How to Teach Online When Schools Are Closed

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April 15th, 2020 No Comments Features

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On Monday, the Queensland State Government ruled that Queensland schools will reopen for term two for vulnerable students and the children of essential workers. All Northern Territory students will return to school grounds on April 20th. In South Australia, parents can choose to send children to school or keep them at home. But what about everyone else? For classrooms that continue to exist online, what can educators do to make online teaching fun, accessible, and more efficient? Here are a few tips.

How to teach online during the pandemic

For high school and uni teachers, Kyungmee Lee, a Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University, recommends recording your lectures, not streaming them live. “If students are unwell or are struggling with internet access, they will miss a live streamed lecture,” she says. “Record videos instead and send them to your students so that they can watch in their own time.” She also recommends using existing resources, like videos and podcasts, rather than thinking you have to record brand new videos for every topic yourself. “It is unrealistic to expect that you, on your own, will produce a semester’s worth of high quality videos. You can use pre-developed resources available online and provide students with clickable links.”

Digital learning experts have some wise though counterintuitive advice: do less.

Education influencer Anya Kamenetz explains: “‘Please Do A Bad Job Of Putting Your Courses Online’ is the title of one popular blog post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, an assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University. Her point: ‘your class is not the highest priority of their or your life right now.’ She suggests not requiring students to show up online at a particular time and making all exams open-book and open-Internet.” You might even consider a Pass/Fail grading system, like MIT, Duke, and Georgetown in the U.S. are doing.

“I can tell you, now that we’re in week 7 of online learning, that much of what you will do will be trial and error,” says Stacy Rausch Keevan, a teacher in Hong Kong. “Don’t stress about that–it won’t do you any good. For my middle school English and humanities classes, I’m offering the same lessons I would normally do live, but in smaller doses.” These are just things you will have to expect. “What would normally take you one class period to teach in the classroom will probably take you twice as long.”

Take the pressure off students and yourself (even all you wonderfully over-achieving, perfectionist teachers out there), and online teaching will run more smoothly.

Above all, says Kevin Gannon, who teaches at a small liberal arts college in the U.S., presence matters. “An online course can absolutely be a powerful learning experience, with students as deeply engaged as they would be in a seminar-style class,” he says. “But that outcome isn’t the product of chance; it’s only accomplished when both you and your students are present in the course and with one another. Presence is perhaps the single most important ingredient in meaningful learning online. Research has shown that two types of presence in particular–social and cognitive–are key in online teaching.” He also notes that the experience should inspire you to reflect critically about teaching, which “is never a bad thing.”

How to feel connected while teaching online

Thu Nguyen, a sixth grade teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. says that during online teaching, it’s important for teachers to see their students and for kids to feel seen. That’s why, every day by noon, she requires her students to publish a short, fun video using Flipgrid, an education app. “You know, one of them is like, wear a crazy hat, wear crazy socks, do a dance. And so that’s just so that I can see all their faces every day.” Nguyen posts her own videos as well.

Erika E. Smith, Assistant Professor & Faculty Development Consultant at the Academic Development Centre at Mount Royal University, adds: “Focusing on what people really need by starting from a place of empathy and compassion will help teachers–or others leading workplace transitions to online collaboration and work–keep in mind what’s most important as our society gets through this crisis.” Empathy and compassion will get you a long way, and prevent stress and burnout in the meantime.

How do you reach students without internet?

When you have students who can’t connect online, outreach is especially important. Cara Godbe, a third grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School in rural Montrose, Colo., says she spends around two hours every morning connecting with students and families by phone. She says this outreach is especially important for kids who can’t connect online.

“I spend a lot of time with those kids, probably more than their parents do, so I keep calling to check in,” Godbe says. “I’ve hopefully touched base, or tried to touch base, with [each family] throughout the week.”

If she can’t reach children by phone, she even goes as far as to send out snail mail.

“I’m sending snail mail letters this week. I’m really trying to target those four or five kids that I’ve not been able to reach. I do have Google Classroom as well, but all of these things are so dependent on technology that if they don’t have access to that, it would probably be pretty hard to reach me.”

It’s a challenging time for teachers and students around the globe. But the transition from physical classroom to online classroom can teach us a lot about how we want to educate students in the future, and can provide important lessons about how current systems and policies might be failing us. What’s certain is that there is an abundance of support available for teachers who need it. We may not have faced this particular situation before, but we aren’t alone in navigating our way through it. The benefits of benefits of online learning can outweigh the challenges, as long as we team up, share tips and resources, and keep each other’s spirits high. We’ve got this.


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Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

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