How to Choose the Right Platform for Your Live Online Lessons
Pre-recorded videos, videoconference calls, live-streamed lectures and webinars are not new in education - they’ve been used to some extent as part of blended learning. However, with the recent coronavirus outbreak, remote classes are looking to become the new norm. While educators and L&D practitioners made do with these online platforms as short-term, stop-gap solutions to emergency school and business closures, increasingly those professionals concerned with long-term learning effectiveness and engagement have come to recognise the constraints of such platforms with limited interactivity, responsiveness and collaboration.
There is rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning. This also applies to the different platforms that educators may use for live online lessons. Here, we try to cut through the myraid of offerings out there to distil a few key considerations that may guide you in assessing which is the best platform that suits your teaching or training needs.
Teaching/ lesson style
It's no secret that no video call can truly replace face-to-face interaction. Similarly, the experience of online classes can differ immensely from carrying out physical ones, even with simple actions of posing a question to the class or asking a student to present their work. Furthermore, you will have to factor in new challenges such as offline (and online) distractions and loss in body language, movement and other visual cues.
Make sure to clearly define the goals of each lesson and outline how they can be achieved in the context of an online class. Otherwise, you risk making key oversights when choosing an online platform and end up compromising on your lesson goals or quality to accommodate the limitations of the platform. Instead, you should look for platforms that will cater to your lesson plan or teaching style.
When coming up with your plan, keep in mind these questions to determine how you can structure your lesson. In addition, they will also serve as guiding questions when considering other aspects of the platform:
- What level of interactivity will you need in your classes? Lessons that work with instantaneous responses from students may require a finer user management system that allows students to participate actively while maintaining control over the lesson when necessary. On the other hand, lecture- or seminar-style lessons may mean paying more attention to the flexibility and range of teaching tools available so you can present content more effectively.
- How large will a class be? With larger classes, you may want to look into features such as polls that allow for easier collation of feedback, and user controls that can be applied to groups of people at the same time. You would of course also need to take note of the maximum number of participants the platform allows you to have in one class.
- What type of materials would you need to share with your students? For example, would you want to show them a presentation, a physical demonstration, or provide them with documents/ readings?
Teaching/ Learning and Collaborative Tools
With a clear idea of where you want your lesson to go and what you want your students to achieve, you can then move on to the “how”. Let’s try an example: in a physical classroom, you can hand out a short quiz to the students in the room, and collect it after ten minutes. How can this be translated to an online context? You could send it through email or messaging, but process is substantially streamlined if you can send files within the platform itself. Even then, time may be spent on the download and subsequent upload of documents. What if there was a feature that allowed for your students to edit pre-uploaded materials on the platform in real-time, making it easier for you to review their work at the same time?
Of course, this depends on your own lesson plan – if you’re only giving a lecture, screen sharing may already suffice. Simply put, you should make sure that the platform contains the tools you need to bring your vision of an ideal lesson to life, and boost its efficiency and effectiveness - not the other way around. Make sure to keep these in mind when trying out the tools on a platform:
- Are the tools provided able to replicate (or even increase) the effectiveness of carrying out this part of the lesson in a physical setting? Will your students be able to learn in the intended manner?
- Does the tool have any limitations that may result in inconvenience, downtime or awkward workarounds? As mentioned above, an example would be the time needed to download or upload materials if you decide to send them manually to your students. You could even consider scenarios such as how to get these materials to students who have missed that particular class!
- Have you had a look at the platform’s best practices for using their tools? This may be often overlooked by users, but sometimes looking through the platform’s advice can familiarise you with its tools, and more importantly help you determine if you’re the sort of user it caters toward.
User Management Tools
The ability to exercise classroom management can make or break a lesson experience, be it conducted online or offline. In the absence of direct physical presence, good online classroom management is indispensable. Typically this is achieved through user management tools for online platforms. Basic controls such as the ability to turn on/off students’ audio/video, or restrict their ability to use features while the lesson is in progress, can help minimise disruption.
Generally, the larger your group lesson, or the younger your students, the finer controls you need. For instance, a chat function is helpful when you want to check in with a student discreetly or when a student wants to ask questions privately. But having the option to disable it completely or restrict to only messages between you and individual students can also very useful to prevent spam messages and distracting private messaging among the students.
For other more advanced classroom and user management tools, you could also consider the following:
- Are you able to vary the level of interaction and activity throughout your online lesson, just like during your offline lesson? Perhaps you would like to conduct a mini lecture first where all students can only listen quietly, followed by students working collaboratively on the same worksheet or whiteboard or on their own individual worksheet.
- Do you have the flexibility to control which student in the class can see and/or write on a particular document? This would allow you to get your students to work on their own assigned exercise independently most of the time. But when the need arises, you will also be able to get a student to help another classmate as part of peer coaching.
- Does the platform allow you to monitor what your students are looking at on their device screens at all times during the lesson? This could go a long way in deterring students from browsing other websites or watching other videos during the lesson.
- Can you monitor selected student(s) close-up at any point during the lesson? This is akin to getting a student who needs closer supervision to sit in the front row of the classroom in an offline lesson.
Ease of Use
- When you first entered the platform, was there anything that disoriented or confused you? An intuitive interface should allow you to easily understand what the next step is in whichever action you wish to take.
- Is the platform easy to get started with and accessible? A straightforward sign-up and log-in process is something that most users are likely to be familiar with. If you have young students, it may be best to avoid platforms which require installations or software downloads, which can be confusing and time-consuming.
- Are there repetitive “chores” that need to be done every lesson? For example, having to send a link or password manually, or verifying the identity of every student. While it may not seem as much of a hindrance when you first start, you should imagine yourself using this in the long term. Such small annoyances can easily turn into a valid frustration.
- Sometimes, tasks that involve sensitive information such as contact details may have to be handled by administrative staff. Will such tasks result in major or time-consuming admin hassle, especially if they have to handle multiple classes?
- Try playing the part of a student having to join a lesson. Is the student able to easily access the lesson - from receiving the lesson details reliably, to accessing the platform on their intended device and finally joining the class?
Security and Privacy
With recent scares about unwelcome visitors in online classes, there’s never been a bigger emphasis on ensuring the security of the platform you use. If you’re teaching children, especially, you certainly don't want unauthorised users gatecrashing and exposing inappropriate, unsavoury content to your students. Less obvious but no less important is the consideration of how your data is handled by the platform you’re using. You don't want your students' data to be sold for marketing purposes, especially not if they get marketed to your competitors.
Before settling on a platform, it’s best to consider:
- How does the platform grant access to its online meetings/rooms?
- Can users access the lesson without requiring authentication?
- There are also different forms of authentication. For example, authentication by username or a common password tends to be less reliable; adding requirements such as specific contact information can make it much harder to crack.
- Will the lesson hosts or teachers need to verify each user's identity by themselves? Is there a convenient or secure way for you to do so for your students?
- How does it structure passwords (e.g. user-defined vs system generated, constant vs unique for each session)?
- Is it up to the lesson host or teacher to activate or follow security procedures present on the platform?
Being able to carry out your lesson as smoothly and efficiently as possible is something that relies heavily on the platform you've chosen. In the end, nothing can really beat trying out the platform for yourself, and carrying out a mock lesson a few times to see if it's the right fit for you. That's why ClassDo offers a free trial for you to do exactly that, completely risk-free.