Teaching in a virtual environment was a fascinating experience that made me reconsider how I connected to all my students, making me a much better teacher than I was before the experience.
Virtual Teaching Improved My Teaching
Teaching is a challenge no matter how you approach it. Whether you have a classroom full of overachievers, or you're trying to connect with uninspired students just before a break, there are methods to help us break through and deliver the information they need. I thought I had it down and could perform well, and I did, until I taught an online course and had to connect with students I couldn't even see.
An Exciting New World
I entered the world of the virtual classroom purely by accident. A group I volunteered for needed a virtual course that would provide a user-friendly platform for parents of newly diagnosed children with Type 1 diabetes. In the beginning, the class would need an instructor to lead the students but had to be designed for automation to allow them to complete it at their convenience. Because of my background as a writer, a teacher, and a mother to a well-controlled diabetic child, I was asked to set up the classroom and teach the first few classes.
I happily agreed. It couldn't be that hard, could it?
That is a dangerous question to ask under any circumstances. It's even worse if you have done little or no research on a topic and have no clue what you're doing.
Since I am not a quitter, I dove in and got to work with a little help from an online National Education Association (NEA) guide. I developed what I hoped would be a concise, informative course for my overwhelmed students. I covered the basics and provided access to more information, should they need it. I made a lot of mistakes in my methods of delivery, but I learned a great deal about what it takes to be successful in and out of the virtual classroom.
With any class, it's important to make a connection with your students; that's teaching 101. It's doubly true when you're dealing with students you cannot see and whose body language you cannot read.
In class, I can reach out to students who seem to be floundering or confused. I can change direction if needed to keep them interested and repeat complex information if they need me to. That isn't always possible online. Unless students speak up, and few will, you have no idea whether your teaching is effective or not - until the lesson is over and your inbox is filled with questions you should already have answered.
Because of this limitation, I've learned to be more aware of those students who are too quiet online. When I know that students are present, but not asking questions, I make a point to reach out. I offer printouts of class materials and extra support, just in case they need it, but won't ask. Reaching out in this way often leads to a conversation and allows me to get a feel for their understanding so I can give them the extra boost they need.
We live in a tech-based world and integrating technology into my lessons is key to keeping my younger students interested. When it came to the adults I taught online, however, I had to rethink that approach. Not all of them were technologically savvy. Many didn't have easy access to high-speed connections, so I had to be careful not to overload them or their internet connections. Learning this was important, even in relation to my tech-savvy younger students. As comfortable as they are with the latest technology, they don't all have access to it.
I learned to balance my lessons with reasonable access while still giving my students the best possible resources. I spent more time researching the resources I offered and their potential burden. I also took better care to give my students access to engaging information that they could download, interact with, and review from anywhere. They'd find this information useful even if they didn't have a good internet connection at home.
Class time is ideal for group projects. When you teach online, the opportunity for discussion is limited. This is especially true when a student is viewing your recorded lesson later.
Setting up a forum for my online class was essential and made me think about how it could help my in-person classes as well. I encouraged several of the schools I visited to provide open forums for students to connect with each other when not in class. These forums helped shy students connect, made information available to even poor note takers, and was a huge benefit for students whose questions went unanswered in class. Plus, it allowed me to see who needed more help and to correct incorrect information so that everyone in the class had the same data.
I still prefer teaching face-to-face, but learning to teach online has opened a world of possibilities. With virtual learning, my students far and near have access to more and better information thanks to hot links and PDF files I can park online. They can log in at any time irrespective of my schedule to view the information, and we don't have to worry because they can't find my handout. And, with the proper connection at home, they can take as long as they need to master a concept without holding up a class or feeling singled out.
This method of teaching also gives me the opportunity to make adjustments to the curriculum and provide extra resources even after a class has ended, something I hope to offer more of my in-person classes as well.