How to Set Up Your Online Classroom for Teaching (and Learning!) Success

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man teaching UX/UI at homeLet’s face it: a virtual classroom looks and feels different than a physical classroom.

Sure, it’s an obvious statement — but it’s also an important one. When COVID-19 first compelled us to pack up our bookbags and head home, instructors at every level were forced to trade in their brick-and-mortar spaces for (sometimes unfamiliar) digital ones.

“We have millions of students who have never taken an online class and suddenly they have to learn with computers,” Dr. Regan A.R. Gurung, the director of the general psychology program at Oregon State University, shared for the American Psychological Association. “It’s a totally different world.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 21 percent of public schools offered any courses entirely online during the 2017-2018 school year. But by May of 2020, an incredible 95 percent of teachers were facilitating remote instruction.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the best teacher or brightest student in the world; if you struggle to use the platform that hosts your classes, you won’t be able to tackle the material as well as you might have in person. Usability is important — especially when those logging in have little to no experience with the platform at hand.

Why UX and Usability Matter in Online Learning

It’s intuitive: the easier it is to use an e-learning product, the more value a student (or teacher) will be able to get from their experience with it. But this truism goes both ways; if a user has a negative experience, they may not learn much at all — or even drop the course!

Past studies confirm this. In 2016, a team of researchers associated with the Canvas UX Research Project reviewed existing literature on the overlap between e-learning platform UX and student responses, only to conclude that bad UX was enormously detrimental to learning.

“When learners cannot find what they need to do in an online environment, it is harder for them to learn,” the writers concluded. “Often when learners complain about learning materials delivered online, those complaints involve unclear buttons, confusing menus, or links that are not intuitive […] In addition, frustrated learners tend to either drop out or become an undue burden on instructors. ”

When poor UX drives students to drop their classes or disengage, it prevents them from achieving their academic potential. This much is evident in current student testimonials, as well.

“It’s very obnoxious to do,” Diego Angeles, a 10th grader in Aurora, Colorado, told reporters for Chalkbeat of his online learning experience. “It’s just boring and bland. I don’t think I’m learning.”

But why is the user experience so bad within e-learning platforms? The above-mentioned research team landed on a potential answer in their report. The researchers noted that while most other e-commerce platforms have prioritized UX during development, e-learning platforms often lagged because they were attuned to other priorities, such as allowing for a variety of instructional approaches, establishing learning levels, assuring learning outcomes, and organizing content. Among those factors, they suggest, student experience appears to have taken a back seat.

“As many educators can attest, student satisfaction is not the primary goal of an online course, student learning is,” the researchers write.

But faced as we are with e-learning as a norm, it has become clear that the two — user experience and achievement — present dueling priorities for students and teachers alike.

Earlier this year, Tyton Partners, an education-focused advisory group, conducted two studies on teachers’ responses to distance learning. The first took place in May, shortly after most schools had switched to remote operations, and found that only 39 percent of instructors believed that “online learning is an effective method for teaching.”

But when the same survey question circulated in August, the number of instructors who saw e-learning as “effective” rose by a full ten percent. This uptick is significant, if only because it suggests that more time and familiarity with the product may have facilitated a better user experience, which, in turn, allowed teachers to be more effective in their roles.

But teachers — and students — shouldn’t need to take a trial-and-error approach to their e-learning platform. In the following sections, we’ll talk about what those on either side of the metaphorical podium can do to improve their experience, bolster usability, and ensure that they get the most value out of distance learning.

Because usability tips are so specific to individual platforms, we’ll be focusing on Zoom due to its pervasiveness. However, keep in mind that usability should be a concern across all e-learning platforms!

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Tips For Building an Accessible Classroom

For ease of reference, we have separated these tips into age groups, with further demarcations for students and teachers.

I. Early Education

Advice for Students and Parents

1. Stay Small, Stay Focused

Everything seems bigger and more intimidating when you’re young — so why add to the overload? While it may seem intuitive for parents to keep their elementary school student’s attention by casting their Zoom classroom to a big screen, doing so may inadvertently stress the child and prevent them from absorbing information.

