The Coronavirus pandemic has shaken our world in a variety of ways, one of the most public being the impact on education. While it is recognized that online learning is not a replica for in-class learning, our classrooms will certainly change forever due to the things we have learned about electronic instruction.

So what is the difference between online learning and face-to-face learning? How do you make online instruction as effective as possible? A few key elements have risen to the top as best practices to ensure students are both developing connections and academic growth through the online learning experience.

Digital Competency & Community Building

Whether at-home or in-person, building relationships and familiarity with learning structures is without a doubt critical to advancing learning. In the classroom, you may be familiar with approaches like responsive classroom, and these methods apply online as well. Taking time to ensure each student has become familiar with the digital tools they’ll need to use to develop and demonstrate learning is an essential start. Model and create basic tutorials to help your learner develop a digital competency to be successful online, and be sure these resources are available to parents for the duration of distance learning incase troubleshooting is needed.

In addition, community building experiences must be a starting point for all digital learning classrooms, where students get to know the teacher and classmates on a personal level. Things like “share time” at the younger grades is an easy way to get children to open up about themselves and talk on camera, a comfort that must be nurtured in safe ways early on. At the older grades, icebreakers can be utilized and can also introduce new technology in a fun way, like have students answer a Google form about “my favorite things” or create a video telling an anecdote about themselves and sharing it with others.

Teacher Collaboration

Online learning is new to everyone, so more than ever it’s important to support one another. Online “silos” are far worse than in-person classroom silos, with fewer natural connections to visit, collaborate, and talk through daily challenges. Embracing collaboration should be at the forefront of the teaching online experience, establishing schedules that regularly provide touchpoints with grade- or content-level teammates, teachers who share students, and administration or curriculum leaders. If these are not built into the schedule ahead of student learning schedules, they are near impossible to establish after the fact. Within these connections, consider structures for sharing like online filing systems that can be accessed by multiple users, like a shared Google Team Drive. Administrators should create spaces for those more advanced with technology to share their successes both in virtual staff meetings but also with formalized training videos.

Simplify Content for Online Instruction

The human brain, young or old, requires vastly different synapses and schema to attack and toggle online learning than it does with our more natural face-to-face instruction. This needs to be taken into account when selecting content and activities, because learners will be adding layers of thinking to each task that are not typically needed (Where did I need to click again? Who do I focus on in this group virtual meeting?, etc.). Drilling down curriculum to the most pertinent standards and the most engaging content will maximize learning time. If your district has not already done this for you, consider taking tasks you typically use and reducing the amount of new or recently taught skills included in a task down to 1-3 rather than 3-5.

Provide Easy-to-Find, Multimodal Instruction

Content for students should all be housed in one familiar, comprehensive platform like Google Classroom, Seesaw, or Class Dojo. Within the platform or parallel to it, there should also be a place for parents to easily access tutorials and help resources. Critical to online student engagement is ensuring that not all content posted for learners is of the same mode, meaning don’t just post everything as a Google Doc. Exploring resources like Screencastify or WeVideo to create engaging video clips, as well as PearDeck or Kahoot! to create live engaging presentations for students, will elicit increased engagement and also provide our learners with the different learning styles to meet their needs. Online is one example of the many ways you can model during presentations like you would in the classroom. Peer discourse has also become a more accessible medium as programs like Google Meets have added enhancements over the past few months including “breakout” group functions where a teacher can split an online class into smaller breakout groups and have access to visit each one as students collaborate peer-to-peer.

As mentioned, having simple, accessible tutorials for parents related to the content in focus is also critical as every online program will inevitably include asynchronous learning experiences. One of the greatest frustrations expressed by parents with online learning was getting stuck trying to help their child and not understanding the concept or activity themselves. Of course, you can’t create a how-to video or guide for everything, but keeping resources for parents housed in an easy-to-find place on key learning points (i.e. How does the forgiving method work for division?) will significantly reduce the amount of parent emails you receive as a teacher.

Grading: Focus on Creation & Feedback

If you taught online this spring, you probably wondered at some point, “who actually did this ‘student’ work?” As educators, we have to think outside the box for assessment online to ensure what we are assessing is truly that of the student’s. Frankly, testing and quizzing is one of the least likely ways to receive authentic, valid evidence of student learning while online. Instead, once you have introduced and utilized the multi-modal learning tools as mentioned above, consider turning them over to students as a way for them to demonstrate their understanding through creation. Students can do a Screencastify video where they talk through how to solve a challenging math problem, or create a Google Slides presentation to identify the story elements of a book they are reading.

Feedback is also more important than completion or scored grades online as the latter are easier to disregard or pay less attention to as a student. With feedback, it holds the learner’s attention for what they both succeeded with and need to improve on, and often will expect for the learner to adjust their work to demonstrate increased understanding.

Establish Consistent, Streamlined Communication

Before day one with students, think through what your consistent messaging plan is for students and families so it becomes expected and familiar for them. Will you send out a morning message to start the students’ day? Can parents always expect to hear from you on Sunday evening or Friday morning or both? Streamlining your communication to reliable schedules helps families better engage and stay informed rather than random whole-class emails. It will also make your individual communication around issues or support outside of these expected communication patterns stand out for parents and receive greater attention. The last thing you want your emails to become for a family is white noise, and structure is a primary way to combat that.