videos: the basics
- Research has shown that there is little point in showing one's
face, certainly not throughout the video, so I will focus on
- Simplest approach on a Mac: use Quicktime
- Minimize your windows, clean up the desktop.
- Bring up your material/slides.
- Go to "new screen recording", click the red buttong, and off you go.
- Edit if you need to (more about this below).
- A slightly more sophisticated screen recorder:
Open Broadcaster Studio (OBS),
which is what I use.
- Available on Mac/Windows/Linux
- One of the most recommended (by others).
- Let's you configure your screen, adjust audio levels, has
built-in noise filtering, and lets you stream to youtube if you want.
- How much time to budget:
- Making a video takes time!
- I'm finding that it takes me 6X time: for a 10 minute video,
I need 10 mins prep, 15 minutes recording, 15+ minutes editing,
10 minutes processing (by the editor), 10 minutes upload to youtube.
- Suggestions for getting started and getting set up for recording:
- First, make a few random videos just to get the hang of it.
- Find a quiet spot in your house (remember: students will use
high-quality headphones and can detect all kinds of sounds).
- When you are ready for your first segment, put your notes
together, have them by your side.
- Talk over your materials and record as if you're in class,
except that you pretend you're talking to someone about three feet
away instead of 30 feet away. Aim to sound conversational as
opposed to a lectern speech.
- Save your recording in an appropriate format. I use MP4,
but there are other popular formats such as: MOV, WMV, M4V,
- Note: I haven't tried GW's Echo360. It does have basic editing,
and the convenience of direct upload to BB.
- Where do you want to have your videos hosted?
- Suggestion #1: youtube. This is what I'm using (in the
non-public option so that the link is not posted by youtube, nor is
searchable) because I think it's the most accessible and likely to
scale to survive the upcoming national surge in video usage. Also,
youtube has automated captioning, which might be useful for those
who need to read.
- You'll need a non-GW gmail account (because youtube uploads
are not part of our GW gmail).
- Sign in, go to "create video" at the topleft, drag your MP4
file in. Then youtube walks you through a few steps. The upload
takes time, because youtube processes the video frame by frame.
- Copy the URL into your materials, and you're done.
- Suggestion #2: Blackboard. I'm not a fan of BB, but it
is supported by GW and you have access to a helpline.
- First ... if you have only a few glitches, you probably don't
need to worry about editing. Students are very forgiving and it even
makes you look human. You can also recover "live" by saying "whoops"
and making light of it.
- But let's say you want to edit. Keep in mind that video editing is a
profession and so you can get deep into this, or as I'd
recommend, avoid getting deep into this.
- The most basic things you need to do in an editor:
- Add a title slide (they all provide samples you can edit).
- Snip out segments that did not work out.
- Adjust the volume if needed.
- Slightly more advanced: layer text on top of video, add
special effects (like a text balloon), insert images/other videos.
- There are many free editors, and nearly every one of them is
excessively feature-rich and initially overwhelming.
- I use one that I paid for, Wondershare-Filmora, because I found
it really simple and intuitive to use when I researched this a few
years ago. These tools have evolved and there are new ones.
- Echo360 offers basic editing.
- I use the Sony Digital Paper device. It's not cheap but it's
terrific - it feels like writing on paper, and you can mirror its
display on your laptop (which is how I use it in-class or video).
- If you have an iPad, two popular writing apps for math are:
This will also do recordings for
you. It has a very intuitive interface and the pen feels good.
- Xournal and
I haven't used these but the SIGCSE
community has recommeded these.
- How I use the Digital Paper or iPad:
- Attach the device to your laptop via USB
- Mirror the display of the device. For an iPad, use Quicktime
("new movie recording" then select the source as the iPad).
The Sony has its own (easy to use) app that has screen-capture mode.
- Either way, I have my regular materials up (one window), my
demos (programs, terminals etc), and the Sony window. I go back
and forth while talking.
- Friends who've used the Microsoft Surface tell me the feel is
superior to that of an iPad. One advantage of the Surface is that it
runs Windows so you can attach a keyboard and that's all you need.