“We were using our Apple TV to project the screen on the big television,” mother Brandi Riley recently told “That was really overwhelming for our young son. I know it’s tempting to use the tech gadgets you have, but kids need simple. There’s already enough going on with the tiny little squares and everyone talking.”

Keep your child’s screen small and manageable — they’ll be happier for it!

2. Use Side-by-Side Mode

Is your child overwhelmed by those “tiny little squares?” Side-by-Side Mode offers students a means to simplify their space without losing their connection to the class.

Once engaged, this mode will allow your student to pin their teacher’s face and the shared-screen window next to each other during a class presentation, and toggle into one or the other when necessary. The participant gallery will then become an unobtrusive pop-up that your student can move as they like. This formation allows students to cut down on visual distractions while staying connected to their teacher, classmates, and lesson materials.

To engage this function, click the “Options” tab and select “Side-by-Side Mode.”

3. Make Your Gallery View More Welcoming

Let’s face it — a Zoom meeting can feel cluttered at times, especially when others in the class turn off their cameras and leave extraneous blank placeholders on the screen. If an overstuffed Gallery View makes your student feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed, try limiting the boxes in view!

Go to your Video Settings and click “hide non-video participants.” This will eliminate all placeholder boxes in your child’s feed and leave them with a more manageable gallery of friendly faces.

— Advice for Teachers —

1. Ask a Colleague to Manage Your Zoom Room

You have enough to manage as an instructor without adding tech-wrangling responsibilities to the mix. If you can, designate a colleague or student-teacher as a cohost for your Zoom meeting. Doing so will allow you to focus fully on running class activities and engaging with students rather than solving technical issues.

2. Use the Spotlight Function

Want to welcome a student to the “front” of the digital class? You — or a cohost — can proactively use the Spotlight function to turn the child’s feed into a full-screen view for everyone. This tactic allows children to share their projects or ideas without getting lost in the gallery. Make sure to ask for students’ permission first, though! Some may not be comfortable with the visibility.

3. Use (Un)Mute As Needed

Let’s face it — even the best-behaved students can be noisy at times. In Zoom, that noise can translate into chaos. Student video feeds cycle in a dizzying whirl as the platform attempts to gauge which “speaker” to feature at the top of the screen.

Cut down on the noise by deploying the “Mute All” and “Unmute All” buttons. These functions will allow you to establish quiet when you need to speak and welcome conversation when you want your students to chime in.

II. Secondary School

— Advice for Students —

1. Can’t Speak? Text!

No, we’re not joking — bring your texting expertise to class! It can be challenging to make your voice heard in a noisy Zoom room; if you’re new, the experience alone might intimidate you into staying quiet.

But there are ways to offer your opinions and insights without expressing them verbally. If your teacher allows it, try contributing to the conversation via Zoom’s Chat function. An attentive teacher may notice your comment and bring it up, or even direct the class to listen to you and expand on your point. At the very least, your teacher will know that you were listening and engaged with the lesson.

2. Make the Most of Emojis

Picture this: You’re frantically taking notes during class, but you’re struggling to keep up with the lecture. You message the teacher, asking her to slow down, but she appears to have missed your request. You want to make a verbal request, but you don’t want to make a fuss. So, what do you do?

Try emojis. Zoom currently offers 10 Nonverbal Feedback icons that, once selected, briefly appear in a meeting room and can be seen by all participants. These include Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Go Slower, Go Faster, Yes, No, Claps, Coffee, and Clear All.

These visual representations allow you to respond to a teacher’s question or offer feedback without disrupting the class. Use them as you need — but make sure that your teacher allows nonverbal input before you start relying on it as a means to communicate!

3. Connect Zoom to Your Mobile Device

If you’re not entirely comfortable with Zoom’s interface yet, try downloading Zoom on your phone!

Having a second screen will allow you to divide the classroom into manageable portions. You might monitor the chat through your phone, for example, while watching the lecture or presentation on your computer.

Don’t feel like you need to manage all aspects of the classroom through a single device. Create a device setup that works for your needs!

