It’s a pretty safe bet that most teachers will be doing some form of online teaching in the coming year. Maybe you’ll do it full-time, maybe it will be some kind of hybrid model, but one thing is for sure: This time around you won’t be dropped into it without warning.
So with this chance to take a breath and do more thoughtful, intentional planning, the next question is What do we do differently? What shifts do we need to make in our face-to-face teaching practices to make the most of online learning?
To find out, I sought the help of Melanie Kitchen, a Coordinator of Instructional Technology and Staff Development serving 19 school districts in Western New York state. Melanie has years of experience working with teachers on developing blended learning and has now shifted to helping teachers develop best practices for remote learning.
I asked Melanie to share some ways online teaching should be different from face-to-face teaching. She came up with nine: three that are specific to community building and communication, and six that focus on instructional design. Along with these differences, she also shared a few things that should stay exactly the same.
Community Building & Communication
1. The first weeks of school should be devoted to community building and digital competency.
Resist the temptation to dive right into curriculum at the start of the school year. Things will go more smoothly if you devote the early weeks to building community so students feel connected. Social emotional skills can be woven in during this time. On top of that, students need practice with whatever digital tools you’ll be using. So focus your lessons on those things, intertwining the two when possible.
“If you are explicitly teaching persistence,” Kitchen says, “maybe I’m going to give you a challenge that’s not content-related, but something that you might have to kind of grapple with. But when I assign that, if I’m using Google Classroom, then I’m going to assign that through Google Classroom and teach you how you’re going to open an assignment, how you’re going to submit it, how you’ll be receiving feedback. So you are teaching these skills all at once, and it’s not something separate or extra. It’s just all done together.”
Other good resources that can guide and inform the conversations you have in these early weeks are:
2. Communication with parents needs to be more thorough, streamlined, and predictable.
Parents are also adjusting to this new way of doing school. Because they are sometimes expected to play an even more prominent role in supporting student learning, they need more support from you. “We really need parents to be our partners in this learning community,” Kitchen says.
Here are some guidelines:
Establish a consistent location and predictable schedule for sharing information. When parents know where and when to look for information from you, they’ll do a better job of keeping up with it and following through on their end. Weekly updates are a good way to keep everyone informed about what’s going on in your class. And rather than toggling around between emails, text alerts, blog posts, website announcements, and newsletters, choose one platform for outgoing information and stick to it; if your whole school can do the same you’ll see even better results.
Set clear expectations and boundaries for communication. When can students and parents expect to hear from you? How and when can they get in touch with you when needed? If you don’t set boundaries you’ll end up feeling like you have to be available 24/7, which will quickly lead to burnout. Establish regular office hours and advertise them in an easy-to-find place so parents know when you’ll be most accessible.
Create a backup plan for off-hours and tech support. If parents or students need help outside of your regular office hours or they need help with technology, who can they contact? Make this information clearly available.
Make communication multimodal. Although it’s important to consistently post through one platform, it’s also helpful to provide the information in more than one mode. For example, you might offer written announcements and record the same announcements in a short video each week so students and parents can choose the format that works best for them.
Provide parent tech training. Parents will be better able to support students if they understand how to use the technology, so provide them with tutorials on the tech you use, including whatever platform you use to disseminate information.
3. Community and connection need to be a priority for teachers, too.
“Teachers need to connect with each other now more than ever,” Kitchen says. Your school leadership should be building in regular opportunities for you to stay connected to your colleagues during this time. If they are not, create those opportunities for yourself.
Staff meetings should still be held regularly—even if it’s through a videoconferencing platform—to keep staff connected.
During these meetings, some time and attention should be given to teacher well-being and emotional health.
Smaller groups like teaching teams or content-area PLCs can offer even more support.
If you’re not getting the support you need, seek it out through platforms like Twitter.
Meeting the challenges of online learning gets easier when we work together. “As we’re all trying to get to know these students better,” Kitchen says, “we need to be working together to do that.” That means working more closely with specialists to make sure our lessons and materials meet the needs of all students, partnering with others in our content area to plan instruction, working together on cross-curricular projects, and dividing up the things all students need (like technology instruction) among teachers on a team or grade level so students aren’t doing the same lessons over and over and our work isn’t duplicated.
Fortunately, collaborating online can be even easier than trying to do it when we all teach in the same physical building. “This virtual environment has provided us the opportunity to break down those walls, to break down those silos,” Kitchen says. “Our schedules and time constraints that we may have had before will come down. We may have more opportunity to partner with people that we didn’t have the time or the space to be able to do that before.”
5. “Face-to-face” time should be used for active learning.
Online instruction is made up largely of asynchronous instruction, which students can access at any time. This is ideal, because requiring attendance for synchronous instruction puts some students at an immediate disadvantage if they don’t have the same access to technology, reliable internet, or a flexible home schedule.
