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Classroom Structure and Management in Your (New) Online Classroom

By: Stacy Young, Associate Dean of Faculty at VHS Learning
As you transition your students and yourself to the online environment, there are many aspects of teaching and learning that are easily adaptable. Deadlines still exist, the content may be largely the same, and most of written and oral work can be completed as it was prior to social distancing. The actual delivery of the content and communication that once happened face-to-face in real time with established classroom norms may see some significant changes, however. Here are some important instructional questions to consider as you make the move to an online environment.
How much of my instruction needs to be delivered synchronously?

Depending on the technological tools you have available to you, there are many models you can use in delivering content to your students. Three variations include:

  • Fully synchronous - you set up scheduled times to meet with students and use the time to lecture, facilitate discussions, and answer questions.
  • Blended - you allow students to complete part of the curriculum independently and submit via email, dropbox, or your learning management platform (LMS), and strategically design synchronous meetings for more important information to be communicated face-to-face.
  • Fully asynchronous - you design all curriculum to be delivered through the platform with work submitted via email, dropbox, or the platform. You can offer office hours or infrequent sessions for the class to come together face-to-face, if needed.
How do I ensure student engagement/participation when meeting synchronously?

Everyone is figuring out how to conduct themselves in the new environment we've found ourselves in. As the instructor of a course, it is up to you to set the tone for how the online classroom will work. Students need clear structures and expectations as they find their footing in the online model.

To help your students transition to the online environment, consider the following:

  • Communicate with students clearly and regularly.

    Students may receive communication from the school, but as the instructor, you have the responsibility to help them understand what the changes mean for your class. Keep your communication as brief as possible, while clearly conveying essential information.

    You may start with a "welcome to your online course" message to acknowledge the unprecedented situation you're all in, let them know you sympathize with the challenges they're facing, and assure them that you will do your best to support them in this difficult time. This is your opportunity to set the tone. Give them your support but also be clear that you expect them to rise to the occasion and continue to give their best--this is a joint effort that requires all of us to be both flexible and committed.

    Some key information you will want to be sure to communicate include:

    • How to log on to the platform and/or virtual sessions (and when the virtual sessions will meet)
    • Deadlines for work submission
    • How to submit work
    • How to get technical support if needed
    • How to communicate with you
    • How to communicate with peers
    • If/when you will hold virtual office hours
    • Any modifications to work expectations or exemptions they can expect based on the virtual environment
    • What to do if they have extenuating circumstances
    • Where to find resources online
  • Set clear expectations or norms for your class.

    Your students have established routines in the face to face classroom that may not translate well to the online environment. It's important that instructors do not assume that students will automatically know how to behave in class. You can help them by providing them with clear written expectations around synchronous classroom sessions. Consider the following suggestions and questions:

    • Identify and communicate that is to be completed in advance of a class time
    • Create clear attendance requirements with instructions on how to communicate absences
    • Determine use of webcam during sessions (Is it required that everyone have their webcam on?)
    • Clarify participation expectations
      • Will you ask students to minimize disruptions on their end?
      • Will you ask students to avoid side-conversations with other classmates (or people in their homes)?
      • What is the expectation around being muting/unmuting during class (is it different during discussions or group work)?
      • What will your response be if students are breaking these norms and/or interfering with the class? Will you interrupt the students, send a private message, mute them, or wait patiently until you have everyone's attention?
      • How will students indicate they have a question or comment? Will they only use voice or a chat feature?
      • Will students be graded on any part of synchronous sessions are graded? How will they know how they're doing?
  • Help students stay connected outside of the classroom. Consider creating an online space for students to come together socially. If students are only seeing each other in the classroom, they may be too focused on "catching up" and checking in with each other to be fully present in their learning. You could open synchronous sessions 10 minutes early for students to connect, create an online discussion board labeled "student lounge" to allow them to interact there. It's true that students can find many ways to connect outside of the virtual classroom but providing them with such a space will reinforce the need for them to be present during the instructional parts of class.

Show compassion to students while holding them to high standards

Be empathetic and give students space to adjust while providing them with structures and clear expectations. Remind students why it is important for them to continue to engage with their learning. The reason may be different for every student, but if they are struggling to stay engaged, it will be a good use of your time to help them see the reasons.

There are many unknowns throughout the world right now, and school is no exception. Virtual classes could be a short bridge to keep everyone moving along for a few weeks, or they could be a longer-term solution to the global crisis we’re facing. Either way, the newness will pass. Either things will be back to normal sooner than expected, or you and your students will start to develop and follow routines that make online learning predictable and manageable. Whatever happens, the transition period and its challenges are temporary.

Remind students that you believe in them and expect them to perform well and that recognize that this is a challenging time for everyone. Assure them you are there to support them as they move ahead in their schooling.