Best Practices for Teachers Making the Switch to Virtual Instruction: Q&A with Online Education Experts

Oct 20, 2023
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Educators around the United States and the world are facing a huge level of uncertainty as local governments respond to the fast-evolving COVID-19 pandemic. In many areas, schools and districts are making the shift to online learning, which means that classroom teachers are being asked to become virtual teachers—and quickly. Adding to the challenge, many educators navigating this transition don’t know if online learning will be a short-term situation or the solution for the remainder of the school year.

Students’ wellbeing and success are always priorities for educators. But, in the midst of this high-stress situation, teachers need to take care of themselves as well. The good news is that online teaching and learning are not new approaches.

For many educators and students, the virtual format is their day-to-day normal, and now is the time to lean on their experience and advice. That’s why we convened a group of four online learning experts for an interactive, Q&A-driven webinar on what traditional classroom teachers can do to make the shift to online teaching as smooth and effective as possible:

  • Natasha Sumner, an EdOptions Academy virtual high school English teacher with 4 years of online and 9 years of brick-and-mortar classroom teaching experience
  • Ashleigh O’Neill, an EdOptions Academy virtual math teacher who has spent 11 years in online teaching and administration and 6 years in the brick-and-mortar classroom
  • Daryl Vavrichek, an Edmentum educational programs consultant with 10 years of experience as online master teacher and administrator in addition to 4 years of consulting experience focused on online program implementation
  • David Disko, an Edmentum education consultant with 21 years of in-person and online teaching, coaching, mentoring, and research experience, as well as 16 years of education consulting experience

Check out the full conversation, or read through the partial, condensed transcript below that has been edited for clarity. We’ll continue to conduct these educator Q&A webinars in the coming weeks. Check out our complete listing of upcoming webinars for dates, times, and specific subjects.

We’ve seen a lot of questions come up that center around educators feeling nervous about their own technological savviness and ability to teach online. What can educators do to calm nerves and be successful through this transition?

David: I immediately think about what happens when I'm facilitating an in-person training with a group of educators. Usually, some people will say they're going to be my problem student for the day because they don't feel comfortable with technology. I turn it around and ask, "Do you use email? Do you check Facebook? Do you read news online?” Almost everyone says yes. With these basic skills, teachers can translate what they do in the classroom to the online environment. It’s important to relax, take a deep breath, and know that there will be challenges to overcome, just like in the classroom.

How can teachers set clear expectations for students in an online learning environment?

Daryl: We need to start by talking about broader objectives for the online situation. Talk to your leaders about what the end goals are, and think about the long term. Lean on building structure into your teaching and students’ days, and be diligent in establishing a cadence over time—over time, the routines will start to take care of themselves. In the short term, understand that you will forget things and make mistakes during this transition, and that's OK—give yourself grace.

What can teachers do to monitor student progress and keep them on track when they're not in the classroom?

Ashleigh: Monitoring student progress will look different based on the platform you are using for online learning. Start with contacting your administrators or technology team to make sure that you understand what kind of reporting features are available in your platform. It's amazing the amount of data that you can get from an online learning management system. You can find out how long the students have been logged in, what the last time they logged in was, and what they're spending their time doing. Then, you can use that information when you’re talking to students and say, "Hey, I noticed that you didn't log in yesterday. What's going on?" It gives you information to know how to encourage them.

How can teachers overcome the challenges related to communication, collaboration, and creativity, and still maintain the art of teaching while working online?

Natasha: Carrying over as much of what you can from your brick-and-mortar is key because students thrive on consistency. For instance, if you had a weekly star student, you can still have that in your virtual classroom. Or maybe you typically host writers workshops—at the end of a writing unit you can still host a virtual group share-out. Continue to send your weekly or monthly classroom newsletter. Any kind of consistency that you can maintain will be really helpful.

I think about being consistent and persistent in communicating with my online students. Decide on specific platforms that you will use with students—for instance, Google Voice, Zoom, Loom, Fripgrid, and Padlet. There are so many free resources out there that allow for collaboration—stretch yourself. Make sure that students and parents know what platforms you’re using and how to get in touch with you. Then, it’s all about reinforcing. Tell your students, "Look, we're in a different environment. I'm here to support you like I've always been, and I need you to communicate with me. It's imperative that you do that."

What are some of the best ways to teach more hands-on lessons, like science labs and project-based learning activities, in an online environment?

Daryl: I think back to that idea of giving yourself grace and evolving your approach over time, and I encourage you to get creative, especially for students in the grades K–3 range. What kind of activities can you design that rely on common household products and don’t force families to buy special supplies or kits?

For students in the grades 6–12 range, there are a lot of interactive online resources. In the early stages of getting things going when you want science to happen, you can think about that essential skill and what experiences actually need to happen for that learner and give families multiple approaches. We're ultimately leaning on parents to facilitate some of this learning, and we want to give options that are attainable and workable. We have to think about our environment and what our expectations are.

Ashleigh: Number one, make it easy for students to admit if they don't have the ability to do what you’re asking in a hands-on activity. And then, consider expectations again. Can you create (or find) a video to explain what you want them to do at home? Do you need an interactive online lab? Or is it something that they need to physically put their hands on in order to best meet the goal of learning that content?

What recommendations do you have about the amount of time that students should be spending on each class per day, keeping in mind differences depending on the developmental stages of your students?

Natasha: I recommend chunking concepts into small recordings or mini lessons. The big difference between online and face-to-face instruction is when students are online watching a video lesson, it can be extra hard to focus. I think about focusing on the essential question or the learning target in my lesson videos.

