Perfecting Online Learning

As educators embark on the journey of planning for the 2020-21 academic year, it is important to remember not to miss the opportunities presented by online learning.  Instead of attempting to transfer our “brick and mortar” classroom routines and schedules into the online environment, let’s step out of our comfort zones and modify the curriculum.  Anything else would be a missed opportunity.  I propose we do this by utilising student feedback and taking advantage of online learning tools. 

At the end of last academic year, I asked my 3rd graders what they liked about online learning.  This is what they said:

  • Sending emojis to show actual feelings
  • Flexible learning schedule
  • Learning in their own space 
  • Staying on calls together to play games
  • Mystery guests

From their input, I compiled a list of 5 essential areas to pay attention to while planning for the next academic year.

Social Emotional Learning

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has become a popular catchphrase during COVID 19 but the positive effects of SEL have been known to teachers for years.

The better you know your students, the more you connect with them, the better the results of their learning will be.  It is a fine line for a teacher to balance not becoming too personally involved and familiar and to connect with your students on their own terms.  

  • Guidelines need to be set and rules need to be discussed but the bottom line is – there is nothing wrong with meeting your students in their world to talk about emotions.  If you need to play Minecraft to do so, so be it.  If you need to enter the world of Roblox, so be it.  My students took great pride in teaching me how to create my Roblox account – a fact that was a great base for instructional writing.  
  • As you don’t know each of your students’ particular circumstances at home, be vigilant and conduct occasional one-on-one synchronous meetings to check in on everyone.  
  • Do not shy away from difficult topics and provide safe spaces to talk about controversial issues, validating all cultural and racial backgrounds.  This is particularly important in the modern, highly politicised reality we live in.  
  • Show and teach empathy.  I believe this is one thing we can consistently do as educators.

Enhanced curriculum design

  • Instead of following a brick and mortar schedule, like my school has done last term, design daily activities and let students complete them at their own pace.  Catlin Tucker @Catlin_Tucker has some great suggestions regarding blended learning schedules with ready to use templates. 
  • Create a balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning.  In elementary school, from my experience, synchronous learning is best when used to clarify concepts, ask questions or provide opportunities for social interactions.  Time spent socialising with your students online is not time wasted.  You are creating a community which is the base for the entire online teaching/learning experience.
  • Make sure your students have ample opportunities to work on group projects in a collaborative way.  Even 2nd graders love Google Docs!
  • Introduce new tech tools slowly.  Do not overwhelm your students but do take advantage of a vast variety of tech tools available to teachers. 

Learning Space

  • It is important to create a separate home learning space.  This will serve as a place your students go to in order to “go to school.”  Provide parents with tips on how to create such a space as it can be a fun project for families to create it together with the clear purpose in mind.  
  • Consider sharing photos of your students’ learning spaces as one of your community building exercises. 

Community, Community, Community

I can’t overemphasise the importance of creating a strong sense of community.  Though nothing can replace being in one room together, building an online community can be surprisingly effective, as I learned during the last term.  The children need to believe they are a class and you are their teacher, just like at a regular school.  

  • Start each day with a screencast of a morning message. I did this and it was highly effective.  My messages were 2-3 minutes long and contained lots of visuals.  Each message also had a question of the day to engage students right from the start. 
  • Hold regular synchronous meetings for social purposes.  The value of those is unmeasurable.  Do not worry about what the children are learning during those meetings – just enjoy togetherness.  Let your students share their screens, let them initiate discussions, have a snack together.  Whatever it is you decide to do during those sessions, do not put pressure on yourself to achieve some measurable goal.  The goal is to build community.
  • Allow for collaborative tasks to be done in groups using Padlet, Google Slides, etc.  
  • Celebrate class birthdays and hold spirit weeks synchronously.

Fun learning is more effective learning

Do not forget that learning is supposed to be fun.  Children learn better from teachers who show care and who make learning exciting.  

  • Organise virtual field trips. 
  • Organise scavenger hunts.  
  • Host mystery guests in our synchronous class meetings.  When I did it in my class, the guests were parents or other teachers who could contribute to what we were currently learning about.  The mystery component of the mystery guest built huge excitement among the students and the results were very positive.
  • Use Google Docs to create Virtual Classrooms for each subject.

It is time to take online learning to the next level.  If you listen to your students and if you take advantage of relevant tech tools, learning and teaching can remain a positive experience for all.

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