4 Key Lessons I’ve Learned About Online Teaching

Like many others, I’ve been teaching online for about three months now. I’m definitely not an expert, but I’m slowly learning how to adapt to distance learning. These are four of the big things I’ve learned in teaching my adult ESL classes online:

4 Key Lessons I've Learned

Simplify

I learned pretty quickly how important it is to simplify things and to resist the temptation to explore every tech tool available. It’s awesome that there are so many tools available to help with online instruction, and there are a ton of great resources being shared by teachers and educational technology companies online every day. But trying out a lot of different tools is overwhelming for me and also for my students. Especially since some of my students have a pretty low level of technology skills, it’s better to just use a couple of tools that they can get comfortable with. Even with a site like Quizizz—which is pretty easy to use compared to a lot of online tools—it has taken a while for my students to get comfortable using it. Initially, I was worried about my students getting bored with using certain websites or tools a lot, but now I’ve realized how important it is to slow down and give them (and me!) time to adjust to each tool before introducing something new.

And I’ve learned to be okay with just giving up on some tech tools. I tried out Flipgrid a few times with one class of students, and it just didn’t work out well. I felt like I tried my best to be as clear as I could in explaining how to use it, but only a handful of students completed each assignment. After talking to the class about it, I realized that a lot of them felt overwhelmed by all the steps they needed to go through on the site. So I just gave up on it. Maybe eventually we’ll try it again (depending how long we’re doing online classes!), but for now, I’m okay with just giving up on things that are too complicated and stressful.

 

Screenshots

I’ve been taking so many screenshots recently!

Since some of my students don’t have a lot of experience with using technology, I’ve found that taking screenshots is extremely helpful in explaining how to use programs or websites. (Actually, I find that it’s usually faster to use the Snipping tool on my computer so I can get an image of exactly what I want without having to crop it later.) Every time I explain how to do something, I try to either show how to do it step-by-step on my computer screen during a Zoom session or send my students screenshots of the process (or both). I’ve learned that it’s best to take screenshots of EVERY step—even if it seems like something small, it’s better to be too clear than not clear enough. Even if something seems obvious to me, it’s not always so obvious to my students.

You can also make quick video tutorials and send them to students if that makes it easier to explain something. If you have a Zoom account, it’s very easy. Just open Zoom, click the “Record to the Cloud” button, share your screen, and demonstrate how to do whatever it is. Shortly after you finish recording, you will receive an email with a link to the video that you can share with your students.

I’ve also started getting in the habit of always asking my students to take pictures of their screens and send it to me when they tell me they have technological problems or can’t figure something out. Most of the time, that’s enough to help me determine what the problem is.

 

Doing what seems best for my students (even if it’s different from what the “experts” say)

Over the last few months, I’ve seen quite a few articles, infographics, Tweets, and other things being posted online about some of the “best practices” of teaching online. Sometimes these reference specific research studies that were done showing the superiority of certain distance learning practices over others.

And while I definitely think we need to listen to the experts and use research studies to inform our instructional practices, it’s also important to listen to our own students and do what works best in our own classes.

One of the “best practices” of online teaching I’ve heard a few times is something like this: Limit the amount of synchronous time. Asynchronous time is better since students can go at their own pace and do work when it fits their schedule. Synchronous sessions should be short and only include activities that require social interaction between students. If it’s something that doesn’t require social interaction, it should be done asynchronously.

And while this may be true for a lot of classes, I’m finding that it’s not always true for mine. I’ve found that a lot of my students seem to prefer synchronous class and, in some cases, are even a little resistant to doing much asynchronous work.

For a few weeks, I felt a little guilty and worried that I was doing things wrong or “messing up” my online teaching. But then I realized that I shouldn’t worry about conforming to some model of “perfect” distance learning.

A lot of the recommended instructional practices for online teaching are based on research studies that surveyed students about their preferences—but those research studies were done on students who had signed up for online classes.

None of my students signed up for online classes. They all signed up for in-person classes and got thrown into online classes in an emergency situation.

My guess is that most of the students who sign up for online classes do it because they want a class that doesn’t require a lot of social interaction and/or a class that allows them to go at their own pace. But that’s not necessarily what my students want.

One of my classes in particular is VERY social. Many of the students have gotten to know each other well, and they seem to really enjoy their synchronous time together online. In this class, we recently started reading a whole-class novel. I initially suggested to them that we read the book individually and then use our synchronous time to discuss it, but they insisted that they really wanted to read it aloud all together. So that’s what we’ve been doing. For the first few days, I felt a little embarrassed, thinking, If those experts saw me, they would think this is ridiculous! Why “waste” time just reading a book aloud together over Zoom when the students could read it individually on their own? But then I realized, if my students enjoy it, why not? I love it that they are excited about reading and want to read together.

My students also differ from the typical students in an online class in their level of technology skills. So in my classes, doing something that seems fairly simple and that could be completed asynchronously (like filling out a Google Form or doing an activity on a website) is sometimes easier to do all together as a class in a synchronous format.

So, while I think it’s important to learn about the research that’s been done on distance learning, we also need to listen to our own students and our own intuition and experience to find what works best for us.

 

Flexibility

I think we’re all learning how to be a lot more flexible and patient right now, not only in our teaching but in life in general.

I have a bad tendency to take things personally. If my students don’t complete an assignment, I sometimes start to think that maybe they didn’t do it because they thought it was pointless or they dislike my class or something. But now more than ever, I’m realizing that most of the time, if a student doesn’t complete an assignment, it doesn’t really have anything to do with me. Students are dealing with a lot right now. And different students are experiencing different things. I have some students who are bored at home and are eagerly using their extra time to learn more English. Meanwhile, some other students are barely holding it together—they’re working, taking care of their children at home, stressing out about various things, and trying to fit in English classes where they can in the middle of all that. My job as a teacher is to be there for all of them, doing my best to help them learn in the midst of all these challenges, whatever their specific challenges might be.

I’m also trying to be more flexible and patient with myself, too, as I’m still learning how to be the best teacher I can be.

Don’t just take care of your students. Take care of yourself, too!

 

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