One of the important lessons of the pandemic is that virtual learning is here to stay, but it has a lot of room for improvement. And teachers, principals, and district leaders should be thinking hard about how to make remote learning better, especially if they are continuing to offer it even as most students have returned to school buildings.
Beth Lockhart takes her inspiration for good virtual teaching from an educational model that existed across the country more than a century and a half ago: the one-room schoolhouse.
“I am my own one-room virtual school,” said Lockhart, who teaches virtual courses for the Lenoir City school district in Tennessee. Her approach calls on many of the skills she honed through years of traditional teaching, but with some new twists, including figuring out ways to help her students feel like they are part of a classroom community, even as they sit in their bedrooms on their laptops.
For her, “good virtual teaching lies where good teaching is, which is it has to have engagement,” said Lockhart, who teaches multiple subjects to students in grades K-6.
Remote learning became a lifeline for K-12 schools during the height of the pandemic, even as the approach was rolled out quickly, inequitably, and in many cases without academic rigor.
Even though districts are largely back to offering classes primarily in person, most are making online learning an option for students, according to a survey of 888 teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in late January and early February.
Often, these virtual learning options are for one-off courses that would otherwise be unavailable. For instance, about a third of administrators said in the survey that students can take online versions of classes that their school doesn’t offer, while 17 percent said students at their schools can enroll in post-secondary courses virtually at no cost.
In some places, students also have the option to take all their classes online. Nearly a quarter of administrators surveyed said their districts allowed students to enroll in a full-time virtual school. The providers for these programs vary: 22 percent of administrators said that their school system offers a district-run virtual academy, while 18 percent reported their district contracts with an outside organization for students who want to learn online. Only 20 percent of educators said kids in their districts do not currently have the option to enroll in virtual courses.
Despite the frustrations with remote learning during the pandemic, the survey data clearly show that schools across the country are making virtual learning an option in different ways and at different levels for the long haul. What this means is they will also have to address concerns that online-only instruction is a weak alternative to in-person learning.
Here are seven tips for making online instruction more effective:
1. Show teachers how to access their inner talk show host
It’s easy for students to tune out during online instruction. So, teachers should channel their inner Oprah Winfrey, suggests Laurie Manville, an instructional coach and teacher who works for both virtual and brick-and-mortar schools in California’s Anaheim Union High School District.
In a virtual learning environment, Manville asks students a lot more questions than she might in a brick-and-mortar classroom. And she amps herself up. “Your voice has to have more energy. Have fun. Laugh. Put questions out there that might be silly, but that the students would love to answer,” she said. “Be a little entertaining. You need to bring them in because they’re all by themselves in front of a screen.”
Kids are likely to just ignore lectures, she warns. “I’m not the sage on the stage,” Lockhart said. “I have to think, how can I get them virtually interacting with one another? How can I get them interacting with me online?”
2. Make students feel welcome and connected immediately
Getting kids to feel connected to you and each other is even more important in an online environment because students aren’t sharing a physical space. That sense of community should start from the very beginning, educators say.
For instance, when kids enroll in online courses in the Vail school district in Arizona, their teachers automatically send welcome emails introducing themselves. Some teachers include a picture or video. Students are expected to respond to those messages to help build the relationship from the start.
Once school begins, virtual classrooms should be places students feel welcome and want to hang out in, educators said. Play music at the start of class or ask kids what they’ve been watching on Netflix or other streaming services lately, Manville suggested. That helps get natural conversations started.
In a physical classroom, students might take on roles such as attendance taker, plant waterer, door holder, designated pencil sharpener. That can happen in a virtual class too, Manville said. She picks one student to serve as the chat-box monitor, flagging any questions their peers type in; another as the timekeeper, making sure the class stays on track; and a third as the “linker,” responsible for pulling up links relevant to the class discussion and putting them in the chat box.
Those student roles help build leadership, engagement, and involvement, Manville said. She also spends part of each week asking students to go around and share some positive news. “It can be big or small, but we want to celebrate and affirm everybody’s accomplishments or just good things that are happening in their lives,” she said.
What’s more, students in both virtual and in-person classes are likely to need some one-on-one support at some point. Offering Zoom office hours—even in the evenings—is one way to make that happen. If the students taking the virtual class or enrolled in the virtual school are local, these sessions could be conducted in person. For instance, Cindy Cromwell, the principal of Kelso Virtual Academy and Loowit High School in Washington state, has started doing an “evening café” in which students meet in person and virtually to get extra help with their work.
3. Build meaningful strategies to encourage greater collaboration
Just because students aren’t in the same physical room doesn’t mean they can’t work together. In fact, giving kids the chance to collaborate on their learning may be even more important in a virtual context, educators said. One strategy: Whenever Manville’s students need to give each other feedback, they use a set “critical friends” protocol, called “I notice, I wonder, I wish.” It gives students a chance to tell each other what they observe about each other’s work, ask questions, and offer constructive feedback. “It’s a routine that’s built into every collaborative piece,” she said.
She also puts her students into writing teams and has each team come up with a “collaboration agreement”—essentially a contract that they create together that usually spells out responsibilities such as “each group member must do their fair share of the work.”
