Building a successful virtual learning program can help teachers and students grow. Having taught in the virtual space throughout my education career, I’ve found, like others, that doing so requires a combination of characteristics: expertise in lesson planning and assessment, adaptability in what learning can look like in a virtual space, and a belief in students’ ability to rise to a challenge with support.
Ultimately, we want students to take ownership of and lead their learning, and that’s even more necessary in a virtual space. Where physical classrooms offer face-to-face activities that the teacher can readily observe and monitor, in virtual classrooms students are physically separated from their peers and teacher, so teachers need to be very intentional about monitoring how students are doing.
Here are key aspects of building a virtual learning culture that are discussed below:
- Develop an Offline Learning Plan for Students’ Independent Work
- Real-Time Meetings Are for Coaching
- Responsive Feedback Is Critical
- Relationships Matter
Develop an Offline Learning Plan for Students’ Independent Work
Offline or asynchronous time is when students work on tasks following a schedule that suits them. Tasks range from traditional to multimedia, such as watching demos or videos of lectures, listening to or reading articles and stories, and answering questions in writing or through audio or video recordings. Students post assignments online for their peers and the teacher to review, respond, and give feedback.
These are not live sessions with everyone participating at the same time; instead, participants complete work and post communications at different hours of the day (and night, in the case of teens). The schedule depends on each learner’s preference. Communication tools used include discussion boards, email, and instant messaging apps.
The purpose of offline learning time is for students to build knowledge and apply understanding. They work mostly alone, which can be challenging. Teachers need to guide and coach students on becoming skilled and practiced in working independently and monitoring their own progress.
I found success by focusing on the following four points.
1. Establish structures: Many students need help managing work time and productivity when adapting to a virtual environment. Provide checklists that break out the steps for task completion to help them understand the scope of the work and the milestones they’ll accomplish along the way. Do check-ins to monitor progress on checklists and collect assessment data on students’ growth.
Use a learning platform such as Google Classrooms, Schoology, or Canvas to contain all tasks, organized into folders based on units or concepts. The checklists and assessments should be readily available to students and their parents. Include discussion boards and/or links to external dialog tools like Flipgrid, and encourage students to discuss, review, and post links and other content that supports their learning.
2. Provide a variety of assignment or task formats: When the purpose of work is for students to build understanding, apply concepts thoughtfully, analyze information, evaluate value, and/or synthesize new ideas or expressions, assigning mostly worksheets or reading questions is not the best course of action, as it risks learners disengaging due to boredom or frustration because that approach does not create a path toward understanding.
Where possible, offer students different approaches so they can build and apply knowledge. For example, provide a recorded lecture, two or three videos, and two readings about the topic. The students must listen to the lecture and then choose to complete a combination of the remaining content options. Or give two or three choices for completing a task, such as writing, recording a video, or building a slide deck using tools like Flipgrid, Adobe Spark, or Seesaw. Provide links to reading assignments at different reading levels so that all students find a path to comprehension, with tools like Newsela, News in Levels, Rewordify and more.
When students are working alone from home, raise their engagement by giving them a voice in how they learn. One way is to let them decide how they will create products to demonstrate what they know. For example, students can use Minecraft Education to demonstrate math concepts, or historical and literary events, through building. They can explain math problems, experiments, or social and literary ideas by recording a video using the Google Chrome extension Screencastify. Learners of all ages can model and explain their thinking using just a video app on a phone, and then upload it to the classroom learning platform to share with peers.
3. Keep it real: Make the content relevant to authentic purposes outside of school. Connect assignments to career-related tasks, such as memos, profit and loss sheets, business plans, lab experiments, survey statistics, or recorded presentations. Identify an audience from the community whose occupation applies the concepts being taught, or give students a target audience for the tasks they are doing. The focus can be on one assignment to teach a skill, or for a unit final assessment. Try formats like authentic learning experiences, project-based learning, design thinking, or game-based learning. Connecting content to students’ lives can help engage them in tasks.
4. Make work public: Curate and publish student work for viewing by a target audience, such as the local community or organizations, that might benefit from or appreciate a different perspective. Students who contribute to their community see that their voice matters, and being published shows them the value of their evaluation and synthesis of curriculum.
Making work public can be as simple as putting students’ files in a Google folder—set to “view only”—and sharing the link on the school website and social media. Or use a blog, YouTube channel, or other public-facing site. Learners tend to take more care with their work when the intent is to publish to an audience beyond the teacher and school.
