Five Pillars For My Online Classroom

Like many around the globe, I’m preparing to move from face to face to online teaching. In the state of Alabama, where I teach, this will last until at least the end of this school year (May). I’ve received a lot of assistance from educators online and I actually feel somewhat comfortable from the ed tech side of teaching online. I’m not sure yet whether this confidence is really just veiled ignorance, but I’ll find out soon. We are on spring break at the moment and don’t start online with students until next week.

Beyond the technical aspects of moving online, there are other considerations to be made. I’m firm in what I anticipate my online classroom will look like, but what do I want it to feel like?

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week and come up with five pillars of my online classroom. Some of these pillars pertain more to the workload of the class, others to the vibe of the class. All in all, I hope they portray a classroom with expectations and understanding; realizing I need to provide a stable virtual environment while not having any control over my student’s physical environment.

Here are my five pillars:

  1. Require only what is necessary.

I plan on only assigning work that is absolutely necessary to demonstrate understanding of material. I believe simplicity is key for success in this move to online learning. This isn’t the time to assign elaborate work with complicated instructions and difficult to complete problems. Keep it simple. We don’t know how our students are receiving this information and what their environment is. Many may be watching other siblings while parents continue to work. Others may be working more hours since there is no school. And what about those who have little or no internet access? All of this needs to be taken into consideration. Only assign what is necessary with crystal clear, simple instructions.

  1. Carry over norms, when possible, from the physical classroom.

Many students found comfort in our classroom. They learned what to expect and settled in nicely. Now, things are quite different. As much as possible, I want to carry over the norms set from the physical classroom. Obviously, this doesn’t work for many aspects of this transition, but some may be carried over. For instance, any types of assignments that you’ve set in the physical classroom that easily translate to online would probably be a good idea. As a student, I can imagine the calm that comes with again knowing what to expect out of a teacher’s classroom. And as minute as this might sound, carry over your personality into whatever presentations you record or with any live meetings with students. Again, students experiencing this ‘norm’ from their teacher can only aid in relieving anxiety. 

  1. Don’t stress about the work.

Many teachers are worried about how to assign work that provides valid and reliable assessments of student understanding. What if students cheat? How will I know? I would encourage you to not worry about this too much. You can only control so much. If a student wants to cheat, they’re going to cheat. I’m not saying don’t try to set work that is difficult to copy, plagiarize, et cetera, but you can only worry so much about these things. So much is out of your hands. Perhaps some perspective: just be happy you are receiving work, even if you suspect it may be in bad faith from the student. Others may be in much worse situations and unable to complete work at all. All you can do is set the assignments and provide necessary feedback for your students. Worrying beyond that about the work is really a waste of time and energy. 

  1. Communicate.

Fight the curse of knowledge. Try and realize when you are making assumptions about what students understand with respect to expectations in your online classroom. While information may seem clear to you, they might not be understood by your students. Communicate simply, thoroughly, and often with students and invite different avenues of communication from students. Some students may feel comfortable providing questions/comments on class forums. Other students may want to personally send you a message via email. I would encourage you to allow for that correspondence and remind them often of the many ways they may communicate with you…you can simply copy/paste a message at the end of every post, email, and/or message. Lastly, on communication, check in with a quick note daily, even if it’s not to communicate class material. Just a quick message of ‘hello’ and ‘let me know if there’s anything I can do for you’ may provide a great deal of comfort for some students. I believe you’d rather risk communicating too much, too often with students than the alternative.

  1. Give the benefit of the doubt.

With all of these pillars, provide a generous amount of understanding and give the benefit of the doubt. Are some students going to lie about their ability to get online and ‘tech problems they’re having’? Probably. Are some students going to fib about their circumstances at home and how much time they have to complete work? Maybe. During this time, I would encourage you to give the benefit of the doubt and not investigate further. These are trying times. While some students will relish the chance to complete work and experience the normalcy that may accompany ‘doing school’, others are simply trying to survive this new normal. In these extenuating circumstances, a bit of compassion may go a long way with students, while an inquiry into believed deception may break all trust. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Most of us are either already in the thick of online learning or are preparing for the transition. These are trying times for teachers and students. While we, as teachers, hope to receive understanding and clear expectations from our administrators, we should also extend that compassion to our students. For many, this change will create more barriers for learning. While we cannot remove all of these barriers, it is important to make this as efficiently and effectively as possible for our students. I believe my five pillars will do this for my students.

What have I missed? What should be added?

*If you’d like to add a rebuttal to this post or add to it, please go here.

Response/Rebuttal from @StuckInTheMiddle below:

I liked what you had to say, but I thought I’d add a little more, from my perspective of having decades of experience in teaching online, and homeschooling my own children for the last seven years. 

1)      I wholeheartedly agree with your recommendations to assign work “with crystal clear, simple instructions.” However, what I have found to be successful is to assign work that I don’t take up. Will all the students do it? No, but a surprising number of them are good sports about it, and enjoy something that is not too stressful but still supports their learning. Some ideas:

a.       I’m particularly fond of retrieval practice diagrams—I assign them weekly in science class, for example. I briefly review them during synchronous lectures that are recorded for the students who couldn’t make it. 

b.      Another option is skeleton notes from the textbook readings, which can be a great way to support students in independent note-taking. 

c.       A simple, hands-on project in the content area with a product that can be photographed and uploaded is a source of delight for many students, particular when I choose one per week to “gold star”—yes, even for my high school students. For my students in the hospital, traveling, or in tight living quarters, I find a video that covers the same topic and ask them to watch it.

d.      I also explicitly call out key vocabulary and assign it to be included in students’ Leitnerboxes

e.      In addition, every week, I assign several key dates and ask students to write one sentence about their significance to the content area. 

2)      Absolutely agree on carrying over norms—except that as a solely online teacher, I don’t have face to face norms. I do have a set of rituals, which includes a standard greeting and roll call. In fact, before class today, my students were teasing me by carrying out the opening ritual of class all by themselves, taking their own roll. It was adorable and heartwarming to see them so enthusiastically engaging with the class.

3)      I agree that I don’t worry too much about cheating. The research is murky, but I have yet to see any that convincingly argues that students cheat more online than face to face. I try to make my class a cumulative grade of many small assignments, so that the individual urge to cheat is lower, because the stakes are lower. I also try to be approachable and flexible about any difficulties they might have with the assignments. I will freely admit when I’ve made a mistake with an assignment, and tell them to let me know that it isn’t working for them.

4)      One way to make sure you provide great communication is to make a copy of your roster, and check it off every time you’ve made positive contact with a student. I provide students with one to one synchronous time at their request (or mine), near constant email availability, responses in the written discussion boards, and my personal cell number, just in case.

5)       In my experience, it’s much more common to have students who will work to the point of tears to avoid disappointing me than it is to have students who blatantly lie, cheat, and disrupt class. I always tell them that their health and safety comes first. Just drop me a note, and don’t worry about it, please.

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