More and more of us are working online, and the Internet is overflowing with questions from teachers about the best ways of doing this, and the best resource for doing that. Without a comprehensive toolkit of methods, approaches and resources to draw upon, as well as contingency plans for the unpredictable world of e-learning, it is all too easy to come unstuck. Here are 5 basic ways of keeping it together and being prepared for any eventuality, based on 5 common e-learning fails that I have seen from teachers again and again.
Fail 1: Teaching from an inappropriate environment
A first look at a teacher working from home can tell you a lot about how prepared they are for the lesson, and how they are approaching the job. At one end of the scale, I see mussed-up bed hair and a section of a dark bedroom behind the teacher, perhaps even the headboard of the bed itself, or washing thrown over a chair in the background.
Your bedroom is for relaxing, sleeping and represents a very personal space. Working out of such an environment often reduces the professionalism and sharpness of a teacher’s work, and is not set up with the range of resources needed to deliver an effective online lesson.
Solution: Take a tip from the teachers at the other end of the spectrum: dressed as they would be to teach in person, ready for work and looking good, a professional online educator will have a light, clean area to work in, and is prepared with a few simple tools to support their learners in any lesson that they teach.
Obviously a good headset, preferably wireless, is a must, as well as good, dependable lighting, but here are a few other physical resources that can support your teaching:
A small whiteboard and erasable markers to quickly jot down examples, words or pictures for learners (quicker and friendlier than typing, and if you can draw to the camera, a great ‘guess what it will be’ task).
A bag of toys and recognisable objects (especially for lower-level and young learners), which you can grab to demonstrate the positions and relationships between objects, or to roleplay interactions between characters for communicative demos (puppets can be used to great effect with you off-screen and performing to younger learners).
An IPA chart, either printed out to demo to camera, or up and ready to screenshare if you need to do some quick pronunciation work.
Also, thinking about the students’ environment can produce useful tools for teaching. Having them bring lego bricks, their own toys or characters, and making sure they have pens, paper, etc. close by for every lesson will add to the range of activity that you can lead online.
Fail 2: Doing what you normally do in physical classroms, but on Zoom or Skype
A lot of teachers have moved into online teaching at the request of their schools rather than by choice. This can mean a huge culture shock as the curriculum has to be picked up where the class left off, but in an online mode.
Simply presenting content physically and expecting students to respond in the same way as they do in the physical classroom is a huge miscalculation - the online mode brings with it a lot of potential for disengagement, distraction and hesitance from students; after all, they are making a similar transition to the teacher, and have the added affective factors of confidence, insecurity about the new way of interacting with others, assumptions about the nature of screentime and perhaps a different view of digital literacy from that assumed by the makers of video conferencing platforms. These factors can lead to a stilted, awkward set of interactions and reduced performance in students, so how can we make the landing into the online setting softer for everyone?
Solution: Engagement is everything when we work online. Whether we are working through digital resources, traditional task types, or speaking directly to our students, the name of the game is to keep them focused on the tasks at hand, and this requires a different methodology. There is a reason why teachers who work online use exaggerated mannerisms and extreme facial expressions - it’s engaging, and compensates for the fact that the students are basically working with a static object - their computer, tablet or phone.
This doesn’t mean that you have to jump around and play kiddie music int he background of every class you teach, but going the extra step to make your online presence more engaging than usual will pay off. Think about visual stimulus (bright clothes, colours in the background, lots of visual cues to support your communication) and plan alternating types of activity as you would in the physical classroom, though including the much wider range of activity types which can be enabled online.
Incorporating point-and-click games, races, quizzes, character-presented sections of the lesson or staged video resources can keep kids focused and working well. It takes some planning at first, but once you build a library of online resource types, you will be able to switch between stimulus levels quickly and easily.
