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Master Online Teaching in 6 steps

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

I have been teaching online since March 2020. My learning curve has been stratospheric and in the spirit of appreciating that I don’t know what I don’t know, I enrolled in an MSc in Education Technology and Instructional Design and an online course at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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I teach online in-person and use blended learning and teaching on a daily basis. What I am going to share below are the strategies and ideas that I have found most useful in my teaching.

1. Build your Online Learning Environment Around the Community of Inquiry Framework

Caitlin R. Tucker writes about how the online learning experience should be centred around ‘The Community of Inquiry’ framework which is composed of three interconnected presences:

The social presence

This refers to the learners’ ability to assert their social and emotional selves, view their classmates as real people, and communicate openly online.

The teaching presence This encompasses the design, instruction, and facilitation of learning in the course.

The cognitive presence This relates to the learners’ ability to construct meaning through a process of inquiry, dialogue, and reflection. “Understanding the interplay between these presences can help teachers transitioning their courses online create learning experiences that are engaging, student-centred, and leverage the class’ collective intelligence.” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000)

Understanding the importance of the three interconnected presences will help the instructor to prioritise the creation of a community — this will help to humanise the experience.

2. Create a Hypertext Environment

Learning in a linear manner does not work for everyone and in the highly digitised world that we live in, we are faced with non-linear presentations of information. We click on an article and then click through to another that takes our interest.

Learning does not have to be sequential and when we create digital learning activities it is a valuable opportunity to create a hypertext environment with which people are familiar.

Learning by association allows learners to follow the path that interests them.

Documents created for people to access and learn from could contain links to a range of multimedia resources to pique particular interests.

Students may choose to click through or not.

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The hypertext environment cannot be meaningfully recreated in the traditional classroom environment. It is unique to online learning and one of the many benefits of remote or blended teaching and learning.

There is no evidence that such an approach improves retention but it does make learning more pleasurable, interesting, personalised, interactive & creates an environment where independent learning may occur.

The author of the resource is not in full control of the learning but instead provides digital doorways for the student.

3. Create Interactive Learning Experiences

It is a common misconception that multimedia produces learning gains. Research suggests that learning gains are likely due to instructional methods such as interactivity and not necessarily the platform or software programme etc.

Here are a few ideas to build active learning and interactivity in your digital classes:

  • 1:1 interaction — video/audio calls, tutoring, initial & interim meetings between teacher & students. Human connection is as, if not more, important than in-person connection. Instructors need to try to make the time to arrange 1:1 interactions with students in the initial phases of online programmes to establish a relationship and create an environment centred around connection, interaction, engagement and accountability.

  • Create small discussion groups — either in text or in a video lesson.

  • Offer ‘office hours’ where students may pose text or oral questions to you & you can pose questions to them.

  • If your digital platform has a forum function, get it up and running. Encourage dialogue & monitor.

  • Clear communication channels are paramount. Feedback and engagement with students needs to be continual. I use the Harvard Ladder of Feedback which you can download freely here.

  • All participants (including the teacher) could create biographies, upload an image, etc. This acts as a reminder that although interaction is not face-to-face, there are human beings participating.

  • Send updates with task reminders, interesting articles. This will prompt engagement.

  • Instead of setting comprehension questions after teaching via video, ask students to create & post their own questions. All may respond. This helps to engender critical thinking & a sense of community. I use the ‘Essential Questions’ strategy by McTighe & Wiggins which encourages educators to compare essential and non-essential questions.

The authors state that a good essential question

  • Is open-ended.

  • Is thought-provoking & intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion & debate.

  • Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.

  • Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.

  • Raises additional questions & sparks further inquiry.

  • Requires support and justification, not just an answer.

  • Recurs over time; that is, the question can & should be revisited again & again.

I ask my online students to write questions that meet at least three of the criteria above. It makes the online learning experience more interactive and I can identify gaps in understanding pretty swiftly.

4. Ensure Accessibility

Digital technologies broaden the scope of and access to education.

