Making Online Classes Work

This week marks the third 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 would involve me bumping into 3-4 INSEADers along the way. Now, a trip to the restaurant is around eight 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 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 three 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 do the professors do to help mitigate these concerns? This is what I noticed in MBA classes at INSEAD; some points might resonate with you and could be used in your organisation’s online sessions!

What methods work 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 the chat function to indicate when people want to say something

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

  • !!! – 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 does this work? We found that it’s quite easy to track who was first, chances of technical issues are quite low, and it didn’t involve people needing to learn and find new functionalities. Additionally, using this makes students refrain from suddenly un-muting and talking, which otherwise can cause people to talk over each other, often unintentionally.

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

When professors want 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. This also has the additional effect of getting students to engage with the content, and not just invite those 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 the 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 was going on, and he would review 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 got distracted.

2. Having half the class pre-recorded (e.g., for theory 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 the theory fully just by watching the pre-recorded video, and they weren’t able to participate fully in the discussion in the class. This method could work but needs 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 pursuing an MBA. Hopefully, we find a way to manage the situation soon, and we can go back to physical classes.