Final Strategies to Optimize Online Classrooms

Part III: Best practices on being an interesting and effective online teacher.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

This blog post is a continuation of the first nine strategies introduced in Part I plus an additional seven strategies in Part II for optimizing virtual/distance/online classrooms. 

Lesson #17: Learning is for doing. It bears repeating—if you sucked in person by leaning on lecturing, you’ll suck even more online. Think first about what students are doing and content second. You can do demonstrations of skills via video or audio interactions. Live surveys to gauge what everyone is thinking and then dissect the results and ask for reasons for the choices made. You can guide students through reflective activities that involve contemplation or writing. You can use multimedia presentations with embedded film and audio clips. You can have online quizzes and tasks that unlock additional levels of learning. They don’t need a lecture, because there are enough asynchronous babbling figureheads on podcasts (and higher quality videos on YouTube). Stretch your capacity to come up with interesting, meaningful, and fun activities—for them

Lesson #18: Set clear norms. I inform everyone to go mute from the get-go. And I reduce audio Q&A because the transitions take a long time. I ask them to write in the chat room to verbalize what would be their non-verbals: yep, great point, you suck, that contradicts last week, etc. The constant stream of feedback is useful to me and helps them stay engaged. The chat room is the juice! It is more valuable to go deep into exchanges with less time spent on planned course content.

Lesson #19: Respect individual differences. I begin each class with the same question, “what residuals remain from last class?” This way, students with an introverted learning style who require time to process information can jump into the conversation, albeit one class later. Fail to do this and you only reward students who are extemporaneous – which is irrelevant to intelligence, creativity, or knowledge. The students know that I am going to be receptive to a wide range of individual differences and not just focus on the quickest student to raise their hand and speak. In fact, I often intentionally choose the third or fourth person to raise their hand to get them out of the habit of thinking faster = better.

Lesson #20: Aim for improvisational performances over excessive over-planning. Be present and students will feel it and be more engaged. I ask a lot of questions before and throughout class and use student stories as fodder to teach the material. This goes back to using student names to let them know you are in this together. This is going back to making the content personally meaningful. I know it makes teachers nervous to be unstructured. Take the risk. Your students will appreciate it, especially in an online environment.

Lesson #21: Check in with some level of privacy. Let me give you the cheat I wish someone told me: Use Google Forms to make quizzes. Make sure the first question has students list their name, email, ID number, whatever you use for grading. You can make multiple-choice or essay questions. I add a final Honor Code question where they confirm they did this on their own. Set an end date. You automatically get pie charts for what people said with multiple-choice questions. You can set up an automated scoring system. You can download the answers for each student in an excel format. Takes mere minutes versus an hour or more in other platforms such as Webex and Blackboard. As a bonus, add open-ended questions on how people are doing, coping, what they need, etc. The answers are anonymous & now you can get the juice on everyone in a single swoop versus a ton of emails to sift through. Keep kicking butt by taking care of our students!

NOTE: Check your school's policies on student names and IDs before using Google Forms.

Lesson #22: Use time wisely. You will stumble with the technology. Talk to students in a self-deprecating manner as you experience snafus. Engage them instead of having them wait it out. You will serve as a model that you suck as much as everyone else. Use mistakes as opportunities to demonstrate humility and common humanity. And show respect for their time by going one step further: Inform students to use the chat room to talk to each other as you stumble through technology. Put yourself in their shoes about the pain of wasted time online. It is so easy to make great use of these moments. Give them a question to discuss with each other and you will find the class runs better without you.

Some final loose thoughts:

I asked my students if they want to start every class with a 5-minute breakout where they can just talk to each other and catch up without my monitoring. They loved the idea. It is now part of our norms. Consider asking the same of your students.

My big fear is the loss of social ties in the summer. I asked my students in an anonymous poll whether they want to give their email and keep an ongoing email thread with students. Every student opted in. The plan is for me to stay with them to provide mentorship and support, and the class to build friendships to carry over into the fall. NOTE: Make this an opt-in and not an opt-out activity to allow for individual differences.

I often spend time with them to talk about immunity. The science of building physical immunity through exercise and the dangers of alcohol and drugs that sap immunity. Do not assume students know more than you think. I give them a pestering parent trigger warning each time I go down this direction.

After every few minutes, I say: Time for me to stop babbling. Use the chat room and chimney sweep thoughts, questions, beefs, connections, or just random thoughts. My students love it as say they hilarious things that keep the mojo going in class. Lighten up, let the kids play, even at your expense.

That's all, 22 strategies in total. Remember why you became a teacher. Go easy on the students. If you are a student, go easy on the teachers. And if you are a parent, chill the heck out. Few of us were trained to conduct online classrooms. I am only three months in and still learning every day. 

Good luck out there. Please use some of the advice above to offer what your students need, which is far more important than what you want. And if you have other tips or suggestions, please comment below. Pass this on so that we can get a clearinghouse of free best practices.