Daryl: I think this is a good opportunity to talk through the facilitator model. Online, you're facilitating students to make progress away from you and really have to think about how you are guiding them from the side. It's the idea of shifting your thought process to Natasha's point about small chunks of content that is an anticipatory set or a thought producer and then giving students the ability to come back and demonstrate and model. That’s where the creativity comes in.

Ashleigh: I would add that teachers and students making this transition together are uniquely positioned in that you have already built relationships, which is probably the hardest part of teaching online. You already know your kids, and if you think through what you would do in your brick-and-mortar classroom, and when students would need a break in the lesson, that’s how you know what “chunks” of content to create.

How can you provide small-group instruction in the online environment?

Natasha: When you’re providing live instruction online, breaking students out into small groups, even if you teach each group the same lesson, gives students the chance to participate more and makes it easier for you to monitor students’ understanding. Think about your objective for the lesson and if it’s something where being able to focus on each student will be beneficial. This can be really important for working on essential skills like reading fluency.

What are some tips and tools for making effective instructional videos?

David: I often use my smartphone to make instructional videos. Usually, these are very short and simple. And don't feel when you shoot anything on video that it has to be absolutely studio perfect. You're going to fumble a little bit. And if you do, just keep on going like you do in the classroom. That's part of the natural flow and rhythm to this.

Zoom is one specific program that works well for filming videos, even though we usually think of it for conference calls or live meetings. You can actually set up a Zoom call with yourself, record a lesson to your computer or the cloud, and then it’s available to share. It produces a high-quality recording, whether you film with a desktop, laptop, tablet, or a phone.

Ashleigh: I'm a math teacher, so I am not able to effectively present online lessons by speaking—my students have to see what I'm doing. When I'm presenting a live lesson, screen sharing is most important for me. I put an example in a PowerPoint presentation, and I use options in that program to write on the screen as I’m presenting the concept. There are other interactive whiteboard programs as well—don’t feel like video lessons have to be all about you speaking on camera.

What can you do to make sure that you and your students continue to maintain that social connection that is such a huge part of the classroom?

Natasha: Like we’ve already talked about, you already know your students from the brick-and-mortar classroom, so you're at a major advantage. Send little messages to your students throughout the day to acknowledge when they complete tasks. Try making memes for your students—kids love that. Find time to bring your kids together virtually as well. Think about hosting an opening meeting at the start of the week and then a closing meeting at the end of the week.

Daryl: Check out different communication and collaboration apps. I’ve been hearing about Seesaw and Facebook’s Messenger Kids lately. But no matter what tool you use, it’s about building that culture of community and really allowing multiple ways for kids to share their ideas.

Ashleigh: For the older grades, teaching a live lesson with all of your kids in one space at one time helps keep those social connections going. For the younger grades, try hosting a live book reading or joke time where you can get kids together and let them have fun interacting with each other.

How can you differentiate for your students who are working at different levels, especially as that relates to different reading levels?

Daryl: First, let's not forget that we don't have to create everything, right? Lean on the online programs your district has offered for differentiated content. And then, beg, borrow, and steal. PBS KIDS and other mission-driven websites have a suite of content that would allow you really to have your reader reading at the level you want them to be at.

It's also important to think about Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals and resources around to support our special education students. Talk to your district about what the expectations are, and make sure that you’re working within them.

Ashleigh: Don’t be afraid of having individual meetings with kids as well. I have roughly 250 students in my caseload, but not all 250 need a one-on-one appointment. So don't think that by opening up the opportunity to have individual time that you're going to be doing that all day, every day. Some of your students are going to need it, and some won't. Often, you can accomplish in a 15-minute, one-on-one meeting what that student could work on for an hour on their own and not figure out. Reach out to your kids that you know would benefit from having just you talking to them for a couple minutes to get them going, and you're going to save them and yourself a lot of frustration.

How can teachers keep students engaged when they’re working online?

Ashleigh: For younger students, number one, find activities that you feel will be interesting for them. As much as possible, you don't want them just sitting there working on worksheets. Find videos, find music, find different activities—incorporate movement, have them go outside and jump 10 times while they're doing their addition facts and things like that to keep them moving. Do what you can to find out which students have an adult at home to help them, and incorporate those caregivers into the work you assign as well.

Natasha: With older students, I always tell them, “Don't ‘ghost’ me.” Being persistent with communication helps get them engaged. So, if you notice that your students haven't been showing up to online office hours or live lessons or if they're just generally not responding, try to catch that right away. And then, just kind of be a gentle thorn in their side. Remind them you’re not going anywhere and that you understand things are unpredictable right now. Tell them that you’re here and want them to finish their course.

David: I usually tell my students I hover at a distance.

How do you support those students who might not have consistent access to Internet?

David: It's going to be on a case-by-case basis—it really depends on your community. Some Internet providers may provide free service to households during this time. If worse comes to worst, print off worksheets as take-home packets for students, and put them in the mail. That's how correspondence school started. That's the predecessor of what we're doing here.

Natasha: If there's any opportunity where you can take a screenshot of something that's going to help the students with a big project or certain foundational skills, that can be really helpful. If there’s not regular access to a computer or Internet, students or their parents or guardians can at least save screenshots on their phones.

Daryl: Try using voicemail. You can leave messages for your students with discussion prompts, and they can return the message with their response. I think you can get creative with the low-tech piece, and then bring it back to the idea of giving yourself grace. Be purposeful in that you want every student to learn or continue to make strides, but we don't necessarily have to knock every single standard out in the next six weeks before school is out so that we can be prepared for state testing. Things have been and will continue to be adjusted.

Edmentum is committed to being your partner in navigating this transition to virtual learning. Check out all of our free resources to continue learning during school closures, with best practice guides, parent communication templates, video lessons, additional webinars, and more.

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