The first time I signed up to teach an online English course, I thought it would be easy. I figured I'd just teach the same content the same way I always did. The only difference would be that the kids were in other schools; I simply wouldn't be able to see them as I was teaching them.
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The joke was on me—and, unfortunately, on my first students. My classroom teaching strategies didn't adapt well to the distance, so I wasn't able to give my students my best. As it turns out, engaging students who are miles away necessitates a new set of teaching strategies.
Whether you teach online or you're considering it, here are some teaching strategies that will help you engage kids in the remote classroom.
- Establish your presence right away. Welcome your students to the learning community. Tell them something about yourself—your background, your interests, a book you're currently reading. Describe what the course is about and what you hope students will learn. Establishing a community early on will help students feel welcome.
- Be available. "High-touch is more important than high-tech," says online teacher Joanna Dunlap, assistant director of teacher effectiveness at the University of Colorado's Center for Faculty Development, in an Educause video. She encourages her students to call her if they need immediate advice. "If a student is in crisis or needs to brainstorm an idea," she says, "I want to be efficient." She admits that using the phone is low-tech but argues that it doesn't matter—all tech, she says, can be useful for online courses. Scott Cooper, writing for the website eLearning Industry, recommends telling students when you'll be visible and available, but he also advises that you establish a way students can contact you outside of those hours. He also recommends engaging with your students through online posts, forums, or social media. It's easy to come across as absent online, but good communication helps students see that you value their engagement.
- Use online resources. There is a ton of material online, says Patrick Lowenthal, professor of instructional design at Boise State University, in the Educause video, and you can lean on those resources. He stresses that it's important to help kids understand how to determine which sources are valid and trustworthy—and which aren't.
- Don't lecture. Dunlap says that as she's grown more experienced as an online teacher, she's grown more comfortable being a little playful and surprising students with a quick video clip or an anecdote. Plugging in a story, a picture, or a little humor can liven up your lesson, she says. Expecting the unexpected keeps kids engaged and appreciative of their teacher's efforts.
- Make your assignments clear. Students can find accessing and understanding assignments and notes online confusing, so make it easy for them to know what they have to do each week, when the work is due, and how much it counts toward their final grade.
- Provide ongoing feedback. Feedback is important in every classroom, but when you're teaching online, it's another way to establish that personal connection with your students. Cooper says that offering constructive feedback regularly helps students quickly identify behaviors or skills they need to improve and also makes them feel like they're part of the learning community. Cooper also recommends creating an open forum or discussion board so that students can support and mentor each other.
Students taking online classes need to feel connected to the class, the teacher, and their classmates—not just to learn but to enjoy the experience.
Applying e-Learning Strategies to the Traditional Classroom
Teaching online has helped me develop new strategies for the traditional classroom. Nowadays, I try to avoid lectures and include stories, pictures, examples, and anecdotes to foster meaningful engagement with my students. I've also created a series of 20-minute training videos for teachers, each installment focusing on a particular strategy, such as how to check for student understanding, how to give clear directions, and how to handle a disruptive student.
The key to using online strategies in any classroom, Dunlap says, is to choose what you want to teach and then add the technology—not the other way around. Letting students know a little about yourself, using stories and anecdotes, and being clear about assignments aren't just good for online learners—students in traditional classrooms appreciate these things, too. Adopting these strategies will help you create a positive environment in your classroom—whether it's in person or virtual.
Engaging Students Is Key
As you get started with online teaching, just remember that the first and last thing you need to do is to keep your students engaged. Teaching online required me to rethink not only how I presented the course material but how I presented myself as a teacher. When teachers can't look at their students' faces or read their body language, it's tempting for them to focus only on the content and ignore whether students are engaging with the material.
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Luckily, technology has advanced, and we teachers have figured out how to connect with our online students and encourage them to participate in class—even when they're far away.