You were an early adopter of online learning, creating and uploading multimedia lessons for your students years ago. Or maybe you’re brand new to online school and COVID-19 has forced your hand just recently. Whichever sounds like you, teaching remotely is the new normal, and you need to nail it.
But online learning comes with a number of unique challenges. Not only do teachers need to change their approach to instruction, but they need to make sure their students have access to the necessary tools. They need to communicate well and coordinate frequently with parents and fellow teachers. They need to grow their skillsets make sure their students engage.
The following guide is meant to help today’s educators get started with online teaching, or find new and innovative ways to improve their current online lessons. Find do’s and don’ts, resources, ideas, tutorials, and insight from digital learning experts.
Teaching online is not easy. It’s super time consuming. If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. But if you get a little bit of formal training or do some research on your own, you’ll quickly learn that it can be the most fulfilling teaching you’ll ever do.
How Do Your Students Access Online Learning?
The first step when moving to virtual teaching is to understand the technology. Here’s a look at some of the most common devices, applications, and services you’ll need to think about as you plan your lessons and prepare your students.
Laptops, Chromebooks, Desktop Computers
One of the two essential elements to online learning. Each student in your class will need access to one of these devices. For you, the teacher, the key will be to craft lessons that students can engage with regardless of which one they have or can use. For example, Chromebooks are great for access to internet-based applications — and they come with the lowest price tags — but they also have limited capability when it comes to software. Because you’ll likely have a class with diverse tech resources, make your lessons accessible regardless of device.
Reliable Internet Connection
The second essential element is a reliable (and hopefully high-speed) internet connection. This enables access to lessons, communication between teachers and students, and more. A hardwired Ethernet connection is preferable to Wi-Fi simply because it’s more dependable, but a solid Wi-Fi signal should be just fine.
Learning Management System (LMS)
A learning management system is a software program that delivers coursework to students, and provides a single coordinated platform for administration and tracking. For digital classrooms with exams, report cards, and more sophisticated projects and assignments, a decent LMS can be incredibly helpful. For simpler lessons or for younger classrooms, it may not be needed. Check out some of the most popular LMS options below to see if one might add value to your teaching.
Virtual Meeting Platforms
One of the great advantages of the traditional classroom is the real-time, face-to-face interaction between teachers and students. Virtual meeting platforms can help you maintain a lot of that value. Get the inside scoop on some of today’s best virtual meeting platforms below.
Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities
Online learning presents unique challenges for students with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Fortunately, there’s a wide range of digital hardware and software products designed to facilitate effective online study for such students. If you have any students with disabilities in your classroom, or if you teach special education, learn how to integrate assistive technology into your virtual classroom.
Tablets and smart phones provide an additional point of access to class lessons and related educational materials. They can be extremely helpful for assignments that require mobility, such as taking photos for an art or science project. Before you begin crafting lessons with smart devices in mind, make sure everyone in your class has access to one. And if someone doesn’t, make sure that student has a viable alternative in place.
Streaming services provide students with access to a practically unlimited supply of videos, podcasts, and more – both live and recorded – to supplement their regular classwork. For example, YouTube has plenty of free documentaries that can supplement your regular online lessons.
Online Learning for Students Without Access to the Must-Haves
Too many students in the U.S. have no access to the must-have technologies of online learning. For example, as late as 2018, an estimated 14 percent of American children aged six to 17 were without access to high-speed internet. This poses significant challenges for schools in need of a quick and effective transition to online school. If you’re a teacher making the transition to online learning faster than you would’ve hoped, here are a few ways to get all of your students the materials they need.
1. Mailing hard copies home
This may seem like defeating the purpose of online learning, but some students don’t have a choice. If any of your students have uncertain tech capabilities at home, make at least some of your lessons available in the form of a packet or other offline work.
2. Laptop loan programs
Although funding can be hard to come by, some schools and districts are creating laptop loan programs to increase access to these devices. In ideal scenarios, each student gets a laptop or Chromebook to take home to use for online lessons. If your school or district has a loan program, see if your classroom qualifies.
3. DVDs and flash drives
For students with a computer or TV but limited internet connections, some old school tech can do the trick. Preloaded flash drives can give students plenty of computer-based lessons to work on at home. And DVDs can be great for pre-loaded videos and other visual media such as stories and lectures.
