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Transitioning to Teaching Online: How to Build a Vibrant Learning Community

Allow me to share my experiences about transitioning to a digital classroom while maintaining my positive classroom culture.

Alan P. Kennedy Jr.
May 25,  2020
Perspectives

My rapid transition to online learning was jarring, to say the least. I moved from using Edmodo for simple tasks like posting homework and test reminders to using Microsoft Teams for more complex activities like video conferencing and digital collaboration. The move was less than ideal, but my students and I pushed through it. Allow me to share my experiences about transitioning to a digital classroom while maintaining my positive classroom culture.

1. Teach students how to use the digital platform

When my school announced that we were moving to teaching online, all teachers were encouraged to use Microsoft Teams. This platform was new to my students and me. As I explored the platform, I visualized students’ usage, and I realized that students would need a tutorial on the basic functionality of Microsoft Teams. I used a scavenger hunt activity to help students fully explore Teams functions, to make learning about Teams fun, and to generate student buy-in. I’m happy that I did not assume that my students would easily migrate to the digital classroom. The scavenger hunt helped me pinpoint students who did not have the required technology or had technical problems before I started teaching content. For example, my students made a video using Teams’ Meet Now function saying “Hello World!” and posted it in the proper channel. Students who could not post the video contacted our school’s IT department. If the problem was not an IT issue, I guided them through the process of using Teams during my digital office hours. Teaching students how to use the digital platform helped students feel less overwhelmed with the transition.

Teaching students how to use the digital platform helped students feel less overwhelmed with the transition.
Teaching students how to use the digital platform helped students feel less overwhelmed with the transition.

2. Check up on your students

Normally, I greet my students at the door with a smile and handshake. The reason for this is two-fold. The routine helps students transition from the hallway culture to our classroom culture, and it also helps me determine the mental and emotional state of my students before they enter into the class. In the digital space, it is more difficult to assess those qualities in my students. To start my digital class, I used an open-ended social-emotional questions, which allows students to express themselves because how a child deals with the stress of a pandemic and quarantine is unique. One of my most recent openers was the following: Post a picture of a movie that describes how you are feeling today.

This process helped me start the conversation about how my students are feeling. My response was Groundhog Day because I was in the middle of my quarantine, and every day was the same as one before. Explaining how we all felt in quarantine led to a great discussion about how quarantine and stay-at-home orders are affecting my students and other people around the world. The questions give insight into the emotional and mental state of the students and build a sense of shared experiences.

To start my digital class, I used an open-ended social-emotional questions, which allows students to express themselves because how a child deals with the stress of a pandemic and quarantine is unique.
To start my digital class, I used an open-ended social-emotional questions, which allows students to express themselves because how a child deals with the stress of a pandemic and quarantine is unique.

3. Establish expectations

After the novelty of learning online wore off, student engagement began to fall off dramatically. Reflecting on this, I realized that moving to a digital classroom is like the first few weeks of a new school year, and I had not explicitly discussed expectations and habits with my students in a digital space. It was crucial to talk with my students about what they expect from themselves and me. Afterward, our class holistically developed a set of online expectations. The most surprising expectation my students had for me was to conduct video conferencing regularly with them. Video conferencing allows me to check-in on my students in real-time and maintain my rapport with students as well.

The most surprising expectation my students had for me was to conduct video conferencing regularly with them.
The most surprising expectation my students had for me was to conduct video conferencing regularly with them.

4. Build small group collaboration spaces

Because online teaching was new for me, I reverted to the simplest method of teaching, direct instruction. I would record my lectures and upload them to Teams. However, after watching one of my videos, I realized that I would not be the next YouTube star. Students are the drivers of knowledge development in my physical classroom, so why can’t they do the same in a digital class? Small groups of three to four members can be a significant driving force in the online classroom because it helps students develop a tight-knit group that can help them with understanding content and gives a sense of shared responsibility. With Microsoft Teams, I created a set of breakout rooms for groups. One way I encourage students to use small group collaboration spaces is to sometimes allow students to discuss their low-stakes formative assessments or assigned readings in their groups before submission and before a whole-class discussion of the work.

Students are the drivers of knowledge development in my physical classroom, so why can’t they do the same in a digital class?
Students are the drivers of knowledge development in my physical classroom, so why can’t they do the same in a digital class?

It has been almost 12 weeks since I started teaching online, and my students and I have built a vibrant learning community. The vast majority of students are engaged and motivated to do their best in class, though a few students miss the external motivation from their peers and direct contact with me. For those students, I do micro lessons in which the goal is to not only learn the content but really focus on good student-teacher engagement. When school reopens, I will continue to use Teams as a platform to assist and assess students in their learning experiences. I plan on recording my classes to allow students to review the course at their leisure.

I am always looking for collaboration opportunities and discussion of ideas concerning digital learning and science education. If you would like to discuss the thoughts presented here, please send me an email.

Alan is an experienced secondary science teacher and chemistry subject coordinator and currently teaching at BASIS International School Guangzhou, China. Outside of school, Alan enjoys organizing board game nights with his fellow teachers.

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