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Teaching Opinion

Strategies for Online Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 18, 2020 17 min read
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(Today’s post is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

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.

In Part One, Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, Gina Laura Gullo, and Vivian Micolta Simmons shared their suggestions.

In Part Two, Jared Covili, Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., and Toby Karten provided their responses.

Today, Marcy Webb, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, Amanda Lescas, Kristin Rouleau, Ed.D., and Dr. Theresa Capra “wrap up” the series.

The next question-of-the-week can be found at the bottom of this post.

“Connect personally with each student”

Marcy Webb is a secondary school Spanish teacher, workshop presenter, and occasional writer:

After 10 weeks of remote teaching during the second half of the spring semester 2020, these are the key strategies that I used, to which students responded positively, and which I plan to use again when we return to remote learning at some point during the school year:

  1. Have a structure for taking attendance. Google Classroom has a built-in mechanism for doing this. However, by the time I discovered/learned about it, I was using a Question Of The Day (QOTD) with my Spanish 4 students and various “check-in” activities with my Spanish 1-7 and Spanish 1-6 students (first-year Spanish).

  2. Connect personally with each student, to the extent possible. It could be as specific as following up on something the student told me, i.e., getting a new puppy or simply asking how the weekend was.

  3. Plan for a mix of teacher-directed instruction and breakout-room activities. Even though I taught my students for 45 minutes on average remotely (classes on campus are 80 minutes), I still assigned group work and periods of student-to-student interaction. Giving students opportunities to collaborate with each other was more like being together on campus in the classroom.

  4. Gain greater proficiency, knowledge, and awareness of online tools appropriate for one’s classes. This was a strong suit for me during the spring semester. I am not afraid to experiment with online tools. Also, many such tools I had wanted to use but had not had the opportunity to do so before the quarantine.

  5. Limit triage on tech matters. Too often, I overextended myself with students’ tech issues when I should have deferred/referred them to the experts. Also, students need to learn to resolve their own tech issues, even if it is merely connecting with the school tech specialist.

Tools for online teaching

Michelle Shory and Irina McGrath are Google Certified trainers and co-creators of ELL 2.0, a website that offers tools and resources for teachers of English-learners.

Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., works for the Kentucky education department as an education recovery specialist. She is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct who teaches ESL/ENL instruction as well as assessment, literature, and cultural- and linguistic-diversity courses.

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district ESL instructional coach in the Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville:

Online classes can be convenient and beneficial in many ways for teachers and students in terms of accessibility and timing. As many teachers have transitioned from face-to-face teaching to interacting with their students through a computer screen, adjustments must be made to accommodate the new learning environment.

Online teaching requires a lot of patience—not only does it take time for a teacher to learn new platforms and apps, but the students must also adjust to being online. To add to this, other variables may provide means for frustration, including variances in internet speeds, pricing of programs, and more.

Although the quality of technology available in modern times is tenfold better than in the past, many teachers still find themselves relying too much on standard reading and writing assignments. These types of assignments are important, but they are based on acquired skills and are therefore more cognitively demanding and may lead to brain overload and shutdown. To combat this and help students stay on task, teachers should supplement reading and writing with listening and speaking assignments. Additionally, teachers should refrain from continually providing long assignments: Some researchers believe that a typical student’s attention span is around 10 to 15 minutes, thereby supporting the need for shorter tasks.

Luckily, there are online tools to help apply these concepts to the new learning environment. One example is Edpuzzle, which allows teachers to break assignments into manageable bits and combine different skill sets. The site can record student and teacher voices to personalize videos and embed either open-ended or multiple-choice questions into videos. By installing the Edpuzzle Chrome Extension, teachers can add YouTube videos to their Edpuzzle free accounts for use in their lessons. Videos can then be edited to enhance student learning and keep them accountable in the learning process.

Another important influence on student learning is peer interaction and fostering active learning through collaboration. There are numerous apps that can help students to actively work together to create their own knowledge in collaboration with peers. One such app is Google Meet. It’s free for teachers and students and offers personal connection that can be easily overlooked in online learning by helping students communicate more clearly through words, facial expressions, and gestures.

In addition to peer connections, students should be reminded of the importance of the work they are doing. Teachers should actively provide feedback when applicable and also ask students to write reflections—ongoing feedback and reflection will make online learning experiences more meaningful and productive for students. Teachers can encourage reflections through a variety of activities such as asking students to participate in discussion posts, create podcasts, or simply respond to writing prompts. Padlet is an example of a great platform to use for student reflections as well as short responses, exit tickets, icebreakers, idea brainstorming, and note-taking.

