Teacher Michael Dunn wasn’t worried when his school district announced a shift to virtual learning during the pandemic shutdown. He uses Google Classroom and other online programs every day, so his students will know exactly where to go.
Not every teacher is used to an online format, however. You might be feeling overwhelmed. How can you get those lessons online so your kids can learn? How can you make sure your kids are doing those lessons?
Luckily, I’ve got some expert advice for you. I talked to Michael Dunn, who teaches middle school, and online high school teacher Connie Cooley to get their best tips for a seamless transition to a virtual classroom.
#1: Choose Your Learning Management System
Think of a Learning Management System (LMS) as your online classroom. Most teachers are familiar with at least a couple of programs, but chances are you, you aren’t using them to their full potential. A good LMS can support a full lesson cycle while making communication between teachers and students easy.
Your school may already have a preferred LMS. Blackboard is a common one that is still widely used at higher learning institutions. If your school has an LMS they prefer, stick with that one. However, many schools leave it up to the teachers. Here are a few you can consider:
If your school has access to Google Apps For Education, you probably have access to Google Classroom. This program has both an Apple and Android app, which makes it easy for your kids to use. It’s also one of the simplest programs. Michael Dunn enjoys this program because it’s a good repository for resources.
If you don’t currently use an LMS, email other teachers at your school to find out what programs they use. If many teachers are using the same program, it will be easier for your students to adjust because they’ve likely used it before.
Once you choose an LMS, become an expert. Take the tutorials. Watch videos on YouTube. Browse any forums for ideas. Then communicate to your students how to access your LMS and how to use it.
#2: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Connie Cooley has been teaching at an online high school for a few years. She says that just like any other teaching, it’s all about building relationships. But if you’re suddenly finding yourself transitioning mid-year, how do you keep those established relationships going?
“Communication is hugely important in this environment,” Connie told me. A major part of her job is reaching out to parents and kids to make sure they are doing the work and to clear up any confusion.
If you’re lucky to teach in a district with reliable email, open those lines of communication with parents and students. But when I taught, most of my students’ parents never checked their email. There are text programs like Remind to send out messages to your classes or their parents. However, you need parents and kids to be able to contact you.
Your LMS should allow some of this. For instance, on Google Classroom, the kids can leave comments on any assignments you post, much like social media comments.
Texting and phone calls are the best way to reach parents and students. If you don’t want to use your own phone number, you can set up a free Google Voice number. All you need is a Gmail account. You can access Google Voice through your browser and also download an app to use it from your phone. But when you call and text other people, it works just like a regular phone number.
Tell your students and parents they can text you at your Voice number at any time during this online period. Need to unplug after work hours? Turn on Do Not Disturb mode from the Google Voice settings. (Trust me, you will have those students that ask a question at 2 a.m.) Let them know you’ll respond during certain hours.
#3: Instructional Videos
Michael Dunn makes instructional videos for his students at least once a week. He doesn’t have time to repeat his instructions over and over. He makes a video and drops a link in Google Classroom. Now, he can continue doing that from home.
Your students need to be able to hear your instructions several times. It will be helpful for parents, too! You don’t have to be a fancy video editor to make this happen. There are several free, easy-to-use programs to record your screen while you give instructions.
Screencast-O-Matic is probably my favorite. You can make videos up to 15 minutes in length for free. You can record your screen, use your webcam, or both. It’s simple and requires nothing more than clicking a couple of buttons. Screencastify is another one that works with Google Chrome, but you can only record for up to five minutes.
If you want to get fancier, ManyCam is a great program used by online teachers. You can easily add special effects (like mustaches and crazy hats), show pictures and gifs, and even make a background. You can do a lot with the free version, but there is a higher learning curve for this program than the others.
Upload these videos to a free YouTube account and drop a link in your LMS. You might also be able to upload the video file directly, depending on the program you use.
Instructional videos shouldn’t be too long. Just record yourself giving the instructions for the assignment. You might enjoy this process so much, you’ll continue it when you’re back in the actual classroom!
Direct Teaching Videos
You can also make videos to teach content, like a mini-lecture. This is especially helpful if you don’t have access to an online textbook. Modeling is important, and videos can help you do this when you can’t be in front of your class. They’ll probably be glad to see you, too, for a sense of normalcy.
But don’t re-invent the wheel! You don’t have to record a lecture every day. There are tons of great flipped-classroom videos on the internet. Just make sure they are something your kids will actually watch. Don’t make them too long or too boring.
#4: Don’t Sacrifice the Lesson Cycle
It might be easier to tell students to watch a video and answer questions every day during this homebound period. But are they really going to learn that way? Probably not.
You don’t have to sacrifice the lesson cycle just because you’re online. However, have realistic expectations. Your students are probably not going to spend a full school day doing classwork during isolation. Pick the most important things they need to learn and be flexible with due dates.
For Michael, it’s important that there is some normalcy during this period. He suggested that teachers can post a bell-ringer/warm-up/"do now" activity every day. This can simply be a question that students respond to on the LMS. Then post the main activity for the lesson and an exit ticket question for a formative assessment. You can have all of these in one attached document or make three different posts on your chosen LMS.
You can also choose to upload all your work for a week. Remember, a lesson doesn’t have to mean one day of instruction. In the 5E model, lessons can take anywhere from one class day to a week. Decide what will work best for you and your students.
#5: Keep Up Engagement
Just because you aren’t teaching face-to-face doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice engagement. If anything, engagement is even more important during forced home-bound instruction because soon those kids will be bored!
But engagement will look a little different online. Again, watching a video or reading the textbook and answering questions will get old fast. Let’s take a look at some ideas for online engagement.
Connie told me she uses things like memes and gifs just to draw kids in. Get silly! Record a check-in video and show off your pets or kids. Students are always fascinated by teachers’ real lives. Give them a video tour of your home. Post a picture of you in Spongebob pajamas. We all need to lighten the mood and laugh.
Instructional engagement requires a bit more creativity. Create graphic organizers to upload and complete. Have them use free programs like Canva or PosterMyWall to make collages. Padlet allows students to make ongoing digital word walls.
You might not be able to play Kahoot, but Quizizz can be accessed from home. Plus, you can take data from that game for a grade. Create flashcards on Quizlet and let them play the program-generated games.
Let them make videos explaining their learning. If you teach a foreign language, you can even have them record speaking assignments.
Right now, there are a ton of museums, zoos, and other places offering free virtual field trips. Let the kids explore the things they wouldn’t normally get to see.
#6: Digitize Assessments
There are many ways to assess your students’ learning online. Exit ticket questions on the LMS are the easiest way to get a quick formative assessment. Any of the other activities are also a great way to check learning.
But what about summative assessments? Your LMS might have a built-in test maker. If not, Google Forms is a simple way to make an online test. You’ll get a link to share with your students, and their answers will populate in a spreadsheet. You can also get data in pie-chart form from their answers.
To make grading easier, copy the form and make a different test for each class period. Also, be sure to include a space for them to write their name.
Will cheating happen? Probably. But we have to adapt and do the best we can.
It’s an uncertain time for teachers, but online teaching can be a fun, new challenge. It’s easily adaptable to the skill level of both you and your students. Keep up with your students and reach out if they are falling behind on the work. Get creative! Show your kids that learning isn’t something that happens only at school. Online learning is how we create lifelong learners.
What are your best tips for teaching online? Share in the comments below to help out other teachers.