To slow transmission of the COVID-19 virus, education leaders around the world have shuttered schools and fully moved to online learning platforms or had to adopt hybrid online/in-person models to reduce exposure risk. For teachers in either case, it’s presented the challenge of learning how to engage students without having them in the traditional classroom setting.

Even veteran middle school and high school teachers have welcomed online teaching tips as the fast transition has swept them into a new role. While online learning offers advantages to students and teachers, it requires a shift in mindset for both. Many students have struggled, with some districts reporting as many as one-third of students not checking into online classes.

While some of this is due to lack of internet connection or families with only one computer, in some cases it’s simply a lack of engagement.  Stacey Klasnick, Merrimack College’s Program Director for Online M.Ed. programs, realizes the challenge can be significant.  “Our hearts go out to teachers and students during this time.  With this challenge, many teachers are working hard to limit a potentially stressful environment for students.”

Staying Sane While Keeping Students Engaged

Teachers scrambling for ways to engage students and become better at online teaching are far from alone. The following online teaching tips come from teachers with online experience and online education resources, such as Kareem Farah, executive director of The Modern Classrooms Project and The Chronical of Higher Education.

1. Keep it Simple

With an inability to work together in the classroom, tackling misconceptions and clarifying assignments, teachers must emphasize self-directed tasks in online learning. That makes simplicity key, with a focus on clear directions and the use of only one or two resources.

Most online courses are asynchronous. Teachers post a video and text about daily or weekly assignments, and then students complete the tasks as they can over the course of the day or week. The flexibility of this system is one advantage of online teaching.

2. An Easy-To-Use Learning Management System

One major roadblock for teachers is knowing where to start in terms of creating a digital classroom where all students virtually gather. School districts may or may not provide direction in this area. If they do not, it’s best to stick with something easy to use. Keep in mind that Google Classroom is free, as is Moodle if you have 50 or fewer users. These free solutions give you a gradebook, the ability to work collaboratively, and other free resources.

3. Longer, Self-Directed Assignments

In the classroom, it’s easier to pivot if a flaw is found in an assignment or students begin to disengage. That’s not an option on a digital platform. One online teaching tip that can save time is to emphasize longer, student-driven assignments where they have a clear set of checkpoints and deadlines. If possible, adding an element of student choice to the assignment can bolster engagement.

4. Use Communication Tools

It’s impossible to replicate the interactions that happen organically at school. Instead, teachers must take advantage of every communication option to create opportunities for such interactions, including email, videos, messages sent through the learning management system, and comments on shared documents. It’s important for teachers to initiate these interactions with regularity.

Services such as Zoom and Skype offer synchronous conferencing. This facilitates virtual meetings with students. In addition to having an occasional full-class meeting (perhaps once a week), it also enables teachers to meet one-on-one with students. Teachers should make themselves available for such meetings during the normal hours of the school day.

Supporting Student Interaction

As much as students may miss the interaction with teachers, they miss other students even more. Again, it’s impossible to replicate the interactions that students have on campus. However, you can help them set up a place to virtually meet, such as Google Hangouts, What’s Up App or GroupMe app.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also offers “essential principles and practices” that may prove helpful to teachers. They include the following online teaching tips.

  • Show up. Make yourself available online for set hours each school day, so students know they can reach you.
  • Be yourself. Find ways to get the warmth and engagement you put into the classroom into the online environment.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. View your class from the perspective of your students and organize it in a way they will find the most helpful.
  • Add visual appeal. The online environment gives you the chance to augment teaching materials with visuals, including graphics and video.
  • Set clear expectations. This is new for the students, too. Explain what is expected of them at the outset.
  • Provide examples of assignments. Since you cannot be there in person to answer questions, provide students with good examples of finished assignments when you assign

While online teaching does require a shift in approach to everything from teaching lessons to keeping students engaged, many of the same principals and techniques teachers used in the classroom will be helpful while teaching online classes with a few adjustments for the new format.