Practical and personal reflections on how to successfully adapt teaching methods to suit the changing times. A touching account of how small, shared personal details can be as important as the right tools and technology.
When COVID-19 kicked in here in Switzerland and we were told to go home and work remotely the foreseeable future, I was concerned. I was coming into the first weeks of coaching our Student Business Projects (SBP). It was my responsibility to ensure that twelve teams each consisting of six students were to be successful in their final module before graduation from EHL, (no pressure!).
Normally, I’d have a dedicated classroom on campus, fixed coaching sessions and be able to interact with my teams on a daily basis if needed. Now I was to ensure success from my laptop, with a camera and microphone.
Here are my tips on coaching remotely, based on recent experience:
Step 1: Set up your working area
Since this method of teaching is going to be part of the 'new normal', get your environment and equipment sorted. Our IT support guys made Microsoft teams available immediately (thank you IT team), so that was my platform ready, and luckily I already had a hands-free Jabra speaker. I would highly suggest this speaker that means no shouting into your laptop microphone and no headset. With a desk and chair hurriedly bought, my set-up was done. Domestic side note: My wife and daughter were also working from home, hence strict house rules - IF my door is closed then do not disturb, same for them.
Step 2: Organize your planning
Regardless of whether coaching on campus or virtually, the students and I always need to have weekly scheduled sessions. I set these up on a Google sheet. Available times were given to the groups to sign up on a first come, first served basis; I only made Tuesday to Thursday available in order to keep Monday and Friday free for me to concentrate on other work activities.
This worked for me - but it also backfired. I ended up with six hours of coaching time on one day, sometimes back to back. This I would never do again. When you are in a classroom you can stand up, move around, draw on the board and flip chart, but when sat at home in front of your laptop - not so easy. Next time, I would allow for a break between coaching sessions, get up move around, get a cup of tea.
Step 3: Set the rules
Insist on an agenda sent the day before and meeting minutes to be sent max one day after. This keeps continuity and has the student using the coaching time effectively. Also, ensure the students check their equipment well in advance. Camera on is the ideal option, so you can see facial reactions and it does make things more interactive.
Ask students to turn off all other communication options (WhatsApp pinging every 10 seconds gets annoying). Ensure their documents are ready to share on screen if needed. Similarly, any document they want your advice or feedback on, have it sent beforehand allowing you time to prepare.
Step 4: Time zones
In my situation, I had some teams who were split over various time zones, one included students in Mexico, Switzerland and Thailand. Make sure you discuss with them how this is going to work and how they will be organizing themselves time-wise. This part is not easy, best to be flexible in the first few weeks while the teams find their best working practices.
Step 4: Education Continuity
Once the above points were established, it was then a case of finding a rhythm and keeping the students engaged. This was actually easier than I thought, I think it came down to the resilience of the students, probably the pressure of this being their last module: if they fail no graduation. As a teacher, keeping the engagement was vital, especially asking how they were doing on a personal level.
In retrospect, I was surprised on how well this worked out, you seem to get closer to the students in a way you would not on campus. Once, I even forgot I was drinking coffee from my daughters pink Europa-Park mug!!
Step 5: Create closeness & reduce anxiety
When COVID-19 kicked in and started to become a real pandemic, I admit I was worried, I think anyone who says they were not is lying. Too many unknowns, media pumping out 1000’s of people dying a day, we were all a little bit anxious.
What started off as a bit of fun with some teams actually became our weekly ritual. With some teams we would all have the same background on our video call, with another group we found out we were all Star Wars fans and Yoda became our mascot. This might seem a minor issue, but during coaching sessions these small details meant this was our time, our environment between myself, the coach, and my students. It made things personal, close, it reduced the outside anxiety.
La fin: Analysis of ‘hybrid’ teaching methods
Now that the full eight weeks have passed, I have taken some time to reflect on what I’ve learned from my experience of teaching remotely and how in the future we could incorporate a hybrid model at EHL.
My conclusion is that since the Student Business Projects module is a very intense 8-week industry project, actual contact time with the students is simply the best possibility. It just works better, it’s is more direct thanks to the classroom setting, the white boards, flip charts etc…
However, at certain times, and possibly for other types of courses, coaching remotely could be used to give general instructions, feedback sessions, ad hoc Q&As. As the EHL brand expands globally, we will undoubtedly be performing more of this remote type of tuition.
My recent experiences prove it can work, even for a module that normally requires close contact and constant exchange. Distance teaching may not always be 100% optimal, but we have time to fine-tune the details as education moves forward and adapts to the changing situation. Hybrid methods, for now, certainly seem an excellent bridge as we transition from one set of learning norms into the next.