This is particularly true for students with specific learning difficulties. The range of didactic technologies available to support those with visual & hearing impairments, limited motor skills, dyslexia, dyscalculia and physical disabilities is growing on a daily basis.

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Data analytics from AI technology can help spot & remedy potential issues in their formative stages which can assist teachers in their didactic approaches and interventions.

Voice to text, text to speak, braille readers, touch screens, and eye-tracking software all offer support to students with learning difficulties. Such technologies have broadened opportunities for students to work collaboratively which has the benefit of reducing social isolation for some & boosting confidence for all.

Digital technologies offer opportunities to differentiate and tailor educational experiences according to neurodiversity.

Over stimulation can be managed in an online environment through careful construction of digital activities. This can be particularly helpful to students with attention deficit disorders.

Digital technologies are not a silver bullet but may go some way to level the educational ‘playing field’ for students with specific learning needs.

I can recommend Otter for transcription of video content. There is a free version available to get started with.

5. Be Mindful of Different Learning Contexts

The planning of an online curriculum needs to be seen through the lens of the most disadvantaged of your student body.

Think about the student that must wait to get access to a computer at home or has an unstable WiFi network or is working on their phone.

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If you are teaching in a different time zone to your students, you will need to offer asynchronous lessons. This will also benefit the students that need to go over concepts and skills taught in lessons or miss lessons as a result of illness or any other reason. I made a quick tutorial on how to do this in the most simple and free way. You can access this here. You also need to consider the types of apps and software that you want your students to use. Make sure they are free and easy to access. I was interviewed by Euroclio earlier this year about how I approach this. Watch my tutorial below:

6. Use the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework.

The premise that underpins this framework is that we, as educators need to identify and put into action strategies to improve and optimise teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. The teacher needs to think carefully and creatively about how they will engage each student, how they can present the information to be be processed in multiple ways and then provide multiple ways of expression for their students.

The ultimate goal for learning and teaching is expert learners that are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-orientated.

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After working with this strategy I can only see positive results in terms of learning. You can learn more about UDL in the video below:

The following are strategies that are central to UDL and can be implemented online and offline, with any age group and for any subject:

  1. Increase opportunities for pupil choice.

  2. Ensure that students can identify the relevance of the issue/information of the issue presented to them.

  3. Provide feedback that is frequent, timely, and specific

  4. Provide feedback that models how to incorporate evaluation, including identifying patterns of errors and wrong answers, into positive strategies for future success.

  5. Use real life situations or simulations to demonstrate coping skills.

  6. Display information in a flexible format so that the perceptual features can be varied (text size & font; the contrast between background and text or image etc)

  7. Pre-teach vocabulary and symbols, especially in ways that promote connection to the learners’ experience and prior knowledge.

  8. Embed support for vocabulary and symbols within the text (e.g., hyperlinks or footnotes to definitions, explanations, illustrations, previous coverage, translations).

  9. Present key concepts in one form of symbolic representation (e.g., an expository text or a maths equation) with an alternative form (e.g., an illustration, dance/movement, diagram, table, model, video, comic strip, storyboard, photograph, animation, physical or virtual manipulative.

  10. Make explicit links between information provided in texts and any accompanying representation of that information in illustrations, equations, charts, or diagrams.

  11. Highlight previously learned skills that can be used to solve unfamiliar problems.

  12. Provide alternatives in the requirements for rate, timing, speed, and range of motor action required to interact with instructional materials, physical manipulatives, and technologies.

  13. Provide differentiated models to emulate (i.e. models that demonstrate the same outcomes but use differing approaches, strategies, skills, etc.)

  14. Provide differentiated mentors (i.e., teachers/tutors who use different approaches to motivate, guide, feedback or inform)

  15. Provide models or examples of the process and product of goal-setting.

There are many more.

I would encourage all educators to take a look at this framework in order that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities both online and in a classroom setting. The following links offer further guidance:

CAST UDL @Harvard Connect with me on LinkedIn to share ideas about 21st century learning and teaching skills. Take a look at the digital learning platform that I am currently using to teach Politics. This link will give you a flavour of the course, the full and free course is only available upon registration.

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