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Effective Online Learning Practices

online learning
(Image credit: istock)

Teachers across the globe made a rapid transition to online learning in 2020. In many cases this happened with little advance support or guidance, and as a result, not everyone made a smooth transition to teaching this way. 

Some schools simply used an online platform as a substitution for face-to-face learning, which might have involved providing students with scanned worksheets or reading material and then expecting them to respond on paper. This is the lowest degree of technology integration according to Reuben Puentedura’s SAMR model

Technology allows us to move beyond substitution and actually redefine learning. As we move into a new school year, we have an opportunity to reflect and consider incorporating some of the following effective online learning practices.

Establish norms 

Instructing students online is different from being face-to-face. As students move to this method of learning, teachers can discuss with them the norms that support effective learning. This might include discussing topics such as appropriate attire, when to mute/unmute, when to use chat, raising your hand to contribute, using backgrounds, how to clap, and what to do when classes are recorded. 

A good resource for this with useful infographics comes from Matt Miller’s site Ditch that Textbook in his post on Using Google Meet Effectively. His ideas are applicable across all video conferencing platforms. 

Create accessible content 

Creating accessible content means reducing barriers of comprehension, ensuring that content is accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities and who speak languages other than English. 

At this point, you should assume that any document you create will end up on the device of a person with a disability. Unlike traditional paper, digital content can be made accessible using digital tools and employing accessible practices. However this takes knowhow. For example, if you are taking screenshots or pictures of documents that you share or post online, this is not accessible. 

Ensuring that content is accessible means knowing that you should never scan a document since it can’t be read by a screen reader, translated, or completed online. Instead you must use an accessible source document or create new content with accessibility in mind. So learning how to create content that has alternative text, proper heading structure, meaningful hyperlinks, closed captioning for videos, and proper color contrast is necessary. It is also important to write in plain language so content can be more easily understood and translated. The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials has resources and courses to help teachers create accessible content.

Strengthen relationships 

Teachers know the importance of developing meaningful relationships with and among students. When teaching online this is as, or even more, important. Consider incorporating tools and techniques that help you and your students connect. 

Some ways educators are doing this include:

  • Making a short, personal video for each student. 
  • Having fun with emojis and GIFs that show you and your students care. 
  • Establishing ways to show appreciation or that a student has done good work. For example, during live instruction this could include setting up a system for other students to unmute and clap at the end of a presentation. Ensure students know how to use a tool on your platform to show a reaction or do a silent clap. 
  • Using a tool such as Mentimeter to get real-time input and reactions from students. 
  • Starting live sessions with a show and tell. 
  • Setting a time each week for students to just connect and chat. This might be Tuesday tea or a weekly chat and chew. 

Know your Core 4

Ideally, across your school you will create a system that will serve as the backbone of your online learning. 

Educator Jeff Utech has coined this the “Core 4.” This includes the following:  

  • A learning management system (LMS) such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Schoology, or Brightspace. 
  • A backbone to your LMS such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or One Drive, in which all the content is created and resides. 
  • A tool for synchronous teaching and learning such as Google Meets, Microsoft Teams Meeting, or Zoom. 
  • A tool for asynchronous teaching and learning such as Screencastify, Screencast-O-Matic, or Microsoft Stream. 

Don't reinvent the wheel

A great thing about online learning is that there are already tons of high-quality materials freely available. Teachers are not curriculum writers; this work has already been done by those who are. 

Learn what resources are out there. When you do this, you can have more time to focus on the real work of teaching, such as helping students learn, fostering connections, building relationships, and ensuring their social emotional needs are met. 

Two great resources to find such content are:

Foster lively interaction

Technology provides a great way for students and teachers to connect, interact, and have some fun. 

  • Consider having your class begin with some music playing to set a positive mood, even if it is done remotely! 
  • Start class a bit early to give students the opportunity to socialize. 
  • Consider creating some short pre- and post-polling questions and compare responses. A meaningful poll can lead to good discussion and idea sharing.
  • Create a workbook or checklist to help students stay on track during class and let them know what they should be documenting.  
  • At times ask students to respond to how they’re feeling about what they just learned with emojis. 
  • Add some fun/funny content to encourage fun and laughter. 
  • Set aside time to have breakout rooms so students can more easily interact and/or do group work. 
  • Encourage students to put questions either in a chat or other space such as an online notebook or document. 

Connect with experts

It can be difficult to have guests come to a school or classroom. When learning happens online, that’s no longer the case. Teachers can reach out to their learning networks to have a guest speaker who may work in a field they are teaching. They can tap the expertise of student’s families. For example, invite an author to answer questions students have after reading their book. 

Connect with families

Families will want a way to connect with their child’s teacher. Establish a clear way for them to do so. This may be via Google Voice or email, or through an app or website. See the recommended list of apps and websites for improving parent-teacher communication from Common Sense Education. 

Have a schedule

While there may not be bells (thank goodness!) in an online learning environment, every teacher should have a schedule that is posted and easily accessible. This should indicate items such as: 

  • Drop time: What day and time can my students expect to find their weekly assignments? 
  • Live instruction: What times will live instruction occur each week? 
  • Office hours: When can students join their teacher for office hours? 
  • Social hour: When can students get together with their teacher and classmates to socialize? 

Teach digital literacy and citizenship

Teaching online means every teacher needs to engage in a dialogue around appropriate and responsible ways to act online. While schools should have taught students about digital literacy and citizenship prior to COVID-19 and the transition to online learning, there needs to be a refresher. All teachers, not just the librarian or technology teacher, must address the issues so that students have a better understanding of their digital footprint, how to effectively communicate online, tools they can use when they engage in digital spaces, and strategies for when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe online.

Here are a few quality resources that are available to support this:

Teach as if there are no walls

When students are learning online, you can teach as if there are no walls, because there aren’t! 

Rethink how learning can be customized. Maybe a student is interested in a class or subject that they were not originally scheduled for, or maybe they want to try learning from a different teacher. Perhaps they are ready for a more challenging class in another grade. Let them try! Maybe they want to take a larger course load. Maybe one teacher’s live instruction time fits better with the students schedule. When the learning happens online, this can become an easier reality that also allows customized learning to happen more easily.

Rethink learning spaces

While online learning can happen at home, it can also happen at school, or really, anywhere. Schools that have constraints on space can explore partnerships with other places in the community for students to learn. 

For example, many colleges of education and tutoring centers have students only after school. Some colleges are having classes only online in fall and the campus will be virtually empty. These spaces can be utilized during the day for students to learn. While they need to be staffed by someone licensed to work with students, this does not need to be a teacher as the students already have a teacher. 

Businesses can also think creatively for ways to provide child care for staff who need it. A schedule could potentially be organized that has a student in their base school at times and at other times a remote location where child care can be provided. 

Ultimately, online learning should not try to imitate face-to-face instruction. It provides us an opportunity to think differently and support innovative teaching and learning practices. While change is not comfortable, it’s time to stop doing what we’ve always done. Our students are growing up and graduating in a digital world that looks very different from the traditional brick-and-mortar school. Let’s look at how people engage in the world outside school with connection, interactivity, on-demand learning and resources. Let’s try to use effective practices to make the learning our students engage in look more like that.  

Lisa Nielsen (@InnovativeEdu) has worked as a public-school educator and administrator since 1997. She is a prolific writer best known for her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator. Nielsen is the author of several books and her writing has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Tech & Learning and T.H.E. Journal.   

Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.