But you’re likely to offer “face-to-face” or synchronous opportunities at some point, and one way to make them happen more easily is to have students meet in small groups. While it’s nearly impossible to arrange for 30 students to attend a meeting at once, assigning four students to meet is much more manageable. Kitchen likes “campfire groups,” which are permanent groups of about four that stay together for long periods of time. This arrangement allows students to get to know each other better and establish more trust. Students might be rearranged for other activities to provide some variety, but the campfire groups would provide a stable base throughout the school term.
So what kind of instructional activities should be used for these different formats?
What works best, Kitchen says, is to keep direct instruction—things like brief video lectures and readings—in asynchronous form, using checks for understanding like embedded questions or exit slips.
You can then use synchronous meetings for more interactive, engaging work. “If we want students showing up, if we want them to know that this is worth their time,” Kitchen explains, “it really needs to be something active and engaging for them. Any time they can work with the material, categorize it, organize it, share further thoughts on it, have a discussion, all of those are great things to do in small groups.”
Small group strategies she strongly recommends:
The Jigsaw method, where students form expert groups on a particular chunk of content, then teach that content to other students.
6. Content needs to be simplified and slowed down.
Online instruction is not conducive to covering large amounts of content, so you have to choose wisely, teaching the most important things at a slower pace. To make those choices, Kitchen recommends asking some key questions:
What really holds leverage for the students? What has endurance? What knowledge is essential?
What knowledge and skills do students need to have before they move to the next grade level or the next class?
What practices can be emphasized that transfer across many content areas? Skills like analyzing, constructing arguments, building a strong knowledge base through texts, and speaking can all be taught through many different subjects.
What tools can serve multiple purposes? Teaching students to use something like Padlet gives them opportunities to use audio, drawing, writing, and video. Non-digital tools can also work: Students can use things they find around the house, like toilet paper rolls, to fulfill other assignments, and then submit their work with a photo.
7. Instructions should be easy to find, explicit, and multimodal.
Because you are not in the same room with students, your instructions have to work a lot harder than they do in a brick-and-mortar setting.
Provide instructions in a consistent location and at a consistent time. This advice was already given for parents, but it’s worth repeating here through the lens of instructional design: Set up lessons so that students know where to find instructions every time.
Make instructions explicit. Read and re-read to make sure these are as clear as possible. Make dogfooding your lessons a regular practice to root out problem areas.
Offer multimodal instructions. If possible, provide both written and video instructions for assignments, so students can choose the format that works best for them. You might also offer a synchronous weekly or daily meeting; what’s great about doing these online is that even if you teach several sections of the same class per day, students are no longer restricted to class times and can attend whatever meeting works best for them.
8. Traditional grading practices should take a backseat to feedback.
“We saw a transition during emergency remote teaching where each of us had different requirements about grades or no grades, pass and fail,” Kitchen says. “This whole environment really needs to be supported by communication and connection. If I’m to receive an A or a 95 or a 65, that doesn’t necessarily tell me as much as verbal feedback or print feedback to what I’m doing right, what I can improve on.”
So when teaching remotely, put the emphasis on formative feedback as students work through assignments and tasks, rather than simply grading them at the end.
Most learning management platforms, like Google Classroom, have built-in features for giving feedback. Use these as your primary method.
Tools like Floop offer other ways to provide on-the-spot feedback and can be especially good for math.
Feedback should be frequent and specific. Consider some of the methods shared by Matthew Johnson in Flash Feedback.
Provide a pathway for students and parents to give YOU feedback on assignments as well.
9. Summative assessment should focus on creation.
In online learning, Kitchen says, “There are so many ways that students can cheat, so if we’re giving them just the traditional quiz or test, it’s really easy for them to be able to just look up that information.”
A great solution to this problem is to have students create things. These can be videos, podcasts, digital or physical art, writing pieces, comics, and so on. “It’s a lot more difficult to cheat when you have to make something or do something. And it also integrates all of the areas and it builds up, all of that learning builds up into this creation that they will do.”
For assessment, use a detailed rubric that highlights the learning goals the end product will demonstrate. A single-point rubric works well for this.
To help students discover tools to work with, this list of tools is organized by the type of product each one creates. Another great source of ideas is the Teacher’s Guide to Tech.
When developing the assignment, rather than focusing on the end product, start by getting clear on what you want students to DO with that product. This list from Bill Ferriter explores the difference:
What Stays the Same
Not everything in online teaching is different. Some aspects of good teaching should definitely stay the same.
Clear and consistent communication
Creating explicit and consistent rituals and routines
Using research-based instructional strategies
Determining whether to use digital or non-digital tools for an assignment
A focus on authentic learning, where authentic products are created and students have voice and choice in assignments
The teaching environment may not be the same as we’re used to, but it’s important to remember that good teaching is still good teaching. “All of those things that we know are really good practices can still be done virtually,” Kitchen says. “It just might look a little bit different.”
Come back for more. Join our mailing list and get weekly tips, tools, and inspiration that will make your teaching more effective and fun. You’ll get access to our members-only library of free downloads, including 20 Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half, the e-booklet that has helped thousands of teachers save time on grading. Over 50,000 teachers have already joined—come on in.