By Stacy Young, Associate Dean of Faculty, VHS Learning
Transitioning to an online learning environment can be challenging in the best of circumstances. With the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the world have taken unprecedented step of closing their doors to help promote social distancing with the hope of slowing the spread of the virus.
As educators scramble to minimize the disruption of school life, teachers and students are getting a crash course in distance learning—regardless of whether they're ready and willing. Whatever approach schools and districts decide to take, there are a few ways teachers can help make the transition to online learning a more positive experience for everyone.
By focusing on effective communication, nurturing relationships, and modeling patience and calm, teachers can provide an additional layer of security for students who need to feel grounded. Here are five ways teachers can help facilitate the transition.
Communicate with care.
One of the trickiest parts of transitioning to an online environment is communicating without the benefit of facial expressions and body language. We've all sent and received emails that contained seemingly abrupt or ambiguous language. Wondering about the intention of the author can be awkward at best and anxiety-provoking and/or relationship damaging at worst.
To ensure your messages are clear and your tone is supportive, it's important to take a moment to review what you've written before hitting send. Put yourself in the student's shoes and imagine how they will receive your message and revise if there is any question about tone or clarity. A few moments spent considering the lens of the recipient of your email can save time later clearing up misunderstandings and (potentially) hurt feelings.
Be a duck.
Yes, be a duck. I've heard two interpretations of this expression over the years, and both apply to this situation. The first interpretation refers to duck feathers, which are waterproof, so when ducks gets wet, the water slides right off them. The second interpretation involves how a duck moves around in the water. If you've ever watched a duck swimming, you've seen it glide gracefully and swiftly across the top of the pond, seemingly without effort. The truth is, if you were to peek below the surface of the water, you'd see the duck vigorously paddling to get where it's going.
Like a duck, a teacher can let the unpleasant aspects of the day roll off her back without concern. And it may be that the teacher is scrambling to keep things moving forward with great effort and emotion bubbling under the surface. Staying calm and collected where students are looking (above the surface) will provide a model for how students should be reacting to the chaos around them. Be the calming influence they can turn to in times of uncertainty.
Insist on structure.
It may be daunting to imagine creating structure as we observe the most reliable parts of our world changing daily. It may be easy to default to being extra flexible to try to accommodate every student's situation. But the truth is, whether it seems like it or not, most students need structure to feel secure. As the teacher, you get to set up the structure in a new context for students. Practically speaking, make sure you give students a clear understanding of: Students may struggle at first but creating clear and predictable routines will help them more quickly become comfortable with the online environment. You will also need to follow through with your commitments to students, honoring the guidelines you laid out for communication and getting graded work and feedback to students as outlined. They are looking to you to understand what teaching and learning looks like in this new structure.
- How to get in touch with you - Email? Online message board or app?
- How to use the technology:
- Where to submit assignments
- How to use online tools (discussion boards, virtual meetings, etc…)
- What to do if they have trouble with technology, logging in, or internet access
- Your schedule - When can they expect to receive a response or graded assignment from you? When you will be able to meet with them through video or text chat?
- Expectations on assignments, including:
- Clear and easy-to-understand rubrics or product descriptors
- Daily/weekly participation expectations must include participation format and the duration/frequency of participation
- Deadlines/timelines on assignments, revisions, extensions, communication, and participation
This may seem at odds with the insistence of structure, but providing some flexibility for students, especially as they begin a new approach to learning, will help students feel it's safe to struggle and ask for help. In the early days, you may waive late penalties or provide extra opportunities for revision. As students become more comfortable, you may increase accountability, still providing more flexibility in extenuating circumstances. Flexibility may look different depending on the student, the assignment, or the situation.
Lead with empathy.
Moving to the online environment will create challenges for everyone. It will look different for different teachers and students, but it's important that teachers avoid making assumptions about where students "should" be in their comfort level or progress. Some students who have performed well in their face-to-face classrooms may struggle in an online environment. Some who struggled previously may flourish. And some students who have historically struggled in class may find that online learning is even more challenging.
Teachers need to manage their expectations appropriately, understanding that for some students, two or more weeks of learning from home feels like a luxury with plenty of technology, space, and parental support to help them along the way. For other students, home may not be such a safe space. The house may be overcrowded, access to technology and the internet may be minimal or non-existent, parents may be neglectful or absent, and food may be scarce. Students in the latter situation may have seen their brick-and-mortar school as a respite from instability that has suddenly been taken away without a clear end in sight. Of course, any of your students may be dealing with an illness (either themselves or a loved one) which will impact their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Without the benefit of face-to-face interaction, teachers can struggle to gain insight that may be easy to detect through a short conversation or observation. The online environment requires teachers to seek clarity by asking questions until they fully understand what is behind a student's challenges. By leading with empathy, a teacher sets aside assumptions and can support the students where they are, giving them a little extra grace as they navigate these uncertain waters.
The coming weeks and months are new territory for everyone. Schools and districts are tasked with trying to figure out how to maintain some sense of normalcy for students, and teachers are the first line of defense in executing this plan. Prioritizing relationships, clear and effective communication, and support may bring a much-needed sense of stability to students when they need it the most.
About VHS Learning
VHS Learning (VHS, Inc.) is a nonprofit organization with 24 years of experience providing world-class online programs to schools and families. VHS Learning partners with 660 schools in 40 US states and 44 countries and is accredited by Middle States Association Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools (MSA-CESS), Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (ACS WASC), and Cognia (formerly AdvancED). For more information please visit VHSLearning.org.