For more mature students, using breakout rooms to give your students some space away from the teacher’s face (though with you still being able to monitor activity) or having students work together on applications such as padlet, slack or another project management system can give them more autonomy to work collaboratively, which brings us to…
Fail 3: Relying on entirely synchronous delivery
Another risk of using a single platform such as Zoom for synchronous delivery is that learners rarely get to work together or communicate away from the prying eyes of the teacher under timed conditions. If all that students do is work to your tasks under your supervision, they will not develop the kind of independent responsibility that comes with truly effective online learning.
One of the main purposes of models such as the flipped classroom and collaborative approaches to online learning is that students can grow as productive users of the online environment. Giving them access to project creation areas on systems such as kahoot, slack or padlet can also provide them with a group space which they can use to collect and design their own task work outside of class time.
Solution: By rethinking homework and moving away from ‘do page 34 for next lesson’, we can give our students a lot more ownership of the ways they study and the types of content that they can produce. Have them run further with the topic you are teaching and collaborate in a free project management area, asynchronously gathering pieces of information, images and videos that they have found on a webquest, then working collaboratively to produce a self-made video presentation.
Alternatively, if you are changing topic next class, have your students use their asynchronous research to prepare for the upcoming content that you will teach. For a unit on Roman customs, for example, one group could create a podcast of a roleplayed interview between two Romans, another group could put together an online collage of images that they find, and yet another could write a quiz. By collecting artefacts from their internet searches, collecting them and co-designing resources in this way, they are getting ready to study the syllabus-specific content that you are going to present. That way, they will come to class more engaged, and ready to show off what they have done before applying this knowledge to your synchronous class. This ‘flipped classroom’ approach is applicable to the online mode, and can raise motivation and engagement levels dramatically.
Fail 4: Not having a backup plan
The moment every online teacher fears is when a student’s internet connection fails, or some other technical hitch drops everyone’s connection, hopefully for a short time only. One choice when this happens is to take a hammer to the hated technology that has done this to you. Alternatively…
Solution: Everyone, students (and parents) included, knows that connectivity can be unreliable, so in the first lesson/s that you teach with a new student or group, establish some backup activities for if and when that happens. Having a template vocabulary task which can be applied to any topic area, or a topic-related reading text given to the student or their parent when you start teaching that unit, along with instructions for how to use it, can help you to rest assured that even if the connection is lost for the rest of the lesson, your learners have something to do, which they should send you as their homework, or bring to the next class to discuss when they see you again.
The most important thing is NOT to wait until this problem happens before you launch the solution! Get the parent/s involved in this backup plan, and make sure everyone understands that even though the connection is down, the learning still goes on.
Fail 5: Spending longer planning than teaching
This is a common issue for new and trainee teachers - agonising over lesson plans and finding materials for two hours in preparation for a 45-minute class. It just doesn’t make sense! I hear a lot of experienced teachers talking about the same issue when making the switch to online classes.
Solution: Yes, as with anything, it takes a while to build up your toolkit of resources and routines for online classes, but the more different approaches you try, the more likely you are to hit on the systems that work for you and your students. Even the resources that don’t work with one group might fly with another, so don’t throw anything away - sign up to as many free, trial and demo versions of platforms, apps and resource sites as you can, and keep a record of what functionality they have.
The more different ways you have of working with your learners, guiding them in their own independent and collaborative work, and getting them creating materials which fit the online setting, the quicker your planning will become - the internet is vast, and there is a solution to everything if you know where to look. Use some tried and tested methods of staging lessons, ordering the content you teach and making the most of the physical and digital resource pool that you build for yourself, and you will not be missing that long bus ride to work as you work with your students successfully online.
This article presents just some of the online education solutions that we cover in the new Trinity College London Certificate for Practising Teachers (CertPT) course for Online Educators. The CertPT is a 100-hour teacher development course held over 5 or 10 weeks of online study, leading to an accredited qualification regulated at level 6 on the UK Ofqual Regulated Qualifications Framework. See our course page for more details, or contact us to find out when the next course starts