Additionally, teachers are raising the funds needed to purchase laptops and Chromebooks through funding campaigns on sites such as TeacherFunder, DonorsChoose, and AdoptAClassroom, as well as more traditional means, like artwork sales and car washes. In times when social distancing are the norm, online fundraising may be the best bet.
The bottom line here is that teachers and schools are coming up with new and creative ways to get classwork to the students who lack the basic necessities of online study.
Organization & Communication
As a teacher, you know that successful teaching – whether online or in a classroom – comes down to effective organization and communication. As you might expect, the way you organize your lessons and communicate with students, parents, and others will change with your transition to online teaching. Below are some tips, tricks, and best practices you can use to facilitate your online lesson delivery.
Crafting Lessons for the Virtual Classroom
The goals of teaching online are the same as they are for teaching in a classroom, and so are many of the teaching skills and processes. But there are some important differences. In the classroom, you can approach students in-person and use direct-response techniques to deliver information, improve attention, and gauge comprehension. But online, the direct-response approach can be more difficult, therefore requiring lessons with more creative participation and communication. Here are a few strategies, tips, and tricks for dealing with students and lessons in the virtual teaching environment.
Creating and Delivering Expectations
Creating and communicating clear and concise student expectations in regard to their lessons, assignments, and behavior is more important than ever in the virtual teaching environment. Here are a few tips for helping students understand and meet those expectations:
Provide students and their parents with a clear, specific list of expectations at the start of online studies. Expectations should be stated in writing and reviewed with the class as a whole. Teachers should also review them regularly with the entire class as well as provide feedback to individual students and their parents regularly and at any hint of a problem.
Stick to a regular schedule
Expectations are best met through routine. Teachers should post daily coursework at the same specific time each morning.
Remember that there are different expectations for students in different grades
For example, elementary students should be required to complete all daily assignments, but not necessarily during regular school hours. Secondary students, however, may be required to complete daily assignments and submit their work online by a stated time at the end of the day.
Students should be expected to “attend” class based on a stated policy. How student attendance is handled will depend on your specific online program. In many programs, attendance is tracked through the recording of minutes spent on lessons and marking of each completed lesson, and by submission of completed assignments.
Top Tools & Tech for Teachers
Teachers new to the virtual school environment typically have a number of concerns (and sometimes outright anxiety) about the technical aspects of online learning. This section is designed to address those concerns by providing an overview of the platforms, applications, programs, and systems commonly used in online education.
- Adaptive Learning:
Online learning process that customizes lessons for each individual student allowing them to focus on subjects and topics they’re having particular difficulty with.
Not concurrent or simultaneous. In terms of online learning, asynchronous refers to accessing and completing coursework at a time and pace of the student’s own choosing.
Digital image used to represent a person or entity in the virtual world. Avatars in online education are typically used to represent an individual student or teacher.
- Blended Learning:
Instructional program or process that combines online and in-person learning components. Also known as hybrid learning.
- Digital Home Base:
Regarding online learning, a digital home base usually refers to the shared workspace used by schools, teachers, and students that is part of the online learning platform.
- Discussion Board:
Online location or forum where students interact with teachers and their fellow students by posting questions and answers concerning a range of education-related topics, including specific subjects, lessons, and assignments.
Short for electronic learning, e-learning refers to the broader use of digital resources (computers, internet, applications, platforms, smart phones, etc.) in the teaching and learning process.
- Learning Management Systems (LMS):
Learning management systems are the online programs through which schools and teachers present and manage education programs, and students access lessons and complete assignments.
- Offline Learning:
In relation to education, offline learning refers to the process of accessing and completing digital education programs (lessons, assignments, reference materials, etc.) on a computer or other digital device not currently connected to the internet.
- Online Learning Platform:
Application that provides a selection of integrated learning-related services and tools to schools, teachers, students, and others. An LMS is a type of online learning platform.
Concurrent or simultaneous. In regard to online learning, synchronous refers to lessons delivered by teachers to students in real time.
- Video Chat:
Refers to both online real-time video and audio interaction between two or more persons, as well as the applications used to conduct the interaction. The terms “video chat” and “video conferencing” are often used interchangeably.
