Who would have known, this time last year, that online learning and teaching would become such a huge part of our professional lives? If only I’d bought some shares in Zoom…
Everything has moved onto online communication; family catch-ups, work meetings, lessons, lectures, theatre plays, even criminal trials. Whether this is a temporary replacement during the days of COVID, or the reality of the future in the age of COVID, a huge number of education professionals and students will be delivering and accessing learning online for a while yet.
As a teacher, many of us have used technology as part of our courses. But for the majority of us, physical teaching in a classroom has been the heart of our offer. It’s what we trained for, what our students love, and we know how to do it well.
One of the biggest issues teachers have faced is keeping students interested in and motivated by their online courses and lessons. Under 50% of all students regularly attended online lessons, and while the reasons for this might include technological issues, connectivity, family issues or other factors, it’s clear that we can all benefit from thinking about how we can get our students motivated to learn online, and how we can keep them motivated. I’ve spoken to many teachers over the past few months about this, and I’ll share with you a few “top tips” which have come up.
1. Understand your students
Just like in a “normal” classroom, we want to know what our students react well to, what they enjoy doing and what they find interesting. We can ask them to vote on the activities they have done in online lessons. One teacher had primary students make and decorate large emoji-style paper cutouts (a smiley, ?, a thumbs up, a thumbs down and a question mark) and use them for collecting feedback on the activities. This way, the teacher gave students an opportunity to understand the students’ perceptions of the lessons and activities.
Another teacher encouraged teenage students to choose the topics they wanted to study during the online lessons, to make sure that topics were engaging and interesting for students. Online lessons can be great for encouraging students to prepare presentations to deliver for the whole class on a topic of their choice.
2. Think about communication
One of the great features of tools we use for online teaching is the ability to easily communicate to individual students and the whole group. We can send individual messages to students (Well done! / Concentrate more / Is everything OK?), and we can also break groups up into rooms for group work. Many teachers have successfully used communication tools the students are already comfortable with, such as WhatsApp and Facebook groups, while some teachers are using a platform which has similar functionality. Whatever communication tool works best for you and the students is the right one to use. Primary teachers have also used Whatsapp groups to communicate with parents, usually in their language, to report on what has been studied in classes on a weekly basis.
WiFi issues? Your computer suddenly decides it’s time for a software upgrade? Someone doesn’t know how to mute? Whatever the reason, we need to be prepared for the unexpected. Many teachers have told me that they recorded their lessons with the content they wanted students to focus on, and then used their synchronous lessons for communicative activities. The ability to communicate well in a video call setting is a skill in itself – and one that our students are practising in their online lessons. We, the teachers, are also learning, and we need to remember that, sometimes, things can be tricky.
Don’t beat yourself up about it! If your son or daughter decides that they would like to interrupt the lesson, let them come in and have the students ask them a question. If poor connectivity is preventing your teenage students from understanding each other, have them communicate in chatboxes. We all need to be patient and try different possibilities to find the best solutions.
Recording, demonstrating and celebrating progress is a key factor in motivating students. Online learning fits beautifully with video and audio recording. Some primary teachers have made video recordings of their students practising a song, and then made a final video of a well-rehearsed song. Children don’t instinctively know that “practice makes perfect” – they need to learn this. By seeing, hearing and then sharing the result of their hard work students felt a sense of pride, having learnt that this is the result of hard work. Online platforms allow teachers to easily track students’ progress, allowing intervention where necessary. Teaching online can be used for assessment extremely successfully.
The principles of teaching don’t change with different settings. Take time to understand your students, make lessons engaging, show students the value of what they’re learning…These are all factors which help to get and keep students motivated. There’s no magic formula, but one thing for certain is that by sharing our experiences as teachers (and learners!) we can all learn something.
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Nick Cherkas is an experienced educator with a background in teacher training, academic management, project management and materials writing. Educated in the UK, he has been based in North Africa since 2011. He is DELTA and MA qualified, and passionate about helping teachers and learners achieve their goals. He enjoys training teachers on working with limited resources and mixed ability groups, and making the classroom a more enjoyable place.