Teaching online during Covid-19 – seven lessons

In an effort to save the 2020 academic year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, traditional institutions of learning have been forced to embrace online teaching without delay. Here are seven things that helped me move my traditional classroom online.

Who could have predicted how dramatically our lives would change in the first four months of 2020? Covid-19 has changed everything, including the need for a rapid shift to online teaching.

Traditional institutions of learning that operated seamlessly day-in-day-out are faced with the monumental task of shifting their entire operations online. Teachers with decades of classroom experience and limited technical know-how are now dialing into Zooms and Google Hangouts, adding resources to their Google Classrooms, marking assignments with a stylus on their iPads and calling pupils out on their WhatsApp groups for homework not done. All of this with just 48 hours notice in some cases.

This is by no means an easy transition and comes with its fair share of challenges. Caring for your pupils’ development, while maintaining your own personal well-being is tricky to balance. I have been there and feel your pain. Hopefully the seven lessons I learnt can help you navigate through your first few digital classes, while keeping those stress levels under control.

1. Remember, this is a learning journey (for everyone)

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As cliched as it might sound, Rome really wasn’t built in a day. Remember that this is a process packed with moments of trial and error, learning-by-doing, failing and correcting (and repeat…). It certainly is a shift to a new normal and requires patience, understanding and empathy from teachers and pupils alike. You will ease into a rhythm like the natural-born teacher you are, plus your computer savvny-ness will grow exponentially. You’ve got this. Give it time.

2. Keep it tech-simple

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It is all too tempting to get drawn into the wealth of gadgets and gizmos available, all with a great array of benefits. Try your best to filter out the array of emails inviting you to webinars, particularly for apps you don’t even intend using.

Before you start your first lesson, be clear on the apps you are going to use and try your best to limit them to as few as possible. Selection should be based on fit-for-purpose (will they help you achieve your lesson objectives?) and compatibility with other subjects (what apps are your colleagues using?). For example, I used Google Hangouts Meets for video calls, Google Classroom for uploading resources and YouTube for recording videos. Notice they are all from the same company, assisting with seamless integration across the platforms. On that note, Google provides a suite of useful resources to aid digital teaching. WhatsApp groups are also useful for quick messaging, but Google Classroom can serve this purpose as well.

It’s not a train smash if you introduce apps as you go. However, this will require greater effort in motivating the pupils to get on board (which you want to avoid).

3. Engage learners regularly

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Pupils are not quite ready for the independence and responsibility that comes with a university course. Therefore, it’s important to engage your learners regularly to ensure everyone is coping and on board with the digital teaching process before it’s too late. I did this by posting work for the day (an instructional video and homework task) first thing in the morning and during the online lesson asked each pupil individually whether they were coping. Once each pupil had filled me in, the discussion was opened up to questions on content.

Random check-ins and planned-for check-points are also crucial. Each day pupils were randomly selected to share pictures of their homework. Fortnightly assessments were scheduled to assess progress and allow for intervention if necessary.

4. Engage your network

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Help is typically a (video) call away. Don’t delay in reaching out to your Head of Department or Executive if you or your pupils require any resources, particularly if these interfere with your teaching effectiveness. It goes without saying that internet with sufficient, stable data and a connected device are prerequisites for successful digital teaching and learning.

Remember, you are not alone. Reach out to your colleagues for advice, schedule “Show and Tells” or speak out in staff meetings if you require guidance or if you have cracked the digital teaching code and have something to share. A mature, well-equipped and responsive IT department is also a key consideration and served as a critical success factor during my school’s digital teaching journey.

5. Ease parent anxiety

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The move to digital teaching may be unsettling for parents who have now assumed the role of substitute teacher, monitoring their children’s progress throughout the day. Parent anxiety will be heightened if they are watching their children roll out bed at noon, entertain themselves through Netflix binges and maintain a healthy social media presence – key indications that attentiveness to school work is waning.

To ease parent anxiety and promote pupil motivation, ensure the content you create (videos, prescribed homework and recorded video calls) is accessible and well-structured. To aid this, send a predefined digital schedule to parents in advance. The daily compulsory video calls also help to entice pupils away from their beds and Netflix binges. A well-maintained digital portfolio also comes in handy at a later stage, should a query regarding “content not covered” arise.

6. Befriend the feedback loop

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Get used to feedback. Encourage open and honest feedback. Don’t take it personally. Remember the digital teaching journey is about the pupils more than it is about you. Therefor, feedback should be learner-centred and aim to improve the benefits they receive from your masterclasses. Feedback can be informal (during your daily calls and check-ins) or formal (sending out a Google Form requesting feedback).

For an editable Google Form that is ready to use, the following might be useful to you:

  1. Click this link. Then select “Make a copy”. This will add the form directly to your Google Drive
  2. This will take you to a Google spreadsheet linked to the form. To personalise your form, click on “Form” in the toolbar, then select “Edit form”
  3. You will be taken to an editable form (also automatically saved to your drive). If you are happy with the overall form, you only need to change the heading by including your grade, subject and name

7. Recognise the value in familiarity

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The digital classroom is a whole new world, and not necessarily the good kind from Aladdin (well, not initially anyway). Pupils are used to the daily commute to school, registration first thing, arriving five minutes late for the first lesson after break, and so on. All of these things have been majorly disrupted. This will cause pupils to feel unsettled. Try your best to help them overcome the stresses of the transition by changing as little as possible when it comes to your teaching rhythm. For example, I typically cover the content first, assign homework and then mark. I used the software tools to help replicate this experience remotely through a pre-recorded video, prescribed homework and completed corrections on the video call. Pupils therefore already knew what to expect, making the transition easier.

Additionally, my school helped pupils keep a healthy routine and manage their time by ensuring the school timetable was still in effect. This was the anchor of the entire digital school process. It provided all subjects with a predetermined time to schedule video calls to which everyone was aligned. It also provided a fair division of time across subjects.

Despite the chaos and uncertainty brought about by this pandemic, it has given traditional teaching institutions a pretty forceful nudge into the digital age. Luckily, we have the necessary capabilities to make it work. I hope the lessons above help you on this exciting new adventure. Remember to be gentle on yourself during this time. Perfection is not the standard, but the aim…

We’d love to hear your Covid-19 story. Consider contributing to our blog to help other teachers who are struggling to transition to online teaching.

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