Online environments offer opportunities to give learners time and space to learn at their own pace, build autonomy and independence.
However, there are some limitations. One of the biggest challenges in an online environment is facilitating connections and building classroom community. A few aspects to consider in an online environment are creating opportunities for interaction, paying attention to the emotional landscape and energy levels of participants, as well as increasing motivation through goal setting and reflection. The following tips are nothing new to classroom teachers, but in an online environment, these need to be explicitly planned.
1. Consistent engagement and interaction
In a video conference, even the most dedicated student will have a hard time focusing on an hour-long lecture without wandering off to the fridge for a snack, checking the phone, or playing with the dog. From a teacher’s perspective, it is difficult to check on students’ understanding through a lecture-style format. Fortunately, platforms like Zoom have various functionalities that allow us to get our students involved. Try using the polls, chat box and annotation functions to find out what your students understand every five or 10 minutes. Do also give students short discussion questions and use the break-out room so that they can discuss their ideas with their peers in smaller groups.
On the learning platform, utilise the discussion thread and get students to respond to each other’s comments. Besides assigning projects and tasks to small groups, you can also use shared documents to encourage collaboration. With young learners, choose online environments that allow close monitoring to ensure child’s safety.
2. Creating positive learning environments
In a face to face setting, we are able to scan the students as they come into the classroom for energy levels and emotional affect, which enables us to adjust our lessons accordingly. This is more difficult in an online environment and therefore we will need to use more direct ways of finding out how our students are feeling. Try an emotion check-in at the beginning of the lesson. There are many emotional vocabulary lists, wheels, and charts available online. Choose one that is appropriate for your students and have them name their current mood at the beginning of class. You may find that you need to add to this list or even create new words! This is a great opportunity to develop the emotional literacy of students and for you to get some feedback about what your students need.
Once you have a sense of the emotional energy, try activities to help shift the mood. If students are feeling a bit glum, try the “3 Good Things” activity where students tell another person 3 positive things that have happened to them recently. They can range from big events like celebrating their birthday at home to simple things like colouring with their little sister. This will generate some positive emotion which is beneficial for learning.
If students are distracted, get them to close all other windows on their computers, put away other devices and find a quiet space to learn. Then, try a short mindfulness activity.
If energy levels are low, try an activity where you name something students might have around the house. They have 30 seconds to find it and show it to everyone. For example, “your favourite shoes!” This is a great opportunity for students to find out more about each other while moving and generating some laughter!
3. Motivate and inspire
Motivation can be challenging for students to maintain in an online environment. Encourgae students to set goals and reflect to help them monitor and measure achievement. Students could set task, skill, or self-regulation goals. An example of a task goal is completing 20 Maths problems. A skill goal could be adding five more adjectives to a descriptive paragraph and share with your peer editing buddy for feedback. A self-regulation goal could be reading quietly for 10 minutes without stopping. Anyone who loves checklists will understand that little burst of self-efficacy you get when you cross something off!
Reflection is a useful tool to remind students how much they have learnt and can contribute to goal setting for the next class. Try these questions to help students take stock of their own growth:
- What surprised you today?
- What’s the most important thing you learned today?
- What do you want to learn more about?
- When were you most creative/ kind/ helpful/ resilient today?
- What made you curious today?
- When were you at your best today?
- Where should you start tomorrow?
- What can you do with what you know?
Make goal setting and reflection a part of your teaching routine and visible to the class so that students can learn from each other as well. Use learning buddies or groups to help students stay accountable to their goals. Also, a learning buddy may be able to help students reflect by seeing something that they didn’t realize!
Additionally, in an online environment, our learners wear different hats at home (sister, mother, father, brother, employee, roommate, etc.) and these are conflated. Goal setting can be an important signal to a learner to put on the “student” hat and to take a break from their other roles, if possible.
Finally, checking in with students on what they think about the online classes will help them feel connected and motivated. Students are a great source of ideas! With the curriculum pressures, it may seem difficult to take the time out to engage with students on a personal level, but the time spent will pay off in terms of increased motivation and effective learning. Creating a positive and uplifting community while learning in an online environment may be challenging, but it can be accomplished with a little creativity, thoughtful planning, and collective resilience.