Hey folks: It’s August. Chats with educator friends this week have been heavy: people are understandably worried about what education will look like in the coming months, if not years. An image from a Georgia school went viral last week, confirming what every single teacher already knows: proper mask wearing in the student population will be little higher than nil, and there is no effective way to ensure that America’s children will adhere to social distancing at school.
This is what led the Miami-Dade and Broward School superintendent’s decision to delay reopening of the public schools and open only remotely for the first few weeks. The news was no doubt a relief to schoolteachers, who fear having to return in such unsafe working conditions. Yet many parents worry about delaying the return to school, especially after the turbulent Spring semester. Even more concerning is the issue of childcare for parents struggling in one of the worst economic crises in the nation’s history.
So here we are.
I was teaching world history last spring at an independent school in Miami, and while the school handled the transition to online learning as best as could be expected under the circumstances, it was still a shock to the system for teachers and students. Since it looks like we may be headed for another uncertain year of remote and/or hybrid teaching, I wanted to compile a list of major moves to make for educators of all stations who may find themselves having to teach online in some regard this upcoming year.
Hammer Out the (policy) Details
This first step is simple but critical. You need to know what tools and parameters exist for the upcoming term. Some educators here in South Florida only just learned what LMS they will be using in the fall, which is insane. Ask your supervisor what LMS you are expected or allowed to use. Students understandably HATE having to switch between different platforms so if your school or supervisor isn’t being clear ask around and get as much clarity as possible.
Ask: Are my classes asynchronous or synchronous? What is the policy for webcam use? What is the policy for attendance in the online course? Are there any tools that are off limits? What is the e-book situation (do your students have ebook access? Do they know how to access their books?)? How much time am I expected to be online with my students (and be aware that administrators will likely have full access to intimate information about your course use)?
Only once you have the parameters hammered out can you begin to prepare.
Make your space your cockpit
I recommend thinking about your teaching space as your cockpit. Your course is your aircraft, and you must get your passengers (your students) safely to their destination. Cockpits contain all the tools necessary to fly the aircraft.
Preparing to teach virtually means that you will need to build your own version of a cockpit. It requires a different way of thinking than designing a classroom. You are not going for tons of stimuli in your cockpit, but you DO want everything you need for smooth piloting. Needing some inspiration?
Learn the (LMS) Basics
You do not have the time to become an expert at Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, Google Classroom, Etc. You CAN become proficient. Learn the basics of your LMS platform and take the time to research and process how to utilize foundational functions such as designing pages, building modules, and organizing the gradebook. Almost every one of these platforms have learning modules to work through to become proficient in its use. Some, like Google, offer certification. Obtaining certification not only make you a more prepared educator, but also enhances your CV. Most institutions have resources for online instructors and PD sessions for online teaching. Check them out as they are a great way to not only receive answers to your LMS questions, but you’ll also have the opportunity to network with other instructors in these meetings who often have great ideas themselves! Many institutions offer free access to professional development videos through subscriptions like Lynda or Linkedin Learning. Take advantage of these in your free time.
Make a Roadmap
Planning is essential for virtual teaching. You likely already have some sort of curriculum map that will serve as a foundation. Work backward. Write out your course outcomes, which may be standardized by your department. Ask yourself what essential information and skills you want your students to learn from your course. Then break down the course into “chunks” which we’ll call modules. I recommend a number divisible by two, and no more than eight. Why? Because if you have 15 modules for 15 weeks, you’ll have to completely overhaul your course if you have to teach a 6-week version later on (trust me, I know). You can always expand your modules to cover more weeks, but condensing makes a mess of everything. I use a six-week module layout. Write basic, Bloom’s-based learning outcomes for the modules, and add your instructional resources as needed. While this is a bare-bones approach to instructional design, it will at least give you a skeleton that you can build upon moving forward.
Do Not Try to Recreate the Physical Classroom
Online teaching is a vastly different enterprise than in-person teaching. That does not make it worse or better, but it is important to keep in mind as you design your meeting times. Trying to make your Zoom meetings work the same as class meetings in person will be stressful for you and your students. Instead, harness the advantages of the online modality and forget about trying to make it a mirror of your traditional classroom. In general, this means:
- Keep presentations brief (I strive for 10 minutes or less)
- Use the time for students to demonstrate understanding in a variety of ways (presentations, collaborative group work, interactive lecture or games, etc.)
- Use the time to explain concepts that students found especially challenging
Spending time planning out the agenda on the front end will help. Have the students answer a poll in advance about what they would like to discuss during the meeting, for instance, and what a “satisfactory” assessment result would look like.
By including students in the agenda of the class meetings, you can increase student engagement and make the time together more effective.
Get Ahead of the Communication Curve
Communication in online courses is so important I dedicated an entire post to it here.
Choose Your Tech
When it comes to EdTech and useful apps, my main advice for those new to teaching online is to start where you are comfortable and be intentional about expanding your repertoire. If you do not know where to start or would like to know what works as a starter pack, check out this post.
Ask for Feedback
Asking for feedback is something that I encourage my students to practice all the time, but I have often failed to prioritize it in my own work. Teaching high course loads is time-consuming and getting feedback runs the risk of derailing all that work. It also requires making oneself extremely vulnerable. Whether one has taught for a month or ten years, asking for feedback on teaching and course design can feel nerve racking. Nevertheless, some of my best ideas have come from a thoughtful suggestion from colleagues or a student’s suggestion on how to tweak an assignment. Making feedback a staple throughout your course not only demonstrates to your students that you care about their learning experience in your course, but also instills in them the importance of this practice in their own lives.
Finally, just breathe. I’ve found it is especially important to pay attention to what my body needs when teaching online. It is easy to get caught up in the planning, Zooming, and emailing only to find out that I have haven’t had any water to drink all day and have been sitting (or standing) in one position for hours. We look, sound, and work better when we take care of ourselves! So go for a run, set timers to make sure you move, eat, and drink. Show love to your body by giving yourself the food you need for a clear mind. Do what you need to release stress. And lastly, be present. We have the rare opportunity to boldly explore new possibilities in pedagogy. Embrace the unknown. This moment is historic, and education will change. We can be an intrinsic part of what comes next.