Online teaching … a beginner’s guide

April 21, 2020
By: Jo Lynch , FE Engagement, SISRA Observe

In a time when the safest place is often in our own homes, the teachers of our country have been going above and beyond to try and help our students continue to learn and grow. With schools closed and face-to-face lessons cancelled, the world has turned to online and remote teaching and learning. Whilst some have embraced this opportunity and adapted well, some of you may still have this on your to-do list – if this is you, here’s some information and tips that may be of use and help you turn your session into an internet sensation for all the right reasons.

Choose where your session will be

First, you need to choose your platform – if your organisation already has one, you’ll probably have to use that. If not, there are lots to choose from – from the original online meeting platform Skype, there’s also Zoom, GoToMeeting, Google Classroom, Adobe Connect, VoiceThread, Blackboard Collaborate and many more. If you have a choice, check out a few and see what works for you.

Sort your set-up and get familiar

  • Test run
  • How does the screen look to your students?
  • Mute microphones
  • Clear, neutral background
  • Good lighting and camera angle
  • Split your screen

Once you’ve decided which platform you are using, you’ll want to get familiar with it. Have a test run with a friend or colleague to help you understand how the features work; are buttons located in the same place on the screen for you and your students? How do you share your screen so the students can see your PowerPoint? How do you mute and unmute the students’ microphones and how do you share your screen so they can see the resources?

You can also take this opportunity to figure out where you are going to set up, somewhere neutral without distractions behind you if possible; good lighting and camera angle are useful too – nobody is expecting a production fit for the BBC but you want it to look professional, you want to be at eye level with the webcam and for your students to be able to see you clearly. How will the screen look to your students? Will they be able to see that picture of you and your family in the background, or that pile of washing you’ve not had chance to put away yet?

Some teachers and tutors recommend to split your screen, you can have the session or ‘meeting’ open in one window, taking up half of your screen and then the resource you’re using open in a separate window on the other half. This way you can see the thumbnails of the students and keep your PowerPoint running on your screen share, whilst checking things out on a worksheet for example – again, practise this and have a play around with what works best for you.

The session – planning and preparation

  • Adapt for remote delivery – do you really need that group discussion?
  • How will students view the session?
  • Email resources to students along with the meeting link
  • Check links you are planning on using

Next up, your session plan – we’re not going to pretend you can do everything online that you can in a classroom; we’re going to have to adapt our delivery. For example group discussion is out of the window with any more than three or four students – the sound delays and practicalities of people talking over each other just don’t work in an online setting the way they do in a classroom. One of the platforms mentioned above, Blackboard Collaborate, allows you to split students into smaller groups and put them in a ‘breakout room’ where they can chat and work together for smaller tasks and then rejoin the main session. If you have large class sizes, or discussion is a pivotal part of your delivery, this might be the answer for you.

The other part of your session you may have to adjust is how you assess that learning has taken place – remember you can’t rely on your amazing body language reading in this setting and we’ve already mentioned the pitfalls of group discussion, so you need to assess differently. You could utilise the features of the platform and use the reactions or polling/voting functions, you could shift more of the assessment to the activities whether they are completed during the session or as a follow-up, you could even try something like a Kahoot! quiz where the students log in on their phones with a pin that you give them and can complete a multiple choice quiz that you have prepared before the session.

Other than that, think about how your students will be viewing the online session. They might not all have laptops or computers, they might even be joining you on their phones – try to make sure your materials and resources are clear and easy to use in this context. Emailing presentations and worksheets to the students beforehand along with the meeting link will mean those that can will be able to print them out so they have a physical copy to work from. Make sure you send the email with enough time for your group to do this if they want to. Don’t make it a requirement though, as not everyone may have access to a printer.

Don’t forget to check that all the links you’re going to use are working too – finding a great YouTube clip that perfectly demonstrates your point and then it not working during your session is somewhat frustrating!

During the session

  • Last-minute preparation and login
  • Introduction and ground rules
  • Clear speech and questioning
  • Be vigilant towards the students’ reactions
  • Resources

Just before the session starts, make sure you have been to the bathroom and got yourself a drink, just as you would for a classroom; you don’t want to have to dash off mid-sentence if you have a tickly cough from all the talking. Then, get yourself comfy and log in to the ‘meeting’ so you’re there before your students – you can always prepare a slide or sheet saying ‘Session starting soon …’ if you don’t want to make small talk.

If you have students that haven’t used the platform before, then introduce them to it and set your ground rules just as you would in the classroom – how do they ‘put their hand up’? How do you want them to answer questions? If you have cameras on, make sure they know that everybody in the session can see them (we’ve all seen the amusing videos of online meetings doing the rounds on social media). Let the group know if you are muting everyone’s microphones to avoid background noise and feedback, direct them to signal to you if they need to tell you something. There are a few ways that you can manage this – you can go for the simple wave your hand in front of the camera, or use one of the software functions such as a ‘thumbs up’. Some platforms have a ‘chat’ box which you could direct students to use for any questions – be mindful about setting boundaries for this though, you don’t want the students having a chat in there and you having to try and read it whilst still delivering the session.

Speak a little slower and clearer than you usually would to allow for sound delays and internet issues. Which goes hand in hand with your questioning methods – asking an open question to the whole class will either be met by silence or everyone speaking over each other to answer, depending on the confidence of your group; ask targeted questions to specific participants, and remember to unmute their microphone to allow them to answer, if you have muted them!

Keep an eye on the thumbnails of the participants – do the students appear engaged? Does anyone have any questions? Does anyone appear to be struggling? We’ve already mentioned the lack of opportunity to read body language, so try to be extra vigilant to what you can see.

You may want to try and incorporate some additional resources into your session, this will vary depending on your group’s age range and ability, but is especially useful and engaging for younger students. These could be photos or images you hold up, flashcards, videos or even a song to help liven things up. You could also have relaxing music playing during the time periods that the students are completing activities by themselves.

When closing the session, make sure you’re crystal clear about what you’re going to do to follow up the session and what you expect the students to do. Are you going to email them any ‘homework’ activities? When do they need to complete them by? When is the next session? How should they contact you with any questions? How should they submit any work to you? When should they submit it by? Of course, you can put all of this in the follow-up email too, but if you have mentioned it during the session, they are more likely to look out for it.

Make sure the ‘meeting’ is fully closed down before you do or say anything you don’t want your students to see or hear.

After the session

  • Well done!
  • Evaluate
  • Send that email

Firstly, if that was your first online teaching session, take a deep breath and a well-deserved pat on the back, it’s not always easy trying new things and embracing new technology, but you did it!

Just as you would with a classroom-based session, let’s do a bit of evaluation… did everything work the way you thought it would? What went well? Would it have been even better if…? What didn’t work? What will you change? You may be slightly drained from delivering the session but if you do this now, the session will be fresh in your memory and you may come across things you want to point out in your follow-up email to the students.

Lastly, send your follow-up email, make sure you have confirmed in writing any follow-up information or actions you want the students to take, along with ensuring you have attached everything required.

Jo Lynch , FE Engagement, SISRA Observe