Tips for Teaching Online: the "30 Rock" model Dr. Shannon Pufahl (Stanford university)

If you've seen the sitcom classic "30 Rock," you may recall the scene in the pilot, where Liz and Pete's new boss, Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin), explains how to channel "GE Trivection Oven technology" in order to improve their weekly comedy show.

"It cooks perfect food 5x faster than a conventional oven, because it uses three kinds of heat."

  1. thermal
  2. microwave
  3. convection

Like trivection ovens and sitcoms, teaching online involves harnessing three kinds of heat.

As teachers, we should take care to diversify our pedagogical tactics. Using both synchronous and asynchronous elements, as well as preparing students to use technology effectively, are essential to a well-run virtual classroom. We often think that moving a class online means we must minimize or overhaul our approach. But the virtual classroom is only one point of contact between students and instructor, and many of our most reliable strategies will work just as well online as in-person.


thermal, adj. Of, pertaining to, or of the nature of thermae; Promoting the retention of heat.

Before you begin an online discussion, consider preparing students in two ways. First, give students the opportunity to learn the basics of your online conferencing tools. Set up a fifteen minute trial meeting in which students will learn how to log on, how to use functions such as mute or break-out groups, and how to “raise their hands” or signal other kinds of participation.

And while specific to Zoom, these tips can give you an idea of the variety of tools available in most conferencing platforms. Your virtual classroom should have rules, and unlike the traditional classroom, in which most rules are tacit, online classrooms require making explicit many of the basics (how to signal a speaking turn, etc). So before you run this beta-test, make sure you have your own protocols in place and can communicate them to students.

Second, consider using an agenda for the actual class meeting and have students come in prepared for the day’s activities. Make students aware of what will be accomplished in the meeting and what the expectations are for their participation. I recommend giving students asynchronous prompts, exercises, or small group assignments before the synchronous class meeting. In my experience, keeping an online discussion focused can be a difficult task -- using prompts and other kinds of content prep can help a lot.

While students may be familiar with many kinds of online conferencing, rarely will they have used such tools pedagogically. In fact, most of us have used such tools only for general meetings and not for teaching or learning. The goal of preparing students for discussions or class-time is to minimize the presence of the technology itself, by eliminating user error or distraction, and by giving students clear expectations of how they will participate, both logistically and generatively.

Rapport and intimacy

microwave, v. To transmit (signals, information, etc.) using microwave radiation as a medium.

Many of us will miss the energy and intimacy generated by in-person instruction, especially the feedback loop that we use to gauge our effectiveness as teachers. Students especially may be lonely for the contact provided by the classroom setting. The classroom itself is a powerful motivator -- students can see and be seen, and have opportunities for casual and low-stakes participation (chatting, joking, small group discussion, etc). I want to dispel the notion that such intimacy is impossible to replicate in an online setting -- it may look different, but creating student accountability, first through preparation and then through rapport with their classmates, remains paramount.

Some ways for producing rapport involve using many of the same tools as in-person instruction: break-out groups, pair and share, in-class writing exercises, and others. All these can be supported by features of conferencing technology like Zoom.

If you feel comfortable integrating other learning tools, tech like PollEverywhere can be especially useful in recreating the feedback loop of the traditional classroom and giving students a sense of control over the discussion.

Office hours are also a great way to minimize time spent answering questions, and can be arranged individually or in small groups. Consider giving office hours a topic, such as “Syllabus Questions” or “Discussion follow-up.” Staying focused is especially important in an online setting.

“Extracurricular” activities can be useful, too. Watching a movie together on Skype, or visiting a virtual museum, can help create shared experiences, even when people can’t be physically together.

Remember that rapport is not just generated by experiences inside the group or the classroom, even in traditional teaching. Asynchronous elements (discussion posts, written or recorded lectures) and one-on-one contact through email or virtual office hours are also important vectors for intimacy. Use a holistic approach! This takes the pressure off the virtual classroom to provide the only or the most important contact between students and instructor.

Learning outcomes

convection, n. The action of carrying; conveyance; spec. the transportation of heat or electricity by the movement of a heated or electrified substance, as in the ascension of heated air or water.

We should take care not to use technology blindly, or simply because it’s available. In designing any class, we consider our goals and tactics. Of course the same is true in an online environment.

It may feel as if you have to adjust your learning outcomes to accommodate changes in course delivery. Instead, make the technology work for you -- not the other way around. If you use a lot of, say, Socratic questioning, find a way to translate such methods to a virtual form.

Articulating clear learning goals becomes especially important when course content runs up against limitations in technology. For instance: Canvas discussion forums, in which students generate written responses to prompts, can be difficult to use effectively, largely because students will often compose a response and cut and paste it in, without reading or responding to the work of others. This makes the discussion static, merely a place to drop off homework publicly. If your learning goals include the ability to respond to and integrate conflicting arguments in real time, consider using such forums as a starting place for a more dynamic Zoom meeting. Require that students post, read, and then come prepared to counter or enlarge another student’s argument in synchronous discussion. Often, combining multiple technologies is the best way to meet learning goals.

Other material like lectures and in-class writing exercises can be reimagined in similar ways. You might record a short video lecture in something very casual like Adobe Spark Video or Marco Polo, or more formal like Zoom or Rush, and then ask students to respond with questions, either in real time within the platform (such as in a chat function), or in a discussion forum. You can also create written lectures and ask students to annotate or pose questions in the “comment” function of Google docs. The goal is to make online learning as dynamic as in-person discussion by requiring active listening and real-time response. Lots of tools for things like this are available from Adobe, Stanford IT, and elsewhere.

Created By
Shannon Pufahl


Created with images by weyo - "A method of cleaning in a microwave oven with water and lemon" • Rawpixel.com - "Group Friends Video Chat Connection Concept" • Yeo Khee - "untitled image"