The term "remote" has ugly connotations; it implies distance, irrelevance, coldness. Teaching should never be like this. That’s why we need to take the "remote" out of remote learning.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has required students to be taught at home using distance-learning techniques, schools around the world have scrambled to deliver content. Learning management systems are now crammed with pdf lessons lined up for transmission.
But in this scramble to serve our students academically, we’re in danger of forgetting them socially. Content is not what we really need in times like these. What we need is connection, companionship and conversation.
The social element of education can still exist when delivering distance education. However, this will only happen if teachers focus on relationships as much as on content.
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So, how do you keep the relationships going strong? The teaching techniques that are appropriate when teaching students online will depend on a number of things, not least the age of the student, the technology being used and the subject being taught. That said, there are a number of pedagogical tricks that are useful in most settings.
1. Establish a regular routine
Start online sessions at the same time each day. Remain professional in your dress and appearance when online. It reinforces normality. Require your students to organise themselves for online school just as they would for normal school. They need to have washed, had breakfast, dressed appropriately and organised their learning resources before the online session starts.
It’s good to concentrate on teaching the most important elements of the curriculum when online, and allow the less important to be dealt with offline. In other words, decide what is to be done in a synchronous manner with the class group, and what is to be done in an asynchronous manner when working individually.
Administrative tasks like taking the register or roll call need to be done efficiently and on time. Don’t wait for laggards to log in. Start without them. By so doing, you send a message about the importance of punctuality. Use the initial period of logging on and roll calls to inject some warmth, humour and connection with students. You can make the class feel special through little things such as knowing the preferred name of each student and by giving them a class identity.
For instance: “Hey to all you mavericks out there. Great to see you again. And a ‘happy birthday’ to Jamie. Have a great day ‘JD’.”
2. Get ready for your close-up
As far as possible, try to look at the camera rather than the screen when you are delivering lessons. Use your peripheral vision to note what’s happening on the screen. This will improve your engagement with your students, as they will feel you’re looking at them, rather than somewhere else. This is particularly important if you’re speaking close to the camera.
Check sound levels. Check there’s enough light on your face. Check there’s no glare on the whiteboard. Check that everything that is visible on screen is appropriate. This includes the photo behind you of that famous night in Rio 20 years ago.
3. Have a clear objective and behaviour protocols
Just as in the classroom, it's good to be clear in your mind about what the objective of each lesson is. Remote or not, the start of the lesson still needs to capture students by stating clearly what’s going to be studied and why it’s important.
In the first few days of online learning, it’s also good to remind students at the start of each lesson about any online learning protocols. For example, you might reiterate that all contributions should follow "SHIP": be short, helpful, informed and pertinent.
Things like toilet protocols need to be established, too. Remind students that it can get a bit ugly taking their computer with them to the toilet.
4. Keep it simple
Online teaching must be done using about a third of the words that would otherwise be used in a normal classroom in order to hold attention. Therefore, the words you do use need to be important. Long monologues from either teacher or student don’t work.
Balance the "talking head" shot with other visuals seen by students. A variety of resources exist such as blackboards, whiteboards, smartboards, flip charts, video clips, and other means of graphical presentation. Online lessons need to use a variety of presentation styles.
If you have content that you simply have to deliver through information slides, you can use a split-screen function on your video conferencing programme, so that you have your slides on one side and live video on the other.
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That said, it’s a good idea to keep online lessons simple, so don’t try and do too much or be too clever. Hello, we’re dealing with technology here!
5. Facilitate peer-to-peer interaction
Occasionally, you should break the large class into small groups. Ensure the groups are made up of a mix of personality types, and change the groups from time to time. These smaller groups can foster closer friendships than a whole-class session would.
Left to their own devices, online groups of students can chat, share and gossip. Good. These diversions are important. However, it is also important to encourage good student engagement, so don’t be afraid to make good use of the mute button if a student, or a number of students, become too noisy. Train students to listen and process an opinion before they speak, rather than as they speak. Remember the importance of silence and of allowing students to process what has been said or read. Imprinting is important lest key concepts be lost in a sea of "blah".
6. Allow time for feedback...and fun
One of the most useful things to do at the end of a lesson is to ask students what part of the session went well, and what might be improved. This sends messages about your desire for continuous improvement, and your respect for students and their opinion. Not only that, it could improve both teaching and learning.
Finally, remember where we started: maintaining connection is just as important as providing content. For this reason, fun activities should be included in online sessions with students.
This might mean having "formal" Mondays (wearing shirts and ties) and T-shirt Fridays. It might mean collegial singing online, cupcake and limerick competitions, photos of strange places to find a school hat. Whatever you choose, make sure it offers students a chance to let their hair down. These are stressful times and now, more than ever, we need to encourage the non-academic elements of schooling that cannot be measured and yet are still so valuable.
Tim Hawkes was headmaster of The King’s School in Parramatta, Sydney. He is now retired