- Virtual Learning Environment:
Software application or program that includes a number of learning and teaching tools integrated with computers and the internet designed to enhance the learning process.
- Virtual Meeting:
Another term for video chat or video conferencing.
A live or recorded video and audio program or event broadcast over the internet through the use of streaming media technology.
Virtual meeting platforms provide users with the ability to interact with others in real-time via the internet. There are tons of excellent virtual meeting platforms available, each with its own unique features, but they all provide the basic features needed to successfully conduct virtual meetings with practically anyone, including students, parents, as well as school faculty and staff. Here’s a quick look at some of the most popular:
BigBlueButton is an open-source VMP specifically designed for educators and that integrates seamlessly with a large number of popular learning management systems. A free version is available. Learn how to use BigBlueButton on its Video Tutorials page.
It’s no surprise that a VMP from Google is one of the most popular. It’s also no surprise that it’s one of the simplest to use. Up to 100 users can participate in an unlimited number of one-hour maximum meetings free of charge.
Popular VMP with tons of customizable features. The most affordable plan costs $12/month and allows for an unlimited number of meetings of up to 150 participants with no time limits. A 14-day free trial period is available.
If you’ve ever been in an online video conference, there’s a huge chance is was through Skype, the number one VMP in terms of overall usage. Both desktop and mobile versions are available, and using Skype is free.
The free version of Facebook’s VMP app is available with a strong set of basic features, while its advanced version is priced at $4 per person/month (with discounts available for educational institutions). You can learn how to use Workplace through its Help Center webpage.
Not strictly a VMP, YouTube Live allows users to live stream meetings and classes while interacting with viewers via live chat. You’ll have to enable YouTube Live first which may take up to 24 hours before you can use it.
One of best-known and most popular VMPs, Zoom offers a feature-rich platform that is easy to understand and use. It’s free version allows for group meetings (max 100 participants) up to 40 minutes long and one-on-one meetings of unlimited length.
As described earlier, learning management systems are applications that provide a centralized location for the administration and management of education programs, as well as the delivery of lessons and tracking of student work and progress. In short, LMSs are the foundation of most schools’ online presence. A LMS program is typically put into place by an entire school or school district for all of its classrooms, so teachers will likely be required to use the designated system. Teachers may, however, be able to incorporate other LMS systems, or particular features of those systems, into their individual classes.
Blackboard is a leading brand in the world of learning management systems. Its Blackboard Unite is actually a suite of programs and tools designed specifically for K-12 teaching and learning that includes a customizable LMS, virtual classroom, district mobile app, and much more.
Canvas offers a particularly robust variety of highly customizable features for K-12 teachers and students. You can try Canvas for free by signing up for a free Canvas account.
Cornerstone for K-12 Education
Cornerstone provides a range of features aimed at the K-12 sector, including a highly-configurable LMS, and collaborative learning and employee training options. Try out Cornerstone through its Request Demo page.
Combining a number of popular Google apps (Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Calendar, etc.) Google Classroom provides a free, simple-to-use web-based service for schools and teachers to create and distribute lessons.
Moodle is an open-source LMS that features a wide range of services, including its own real-time video meeting tool and access to students through their mobile devices. Programs are available in a range of price options. Get a free demo of Moodle via its MoodleCloud Free Trial webpage.
Online Learning Resources for Teachers
Epic! for Educators
Epic! offers instant access to more than 40,000 quizzes, videos, books, and more, all geared toward K-5 students. Free of charge to teachers and librarians.
National Association for the Education of Young Children
Professional organization dedicated to high-quality early learning and teaching for children aged 8 and younger.
Great site with tons of interactive lessons, games, videos, and more for kids of all ages, but particularly for elementary-level students. You can sign up for a newsletter that provides daily tips and activities for kids currently sheltering at home.
Sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Literary Association, the ReadWriteThink website offers a huge variety of classroom, parent, and afterschool resources, as well as resources for teacher professional development. Resources are available for all grade levels, including thousands for elementary-level students.
The Curriculum Corner
Excellent website and blog offering free access to a range of planning, instruction, data tracking, and other useful resources for elementary teachers.
Argument mapping and debate site designed to promote well-reasoned online discussions. Particularly good for political and social topics.
