The Building Blocks of an Online Lesson

Even though teaching online may feel like a different animal than teaching face-to-face, there are many similarities in terms of the building blocks of a lesson. The tools teachers use to engage students online are indeed different. It is also true that engaging students in learning activities online will require (at least initially) that teachers onboard students to those technology tools and support them in learning how to navigate online tasks. However, the activities and tasks teachers use to create their lessons offline can be transferred to the online environment if teachers know what tools to use.

Building Blocks of a Lesson

My suggestion when coaching teachers is to think about their online lessons through the lens of these building blocks.

  • Is there instruction or modeling students need to navigate a task or assignment? Would it be better to record a video and allow students to self-pace through the information or engage the group in a real-time video conferencing session?
  • Do students need to engage with texts or podcasts? Can teachers pair those resources with an online discussion prompt to encourage conversation and collaborative meaning-making?
  • Will you collect formative assessment data to assess prior knowledge or check for understanding?
  • Do you want students to reflect on their learning and stretch their metacognitive muscles?

All of these things are possible in an online course! It is just a matter of knowing what tools you can lean on to facilitate these different types of activities online. Below is a document that details each building block, the objective of that activity, and the technology tools teachers can use to engage students in that type of learning activity online.

Once teachers decide which building blocks they want to use to design their online lessons for the week, I encourage teachers to organize the tasks and resources in a single document. The incredible folks at the Nebraska Department of Education put together a template that I loved! I have included a modified version below for teachers who are looking for a structure to help them organize the building blocks of their online lessons. This template also encourages teachers to think about pairing online and offline options to give students a degree of choice. There may not be an “offline option” for every activity, but questioning whether or not students can complete a task offline is a habit worth cultivating in this time of distance learning.

As a parent, it is challenging to keep track of all of the individual assignments my two children receive each week on Google Classroom. It would be much easier to support them if I had a document like the one pictured above with all of the information, links, and resources for the week.

One of the biggest challenges that teachers face in this transition to online teaching is setting realistic expectations for their students. I caution teachers to embrace a “less is more” mentality to ensure that the volume of work they are assigning is manageable. Many tasks that we have done traditionally offline in the classroom take significantly longer online. We must set students up for success online and avoid overwhelming them with too much work.

If you have favorite tools or lesson planning strategies, please take a moment to post a comment and share them!

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7 Strategies Designed to Increase Student Engagement in Synchronous Online Discussions Using Video Conferencing

One of the primary roles that a teacher plays in an online class is the facilitation of learning. Facilitation is the teacher’s ability to clearly communicate learning objectives and support learners as they make progress toward those objectives. When teachers are working with students online, their role as facilitator encompasses their interactions with students in conferences, the feedback they give students on their work, and their ability to assist students in making meaning in online discussions, both synchronous and asynchronous.

This last component–facilitating online discussions–can be especially challenging for teachers who are not used to engaging students remotely. However, video conferencing platforms, like Google Meet and Zoom, are making it possible for teachers to connect with learners in real-time. This presents myriad opportunities to engage students in active learning online. Given the critical role that discussion plays in meaning-making, many teachers are experimenting with using their video conferencing sessions to engage students in conversations about texts, videos, podcasts, and online resources. 

Just like real-time discussions that can fall flat or be dominated by a handful of voices, synchronous online discussions using video conferencing software presents unique challenges for teachers. Students may feel self-conscious about jumping into a conversation online for a variety of reasons. Below are seven suggestions to help teachers maximize student engagement in synchronous online discussions. 

1. Provide students with an agenda and a list of discussion questions ahead of time.

Students will feel more comfortable if they know what to expect from a virtual conferencing session. If teachers provide the discussion questions ahead of time, students who need more time to process the questions have time to do so. Similarly, students who may be shy or more hesitant to engage in real-time conversation can prepare some “talking points” in advance of the synchronous session, so they feel comfortable engaging. 

2. Communicate your expectations for participation and behavior online.

Learning online is new for many students. Teachers need to be clear about their expectations, and proactively teach students how to engage in this new learning landscape. For example, you should explicitly tell them if you want them to leave their video on for discussions and explain why it is vital for the class community to be able to see each other’s faces. If you want them to contribute at least one idea to the discussion, you need to tell them in advance of the conversation what you expect. 

TIP: I encourage teachers to include the expectations for behavior and participation in the agenda or planning document that they share with students in advance of the conversation. 

3. Ask students to generate their own discussion questions.

Ask students to come to the virtual discussion with at least one question they would like to discuss. This encourages them to think about the topic the group will be discussing in advance of the conversation and identify some aspect of the topic that interests them. When students can steer the conversation with questions they care about, they are more likely to engage in discussion. 

4. Start every virtual conferencing session with an icebreaker question or a quick check-in.

Instead of jumping right into academic work, teachers should begin video conferencing sessions with a fun, informal question that helps students to feel more comfortable. Students who are learning remotely are likely missing the social interactions associated with being in school. Giving students a chance to connect on a social level with their peers before jumping into an academic conversation can help them feel more comfortable sharing their ideas with the group.

5. Use the chat window strategically. 

Just like in a classroom, students need a moment to process a question and formulate their responses. I encourage teachers to share their screens and project each discussion question so that students can both see and hear it. Then ask students to take 60-90 seconds to share their initial thoughts via the chat feature or using a tool like Mentimeter. Once students have had the opportunity to share their thoughts in the chat window, invite them to raise a virtual hand to expand on their response. Individually, unmute students to allow them to share their ideas without interruption. 

6. Host shorter sessions with fewer students.

Teachers may prefer to offer one long synchronous session each week for their class; however, large group discussions are rarely as dynamic or equitable as small group discussions. Teachers will have more success offering three 20 minute discussion sessions with eight to ten students each, compared to one 60 minute session with 25-30 students. This creates opportunities for the teacher to group students strategically to ensure students are more likely to engage in conversation. 

7. Ask students to assess their participation online.

End your video conferencing session by asking students to take a moment to assess and reflect on their participation online. Self-assessment is an important strategy that encourages students to think critically about their skills. Teachers who make a habit of ending discussions with a quick self-assessment and reflection activity are more likely to see students take these sessions seriously. Online discussion is a critical part of online learning, and as such, students need to develop the skills necessary to engage in this space. 

As with any skill, learning to engage in discussions using a video conferencing tool will take time and practice. Teachers are more likely to experience success if they provide students with support, scaffolding, and feedback.

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Traits of a Successful Online Teacher

Last week, I had the good fortune of stumbling onto John Savery’s article titled “BE VOCAL: Characteristics of Successful Online Instructors” in which he talks about the unique challenges facing teachers who are working with students in the online environment.

Savery uses the acronym VOCAL to emphasize five specific traits that a successful online teacher must possess. I created the visual below pairing each of his traits–visible, organized, caring and compassionate, analytical, and leader by example–with specific behaviors. I hope this will serve as a guide for educators who are navigating their new roles as online teachers.

Savery believes that teachers who demonstrate these characteristics in their work with students online are more likely to create a productive and positive learning environment and deal with fewer management issues.

Savery, J. R. (2005). BE VOCAL: Characteristics of successful online instructors. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(2), 141-152.

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