Beware: Lessons From Setting Up My Virtual Classroom


Setting up a virtual classroom is a challenge if you have no idea what you're doing - and I didn't. Learn from my mistakes and take your online lessons to another level.

My Virtual Classroom

When I agreed to take on the challenge of teaching in a virtual classroom, I had visions of working in my pajamas, interacting with interesting, motivated students, and using online tools to streamline the teaching process. It was going to be an epic adventure, and I was going to kill it.

I'm sure you can imagine my surprise when that didn't happen. Not right away, at any rate. I made many mistakes while learning just how much online teaching differed from the standard classroom setting I was used to. Aside from the obvious lack of a building, I wasn't prepared for just how different my materials and teaching methods would need to be if I had any hope of reaching my far-ranging students. If you're thinking of branching out into online learning, read on to take advantage of my mistakes and get your class off to a great start without the headaches.

Don't Go in Blind

When I created my online course for parents of children with Type 1 diabetes, I assumed my degree, my experience, and my winning (cough, cough) personality would be more than enough to make it a success. I had no idea just what I would need to do, or to learn, to make the course beneficial. It took more time than I expected to get up to speed and prepare my curriculum. As a result, my first pupils weren't as well-served as I would have liked. If you're considering teaching online, be sure you know exactly what's expected of you from the start and budget your time. Don't get blindsided like I did.


Get Support

Another assumption I made with my first class was that I would have the backing of the organization that contracted me. While they were helpful - when they could be - I was largely on my own to get the training and help I needed. Training myself also proved to be a massive time suck, because I had to find support on my own time, and I didn't always know where to look. In the future, I will make sure that I have access to the training I need before I begin any new course - or pass on the offer.

Set Boundaries

When I organized my class, I did it with an open-door policy. I wanted my students to feel like they could contact me anytime for help and more information. The problem with this was that they took me up on it. My phone was pinging and ringing at all hours. When I turned it off to work on something else or sleep, I would receive piles of frantic messages from students who felt that I had abandoned them.

It didn't take long to realize that it was important to set aside my students' expectations and take care of myself. Not only did I have to make it clear that emergencies should be directed to their children's endocrinologists - not me - I also needed to set boundaries. They needed to know when my door was open, and how long it may take me to call them back. This basic housekeeping piece should have been obvious, but for some reason, it wasn't. Once I had clear rules in place, my students were much more at ease - as was I.


Keep it Simple

I was so excited to connect my students with every piece of information and every tool I could get my hands on, that I went overboard. Loading up the course with films, graphics, and extra information overwhelmed and frustrated a good many of them. I had used my bandwidth and equipment as a baseline for my students without considering that some of them may have limited means.

When I revamped the class, I limited the images and videos, relied on Flash and other low-consumption methods of delivering content, and included links so students could retrieve more information on their own time. I also converted all my files to PDF to allow for faster, more stable downloads. The format made it easier for students using public internet connections to save the information and view it at their leisure.

Lead Them

I had assumed that my students would be motivated to learn the material for their children's benefit. While I'm sure that is more or less true, the fact is that many of them were tired, overwhelmed, and in a hurry to complete the certification and get back to something resembling normal life. Because of this, I found that too many of them were skipping through portions of the course without grasping the information fully.

To make sure they would view the class seriously, and to show me where any holes in the material were, I added simple quizzes and discussion questions to help them absorb the lessons. This extra work, though it was light, made the class real to them and ensured they weren't just skating through without getting something out of the information.


Be Prepared

Online teaching is becoming more and more prevalent in today's connected world. While I still prefer my in-person courses, I am excited to have the chance to reach students from around the world online. Thanks to resources, like those provided by the National Education Association (NEA) and bloggers like Andrei Zakhareuski at Busy Teacher, I learned a few things about myself and my students and got through my first course successfully. Well, after a few false starts, anyway.

It's true that virtual learning isn't for every student, but with proper preparation, I think it's possible to make it work for most. If we can, we provide them with a valuable resource and access to education that may have been little more than a pipe dream before.

I think that's worth making a fool of myself online once or twice. Don't you?

By Patricia Willis
December 2016
teachers virtual classroom

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