4 Tips for Making Online Teaching Work

4 Tips for Making Online Teaching Work

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a host of unknowns, including what the future of teaching and learning will look like. Yet between the ongoing spread of the virus and the challenges of adhering to the Centers for Disease Control's school reopening guidelines, many of us are beginning to suspect that distance learning will be around for some time to come.

In a blog post for the education resource site Edutopia, teacher and researcher Mary Burns described the spring's sudden shift to online learning as "a baptism of fire for teachers, principals, students, and parents [that] provided valuable guideposts for design, instruction, and support" going forward. More specifically, conversations with teachers and students led Burns to identify the following four focus areas for educators looking to make online teaching work in the 2020–2021 academic year.

Optimize instruction for an online setting

When the pandemic hit, teachers scrambled to adapt their in-person techniques to a digital format. According to a Harvard Business Publishing piece penned by Bentley University professor Bill Schiano, this brought up questions about everything from time management to home office setups—and needless to say, it took a while to iron out some of the kinks.

Now that educators have addressed these immediate concerns and progressed along the learning curve, they can turn their attention toward how best to engage and communicate with students in an online forum. Per Burns, this will require "a repertoire of online pedagogies" including direct instruction, cognitive and social learning models, and "guidance and strategies for establishing a sense of emotional, cognitive, and instructional presence so students feel connected and part of an online community of learners."

One key tip from the International Society for Technology in Education: Teachers should not overlook the need to address the "emotional toll" of the pandemic on students. Ultimately, ISTE blog contributors Jennifer Snelling and Diana Fingal asserted, "taking time to check in about feelings of anxiety is just as important as checking on academics."

Design with the new normal in mind

Developing an online lesson requires much more than simply cutting and pasting one's plan for classroom-based instruction. Rather, Burns asserted, "schools will need to map out their curricula, ensure articulation and complementarity between face-to-face and online learning, and intentionally design for both these environments." Given that many of the students she interviewed describing online learning as "a 'lonely' experience," Burns recommended prioritizing the following elements:

  • Collaboration: Students who are learning remotely often crave opportunities to connect with others in real time—for instance, by working together on projects and participating in small-group or class discussions.

  • Interaction: Solitary activities such as filling out worksheets are unlikely to stimulate much engagement among students stuck at home. Instead, Burns suggested that teachers assign "games, web-based simulations, and interactive videos."

  • Individualized learning: While online and in-person classrooms differ in many ways, facilitating personalized learning remains important in both settings. With this in mind, Burns advised teachers to make space for an array of "skills, abilities, interests, and home situations."

  • Information creation: Per Burns, students are seeking online learning experiences that require them to creatively interpret and interact with ideas rather than "simply consuming information."

Don't overestimate students' online learning acumen

According to Education Dive's Naaz Modan, online learning has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, with the U.S. Department of Education describing it as "one of the fastest growing trends in educational uses of technology" back in 2014. But although K–12 students of today are considered digital natives, that doesn't mean they're adept at remote learning. In fact, many of those interviewed by Burns had never engaged in virtual learning prior to the pandemic and expressed needing help in the following areas:

  • Tech training: Contrary to popular belief, students who participate in online gaming or never let go of their smartphones may not be tech-savvy across the board, particularly when it comes to the building blocks of online learning. Per Burns, these include "keyboarding, logging in to a web conferencing system, using email, remembering passwords, file management, navigating a learning management system, etc."

  • Digital citizenship and independent work: In school, students know exactly what is expected of them, from how to appropriately communicate with teachers to acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the classroom. Online, however, some may be unsure how to conduct themselves, how to work independently and effectively, and how to go about asking for help when they need it.

  • Academic productivity: Reading, writing, managing information, and following a schedule take different forms in the context of remote learning, so educators should anticipate providing guidance as needed.

Ensure equitable, comprehensive support for students and their families

Amid the chaos of the spring semester, it was challenging to ensure students and their families were adequately prepared for the "new normal" of virtual learning. As an academic year of hybrid or online-only education gets underway, educators can draw upon their experiences from the spring to ensure smoother sailing.

According to Burns, providing equitable and comprehensive support should involve meeting families where they are and acknowledging that each student's circumstances are different; for instance, some parents and guardians will be more available to provide remote learning support than others, and some may not speak English. Of note, Burns suggested offering "workshops for parents and caregivers and their children to model desired home digital learning practices, teach basic digital literacy skills, establish communication channels, share techniques for evaluating their child’s progress, and offer more ongoing social, academic, and technical support to families."

The bottom line

With hybrid or online-only learning expected to continue for some time to come, educators eager to optimize the experience might consider adapting their lesson plans and teaching techniques to fit virtual parameters, ensuring students have a firm command of required tech skills, and providing tailored support to students and families.

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