— Advice for Teachers —

1. Monitor the Chat

There’s no doubt that remote classes take some getting used to — and for some shy students, it may be challenging to speak over their peers and step into Zoom’s Spotlight function. Rather than speak up, these students may opt to contribute their thoughts through the classroom’s chat feature. By keeping an eye on the text conversation, you can bring attention to their ideas and offer them an opportunity to share or elaborate on their points without talking over their peers.

2. Utilize Polls

If you want to gather feedback or spring a pop quiz, why not use a poll? Zoom offers minimalist, multiple-choice polls that can quickly organize student answers into simple bar graphs. These polls don’t have all the bells and whistles of other academic polling apps — think Kahoot! or Slido — but they are functional, easy to use, and quick to deploy.

3. Use an External Monitor to Increase Your Screen Space

Let’s face it — managing an entire Zoom class on a single laptop can be difficult. Even a small class can feel cramped with student video feeds, presentation slides, chat windows, and other features.

Our solution? Spread everything out! Connect your computer to an external monitor and separate features into manageable chunks. Doing so will give you the space you need to oversee your lessons and monitor student engagement.

Higher Education

— Advice for Students —

1. Mute Your Social Networks

By definition and design, notifications are meant to get your attention — but when you’re in a lesson, the alerts can prove to be more disruptive than they are helpful. Before you sign in to a class, go into your phone’s application settings and turn off notifications for any social networks that might distract you from your lesson. Or, if that step seems too extreme, simply mute your phone and leave it face-down or at the bottom of your bookbag during the class.

If you think that you might be tempted to pull up your Facebook feed during class, try downloading an app that temporarily blocks your social media access. Not sure where to start? We suggest tools like Offtime, FocusMe, and Flipd.

2. Actively Push Yourself to Participate

There’s no question that Zoom lessons take some getting used to. However, you won’t adjust if you sign in and immediately disengage from the class. E-learning platforms can be incredibly connective and exciting — but you need to give them a fair shot.

Art Markman, a psychology and marketing professor at the University of Texas at Austin, recently shared this sentiment in an article for the Washington Post:

“For the students: Show up and take advantage of those opportunities to actually engage in those discussions,” Markman commented. “These classes that are designed to be online have a lot more engagement, even when they’re larger classes, and so it really is well worth being there.”

Push yourself to participate! You may be surprised how much you get out of the lesson.

3. Turn Off Your Camera If You Need To

This bit of advice might come as a surprise, especially given our last recommendation. But while having your camera on is an excellent way to demonstrate your engagement and maintain a connection with your classmates, being on-screen round-the-clock can be exhausting.

If you feel burned out by your online classes and don’t have the energy to express yourself well on video, turn off your webcam. Doing so may help you muster your motivation and apply it towards productive tasks such as taking notes or contributing ideas in the chat. Don’t feel as though being a good student means keeping your camera on full-time!

— Advice for Professors —

1. Use Breakout Rooms

It’s next to impossible to facilitate an inclusive conversation when your student gallery encompasses a few dozen people — or more! — which is why “breakout rooms” exist.

Zoom’s breakout room feature allows you to split your class into as many as 50 smaller sessions. As the host, you can choose each group’s participants manually or instruct the program to do so randomly. These smaller sessions allow students to engage in group work and hold thoughtful conversations without feeling as though their input will be lost in the shuffle or, worse, never recognized in the first place.

2. Use Cohost Functions for TAs

Sure, your TA may no longer be standing to the side of your podium — but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful in a digital classroom. If you have an assistant, assign them as a meeting cohost and ask them to oversee the classroom from a technological standpoint. They can take over the work of separating students into breakout groups, monitoring participation, or manually Spotlighting student speakers.

3. Use Zoom Names

Large classes are tricky to manage in person; online, it’s even easier to lose track of names and faces. Luckily, there’s a quick fix to the confusion: Zoom names.

Ilona Posner, a UX expert and University of Toronto professor, explained how she uses the feature to support her online teaching efforts via a recent blog:

“I have evolved the notion of Zoom Names to help associate students with their tutorials and project groups,” Posner wrote. “For example, C09-John (Joe) Smith is John who prefers to be called Joe, from Tutorial C and Group 9. Having Zoom Names show up in the Participants list allows easy identification and quick manual sorting of students into the appropriate breakout rooms during class.”

