Making Online Classes Work

This week marks the 3rd week I’ve been following INSEAD’s classes online less than a kilometre away from INSEAD’s Europe campus, and so far the experience has been better than I thought it would be. What I miss the most in online classes are mini interactions that happen in hallways, in the bar, in the restaurant, or anywhere in the city. Last month, a trip to the supermarket or a restaurant will involve me bumping to 3-4 INSEADers along the way. Now, a trip to the restaurant is around 8 steps and surprise! I’m the chef, waiter, and guest. “Bienvenue Monsieur!

When I heard the news that we were going to move to an online format, frankly speaking, I was nervous.

Certain assumptions immediately come into mind when thinking about online classes, such as:

  1. You lose the connection to other people
  2. Class discussions won’t happen effectively
  3. People will just be away from the keyboard

These assumptions are driven by my experience in taking online training both at work and outside of work. Online training often involves little interaction with classmates and involve hours of watching videos and reading materials. Additionally, because materials are delivered asynchronously, discussions don’t happen in class. Many online training platforms provide forums to ask questions and encourage discussions, but sadly I don’t think it works effectively.

I’m happy to say that these past 3 weeks have proven all my assumptions almost completely wrong.

The connection to other people does decrease, but not completely. If anything, I’m seeing more people speak up instead of just the usual suspects, thus involving more people in the class discussions.

Awkward silences when professors ask a question, and nobody answers, feel less awkward. And because professors do more cold-calling with an online platform, it’s hard for people to step away from their keyboard, so participation is still quite high.

Now the question is, what did the professors do that managed to help mitigate these concerns? These are what I noticed in MBA classes in INSEAD; some might resonate with you and could be used in your organisation’s online sessions!

What methods worked well?

1. Cold-calling, but allow people to “pass”

Before classes start, as the academic representative of my class, I talk to the professors to share the class’s worries and how we can mitigate them. The professors intended to use the cold-calling method with this online format, and I was originally worried over how people would react. I now realise, however, that it was an unnecessary worry.

Different professors use the tool differently, but the one method that I find works quite well is letting students say “pass” when they’re not comfortable answering. It still encourages people to engage but doesn’t pressure them to just talk without substance. I found that when people are asked to talk, and they cannot pass, they end up feeling bad and start saying everything that comes to their mind, even if it’s unrelated.

2. Utilising chat function to indicate when people want to say something

This method was popularised in the class because of our Organisational Behaviour 2 professor. Everyone who wants to speak in class writes in the chat 3 possible comments:

  • !!! – The person has a comment. E.g., “I disagree with what you just said”
  • ??? – The person has a question. E.g., “I don’t understand, could you explain that again?”
  • xxx – The person is retracting earlier comment. E.g., the person first commented “!!!”, and then he changed his mind and commented “xxx”

Why did this work? We found that it’s quite easy to track who was first, chances of a technical issue are quite low, and it didn’t involve people needing to learn and find new functionalities. Additionally, using this makes people refrain from suddenly un-muting and talking, which causes people to talk over each other often unintentionally.

3. Using an external tool such as menti.com to get a sense of what the class thinks

When professors wanted to ask questions to the class, especially those that can be answered in a few words or one short sentence, using menti.com as a tool can get many inputs quickly. But this also has an additional effect of getting people to engage with the content and not just people who would like to say something.

Additionally, doing an online poll to ask what people think an answer to a problem is can help make points. For example, in our Organisational Behaviour class, there’s a part where we analyse people’s personality style, by using that online poll, the professor could see the class distribution immediately, and use that to make his point on the normal distribution of the personalities in society.

What methods didn’t work well?

1. Using Google Docs to log questions

One of our professors proposed to use Google Docs for people to put in their questions as the class is going on, and he reviews the document periodically and answers it in class. This method effectively keeps track of all the questions people have and could enable the professor to build an FAQ for students. Conceptually, this is fabulous! Unfortunately, the unintended effect is that no one other than the professor ends up talking, except to answer questions when cold-called. The class became less engaging, and some students get distracted.

2. Having half the class prerecorded (E.g., for theories explanation) and having the other half live for discussion

I quite like this approach. As it allows for self-pacing to understand the theory presented in the session. But this one is divisive. Quite a significant number of people weren’t able to understand it fully just by watching the prerecorded video, and they weren’t able to participate fully in the discussion in the class. This method could work but need to be exercised with caution.

Ending this piece, even though online classes have so far provided a decent learning experience, it can’t be denied that it takes away the valuable social aspect of taking an MBA. Hopefully, we find a way to manage the situation soon, and we can go back to physical classes.

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