Preparing students to be productive 21st century citizens has been an educational goal since the 20th century. A major component of students becoming productive is ensuring that they are capable of functioning in a technologically advanced society. The technology boom of our previous decade and its continuous progression today dictates the need for students to be able to access academics electronically. However, the unexpected crippling impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on our educational system has led me to consider that while we focused on preparing students to utilize 21st century technology, there is a possibility our teachers and educational leaders were not prepared for the complexity of online teaching and learning.
Schools were forced to find ways to educate our students with mandated school closures across the globe. At the forefront was online learning. Teachers who were not comfortable with technology outside of e-mail and the occasional PowerPoint presentation, as well as those who were proficient with webinars, were thrust into the world of virtual teaching and learning. While one may think that this should have occurred seamlessly, educators quickly discovered that we were not prepared for the demands of delivering instruction that was as effective as what our students receive in physical classrooms. The dilemma then became preparing teachers to deliver effective instruction in an online environment by instructing students at high instructional levels. Through trial and error several strategies were found to be effective.
Establish Norms and Clear Procedures
Establishing clear norms and procedures in an online environment sets the precedence for how the classroom will function. Norms and procedures decrease the chances of teachers having to frequently stop and address student misbehavior as well as background disruptions. Typically, high performing learning environments have structures in place to ensure minimal interruption. To ensure that teachers do not have to spend the bulk of instructional time having students “unlearn” unacceptable behavior it is imperative that these structures be established at the onset of a course.
I have found that it is unwise to assume that students know that logging into an online course ten minutes late is a tardy, allowing the class to hear background conversations is unacceptable, leaving cameras off during the entire class period does not show that the learner is engaged, and there is still a dress code for being in a virtual class. Having discovered this, I encourage online educators to establish the following norms:
- Log-in and log-out times
- Appropriate virtual conversations
- Guidelines for leaving cameras on and off
- Acceptable use of the mute button
- Canceling out background disruptions
Keeping learners engaged is one of the hardest things that teachers must contend with. Engagement ensures that students are vested in the material, resulting in them having a better chance at retaining information. When students are actively “doing the work” it forces them to think deeper and internalize the concepts. Though teacher led lectures have value in the instructional process, it is when the students are leading in the learning that we witness the greatest results. Several of the strategies used to increase student engagement throughout in-person teaching can be transferred to on-line environments. One such strategy is turn and talk.
This is an approach that is often used in the classroom to promote verbal communication among students. It can be used in two ways in the virtual setting. Students can chat among each other utilizing the chat feature or teachers can place students in breakout rooms in teams of two. The effectiveness of this approach lies in the opportunity for students to analyze and verbalize what they have learned.
Another strategy is allowing students opportunities to work in collaborative groups and report out to the class on their progress. Teachers assign students to groups and provide them with clear instructions on what they should produce for their final product. Students are then placed into breakout rooms with their assigned groups to work towards the common goal. The effectiveness of this strategy is ensured as teachers are intentional in their visit to each breakout room and their questioning of student groups.
Utilize Tech Tools
The increase in tech tools has greatly impacted the effectiveness of on-line learning. Having students sit and get in a virtual classroom is one of the quickest ways to destroy a lesson. Highly engaging tech tools have help to alleviate this problem. The most effective require students to explore, analyze, and create. Thus prompting hands-on learning experiences. The utilization of these tools move students from passive learning to active participants. They allow students to tap into a variety of learning modalities and gain exposure to the content in various ways.
Tech tools such as Kahoot, which allows students to learn while playing a game, has added new and more effective ways to skill and drill academic content. It affords the teacher the luxury of adding repetition to their lessons without the boredom that comes from traditional call and response or flashcards. The game show like music and time restraints prompt the students to remain focus so that they are competitive with the opposing team.
Another such tool is Flipgrid. We are living in a social media saturated society and the students assigned to our classes do not stop desiring the functions of Snapchat once they log into your virtual classroom. Therefore, engaging them with a similar tool is beneficial. Flipgrid is a tool that allows teachers to post topics or conversation starters and the learning community comments via video or words. It helps to eliminate the boredom that students express when completing paper pencil assignments. This tool provides the familiarity of social media while maintaining the integrity of an academic learning environment.
Meeting students’ independent learning levels should be at the foundation of all lessons. Differentiation is key in order to accomplish this. When we fail to differentiate, we fail to meet the needs of all learners. Just as in physical classrooms, virtual environments must provide opportunities for small group instruction in order to address independent learning levels. Students usually display greater academic gains within the confines of these groups, making them valuable in all learning settings.
Online classrooms cannot afford not to have opportunities to differentiate instruction. Due to the structure of educating students behind a computer screen, teachers must seek opportunities to pull students in and meet them where they are. There is no acceptable excuse for failing to differentiate instruction with the expansion of breakout rooms on many platforms. Teachers are now equipped with virtual tools that allows them to meet with students as if they were sitting in the same room.