When I first started teaching online 5 years ago, it was with the stupid naiveté of a beginner. After all, with more than ten years of teaching inside a physical classroom, how hard would it be to teach from behind a screen? It took me a while to flounder and fumble (as I am wont to do, with anything in life!) before I figured out a few things. It can seem daunting if you're new to computers, or it can feel like a piece of cake if you're from a generation glued to screens. Yet, both groups can be terribly wrong and absolutely right, in so many ways.
In this article, I would like to list down a few observations that I have made and certain tweaks that seem to work well. Contrary to what many believe, it is not only about switching the video cam on. So many factors weigh into the learning process online. I sincerely hope they resonate with you and turn out to be useful for you too!
#1 Know your students' names.
This no-brainer is not as common as you'd like to believe. It matters in a physical classroom, but it matters so much MORE in a virtual one. I like to receive my students' list in advance and pore over the names. This helps me mentally prepare myself. If at any time in the future, I stop teaching, it will only be because I'm losing memory and can't remember names anymore. When you don't remember their names, you'll call on them less often and they'll zone out more. Not ideal, I'm sure you agree.
#2 Use the chat feature.
This is truly a lifesaver. You can use the chat feature to greet students who join in late, ask about their health/family, and see if they need extra help. Sometimes students are shy to ask questions in front of everyone or may be ashamed to admit that they need extra help. Reaching out via chat is an excellent way to give them the assistance they need and also to practice differential teaching without disturbing the flow of the class. Remind yourself to reach out to at least one student in each class via chat.
#3 Incorporate pen and paper activities.
Just like we would use a smartboard or the Internet in a physical classroom, use physical aids in a virtual classroom. This can be done by asking students to draw a scene based on a description (listening comprehension), taking notes and sharing those images via chat, or simply by asking them what they see outside the window (Picture Composition!). There are many games for younger students but these are useful and even necessary for adults too.
#4 It's okay to be minimalistic.
I see this a lot with older teachers who get intimidated by the sheer number of tools or applications available. Trust me, the teacher comes before all technology. Students learn when they have an invested teacher, no matter the technology. If you'd like to stick to the apps you know well and can manage confidently, you're set. As a student, I wanted a teacher who cared about me, who knew his / her stuff, and who would encourage me to try harder. Those things will never change.
#5 Do less.
This is an extension of #4 above and something that I probably should not be talking about because I try to overpack my lessons all the time! I am definitely working on it and the days I do it, my classes seem to go smoother. I guess it's because mental fatigue settles in very quickly online and it's easy to overlook it in the absence of body language cues. I hope I can master this soon, for it has a positive impact on my students. Less is indeed, more.
This is a slide from a workshop I had conducted earlier this year, on the nitty-gritties of learning online.
These suggestions may appear simple, but they create remarkable changes when applied in the virtual classroom. Have you already tried these? Do you know of other things that work? I look forward to learning those as well!
P.S: This article was written keeping in mind adult learners of a foreign language and may not be relatable if your student community is different. If you'd like to learn more about learning online as a student, please read this article of mine, from a student's perspective!