The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many facets of everyday life — with our approach to education being one of the most noteworthy. Even now, school boards, teachers, and parents across the country are debating how to return to school safely.
While some areas are proposing to have students back in the classroom wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines, many others are planning for virtual or hybrid classrooms.
However, the adaptation to virtual classrooms is not entirely new. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Scott Lee, founder and CEO of Gooroo. His company uses an online matching algorithm to pair students with tutors for live virtual learning programs.
Drawing from his experiences with Gooroo, Lee notes that there are several elements all virtual classrooms need to be successful.
Focus On Individual Learners
“Teaching and learning is all about the individual,” Lee says.
“While teachers in a virtual classroom may not be able to give high fives or handshakes, starting with a personal greeting and asking students how they are feeling will help them feel valued. By providing the same level of one-on-one mentoring that they would in a typical classroom setting, teachers are able to connect with their students personally.
” As part of this, Lee notes that teachers and tutors should identify and cater to the individual learning styles of their students as best as possible. Gooroo applies this philosophy through their student learning profiles. This helps the student feel valued and helps them get an easier grasp of the materials.
“Successful teaching is interactive by nature,” Lee advises.
“Group problem-solving, hands-on activities, and so on will boost morale and engagement. This makes virtual classroom learning more fun, and helps students become active participants in the learning process. YouTube and Google can be distractions, but they can also serve as a launching off point for kids to direct their learning experience and become more engaged with a topic.
” This sentiment reflects the findings of Harvard professor Eric Mazur, who found that having students in his classrooms engage with each other to find answers proved more successful than simple lecturing. Teachers who “talk at” their students over an online connection are going to lose them to social media and other distractions. Encouraging learners to use technology to supplement or enhance class discussion topics reduces distractions and fosters greater interest in the subject.
Open Access to Course Materials
From quiz sheets to dioramas, the standard classroom provides a lot of materials designed to enhance the learning experience. These materials can help with everything from evaluating students’ understanding to providing a more hands-on approach to a particular concept.
But going digital doesn’t mean such materials will have to be abandoned. “The way you present course materials will change in a virtual classroom, but this doesn’t mean you’re limited in any way,” Lee says.
“Class handouts can easily be shared via email or a shared cloud folder. Augmented reality and virtual reality tools, or even an educational YouTube video can supplement the standard learning experience. Teachers should be mindful of the devices their students are using — and their limits — so that digital materials are accessible to everyone in the class.”
Clear Conduct Expectations
The transition to virtual lessons has resulted in issues as teachers learn to manage conduct outside a standard classroom setting. As Chris Lee wrote for Ars Technica, “My daughter is getting virtual lessons via Google Meets, but the permissions for the meeting are never set correctly (I am not sure if Google Meets even has the flexibility). Kids are able to mute the teacher for everyone without the teacher noticing. They can choose their own nicknames — with predictable results — and kick each other out of the class.”
Needless to say, teachers must fully understand the technology they will be using to facilitate their virtual classroom experience. Expectations for classroom conduct should be communicated to all students, just as in a physical classroom. However, teachers should make sure all permissions for the group are set up properly to maintain order.
Quality Video and Audio Streaming
Virtual classrooms tend to be most engaging when students can see their teacher’s face and clearly hear everything that is being said. “Students are going to be more attentive and engaged when they have a sense of that face to face connection,” Lee says.
“Even a grainy video is better than no video at all. That being said, it may be worthwhile to boost your internet connection to ensure you come through loud and clear to your students.”
These days, most smartphones have good enough cameras and microphones for a classroom meeting. You can further improve video quality by setting up your teaching space in a well-lit area that is free from household distractions.
Facing the Virtual Future
If there’s one thing to be learned from all this, it’s that while transitioning to virtual classrooms certainly presents its fair share of challenges, it also provides opportunities for teachers and students alike.
“Learning is a lifelong endeavor,” Lee says. “For most of us, virtual learning is the only real option once we start working a full-time job. As we get used to the idea of learning in a digital environment, I think we can see more people become true lifelong learners. That’s well worth the effort.”