Teacher’s Guide to Online School Success

From recording your lectures to crafting modules to maximizing retention, there’s a lot to think about when moving your teaching online. Learn the key do’s and don’ts and get critical insight from seasoned educators in the online learning space.

Meet the Expert
Angela
Dr. Angela Velez-Solic

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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.

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.

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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.

Angela Velez-Solic

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.

Smart Devices

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

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.

4. Fundraising

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.

Group Lesson Tips & Tricks

Get familiar with your tech

You know from your own classroom experience that nothing slows the momentum of a lesson faster than a technical glitch. This is especially true online, so make a point to get familiar with all of your online technology (platforms, applications, etc.) as soon as possible.

Do some extra planning

Working in the classroom you’re constantly face-to-face with your students. And that allows for making adjustments in your presentation throughout the course of a lesson. That’s something you lose online. So, be sure your lessons are particularly well-detailed and that all objectives are made crystal clear to your students.

Think visually

Without the animation and direct human interaction of the classroom, online lessons can be dry and flat. Combat this with visual stimulation. Think visual aids, props, animation, etc. Remember: catching the student’s eye will help hold their attention.

Use audio elements, too

Mix in some music and audio recordings (animal sounds, interviews with experts and historical figures, etc.) with your lectures. Same rationale as visual aids.

Check in with students along the way

It’s sometimes hard to get feedback from students while teaching online. Check in often with each individual student throughout the class process to make sure no one is falling behind.

One-on-One Time with Students

Effective Lesson Plans for Online Learning

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:

Be proactive

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.

Student attendance

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.
  • Asynchronous: 
    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.
  • Avatar: 
    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.
  • E-Learning: 
    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.
  • Synchronous: 
    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.
  • Webcast: 
    A live or recorded video and audio program or event broadcast over the internet through the use of streaming media technology.

Virtual Meeting Platforms

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

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.

Google Meet

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.

GoToMeeting

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.

Skype

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.

Workplace

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.

YouTube Live

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.

Zoom

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.

Learning Management Systems

Online Learning Resources for Teachers

Elementary School

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.

PBS Kids

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.

ReadWriteThink

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.

Middle School

High School

General

Insight from an Online Learning Expert

Angela-Velez-Solic

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.

What are the biggest differences between teaching students online and in-person?

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.

What are some of the most common tech issues teachers new to the online teaching environment have?

How can school and districts best support teachers in their online teaching efforts?

What can teachers do to inspire their students to do their best work in the online learning environment?