On Transitioning to Online Teaching

Alice Temnick for AdamSmithWorks

March 13, 2020

I’m one week in and have learned a few things and implemented many of the skills I learned...
Like many teachers across the globe, I’m challenged with transitioning my high school classes mid-semester, to on-line learning. I’m one week in and have learned a few things and implemented many of the skills I learned through use of the Zoom platform with Liberty Fund for several Virtual Reading Groups.  

Some personal challenges for me include the mis-match of my extroverted personality and my need for regular physical activity in my day to home-bound confinement.  At 3:00 today, I was exhausted, though I moved no further than the several steps to my kitchen or bathroom between classes. My Apple watch reprimanded me several times (Stand! Check your rings!).  I’ve always been skeptical about friends and family members who tout the benefits of working from home.  I’m an odd one who likes to dress and prepare for the day, and arrive at school early. I thrive on the laughter and engagement with students and colleagues. I clock in a few miles at school before heading home to race to yoga and then to grade and grade some more.  This work day and life transition will take some time. 

The teaching and learning platform used at my school is called Schoology which has a conference feature that is very similar to Zoom.  Quick video tutorials are all that is needed to learn to use the most important features. I’ll cut to the chase to share some helpful tips. 

  • Before the class begins, open all tabs on our computer to documents, presentations, assignments that you plan to share on your screen so that you won’t have to search for them while teaching.  
  • Open the conference a few minutes early to allow for the glitches and re-starts that students will have to do to connect. 
  • Refrain from engaging in discussion with the early bird students who often have questions about the upcoming lesson or schedule. It’s annoying or even unsettling for students who are just arriving on the screen to feel like they have missed out on part of the conversation. 
  • I begin the class by asking all students to type a hello into the group chat feature to confirm that they can hear as well as see each other on the screen. 
  • Because I have 25 (high school) students, I disable the private chat function. 
  • I use this opening group chat list to take roll after ending the class conference so as not to waste class time.

It’s probably even more important when teaching online than in the classroom to begin with a clear overview of what will be covered in the class that day and what will be assigned for the next class. I post a brief description of this on Schoology the day before clearly indicating what websites, tabs, or materials they will need for the next day’s class. (Of course students have access to a greater syllabus/calendar for the whole course for project deadlines, assessments, etc).  I try to break each 60 minute class into 3 different sections. This can be a 15 or 20 minute interactive presentation of new learning where I share my screen and teach from my website where my presentations are available to students. I call on random students who “unmute” themselves to answer. Occasionally I unmute all of the students and ask for unison answers--they enjoy the interaction.  

Next I’ll transition into an activity, it might be several problems to solve, short answers to write or brief research to gather. After a 10 or 15 minute working time, where students can ask questions in the public chat or raise their hand to speak, we go over a few items as a class. A thumbs up or thumbs down icon feature is a great tool for basic “check for understanding”. A last section of the class can involve full participation by students in a “Shared Notes” function.  Today, I had  students share various trade agreements by level of trade integration for their assigned countries as part of an ongoing Developing Country Project that will culminate in a 10 minute video each student will produce. 

Between each transition, I ask for questions from students. I try to address all of them by name in every class and to present my cheery self even when tech problems throw me. Today my microphone stopped working while I thought I was delivering an engaging lesson differentiating Official Development Assistance from Humanitarian Aid. Because I was switching between tabs to share different screens, I missed seeing my students wave their arms to let me know the sound was gone… 

There are additional, somewhat obvious but important tips. Lighting matters a lot, crazy backgrounds are distracting, a face too close to the screen is too much, too far away is also problematic. I need to remember to consistently hit the record button at the beginning of the class and save it at the end. Recorded classes are available on the Schoology platform for 7 days.  I’m going to experiment with other features such as grouping students for discussions and activities and revamping almost every way I was planning to teach the rest of the semester. It’s going to take a lot of time and thought. 

I think it is important that we teachers carry on and even appear as if it's a seamless transition to teach from our living rooms, perhaps in yoga pants and more formal top.  None of us knows what is going to happen next. We don't know how bad, how long, or when and how students will take final exams or external exams such as IB and AP tests. What I do know is that I teach incredible students who are showing up, who are making this work, and who are thanking me at the end of class. I’m pretty sure the gratitude is not about the price index lesson. We need to be there for them, to care about how they are doing, to smile, to continue the classroom camaraderie (“Yuki, are you awake?).  We can do this. 

Alice Temnick is an IB Economics Instructor for the United Nations International School in New York City

Andrea Mays

Alice! Helpful tips! I will be using many of these—including looking at the chat for attendance purposes. I don’t usually take attendance (college economics) but I do want to encourage the students to participate in real time. Hope you are well! Andrea