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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Strategies for Engaging Students in ‘Meaningful’ Online Learning Experiences

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 14, 2020 11 min read
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(Today’s post is the first in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective instructional strategies to use when teaching an online class?

This new series continues a 25-post “blitz” that began on Aug. 1 supporting teachers as we enter a pandemic-fueled school year.

You can see all the posts from this month, as well as the 60 from the spring, at All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Today, Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, Gina Laura Gullo, and Vivian Micolta Simmons share their suggestions.

A framework for designing learning experiences

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Heath Sciences High. They are the authors, with John Hattie, of The Distance Learning Playbook, published by Corwin:

This column is not about tools and apps, even though those are important considerations in online teaching. Instead, we would like to focus on ways to engage students in meaningful learning experiences. Naturally, this will require tools and apps, but that’s not our focus here. As we have observed over 70 teachers rapidly move to distance teaching, we noted a pattern in the ways that they engaged students. Lessons were no longer contained in an hourlong block (or two-hour literacy block). Instead, time became more fluid. Thus, we had to rethink an instructional model that would accommodate this change. We modified the gradual release of responsibility framework for online distance learning. We believe that there are four categories that are useful in designing learning experiences, all of which center around the learning expectations.

  1. Demonstrating. The first area that we’ll explore we call demonstrating. What do students need to see or experience from their teachers? What modeling, worked examples, or think-alouds would help? This is where students receive input and information but with the thinking provided. It’s not simply a lecture (it can be recorded or live) but rather a demonstration of the cognitive or metacognitive skills students need to develop. We particularly like tools that allow students to be assessed on the information provided during demonstrations, such as PlayPosit, which allows teachers to quiz students about the information in the video recording. We encourage teachers to allow students to watch segments again if they do not respond correctly to the questions. We have learned that frequent, low-stakes assessments are more likely to keep students engaged in learning online.

  2. Collaborating. Student-to-student interaction is an important aspect of learning and should be integrated into online learning experiences. Unfortunately, too many online courses are piles of independent work with limited opportunities for interaction. We particularly like the breakout-room function in Zoom. We use protocols to hold students accountable for their interactions, such as Text Rendering in which students read a piece of text and then, in their groups, each share a significant sentence, then a significant phrase, and then a significant word. They scribe these in Google Docs so that the teacher can see the progress of the groups. Next,they discuss the patterns they noticed in their collective responses to determine what the text means. We also like five-word summaries. After reading, each student locates five summarizing words from the reading. Next, we place students in pairs in breakout rooms where they compare their lists and reach consensus on a revised set of five words. Then we collapse the rooms so that each pair joins another pair. Here they work as a foursome to reach consensus on a final list of five words that represent the group’s thinking. Each student then individually completes a summary paragraph of the text using the final list of five words.

  3. Coaching and facilitating. This is commonly done in smaller groups and allows teachers to provide needed direct instruction or guided learning experiences. From our experiences, these are often done in a synchronous environment so that the teacher can adjust to the needs of the students. Typically, this process begins with a question, either from the teacher or the students. Teachers can prompt and cue students, providing just enough support for students to experience cognitive demand. We are still looking for tools to do this. Right now, this is the heavy lifting of teachers in online learning.

  4. Practicing. This provides students an opportunity to replicate and apply what they have learned. There is no shortage of independent tasks students can complete online. They can take quizzes, write papers, complete labs, and the like. We also like tools such as Achieve3000 (Kidbiz, Empower) that provide students practice with reading while also receiving corrective feedback. This system assigns texts aligned with students’ current reading performance. This system adjusts upward as students demonstrate success in comprehending the texts.

There are an abundance of ways that teachers can engage students in meaningful learning experiences online. We find it useful to design these experiences with an instructional framework in mind so that each module or learning unit develops students’ understanding in an intentional way.

Modifying face-to-face instruction for a virtual setting

Gina Laura Gullo is an educational equity consultant with GLG Consulting and a researcher of unintentional bias and interventions that serve to lessen the impact of such biases. She also adjuncts and mentors in educational leadership at several Mid-Atlantic universities:

As the need for effective online instruction grows, teachers must learn new strategies to keep students engaged in learning. Several strategies for effective face-to-face instruction and classroom- management work in online settings as well. The list below provides several common in-person strategies teachers often implement to keep students engaged in instructional content with descriptions of how to use each in an online setting.

Strategies for Synchronous Learning:

  1. Think-Pair-Share: Teachers can use the breakout-room feature available in many video-conference formats, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, to have students discuss learning in pairs or triads. To do this, set the program to randomly assign breakout rooms of two to three participants each and share a screen with the content for discussion and a timer during the breakout sessions.