Before publishing student work for public viewing, check your school or district policy. Verify which parents have given signed permission for publication of their child’s work, likeness, and name. Often only first names are used and not in the same space as the student’s appearance, and sometimes students make up a screen or pen name that is used in place of their real name. Only those with signed parental permission should be published—and even then, it is good courtesy to inform parents of your plan. Give them the opportunity to support publication or to say no. Explain to parents that the point of making work public is so that students learn how to contribute to the community through their ideas as an author.
Real-time Meetings Are for Coaching
The companion to offline learning is live support. The teacher’s approach should depend on the intended outcome. Some teachers set office hours for individual and small-group virtual coaching sessions. Others divide students in half—or other portions—and meet with the groups a few times a week instead of every weekday. These approaches allow for meeting of student needs and facilitating participation better than meeting with 30 or more at one time.
If you need to do a lecture, that can be done as a standard webinar with the class present, but you might be better served recording it so students can view it offline. You should reserve the limited time you have with students for coaching.
Addressing learning gaps: Meet with students grouped by skill need or in small groups for more individualized support to address essential gaps in core curriculum outcomes. In classrooms, teachers can see when learners are struggling. With students working remotely, use assessment data from offline work and conversations to find and address deficiencies in real-time meetings.
When some students demonstrate achievement faster than the rest, provide personalized opportunities to continue their growth forward. Otherwise, these learners may become bored and stop completing assignments.
Encouraging in-depth learning: Use real-time meetings to facilitate students’ thinking about course concepts so that the products they create to demonstrate learning will be more complex and polished. Make the time eventful by connecting real-world experiences such as interviews with professionals in different fields. Leverage asynchronous activities such as virtual museum tours that students have already completed as a base to go deeper into concepts.
Use meeting time to mediate misconceptions and misunderstandings while encouraging students to voice what they know and what they do not understand. Use digital folders to create virtual stations or centers that include tasks that support different learning gaps and extensions as both real-time and offline activities.
Responsive Feedback Is Critical
When students are working on their own, gaps in understanding happen, so they really need feedback for revisions. Consider this timing guide for giving feedback:
Turnaround time of 30 minutes to two hours for emails, texts, and instant messages: Students need this quick turnaround when they reach out for help about offline tasks. When they’re working on tasks and hit a learning gap or do not understand the directions or resource, they need a quick response to continue with the work. The next real-time session could be too late, and waiting until then could cause students to feel like they’re not being supported, even though by asking for help they are demonstrating responsibility for their learning. Let students know your working hours, when you will respond quickly—you don’t have to respond right away to a midnight message.
Turnaround time of up to three hours after posted discussion events: When students are participating in a timed event to respond to each other’s posts—say within three to six hours—the teacher should also write some posts during the event to show visibility. This tells students, “I am supervising what you are posting.”
Teachers should also post after the event to honor students’ participation—they can encourage further participation by including a reflective question in responses.
Turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours for assignment submissions: Provide feedback on the tasks so that students can revise or know that they are ready for the next level of tasks. Taking longer to share feedback could be too late to impact a learner’s reflection on their work, especially if they have moved on to other tasks. Virtual space encourages opportunities for revisions of work that give students practice based on the professional feedback of the teacher and their peers.
Everyone behaves differently at home versus in a school building. Students working from home may be confused about how best to get things done and to manage their time. Actions that a teacher views as laziness or apathy might really arise from the struggle of working from home. One way to support learners is to establish norms for offline and real-time interactions and productivity. A set of shared norms can help coach students on appropriate professional behavior.
Checking in on how students are doing is critical, especially during this challenging time. It’s important to check in with every student every week through offline and real-time conversations. These check-ins support monitoring students’ social and emotional status as well as their academic growth. Remember that working from home for many students is a more challenging adjustment for them than it is for you.
When students ask for more time on tasks or for opportunities to redo or revise a task, make it happen. While there might be some who overdo this request, assume that the cry for help is genuine for most. We do not know everything that is a stressor at home. Be a supporter, not another obstacle.
If you are feeling like you’re building a plane while it’s flying, you’re not alone. Building a virtual learning culture takes time. Look for the parts in your program that are missing or need more development. Start small and build as you go. And remember that some of the best online teachers shared the same challenges when they started out.