Other video tools I've found useful:
- One tool I've really come to like is
Ink2Go. This lets me draw
anywhere on screen to highlight text, or emphasize something with
a box or arrow. It's super easy to use (takes 2 minutes to learn).
Ink2Go costs $20 and has its own screen-recorder (but I've had
problems with the audio before and prefer to use OBS).
- And of course, VLC
is considered the best tool for dealing with a variety (and
converting) of audio/video formats.
Exams and cheating
Here are some options:
- Take-home exams.
A take-home exam that's complex
and deep enough creates a barrier to answer-googling, and
makes it highly unlikely that two students working honestly
will submit very similar exams.
They take longer to
grade and one has to carefully examine them pairwise for cheating,
not possible in a large class.
- Blackboard randomization.
Blackboard lets you create a bank of questions, from which
students get a random selection (you determine how many), and
within questions, you can set it up so that multiple-choice
answers are randomly permuted.
It's easy to grade, scales well, and if timed carefully, makes it difficult
for two students in the class to compare answers on every question.
Students could potentially complain that their particular
questions were harder/unfair. A student can still consult other
students or tutors.
It takes an instructor a fair bit of effort to create lots of
questions, especially to create well-crafted multiple-choice questions
that force thinking.
- Full-on remote proctoring.
Solution providers include RPNow and Proctor-U, among others.
A real person watches students by video.
While not foolproof (because a student can hide a cellphone),
it is a high deterrent.
There is a per-student expense.
Students find this highly intrusive, and some students from
disadvantated backgrounds may not want to show their spaces.
- Oral exams.
Two options to consider:
The advantages of an oral exam are: it's easy to tell what a student
really knows, and you can even give valuable feedback. The
disadvantages are that it takes time and skill,
and students may challenge the results. However, the second version
is brief (less time than it takes to grade a non-multiple-choice
- Full oral exam. This is like the Italian system
where most exams are conducted orally, or like some American PhD
qualifiers. The entire exam is conducted one-on-one, with
follow-up questions to see if the student really knows what
they're talking about.
- Oral follow-up to written exam In this version,
there's a standard written/online exam and the oral follow-up is
to ensure that the student knows why they answered questions
the way they did. In this case, the oral part is more like an
interview to assess the authenticity of the written part, and can
be brief because you don't have to interrogate every answer on
the written exam.
- Alternatives to exams.
One popular alternative is to require individual and group projects,
whose grading can be made easier by asking students to "demo" and
present. Then you can grade a brief demo/presentation, creating
teams for large classes to reduce the overall time. However,
students often don't like working in teams because they know they
have to cover for the team's least contributive individuals.
Suggestions from others, and advanced tools
Please send me your tips and suggestions. I'll include them here.
Here are some I know of:
- Gabe uses Twitch (the
popular game-viewing platform) to do office-hours, which allows
shy users to open up (it's anonymous).
- Many in the department (Gabe, Pablo) use Piazza.
- Tim recommends Slack as an
asychronous/synch tool to communicate, with the advantage that,
unlike email, the whole history is available to see.
Suggestions from the SIGCSE community:
- Tips for synchronous:
- Frank Vahid (creator of Zybooks, and who teaches CS1 online
to 1000+ students at UCR) calls "chat" the unsung hero of
online-synch. What he means: invite students to be commenting and
questioning all the time during synch lectures. I tried this on
Friday last week, and I could see students communicating who
never say a word in class.
- Open a public google-doc and allow anyone to type in, or
paste code snippets, screenshots. Students love seeing the work
- Use a polling app to increase engagement. But this means you
have to prep the clicker questions ahead of time.
If you want students to comment on video and track their video
usage, people have
(their Snagit/Camtasia screen-recorders and their Video review tool)
for students commenting over videos (and to let you do the same).
- (Medium) Voicethread for
sharing all kinds of media with students. Recommended by GW's IT
(and supported by them).
- (Easy) An inexpensive document camera if you like chalk-and-talk,
such as this one
- (Easy) Some people have also suggested buying a cheap whiteboard for
your home and simply pointing your laptop's webcam while doing a
synchronous lecture. A LOT of math on youtube is done this way, and
some of it is pretty good.
- In lieu of Webex, I see more people recommend Zoom or
BlueJeans. Zoom has polling.