Have You Become an Online Teacher Overnight? Get Tips and Tricks!

In the space of a very short time, many of us have seen our daily lives altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Coronavirus” appears in most headlines and conversations these days. For hundreds of teachers, online classes will become the new norm. Some teachers already have experience giving webinars or meeting with students through videoconferencing, so the challenge of going completely online isn’t terribly daunting. Others may feel like they’ve put on roller skates for the first time and are little unsteady.

I’ve been online since 2007. First, I created my YouTube channel, and then I started teaching live in 2009. I’ve given private lessons, group lessons, webinars, and mass live streams. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different platforms, so I’ve had the chance to grow confident of my ability to adapt in the virtual classroom. I still hit bumps and I still reflect on some lessons thinking, I could have done that better! But for the most part, I’m very comfortable in the online environment, and I’ve learned to embrace my work as an online teacher with great zeal.

If you’re among the many teachers who’ve been asked to move your classes online, I may be able to help with some tips and tricks. If I leave anything out, feel free to post comments or questions. Together we can try to cover all the bases so that you and your students can still score a home run — just virtually and not in the physical ballpark!

1. Affective factors still matter, and maybe even more so right now. For me, moving online was a personal choice. For many of you, circumstances forced this change. The very nature of a pandemic makes us all uneasy, so it’s more important than ever that we set a positive tone. Our lessons can be bright spot in our students’ lives during these turbulent times. No need to be falsely upbeat, but a warm smile and open ear go a long way. My goal is always to make my students feel calm and comfortable, and I do my best to earn their trust in my ability to deliver what they need.

– Let students ask questions and voice concerns about the coronavirus if they wish, but if you have an agenda to get through, gently steer them through the lesson plan. I’ve been reminding my students that I’m here to keep their studies on track, and I thank them for the chance to keep a sense of normalcy in life.

– Choose your topics with care. If you have flexibility in selecting materials like me, then consider a range of topics from informative to inspiring. For students who study conversation with me, I create a weekly list of topics they choose from. I’m avoiding any controversial and potentially upsetting subject matter. Some of the topics I’ve listed for next week include a TED Talk on procrastination, a report on using Google Glass to help autistic children, and one child’s efforts to clean up the local beaches.

– Allow for laughter. Funny anecdotes or a shared experience help us bond. Human connections are most certainly possible over the Internet. I’ve had the privilege of sharing emotionally charged moments with students, and though I haven’t met many of them in person, I feel connected to them all.

2. Communication is key to functioning efficiently. I do my best to be clear what platforms and tools we’ll be using. Be sure you explain the purpose of each platform and give clear instructions.

– If you’re using Zoom, which I now use for most of my private and group lessons, take advantage of the ability to have automatic reminders sent out.

– If you’re using a Facebook page (my choice for private groups), be clear how it will be used for communication. I post assignments and announcements on Facebook. Instructions and deadlines are always included. I allow students to message me for individual concerns, but otherwise questions are posted on our discussion board. Using tools like Chirbit, students also post audio recordings on Facebook for feedback from classmates and me. I’ve had students use Shadow Puppet Edu for video projects, which can also be shared on Facebook.

– I have a small enough clientele to allow for flexibility. I let some private students file share through Dropbox or Skype. Both apps notify me of any activity, so I can respond in a timely manner.

3. Online teaching is kind of like a TV show, but you don’t have a crew, so have a checklist. The to-do list can be mental one, but maybe the first time, you’ll literally need to check each action off.

– Test your equipment before class. Make sure your microphone isn’t on mute. A headset generally delivers better audio than a built-in mic, by the way. Is your webcam at eye level?

– Turn on the lights. I have both ceiling lights and a floor lamp that I turn on when I’m at my desk for a live lesson or a live stream. The video quality improves when you’re in a well-lit room.

– Adjust the blinds. Sunlight can interfere with your ability to see the screen and it creates Hitchcock-like shadows at times!

– Fix your hair, brush your teeth, and consider putting extra effort into your make-up job, if you go the route of wearing cosmetics. How I look on camera is often a vast improvement on how I look when I first wake up in the morning. If your classes are being recorded (most of mine are), then you have added reason to look good.

– Speaking of recording, you can set a Zoom session to automatically record. If you don’t, you’ll need to remember to hit “record” when class starts.

4. Rehearsals and experiments outside of class can prevent awkward moments and loss of learning time. If you’re not familiar with Zoom, Skype, WizIQ, or whatever platform you’re using, invest the effort to gain familiarity.

– Zoom has a set of video tutorials. There are also many how-to videos on YouTube.

– Practice going live with a colleague, friend, or family member if possible. Even with experience teaching online, a new set of tools takes time to master. You can figure out the features on Skype in one session, but other platforms are more robust, so more time is needed to figure things out. I did about half a dozen private live streams with my family watching on their devices before I did a YouTube member-only live with OBS Studio. I made sure I knew how to start and end, double check my streaming status, share my screen, switch to camera-only, and work with a laptop next to my desktop monitor so that I could keep up with comments while still sharing my screen.

–  Ask a colleague who knows the ropes if you can join a live session and observe. Before I hosted my first group class (about 10 years ago!), I asked another teacher if I could sit in as a silent participant. Observations were valuable when we were trainees in the traditional classroom, and even a single observation can be helpful when you first move online.

5. Have faith in yourself and your abilities. Many of your skills are transferable from the traditional classroom.

– Time management: Know where to check the time of day as well as the duration of your online session when you’re live.

– Organization: Open all the necessary tabs and files in before class starts. Close what’s not necessary.

– Awareness of learning styles: Consider your balance between visual and aural input. Remember you can now share images easily with a single click.

– Awareness of teacher talking time vs. student talking time: If you have a large group, use breakout rooms for pair and small group work. After any lesson, play back the recording to reflect on how you ran the class. Try this quick evaluation trick: click in three random places on the timeline and see who’s talking, you or the students. I’m happy when I click around and see that the majority of the time the students were talking, not me. I also evaluate my speaking rate, which I can do much better when I watch a recording.

6. Use what’s already available online. My blog is one of many free resources for teachers. If you need tips or a handout on a specific topic, do a key word search. Check out what’s already been created. It can save you time. If you need help with an activity to target something I haven’t addressed yet, write to me. I love suggestions for future posts!

Good luck! Happy teaching! Stay healthy!

Related posts:
Working Through a Webcam (2014)
Three Key Challenges of Online Teaching (2018)

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