Being thrown in the deep end of online learning means many teachers have had to upskill quickly. I teach at the Australian Christian College, where we have been offering online learning for many years, and I wanted to share my tips for sustained online teaching success. These below strategies are based on years of experience on what works in both asynchronous and synchronous learning environments at Australian Christian College.
1 Be well prepared
As with classroom delivery, synchronous and asynchronous learning models require preparedness. It's about knowing your learners’ needs.
Students and home supervisors need to clearly see where learning is going, and it helps to have resources at the ready. To ensure the learning experience flows, have modules and work units well set up. With asynchronous learning, I advise teachers to picture themselves as a student, look at the learning modules, and then fill in any gaps.
Add resources that aren’t labour intensive, but will make things easier for students, such as teaching videos or graphics. This helps to reduce questions.
With a synchronous model, try to anticipate learners’ needs. If you’re teaching a concept, think about which questions would be asked in class. Be ready to talk your students through them or have something to send or show them.
Familiarise yourself in advance with any new technologies. I spoke to some teachers recently who weren’t aware there was a problem with how they were using a communication platform. The time spent upskilling will pay off in eliminating such problems, and the anxiety of managing 27 students and something going wrong.
2 Create learning checkpoints
In the classroom, it’s easy for students to ask for feedback or clarification. They need this in the online environment, and it should be tailored, explicit and clear.
For both synchronous and asynchronous models, I recommend giving students checklists and checkpoints. To ensure learning is rich, create something visual that provides the opportunity to check in and receive comprehensive feedback.
In a narrative writing task, for example, create a list of essential features and success criteria they can physically check off, such as a ‘sizzling start’, a clear ‘set the scene’, good punctuation and good grammar.
3 Create ‘comment banks’
Just as in the classroom, students learning online have similar questions and often stumble over the same things. However, in a classroom you can answer 30 students at the same time!
To replicate this for learning online, you can make ‘comment banks’ to answer common questions. Instead of typing things repetitively, you literally cut and paste. I recommend teachers have comment banks for every subject that they can share with students as needed.
4 Mark work as it comes in
An asynchronous model has assessment submission dates, but its self-paced nature means work gets submitted at different times. Some teachers recommend waiting to mark work until it’s all submitted, but that can mean long hours of marking. Where possible, mark work as it comes in. That way, you don't end up with hundreds of things to grade, which helps to avoid grading fatigue.
5 Be aware of student wellbeing
For online learning success to be sustainable, students need to be doing well. Try to find ways to recreate a nurturing environment online and ensure students’ social and emotional needs are being met.
A classroom teacher can see when a child is tired. Online, you need to read into what students are saying or doing. For example, I recently had a student drop out of a Zoom meeting, so I contacted her to check if she was alright. She said, “No, I felt really scared. I've never seen that many people in a Zoom meeting before.” I then contacted her mum to organise a practice meeting with the three of us.
We do regular devotions, student check-ins and online clubs. I keep a spreadsheet tracking communication from students and supervisors, which alerts me if they’re stressed about things like not seeing their friends or feeling isolated at home. I allocate one day per week to check on those students.
If you don’t monitor struggling students, you can get to the end of the unit or term and the wheels fall off. It’s better to know which families need more support and act before things get to crisis management stage.
6 Ensure student engagement
One of the biggest challenges with a synchronous model is monitoring student engagement. A student can sit in front of a screen but not be present. Some are distracted. Students who are shy in a classroom may be even more withdrawn behind a screen. Those students can fall through the cracks. For example, imagine a large class where one student puts their hand icon up to ask a question, but you don’t get to it during lesson time. How will they feel going into the next lesson thinking, “Well, I didn't even get an answer to my first question?”
Put systems in place to monitor and manage engagement. I know it can be hard. We had 27 in our Zoom group this week and needed another teacher to monitor the chat and raised hands. If your school can’t manage that - it's ok, the teacher presenting will just need to be extra-aware of what’s going on. It’s a juggling act.
7 Manage expectations
With a synchronous model, you need to balance time spent administering the group with getting the content across. Think quality instead of quantity.
You'll need to be savvy about meeting curriculum outcomes. The onus is on the teacher to ensure deep learning, so don’t waste any time. Consider reducing the load. For example, when teaching fractions, cover all that’s required, but do 10 questions instead of 15.
We can easily cover the curriculum in an asynchronous model, but teachers using synchronous models need to be very targeted and purposeful. If your school allows it, have a couple of teachers involved. Make use of small groups to differentiate your teaching.
8 Be systematic, but flexible
It’s important to have a systematic approach to your day, but also to realise that curve balls are going to come. Have a system in place but be prepared to be flexible too.
9 Be kind to yourself
As teachers, we can be hard on ourselves. We want the best for our students’ learning and to give supervisors as much support as possible. Sometimes, we just need to sit back and say, “Well, that was a crazy moment.”
Online education is a rapidly changing environment and many different factors influence what our profession looks like, so be kind to yourself.
10 See the positives
Teachers are always learning something new. We work in an environment where our knowledge and experience grow regularly. Take advantage of the opportunity for professional development. You may not have expected to encounter the online learning environment this soon, but it's a good thing. We are honing our skills, learning new ones and becoming better at what we do. This environment has shown what resilient professionals we are and how valuable teachers are to the community.