Lesson Plan Sites – Middle School
Comprehensive list government agency websites that offer lesson plans in dozens of subjects and topics. Compiled and presented by Angelo State University. Lists are also available for kindergarten, middle school, and high school grades as well.
Excellent source for teacher tips, book reviews, lesson ideas, and more. There’s also a wide variety of articles by regular and guest bloggers on teaching specific subjects, students with special needs, classroom technology, and more.
PBS Learning Media – Middle School
Literally thousands of immediately accessible, high-quality multimedia resources (most with transcripts and supplemental materials) that can be incorporated into middle school lesson plans, all free-of-charge.
The Virtual Nerd website provides more than 1,500 lessons in middle school math, geometry, and algebra through Algebra 2.
Creating an Online Classroom
Stanford Online High School website offering free access to a wide range of considerations and resources (videos, checklists, sample classes, etc.) for effective remote teaching.
Free mobile app and website for learning one or more of over 30 languages.
Excellent selection of high-quality planning tools and classroom resources (videos, interactive media, and activities) based on peer-reviewed science designed to supplement high school biology studies.
Great site with lectures, interactive resources, and over 7000 free videos covering the entire range of high school subjects that can be used to supplement lesson plans.
PBS Learning Media – High School
Comprehensive collection of online videos, activities, and games for high school lesson plans. Search by subject and resource type.
American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
Teachers union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Its PreK-12 Public Education webpage acts as a clearinghouse for resources supporting K-12 teachers.
Provides free access to educational video programs along with corresponding printed materials for K-12 teacher development and students
Federal government site offering a wealth of classroom-ready lesson plans, teacher’s guides, and student activities for K-12 grade levels.
Founded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Edutopia’s mission is to improve K-12 education by conducting research and providing information in the areas of teacher development, technology integration, student assessment, integrated studies, and more.
National Education Association (NEA)
Well known to teachers throughout the U.S., the NEA is the largest national organization of professional educators in the nation. Its website provides an almost infinite amount of useful information and data for teachers at every grade level.
Insight from an Online Learning Expert
Dr. Angela Velez-Solic has been an educator for 22 years, beginning her career in the traditional classroom environment. She has spent the last 15 years in online learning as a designer, educator, faculty trainer and developer, training over a thousand teachers about how to teach online. Dr. Velez-Solic has recently created and directs a Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation at Rush University in Chicago. You can find her book, Teaching Online Without Losing Your Mind on Amazon.
It’s the environment that changes, not the teacher and not the students. The lack of face-to-face interaction changes everything, but that can really be the only difference – that you’re all not in the same physical space. As a result, however, student motivation might drastically change. Some who are motivated in class may be very unmotivated online and vice versa.
If the district does not have a learning management system (such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle) online teaching can be quite difficult. I strongly suggest that teachers use Canvas Free for Teachers. Canvas is extremely intuitive, and if they’ve never used it, there are many tutorials online. Provide students with links for how to use Canvas (those can be found online too). Using synchronous technologies like Zoom can be really great, but use it sparingly because perhaps not everyone has internet that’s sufficient enough to run it smoothly. Offer online office hours using Zoom or another free technology if the school doesn’t have that tool.
Get a learning management system if you don’t have one already. Create a standardized course template if you don’t have one already so that every class a student goes into has a similar look to the navigation. It eases confusion and anxiety for teachers, students, and parents. Also, get [teachers] some training. [Teaching online] is not simple, it is not self-explanatory. The skills needed to pull this off really need to be learned. If getting formally trained is not available, teachers can research “how to teach online in K-12” and read articles about some skills they might need. Watch videos. Listen to experts and those who have done this before.
Be present. Don’t do this through email, people. Find a way to interact with them, even if it’s to make silly videos on your cell phone. Get a YouTube Channel. Google “tutorials” if you don’t know how, or ask an adolescent to show you. Your students would LOVE to see you have a channel. You don’t have to be fancy. Just be you and teach them. Let this be a time that you allow yourself to experiment, and give students creative choices. The goal is to meet the learning objectives, but there are multiple ways to that end for each student. Have students do projects, but allow them to ‘create’ something to show you what they’ve learned in any way they want. Give them a little freedom. That will motivate them.