To take advantage of this tactic, ask your students to change their names in their Zoom app before logging into class.

Factors to Keep in Mind While Optimizing UX

The above strategies can help you bolster your Zoom classroom’s user experience (UX). However, the points we’ve included here are only a starting point for further explorations and improvements. As you continue to seek out value from your e-learning platform, a few core usability tenets should guide your efforts.

For context — usability is a term that describes a product’s capability to perform a task effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably. However, a product that may be technically “usable” for one person may be frustratingly inaccessible for another. When you arrange your online classroom, you need to do so in a way that is inclusive of as many of your attendees as possible. To accomplish this, you should be mindful of all of the below factors.

Learning Styles   |   Aesthetic Preferences   |   Accessibility

» Learning Styles

It’s a well-established truth that students learn and absorb information in a variety of ways. A teaching approach that works well for one may fall short for another — and that’s okay.

“Some children are hands-on, while others work best through language and do well with reading. Some children understand things better than they remember them.” Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrics professor at the University of North Carolina Medical School and the co-founder of All Kinds of Minds, a nonprofit institute that studies learning differences, shared for WebMD.

“There are many different patterns of learning, and the best thing that a parent can do is step back and observe what seems to be happening and what seems to be working with their child.”

We can apply this advice to education, too. Teachers need to ensure that their online classrooms aren’t targeted towards only one learner type. For instance, a platform that provides mostly written material might work well for a verbal (language-based) learner but could fall short for someone who absorbs information better via visual aids or group learning.

Different learning styles include (but are not limited to):

  • Visual Learners: These students tend to learn best when they have visual aids such as charts, images, and color-coded documents. They can make do with text-based assignments, but they may struggle if their lessons are presented solely through text. Consider incorporating graphics, charts, and other visual aids into your lessons to enable greater student comprehension.
  • Social Learners: Social learners are extroverted students who tend to learn best while in small groups. They need academic community — and for that reason, they may feel unmotivated or isolated when taking classes remotely. Teachers can support these learners by separating students into online “breakout groups,” where they can better communicate and collaborate with their peers.
  • Kinesthetic Learners: These students tend to learn best when they have access to hands-on activities. E-learning platforms are remote by definition and, as such, do not offer an easy way to facilitate hands-on activities. However, teachers can still make the medium work for kinesthetic learners by offering project-based assessments instead of essays.

As you set up your Zoom room, think critically about how you can adapt your online approach to support different learners’ needs.

» Aesthetic Preferences

For as much as we tend to dismiss aesthetics as an afterthought, platform looks do matter in education. How would you feel if every time you signed into a virtual classroom, you were inundated by dynamic elements, neon color schemes, and mismatched fonts? You would probably feel overwhelmed and distracted by the visual noise — and likely struggle to concentrate during your lessons.

While dynamic tools like GIFs or widgets might seem fun or engaging, they can distract and overwhelm students if used too much or too often. Keep your classroom simple, and only include the functionalities that you (or your students) need!

Another tip: try to stick to a style guide. Parsing information from lesson materials already takes work — why make it more difficult by subjecting students to a mishmash of text fonts, colors, and sizes? Stick to an established color palette and style guide to ensure that your classroom is a neutral, inoffensive space.

» Accessibility

No students should have to struggle academically because of a learning platform’s inaccessibility. According to the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of public school students — seven million in total — have a disability.

Schools know how to support their students within a brick-and-mortar environment. However, many educators are still developing their accessible offerings; as of 2018, only 69 percent of teachers said that their institutions offer training on how to make course materials compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Learning platforms won’t be fully equipped for education unless all students have access — so make a point to prioritize accessible features!

Additional Resources:

There’s no doubt that UX and usability are crucial to building supportive e-learning platforms. We might not have realized their importance before the pandemic forced us out of our classrooms and into our Zoom rooms, but recent events have made it clear that we need to prioritize usability — during the pandemic and after it subsides.

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