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Online teaching: 5 keys for effectiveness

In the past month, millions of students and teachers all over the world have, without warning, made a swift transition to virtual teaching and learning. As schools and communities work together to provide learning opportunities to students amid the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers are adapting their tried-and-true instructional strategies to the new learning environment. While there is a steep learning curve to master virtual teaching and learning, the most impactful instructional skills are accessible to all teachers.

In many ways, teaching in an online environment is similar to teaching in a traditional classroom: both require teachers to build relationships with students, give frequent (and meaningful) feedback, help students manage their time well, manage their own time well, and know when to step in and provide extra support for students as needed. However, doing all these things in an online environment requires a different approach as teachers navigate a unique set of challenges. 

Here are five keys to teaching effectively in an online course environment:

Communicate Frequently 

Instructors should communicate frequently with each student in an online environment, so that students feel like they’re part of a learning community. This communication should start at the very beginning of the course, with teachers setting clear expectations and getting to know their students. 

Getting to know individual students in order to build relationships with them can be challenging when a course doesn’t meet face to face. Teachers can continue to build relationships with their students by making the communication multi-dimensional as they do in the face-to-face classroom. In addition to checking in on content and skills, teachers can check in on how students are doing or ask about their interests outside of school

Teachers should also communicate consistently throughout the course and should check in with students often—providing substantive feedback on an assignment at least once a week—to keep students engaged and on track. Frequent communication is a key way to make sure students have the support they need to succeed.

Choose words carefully 

The ability for teachers to nurture relationships in an online classroom can be difficult, because teachers and students don't have the immediate feedback through visual cues they would have in a face-to-face classroom. And because most of the communication in an online course happens in writing, it’s especially important for educators to make sure their written words aren’t misconstrued. 

Teachers must be aware that the words they use can have a huge impact on students, especially in an online environment where tone is hard to read. Everyone has had an experience in which something they communicated in writing came across in a way that wasn’t intended.

Online communications should be clear and unambiguous. One way to do this is to use a consistent format for all messages: Begin with a greeting, state your message plainly and carefully, and end with a closing. Do this for every communication; otherwise, what you think is a simple reply to a question might seem to the student as abrupt. 

It’s critical for online teachers to avoid using sarcasm or other language that can be misconstrued. Always use asset-based language, which focuses on a student’s strengths and offers support. If a student is behind in his or her work, instead of saying, “You don’t complete your work on time,” a teacher using asset-based language might say, “It looks like you completed three of the five assignments on time last week.  I’m wondering how we can work together to get even more assignments in on time this week.” Language that focuses on successes while avoiding negatives or absolutes helps students feel that their teacher is approachable. 

Give Students Structure 

Online learning offers more flexibility than a traditional classroom setting, but students still need structure to ensure that they’re successful. Because students don’t have daily homework assignments and don’t see their teacher every day in an online course, it can be easy for them to mismanage their time and fall behind. 

Online teachers who are involved in class discussions throughout the week and who encourage students to keep up with their assignments provide just enough structure to keep students on a successful path. Designing plans for students who need extra help with time management or prioritization is a good idea, as is giving students checklists or target dates to keep them on track.

Be Quick to Offer Support

When you don’t see students in person every day, it’s important to pick up on signs they might be struggling—and act immediately to help them succeed. This is why an online teacher’s partnership with an adult invested in the student’s success is critical. This could be a school-based counselor or a parent who is able to help monitor student progress. 

If students are struggling, teachers should reach out to the student directly within private student-teacher communications, but teachers should also engage their trusted adult. If a student hasn’t logged in, or is logging in but needs help completing assignments, the online teacher and trusted adult should work together to support that student as soon as a potential problem is identified.

Be flexible 

Extenuating circumstances that prevent students from completing their work frequently arise in any course environment, and teachers must be flexible whether they’re teaching online or in a traditional classroom. However, an online course brings additional challenges that require teachers to be flexible. For instance, when a course includes students from different geographic areas, students in one location might be affected by an event (like a hurricane, tornado, or other disaster) that doesn’t affect others in the class. While many students globally are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the experience will vary from student-to-student based on their parent involvement and support, social-emotional wellness, internet and computer access, and learning preferences. A little flexibility can allow students to be successful in the online classroom.

Teachers who have never taught online sometimes think it will be easier or less time-consuming but the truth is that it takes just as much time to teach an online class. Although online instruction brings its own set of unique challenges, these five strategies—along with creativity, a sense of humor, and adaptability — can help make online courses successful for both teachers and their students.

Stacy Young is Associate Dean of Faculty for VHS Learning, a nonprofit provider of online courses for middle and high schools. In this role, she oversees the training and support of VHS Learning instructors. She also teaches a four-week Online Teaching Methodologies course that is required for all VHS Learning instructors and is available to other teachers as well.