Lastly, when students are given the opportunity to pursue an online project, they are able to explore special interests and topics that they find interesting and relevant. Teachers can stimulate student engagement by assigning projects which then allow the students to work at their own pace and have a sense of accomplishment upon its completion.

The strategies mentioned here are a handful of the many that have been used and researched over the years. When comparing traditional and online environments, certain parts may be the same, but the differences between the two are what matters in making an impact on student lives when in an online setting.

“Create opportunities for engagement”

Amanda Lescas is an ESOL instructional specialist with the school district of Palm Beach County in Palm Beach, Fla. Amanda works with teachers and students in grades K-12 and is passionate about finding ways to make instruction engaging, equitable, and accessible for all:

The first thing to remember when teaching online is that our students cannot rely on the simple cues they receive when they are in the classroom. They cannot look around the classroom to see what others are doing should they become lost, quickly ask another classmate for help, or follow gestures or visual cues from the teacher. Because of this, we need to slow things down. Your online curriculum cannot be taught at the same pace as in-person learning. Consider breaking up your text and chunking it apart into smaller, comprehensible pieces. You most likely would not stand in front of your class and read an entire article or chapter without stopping. As you prepare your lessons, think about the pacing and where you would naturally stop and clarify or ask questions to your class. Those are your chunks!

The beauty of online learning is that you can control the pace of when you push material out to students. Take your text and break it apart for your students, giving them individual pieces one at a time. Add clarifying questions and provide annotated resources in the form of pictures, translations, or vocabulary support. I like doing this through Google slides, by simply taking a screenshot of pieces of the text for my students and adding the language support my students will need.

Create opportunities for engagement but provide a safe, risk-taking environment. Nearpod is a great program for creating low-risk engagement opportunities in your lessons. Students can engage in the content through multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank activities, or add their thoughts onto a collaboration board embedded into your lesson. Nearpod can make a huge impact on student engagement and allow for low-risk participation.

But even if you don’t have access to this program, you can create similar experiences on your own. Pose a question to your class and type it in the chat feature of your online meeting. Add sentence stems right onto the chat to help frame their thinking and allow your students to either speak or write their answer. Create a word bank of key terms, and their translations if needed, before a class discussion and share your screen so they can see the word bank. Add visuals to your screen. No matter what system you use, students need to be part of your online class just as though they are in the traditional brick and mortar classroom.

It is more of a challenge to create relationships with your students in an online environment, but it is not impossible. Flipgrid is an amazing tool where a teacher poses a question or creates a topic, and students respond orally through video format. Because the videos are created in the privacy of your home and students can record as many times as they like, it feels more comfortable and less “on the spot” than a classroom discussion. Flipgrid is a free resource, extremely user-friendly, and there are thousands of resources online to get you started. You can still create a sense of community in your online class. Just as you would in a classroom setting, take the time to get to know your students during your online meetings by asking questions about their life. Share details about yours! Create a Google form to give your students for frequent check-ins. Find out how online learning is going for them and what else they need from you. Get a temperature check on how they are coping with the online setting and ask how you can best meet their needs.

Teaching an online class creates a whole new set of challenges for teachers. Not being able to teach students face to face comes with a series of unique obstacles. However, we can still provide quality instruction for our students, and online teaching allows for innovation and creativity. After all, we’re teachers!

The importance of “learning goals”

Kristin Rouleau, Ed.D., is executive director of learning services and innovation at McREL International. She works with schools, districts, and state departments of education as they navigate change and implement practices and structures to consistently deliver high-quality instruction and increase student achievement:

Every classroom is a community, with as broad an array of social dynamics as any city or workplace. This is true even if the “classroom” consists of computers in kitchens and bedrooms scattered over a vast geography. The fundamentals of collegial support and professional learning still apply.

I spent several years consulting with a state-chartered online school whose teachers were having trouble cohering as a faculty. The principal was frustrated because the online format seemed to attract teaching candidates who thought of themselves as solo practitioners. I must admit, there is some allure to the notion: Teaching sure would be a lot more relaxing if we could bypass the commute and dial way back on face-to-face interaction! After assessing the situation, however, my colleagues and I realized that if anything, going “virtual” only ratchets up the need for effective communication—to address students and colleagues alike with a highly developed degree of intentionality.

The broad answer to this question, then, is that professional learning is an effective strategy for teachers of online classes, just as it is for all teachers. Our approach was to emphasize the aspects of our traditional PL dealing with professional vocabulary and collaboration. Learning isn’t something that teachers do to students; it’s something that students, ultimately, need to do for themselves, and for that to happen, they need to understand and be full partners in their learning goals. Discussing learning goals puts you firmly on the path to better communication among teachers and better academic results for students.

