Online learning is challenging, whether we like it or not it’s testing for our students while also being toilsome for us to find new ways of working as we adopt the new normal. One thing remains constant; sound teaching and learning strategies still apply. Regardless of geographic location, devices access, resources, and will power, teachers want to teach and share their passion for their subject and we should strive to not let the situation get the better of us and work to solve problems like we do best in our profession. 

Perhaps this ideology is a little utopian but after eleven weeks of online teaching I know two things. Number one, I am grateful that technology enables me to still teach and share my subject. Number two, I cannot wait to get back to school and while virtual teaching is not the same as being in the classroom and the goalposts may have changed somewhat one thing is constant; effective teaching is still effective teaching. 

A few nights ago I shared my top 5 tips for online learning at #EduDH20 and thought I would also write out my thoughts, reflections and research in this blog post!

Tip 1 – New information, small chunks

We know from Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) that our working memory is limited so we must avoid overloading it where possible and provide new information in small steps. If we think of our own regulation when it comes to our mobile devices they are often a huge distraction, let alone when trying to learn online and especially so when you may have a sibling(s)/parent(s) or other distractions present at the time of the new information being delivered; such is the reality of our new normal. 

Coupled with this we know from Dual Coding Theory, and the fantastic sharing from Oli Cav, that we have two attention channels; auditory and visual. Whilst a device is in our hand or on the desk in front of us it holds our attention, but it often doesn’t take much for something to cross our eye line (or noise in the next room) and our attention is readily diverted. Quite simply, online learning is difficult and the distractions are vast and likely frequent. 

Ensure new information is presented in small chunks, that builds on prior learning, with a rigorous focus on the quality of explanations. In a recent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) study, April 2020, into online learning it was found that explanation quality proved most important while online learning. It’s also pivotal, due to our limited working memory, to provide lots of practice to help break down concepts and get that newly acquired information out. 

Tip 2 – Give Worked Examples

Whilst we are not in the classroom we can’t expect students to understand our own mental models so we have to explicitly think aloud, as identified in the EEF report on distance learning rapid evidence assessment, “Model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive skills.” Modeling is of vital importance while teaching online, if we are to be effective we must model our thoughts and decisions aloud to reveal our own thought processes. This not only helps to reduce the demands on the pupils but it also helps to clarify and crystallize the specific steps in learning we are trying to achieve. For me this resonates with what Greg Ashman wrote, some time ago now, that students “learn more by studying worked examples than solving equivalent problems.” This still rings true and further echoes Rosenshine’s principle of providing models and teacher thinking aloud to clarify steps in learning. Less really is more here from a distance learning viewpoint; cover less content but in greater depth.

Tip 3 – Low stakes (never high!)

The new normal is challenging enough so we need not make it even more difficult with high stakes testing, we must remember that it should be a vehicle for obtaining a high success rate and test the temperature of learning in your safe virtual classroom. Ken Bain, in 2004, said that “we should be encouraging our students to think aloud in a non-threatening atmosphere without facing any grading.” This really resonates with me as the nuances of our real classroom are far easier to maintain while building trust and a safe environment compared to a virtual classroom where it’s a real challenge to see some of the typical visual clues of the real classroom when everyone is in front of you. 

Low stakes quizzes can be akin to being at the optician a good few years ago, hence the picture above. You know that at some point you will be tested on the contents of the testing board in the image and while exchanging pleasantries your attention is likely consciously or subconsciously on that very board. You’ll try to recite it’s contents up to a point where your working memory is invariably overloaded. Students know too that an assessment will be coming at some point after new material is delivered so rather than initially putting them 6 feet away from the testing board, place them near enough to ensure a high success rate but also where there’s some challenge; start where they are comfortable and then increase the complexity.

Mary Myatt, of whom I am a huge fan, shares eloquently about having a culture of high challenge, low threat. Where questions have power, open up our curricula, motivate and engage students in getting to the “meat of the matter” and help to grow their investment in our subject. So allow a safe space with clarity of thinking in your virtual classroom and there is little point grading students at this time because as Stephen Hawking said the “Cost of bad data is the illusion of knowledge.” 

Tip 4 – Collaboration is essential

Virtually it can be difficult to maintain a sense of community and collaboration, which in a real classroom is a fairly strong proxy for buy-in, so the more we can foster peer interactions by trying different approaches for different tasks the greater our chance of success at motivating and connecting our students which in turn will likely lead to improved outcomes. As humans, it is built into the very nature of our being to inform others of the very things that are useful to us so fostering a collaborative approach will not only stand you in good stead but also let the students develop their own leadership and communication skills. 

Tip 5 – Feedback

The purpose of feedback is to close the knowledge gap and therefore move learning and student understanding forwards so use the tools that you have to your advantage here. If you use OneNote, use the voice notes to provide rich audio feedback in a matter of seconds rather than spending minutes typing out the same level of detail. Use Flipgrid to promote peer feedback and discussions, set low-stakes quizzes using tools like Quizizz, CENTURY, or Microsoft Forms that take the pressure of your marking load, provide instant feedback to students while giving you rich data sets that inform your planning to close the gap further. Another activity that my students have found really useful is to have a 10-15 minute live Q&A session where they can ask or send in anonymous questions and I give feedback on common errors in their responses to said quizzes. 

BONUS Tip 6 – Context & Tools

Remember you are not in the room to help students if something goes wrong with a tool you are using, with this in mind it’s important to use the tools that you are familiar with and be cautious of implementing new technology at this time. It’s also an important time to be mindful of your own workload so now is not a time to introduce a new tool that you aren’t confident in using as this could cause anxiety amongst your learners and also take more of your time to learn and develop compared to the time you’ll actually spend using it in a lesson.  

The infographic below summarises the top tips from my presentation, you can see the tweet containing the image here and a Wakelet with all the tweets from the event here

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