George Lucas Educational Foundation
Blended Learning

Extending Classroom Management Online

Nine suggestions to help you provide online learners with class norms and expectations and a sense of community.

Illustration of children sitting in front of a computer screen, with icons for academic subjects above their heads
Illustration of children sitting in front of a computer screen, with icons for academic subjects above their heads

As more and more classrooms embrace a blended learning environment, it’s important that we talk about strategies for classroom management. For the past few years, we’ve seen a huge growth in distance learning. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 53 percent of the nation’s public school districts have high school students enrolled in distance education courses.

One key to a quality program is its instructors’ ability to manage the online classroom. Yet many online educators don’t realize that the best practices in traditional environments should not be discarded simply because the participants are interacting digitally from various locations. They still need to be managed as a cohesive group of learners.

The growth of online or blended programs can be seen at all levels of education, but I believe that really effective online classrooms take their direction from the best in brick-and-mortar elementary classroom environments. Let’s face it: Elementary teachers are amazing. They know that in order to manage a classroom, they must:

  • Build community and create an engaging environment.
  • Have organization and routines for students to be at ease.
  • Learn about each participant (not just what they submit for an assignment).

Managing Online Learning

If you are facilitating an online learning environment, here are nine suggestions for successfully managing your group.

1. Build an engaging online environment. Elementary teachers create a habitat that has multiple areas—for example, a library/reading area, work areas, and areas for discussion. Create virtual spaces in your blended classroom that serve different purposes. Perhaps there’s a “lounge” or chat room for side conversations?

There’s the area for your agenda, syllabus, assignments, and deadlines. Have a “parking lot” area for questions that can be answered by fellow participants (and regularly checked by the instructor as well). You should also have an office time and space. Some teachers use Google Hangout or Skype, but you can also go a step further and use Minecraft or Second Life.

2. Build community. Students won’t treat each other well if they don’t know each other. Think of this step as proactive classroom management. By building community right from the get-go and encouraging it throughout the course of the class, you’ll save yourself from some issues later on.

Present norms and expectations, and build some together. Have small groups create contracts about how to work together. There’s nothing more frustrating to an online student than feeling isolated during group work. And frustration leads to missed deadlines, growly posts, and rude interactions. Find ways for participants to learn about each other, to learn about you, and to find commonalities in their experiences. Humanize the voices behind the writing.

3. Curate answers in an organized way. Students can get ornery when they’re confused. Find ways to curate resources and responses to questions so that participants can find them easily. There’s productive struggle and there’s disorganization of resources. Manage the latter and students will be more likely to work through the former. Don’t just make organization practical—make it user-friendly.

4. Be present. Don’t leave the learning for the students to do independently without your help. Make sure you and they are participating in discussion threads. When a discussion is dying down, inject your thoughts into it to give it a boost. Many teachers avoid actively teaching how to be independent and assume that because the student is online, they must know how already. False. So be sure to give scaffolds and strategies to help students become more independent.

5. Establish norms for office hours and video conferencing. My norms include a dress code when meeting with me on Google Hangout (no pajamas). I also teach my middle schoolers how to ask questions without interrupting the current speaker. For instance, when on camera with a group of talking heads, I ask students to hold up the index finger to indicate a response to what’s being discussed and two fingers to indicate they want to bring up something new.

6. Don’t group randomly. Use criteria to group participants. (Don’t know your online learners well? Here are some strategies to change that.) 

7. Teach about plagiarism. Check with your institution and use simple strategies for ensuring work is original or cited. It’s easier to cheat online, but it’s also easier to catch improprieties. Be proactive and teach what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. 

8. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations. Sometimes online teachers avoid going down the rabbit hole when issues occur. Stay on top of issues as they arise. Immediately.

9. Use various means to contact participants. Contact small groups of students and also the whole class routinely, but know when it’s time to do a behind-the-scenes intervention and email a participant directly (or even call). Use this sparingly and it will have impact.

Online learning can be an amazing experience for both the educator and the student. But the teacher must model awareness that there are humans at every keyboard. Set up a recognizable environment that is structured and engaging. Make sure it honors the learners in it, and you’ll have fewer issues to manage in your online class.

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