In Lenoir City, Lockhart has her K-2 students read to each other aloud in pairs. “T]hey are so excited to share what they know,” she said.
Interaction doesn’t have to be confined to the kids enrolled in the class, either, Manville said. “Virtual learning opens the doors to global and national learning. It flattens the classroom.” Her students have worked on projects or just spoken with kids across the United States and even in other countries.
4. Integrate active, hands-on learning into virtual environments
Remember that students can hold up their work to the camera. The Vail district recommends that kids taking virtual classes get a whiteboard and pen. That way, they can hold up answers for teachers to see.
The district also encourages teachers to use engagement strategieslike asking students to give a thumbs up or thumbs down sign with their hands or using a computer emoji to show if they do or do not understand something.
They also use classroom technology to poll students on the answers to specific questions. The teacher can see who got the answers right or wrong, but the students cannot. “That keeps kids engaged and gives us instant feedback,” said Kelly Pinkerton, the director of innovation and learning for the Vail schools.
Lockhart, meanwhile, has her virtual students do projects at home just like they would if they were in a school building. For instance, students created biomes—essentially tiny ecosystems of plant life—in jars. Students can hold the biome jars up to the camera and explain what is in them, just like they would in a regular classroom, she said. “I cannot think of anything that we cannot physically do,” she said. “Because even if they cannot do it digitally and produce it digitally, they can produce a concrete item and share.”
5. Be deliberate about how you use time
Virtual teachers should make the most of both “synchronous” time—when students are all participating in real time—and asynchronous time, when they may be watching a video, reading for an assignment, or working in groups outside of regular class time. Generally, kids get more out of synchronous time because students have peers to “bounce ideas off of” during class, said Ben Cottingham, the associate director for strategic partnerships at Policy Analysis for California Education and a former teacher.
Teachers should think about the time they are with their students the same way they would if they were in a regular classroom that uses a “flipped classroom model,” in which students learn new information at home, through readings, videos and more, and then spend class time processing it through discussions, one-on-one help, or group work, Cottingham suggested. It’s good practice to encourage—or require—students to get their thoughts down in writing about a particular topic before the class covers it, maybe by posting questions and observations in an online message board, he said.
It’s also a good idea to keep lectures and any videos short and simple, or kids will start to tune out, Cottingham warns. “What you want to avoid is that old school, watch this hour-long lecture video,” he said.
Instead, consider that most people—and especially children and teenagers—are only able to truly pay attention to a video that’s information-dense for about seven or eight minutes. If you want to try something longer, give students opportunities to show that they’ve digested some information after a relatively short chunk of time, then dive back in, he suggested.
What’s more, virtual educators should consider teaching students so-called “executive functioning skills,” even if they are only taking a class or two online. To be successful virtual learners, students need to be able to manage their time, stay on task when they’re not being constantly monitored, and keep themselves organized. Those skills don’t come naturally to many kids, Cottingham said.
6. Have a plan for determining when students can turn their videoconferencing cameras on and off
There’s no question that video platforms make it “easier for kids to hide,” Pinkerton said. Virtual students can keep their cameras off, mute themselves, and even mute the class, leaving only a black box with their name on it. Depending on school rules—or just their own teaching philosophy—teachers may or may not be able to stop that from happening. Some kids are taking virtual courses or enrolling in digital academies because of mental health issues, like anxiety, and may feel most comfortable with their cameras off. So how can teachers make sure they aren’t off playing Minecraft or Fortnite, instead of engaging in class?
“I’m not a stickler about cameras being on,” said Lockhart, noting that some students are just more comfortable not showing their faces. But she expects participation no matter what. “If I call your name just like I do in class, I expect a response,” she said.
She’s OK with a student answering—or asking—a question in a written chat, if they’d rather not voice it out loud. And she will follow up with anyone who doesn’t participate, particularly when she’s asked them a direct question and gotten silence.
I’m not a stickler about cameras being on. If I call your name just like I do in class, I expect a response.
The Vail school district gives students taking online courses a “citizenship grade,” Pinkerton said. Students get points for participating in class, either by speaking out loud or commenting in the chat box. They can also receive extra points for turning their cameras on. The school district also offers a feature where only the teacher can see students—they can’t see each other. That helps students who may not want to be on camera. Teachers check in after class with any students who didn’t turn their cameras on or participate.
7. If you go with a packaged curriculum tailored for online learning, be choosy
There are a lot of low-quality virtual curriculum options out there, said Cromwell, whose school uses a packaged curriculum specifically tailored to online learning. It took her a long time to find the right one, she said, even though the state gave her a list of approved options.
One packaged curriculum option had audio lessons that sounded like “Charlie Brown’s teacher,” Cromwell said, a difficult-to-understand monotone that didn’t exactly seem tailor-made for student engagement. Another promised to link its lessons directly to state standards and then didn’t deliver.
In addition, a packaged curriculum for online learning should serve as just one teaching tool and have flexibility built into it. “It has to have that human touch to it, where if kids aren’t getting it, [teachers] can make those adjustments,” she said. “You still have to have a body to monitor it and to make sure it’s relevant. … You don’t want [lessons where] the kids can just Google” the answers.
A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2022 edition of Education Week as Virtual Instruction Is Here to Stay. Here Are 7 Tips for Doing It Well