6 Steps Toward Better Online Teaching

1. Avoid the Horseless Carriage Mindset.

When setting up online learning experiences, we’re tempted to see the goal as replicating an in-person experience, when in fact online learning and in-person learning are two different “things.” Trying to make online learning “the same” as in-person won’t work.

When something new is invented it’s easy for us to describe this new thing using older, more familiar terms. Take the car as an example. Early versions of the automobile were referred to as a”horseless carriage.” People knew what a carriage was, but couldn’t yet wrap their minds around this new thing. But a car was not simply a carriage without a horse, it was something entirely new that would transform life in the industrial age. The same can be said about online learning. If we hope that online learning will feel and be the same as in-person learning, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. The goal is to think differently about something new, rather than try to replicate something familiar in a new format.

2. Be Emotionally Present.

Letting go of our expectation that our online classrooms will be the same as our in-person learning can trigger a sense of loss. Teaching online can be difficult. We like being together in the same room as our students. Our first experiences teaching online can feel like being asked to perform a violin concerto with a missing string.

To be successful this year, we will also need to embrace the grief, loss, and disappointment of our students, regardless of the age level. The pandemic has brought significant loss and grief that our students – as well as ourselves – need to work through. Whether it is the trauma of the death of a loved one, or the disappointment of starting a college experience online, the sense of loss is real.

One of the most successful educational interventions in the U.S. during the 20th century was not an academic intervention. In 1946, the National School Lunch program began offering free and reduced schools to schools. The idea is that hungry kids don’t learn. So we decided to feed them, with significant improvements in learning. The same might be said about our emotional well being: kids and adults who are stressed, anxious, disappointed, and traumatized by the pandemic’s rippling impacts have a harder time learning. Our efforts – whether in-person or online – should be mindful and attend to the emotional dynamics of ourselves and our students.

One of the most successful educational interventions in the U.S. during the 20th century was not an academic intervention.

This can be done online. I co-taught a graduate course with my friend this summer. At our first live video chat, my friend and co-instructor Cory Willson began the session by sharing his grief and reaction to the recent murder of George Floyd. We asked a simple question: “What are you bringing emotionally to this session?” Strangers from three countries shared about our social isolation, pandemic anxiety, and the trauma of witnessing the actual murder of George Floyd and others online. Some of us openly cried. Then we moved on to the topic of the day: navigating the challenges of a digital world.

3. Become an Online Learner.

One of the challenges of the sudden and massive shift to online learning is that many of us (teachers and administrators) have not experienced online learning as students. For our in-person teaching, we at least have our own experience as a point of reference and guide. If you’ve taken online college courses, you certainly haven’t experienced online kindergarten! The more direct experience as a learner the better. You can learn ANYTHING online. Pick something fun. You can learn to code, do ballet, or the basics of email marketing. Reflect on your experience. What worked well? What didn’t? What translates to my teaching?

4. Lecture (a little bit).

Its okay to rely on familiar strategies, such as the lecture. I get it. Teaching into a webcam can be as exciting as talking to a tree – especially when we draw teaching energy from an embodied audience. But it can also be effective! Online lectures can actually be an improvement to in-person lectures. Students pause a lecture or go back to listen multiple times. A few tips for lectures: remember to look into the camera when talking, and keep each video to around six minutes. If your lecture is usually an hour, simply break it up into small digestible chunks. After each video, you can prompt your students to answer questions, or complete an activity that helps to drive the point home. Questions can be self-reflection or interactive with other students. This avoids more “passive” listening and keeps the engagement going.

Screencasting (recording your screen) is your friend! But avoid the mistake of simply reading powerpoint slides to your students. Use the screen to show diagrams, photos, and other things to keep it interesting. To personalize the experience, start a topic by recording a video of yourself talking directly to the screen in order to explain why you love the topic, and why your students should, too. Then, record a second video via screen cast to explain the topic. Knowing that the screen is being recorded instead of your face will make you less self conscious as you talk. Recording your screen is good for sharing visual aids (less good for bulleted lists). Recording your face is good for introducing, summarizing, encouraging, and personalizing the lecture.

5. Work Offline. Share Online.

It might be counterintuitive, but one of the best parts of online learning might be the offline part! What if your online classroom was essentially a place for you to set up an assignment that asks your students to close their laptop and go do something? Go interview someone about the course topic. Write something by hand. Walk through a neighborhood. Build something with items in your house. Prepare and deliver (and record) a persuasive speech to a sibling. Think of all the great teaching strategies you know and love: experiential learning, project based learning, service-learning, and set your students loose. Some might even be doable at a social distance!

What if your online classroom was essentially a place for you to set up an assignment that asks your students to close their laptop and go do something?

One of the paradigm shifts in online learning is that the classroom is the setting in which a student finds themself. Rather than learn in a classroom, the learning happens in whichever embodied context the student finds themself.

The online classroom is simply a place where people gather to report back what they’ve been doing in the “real world.” Art students take pictures of examples of patterns, colors, textures in their house and then post to an online discussion forum. A student records the song they wrote and performed in their house with their family or for their neighbor from a safe social distance using homemade drums, then shares it with the class. Take pictures of your experiment as you demonstrate the steps of the scientific method, then share online.

The complexities of what works will depend on the age, subject matter, access to resources and support, and other characteristics of your students. You know your students best. The above examples might not work for your students, but illustrate the framework: work offline, share online. Working offline enables great learning opportunities and helps avoid the dreaded “Zoom Fatigue” of being online all day.

6. Engage the Senses.

One of the challenges of online learning is that it can ‘flatten’ our experience to a screen. As you shape offline assignments, do your best to engage as many senses as possible. This makes things more interesting, regardless of age. Research has shown that engaging in multi-sensory experiences can enhance learning and memory.

Conclusion

If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right! Teachers often comment that online learning is at least as much work as in-person learning. This is one reason why colleges and universities haven’t been able to lower the cost of instruction when moving online. If anything, the cost goes up due to all the extra considerations and technology support needed.

But the silver lining is this: my friends who teach online often comment that teaching online improves their in-person teaching. Like the violinist who’s string breaks in the middle of a concert and has to use all of their alternate fingerings, teaching online requires us to use alternate ways of doing things. Imposing limitations and restrictions is a way to spark creativity. Art teachers often give assignment with strict limitations in order to force creativity in their students. Besides, you didn’t sign up for this whole teaching thing because it would be easy, did you?

Written by Dr. Aaron Einfeld

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