  2. Proximity Control: While teachers cannot walk around the classroom in a virtual setting, they can highlight students or listen in during small groups. During full-group synchronous teaching, use the private chat feature to check in with students individually. When in breakout rooms, move between the rooms as the host to listen in to discussions.

  3. Random Responses: Teachers who typically select student names from a jar to see who answers the next question can do this using a numbered list of student names and a random number sequence generator. Call on students based on their number in the list using the order shown in the random sequence to keep students engaged and include the entire class.

Strategies for Asynchronous Learning:

  1. Learning Stations: When students cannot move around a classroom to visit different learning stations, they can participate in different learning activities during asynchronous learning in a self-chosen order. Provide online content that includes several activities but allow students to select the order of the activities. For example:

    • Station 1: Vocabulary Matching Game can help students develop academic vocabulary and language.

    • Station 2: E-text Chapter can continue reading development and offer direct instruction. Many also offer “essential questions” to guide student reading.

    • Station 3: Learning Modules offer adaptive learning that often include formative assessment and targeted feedback.

    • Station 4: Virtual Museum Tour offers a field experience and nonlinguistic learning on a topic.

  2. Inquiry-Based Learning: While inquiry-based learning remains difficult asynchronously, the “flipped classroom” format offers a tool for offering a level of inquiry in the classroom. Provide students with topics to research online during asynchronous class time that are required prior to synchronous class time. Then, use this learning to guide a collaborative discussion where students serve as “experts” on each topic. After class, during asynchronous work, students can work together (virtually) or independently to merge learning during class with their inquiry topic and make sense of the content.

  3. Guided Note-Taking: Synchronous learning can offer the same note guides or graphic organizers that would be used in a traditional face-to-face setting. Rather than using these during teacher lecture, the guides can focus inquiry-based learning using the internet or streamline reading and summarization of text-based materials.

These strategies for effective online instruction reflect only a few of the face-to-face modalities that remain applicable with online instruction. While learning new instructional strategies remains critical to developing the best online learning environments, teachers can also use these familiar, time-tested instructional strategies to keep students effectively engaged in instruction.

Take a break”

Vivian Micolta Simmons was born in Colombia and has been in the U.S. for seven years. She has been a teacher for 14 years and is currently working as a ESL/DLI lead teacher for the Iredell-Statesville schools in N.C:

As a former DLI (dual-language immersion) teacher, ESL teacher for K-8, and recently becoming an ESL/DI lead teacher in the county, I teach students and work on administration duties as well. At school, the administration gave us directions to set up private Facebook pages (per grade level), which parents can only access by request. Teachers are using different resources to keep the learning going. For instance, some teachers are using the Facebook private page to post links to Zoom meetings. Some are posting links to sites like the Khan Academy, and others are creating videos ahead of time to teach a lesson.

Creating these videos has been both challenging and rewarding. At first, it wasn’t comfortable deciding what to do and how to contribute to online teaching. Also, given the new responsibilities, it was imperative to find a quick, useful way to teach to set up the daily routine. The answer was: video recording. QuickTime Player is an app that allows voice and screen recording. It is easy to preview vocabulary and work on listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities.

To sum it up, here are some important points to share:

- Even though times are difficult and uncertain, we are fortunate to have a job still and do what we love.

- Be flexible with yourself and the students: think about the due dates set and the amount of information sent. Remote learning and teaching are new for ALL of us, and some families still do not have devices or internet service. Less is OK for now.

- Check in on students. A phone call can do wonders and will strengthen positive relationships.

- Send frequent emails or announcements but do not overcommunicate. Keeping families informed is a must right now, but do not flood them with tons of information. It is not about quantity but quality.

- Stick to just one form of communication (email, ClassDojo, Class Tag, Talking Points, Facebook closed pages) to give parents and students a sense of consistency.

- Start small and keep things manageable.

- Provide support and feedback for students. If unable to get hold of some families, communicate with the school administration to provide guidance.

- Watch tutorials, read blogs, or check out webinars (simple K12, Cassie Create abilities, Saddleback, Edmentum, Larry Ferlazo) if you need advice or work on your CEU credentials.

- Reach out to peers and ask for help if needed, simply to reach a consensus on what is working for others.

- Follow your school administrator’s guidance and ask for help when needed. We are all in this together.

- Take a break and rest. Self-care is a must. Unplug from social media periodically and abstain yourself from reading negative stories online.

Thanks to Doug, Nancy, Gina, and Vivian for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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