Facilitation of Successful Online Learning Experiences: Pointers, Tips & Tricks


We are all dealing with difficult times in our day-to-day teaching. We’re working harder than before to bring meaningful lessons to life and making sure students are staying engaged and progressing through this unprecedented situation. But let's face it - now that we have done this and as we enter the final weeks of the year many of us recognize the value in incorporating virtual teaching in the future on a full- or part-time basis. With this fall’s format yet undetermined, we could be teaching virtually for a while. So let's look at a few pointers, tips, and tricks to making a virtual classroom a wildly successful classroom.  


A few things before jumping into your classroom:

Online environment setup

Make sure you schedule your time appropriately for your students. Take into account your students’ needs and lives as well. Ask yourself “do my students have siblings that might also be learning online, is the class being held too early or too late in the day, and how long should my class really be?” You can never create a perfect schedule for every student, but when you get frustrated that a couple students never seem to be online, maybe it is for one of these reasons.

You’ve all heard this before but it is ignored so often: be certain that you have an organized and quiet place to teach. As the teacher you will probably never be on mute so students will hear everything transpiring in your space. Also consider your surroundings. You might think sitting at your kitchen table is ideal as that’s where you are comfortable but keep in mind which way your computer faces. Are you in front of a window that causes focus and lighting issues, do you have a big open space behind you where someone can walk through inadvertently while you teach or do you have a pet that might interrupt your class? It may seem harmless but if you’re teaching young students an active pet will always distract them from the lesson. Neither are adults immune to cuteness - the cuter the pet the less work will be done once they become the focus.

Have a method for taking attendance. You’ll know who was in your class and who was absent. There are several available methods and you should find what is best for you. For example, there is a Google Meet add-on called Chrome Meet Attendance extension, by Claycodes.org, that takes attendance automatically for you. I also encourage you to regularly check in with everyone. Be it a thumbs up, another attendance check or something else, you don’t want students to develop the habit of logging in then dropping out as soon as attendance is taken. There are apps and extensions out there that make it appear as if they are on when they have in fact left. A physical check-in like camera checks or another attendance check might be needed.


Considerations for the teaching session:

Efficient time use

Teaching your regular school day you have students anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes.  But is this how long you should be teaching them online? The answer should be no. You might schedule 45-60 minutes for class but you shouldn’t be teaching that long. Think about your normal day of teaching, do you teach for 45 minutes straight? And if you answer yes to this and you are not a college professor please think about this more. If you subscribe to the gradual release model of teaching you really should not be giving direct instruction for any more than 10-15 minutes in most cases. In the gradual release model this is the “I do”. Make sure you incorporate the “We do” in your classes. 

You might need more “We do” teaching remotely than in-person to ensure that everyone is grasping the lesson objectives. Use online platforms such as Padlet, SMART Learning Suite Online, Jamboard, or Twiddla to enable questions and answers, group work or sharing of ideas. This way your students can move on to “You do” as you monitor progress online and they can source you for questions.You shouldn’t need to teach the whole time. It can easily burn out your students, particularly if they have multiple online classes scheduled for the day.

It’s also incredibly valuable to post expectations and goals for the day, as you would in person.  Post them early so students know what to expect. Just like furnishment of an agenda ahead of a staff meeting, students like to know what they will be doing for the day.



Help your students feel safe

Make sure you have support in place to assure your students feel safe attending your online classes as you would in your normal classroom. Set up guidelines for sharing ideas, answering and asking questions. Be sure students feel it is okay to ask questions and inform them that if there is a private channel in place, whether a follow-up call or private message so students can get the help they need. Don’t let a few students dominate or intimidate your classroom. If possible make sure that students, if they feel obliged, have access to and are encouraged to change their backgrounds to their video stream. In Zoom this is built-in while in Google Meet you need to install a second program like Snap Camera to enable this function. Some students are embarrassed by their surroundings which can weigh heavily.  Give them the ability to use virtual backgrounds so they can hide everything but themselves. This also offers some personal expression, which bolsters comfort. 




Implement learning options for absent students

There are many reasons why a student may be unable to attend class. You need to have a method in place for those students to learn. The simplest option is to record your class. But some districts do have issues with this based on privacy or other board policies. If you can’t record, use a program such as Screencastify or Screencast-o-matic to record the “I do” part of the lesson. Absent students can watch the lesson later, all students can review the lesson, or even a parent looking to help their child can partake.  

I would also encourage additional office hours during the day. If you’re teaching classes in the morning, offer early afternoon time for students to check back in with you if they generate questions. Be available for study sessions, Q&A hour, or however you want to structure it. There will be questions and you should engage while the learning is fresh in their minds rather than the following day or later in the week.




Focus on fun

Plan some non-traditional learning experiences to include while we move through this time. If we were in school teachers would be planning field trips and end of year fun activities; why can’t you do that now? Work with a location where you would have taken a field trip such as the zoo, aquarium or a museum. Many of these places have staff on-hand that facilitate virtual field trips regularly, and now more than ever you might get even more access to locations without visitors with whom to contend. This is a great time to connect with an author, scientist, inventor, business person or another professional relevant to curriculum. With many of them stuck at home they too are opening their doors to talk with students.

Here’s a link to 25+ Virtual Field Trip - Spring 2020 from WeAreTeachers.com.

If you are serious about conception of online field trips you can try TCL's How to Create a Virtual Field Trip course and earn 15 hours toward your certificate renewal.

Personal Space and Time

Even though you should make time for some follow-up office hours, remember your own health and well-being. Don’t respond to student and parent emails at 10PM, because if you do they will expect it all the time. Set boundaries for yourself as to when you will respond to emails or phone calls. If you go outside of your normal routine that then might become your normal routine.

Set time limits for yourself throughout the day when planning. Make sure you allot time between classes if you are teaching multiple times in a day. You need to be able to walk away from the computer screen and stretch, give your eyes some rest from looking at the screen, and remember you are at home where you can take a restroom break. Like your students, this is a stressful time for educators also and you ought to take care of yourself.



Looking ahead

We have no idea what the fall and winter might hold for us, but it remains that education has forever changed due to this crisis. Virtual learning is here; expect it to stay. It may not persist on a daily basis but as universities move to more online classes and as schools prepare for students being in the classroom less often, we need to look at tips and tricks for making virtual learning effective for all students. These are just some of the tips that have made my experience during this time successful and I hope they work for you as well.

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Michael McGowan
Mike McGowan is currently a Technology Director and building administrator for Sunnybrook School District 171, a PreK to 8th grade district in Lansing, Illinois.  Mike is also an Executive Board member for IDEA (Illinois Digital Educators Alliance) the Illinois ISTE (International Society for Technology in Educators) affiliate. 

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