Strategies I use to facilitate engaging, impactful, and relevant online classes
The impacts of COVD-19 can be felt in every classroom across the world as students and teachers face the challenge of creating community and facilitating learning in virtual environments. In the wake of this global pandemic, educators search for ways to create student-centered learning environments in which students are actively engaged and highly motivated. The question we will explore in this post is how can teachers develop, facilitate, and monitor a student-centered virtual classroom?
I serve as Director of Instructional Development at TEACH-NOW Graduate School of Education, an organization that aims to prepare tomorrow's teachers for tomorrow's students. In this role, I work with educators worldwide to facilitate learning in an online, collaborative, activity-based learning system. In our weekly live virtual classes, student collaboration and problem solving are central to the process of creating new knowledge and deeper understanding. There are four key considerations and tools I leverage to create a virtual learning environment owned and driven by my students:
The right data
When planning a virtual class in which students are ultimately in charge of the learning, I need access to relevant data that empowers me to plan responsive and personalized instruction. I use data from my students' previous classes and assessments to identify strengths and areas of growth. Pre-assessment prior to virtual class in addition to formative assessments while I have students in class with me are sources of data that help me creatively respond to students' needs synchronously. Just as important as this are the surveys and conversations with students I use to determine their personal interests and motivations. All of these sources of data allow me to tailor a live, online learning experience that is individually meaningful to each one of my students from across the planet.
The right questions or tasks
Key to the success of my student-centered virtual classroom are the questions and tasks I prepare. At TEACH-NOW, educators in our teacher-preparation program and Master's in Education programs work through a series of activities each week allowing them to collaborate with their cohort on project work, discussion topics, and peer reviews. When we meet synchronously in our virtual class, my students and I find ways to deepen analysis, probe for misunderstanding, and leverage the skills and backgrounds of each participant to create a learning environment that is responsive, engaging, and relevant rather than prescriptive, dull, and unhelpful. I refer back to Bloom when designing two and three collaborative tasks for our virtual class that promote rigorous thinking in at least two of the following higher-order thinking categories: application, analysis, evaluation or design, and synthesis or creation. The difference between a successful virtual class and one that falls flat, in my experience, has been a direct result of the quality of tasks or questions that I bring to students.
The right groups
Given appropriate student data and quality questions to drive instruction, my next step in planning highly effective student-centered virtual classes is creating student groups that are flexible and ever-changing in order to promote collaboration and cooperative learning. I use a combination of homogeneous and heterogeneous student groups depending on the types of tasks I design for my students: Homogeneous student groups are effective for remediation, specific skill practice, and small-group instruction. Heterogeneous groups, much preferred in my classes, are effective for project-based learning, collaborative problem solving, and peer support or tutoring. Groups range in size from pairs to groups of four, never more than five in order to create as much space as possible for student voice and participation.
The right tools
Finally, I find the right tools to support students in their work during virtual classes. At TEACH-NOW, I meet my students each week in a Zoom meeting where we use breakout rooms, the whiteboard, and the chat space for much of our work together. Some simple tools I integrate regularly are Google Suite, Kahoot, Nearpod, and collaborative Wikis. I try to avoid showing videos or sharing lengthy articles in class, and I absolutely never share my screen to give a slideshow lecture! The fastest way to bore my students and decrease the overall effectiveness of our time together is to act as the "sage on the stage" who provides knowledge and information. Rather, I focus on choosing technology tools that promote collaboration, contribution, and creativity in a classroom where I am the "guide on the side."
Ultimately, none of this is entirely unique to the virtual learning environment. Creating engaging and student-centered online classrooms and virtual learning interactions requires teachers to consider the following question: What roles and responsibilities do teachers and students have in developing, facilitating, and monitoring a student-centered classroom in brick and mortar schools? What we come to find out is that the answers to this question are, in fact, critically important to the answer to our original question: How can teachers develop, facilitate, and monitor a student-centered virtual classroom? We must start with best practices in facilitating student-centered learning experiences in physical classrooms and extrapolate ways of replicating those interactions virtually! Then, we develop best practices in student-centered learning that are native to the virtual classroom through trial and error and ongoing feedback from students. We make learning messy by trying new tools and implementing new collaborative strategies to get students actively involved in the creation of knowledge and the negotiation of meaning while they are live on our screens.
The ability to create and facilitate student-centered virtual classes is vital for the 21st Century learning experience. What COVID-19 has uncovered is the power of the internet and the ease with which we can teach and learn online, in particular for those teachers and administrators who have chosen to resist the evolution of education in the digital age. While we will one day soon (or not so soon) go back into the schools we have currently left empty due to precautionary measures to slow the spread of this terrible virus, we can never go back to the days of analogue learning and teacher-centered classrooms. I predict that teachers will wisely use the days and weeks ahead filled with distance and online learning due to COVID-19 to become proficient in innovative and technology-enhanced teaching and learning practices including blended learning, the flipped classroom, and even project-based learning. I could write for days and weeks, filling a book about the power of technology in creating a more relevant and meaningful learning experience for our students (and I may one day as part of a Ph.D. program). For now, I will leave you with a question for consideration: Why has it taken this long and this level of global crisis to push our classrooms and instruction into the 21st Century? Why were we so unprepared in so many parts of the world?
As I work toward developing the perseverance and drive to achieve my goals, I am reading Grit by Angela Duckworth. My biggest learning so far has been the importance of identifying and defining my inner compass, "...the thing that takes you some time to build, tinnier with, and finally get right, and then that guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be" (p. 60). I use this compass to set goals, plan my daily actions, and reflect.