We also established professional learning communities: before-the-bell team meetings to work with instructional coaches, analyze data, or plan lessons. In doing so, we discovered one way in which “virtual” teachers actually have a distinct advantage over their IRL colleagues: Since all lessons are recorded, peer coaches can observe them and share feedback asynchronously.

Both subjective and objective data show that the school is functioning at a higher level now: Teachers feel better supported, and more students are graduating. Working with a virtual school taught me that if we can tune out distractions and focus on what matters most, technology can be used to re-create and even amplify the best aspects of F2F collaboration.

A recipe for online learning

Dr. Theresa Capra is a professor of education and clinical supervisor for teacher-candidates. She is the founder of edtaps.com, which focuses on research, trends, technology, and tips for educators:

COVID-19 may be a new virus, but distance education has a storied past beyond its recent ascent to household nomenclature. Conceptually, it’s even older. People have always sought alternatives to traditional, face-to-face instruction, including experimentation with mail, radio, and television. Finally, in the 1990s, two-way, asynchronous internet courses were born, but educational institutions have been slow to innovate beyond physical classrooms. Now educators everywhere are being called upon to create and teach online courses in rapid order. How to get it right? Here’s a few strategies to make design and instruction a piece of cake!

Focus on the meat & potatoes!

Online course design has evolved with more attention paid to technological bells and whistles while ignoring the nutritious entre: pedagogy. Design usually begins with a textbook. Learning objectives are bulleted, and modules proceed chapter by chapter with overlapping activities that create perfunctory, dry, cognitively dull learning experiences.

Instead, learning theories should guide design and delivery for internet learning. For example, Community of Inquiry (2000) is a learning theory adapted for application in computer-mediated learning environments. Community of Inquiry identifies three domains that combine to create a meaningful online learning experience: social, cognitive, and teaching.

Community of Inquiry positions the instructor as a member of the learning community, not just the leader. For example, in a history course, the instructor could get into the trenches alongside students to compare and contrast modern occurrences to historical events. Events are happening in real time, outcomes are uncertain, perspectives varied, and long-term impacts debatable—therefore, the instructor is working through the evidence for conclusions in contrast to asserting established facts Synchronous sessions could be devoted to such learning instead of topical lecture. Place students in small teams to track down and evaluate sources to facilitate these discussions. This is not the dreaded current events project from history courses years ago!

Make it fine dining, not a buffet.

Online courses began their existence with bare bones, but as Learning Management Systems (LMSs) became more robust, instructors were able to add a variety of assignments and assessments to create more complex courses. However, teaching an online course should be more like fine dining rather than scooping every buffet item onto your plate—a less-is-more approach should be employed. Don’t use a tool just because it’s what everyone uses or it’s convenient. For example, if the goal is to assess whether students have read a chapter, watched a recorded lecture, or completed their homework, why have a discussion board? Unless your questions are carefully crafted to facilitate application, discussion boards should be reserved for eureka moments, questions for the instructor and peers, sharing of sources, and collaboration.

Cook it yourself!

Many fully online courses have become generic, one-size-fits-all shells that can be rolled over to anyone, anytime—prototypes with imperceptible differences. Franchises such as McDonald’s have built empires on this practice—a Big Mac is virtually the same from Vietnam to the Virgin Islands. But should such business practices be transferred to distance learning or really any learning for that matter? Many institutions, both public and private, are moving in this direction. Courses are predesigned, and consequently, instructors become managers rather than teachers.

This business approach contradicts important aspects of teaching and learning that call for intrinsic motivation for both students and teachers. Many textbook companies have aided and abetted by selling fully developed online courses eliminating the need for instructor input—just plug and play. But when an educator is leading a course that she has cooked herself, she will naturally be more inclined to engage with the students, which is vital for successful online teaching.

It’s not your grandmother’s lasagna!

Is online education different from traditional learning? Yes. It’s not useful to compare it to traditional views of education that occur in a physical classroom. Instead, educators should frame questions that address what we have in front of us right now: How can we develop deep learning experiences, can students become more thoughtful, diligent learners who feel empowered, can we infuse more opportunities for critical thinking, can it lead to increased accountability in the future? These questions can help teachers serve up classes that will work for students.

Next question!

The next question-of-the-week is:

What is blended learning and how can it be effectively used by teachers and students?

Thanks to Marcy, Michelle, Irina, Amanda, Kristin, and Theresa 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.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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