Re-creating Your Classroom from a Distance

Re-creating Your Classroom from a Distance

By the OER Project Team

This blog series, crafted by online learning specialist Ian Usher, began in March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted the shut-down of in-person learning across the United States. This is the fifth blog in an eight-part series. You can find the rest of the series in our Teaching at a Distance Center.

Last week we discussed picking your platform for synchronous distance learning and practicing using it with colleagues or friends. Now, it’s time to prepare for the real thing.

You’ve picked your tool for distance learning, and you’re ready to get online with your students. Time to think about what you will actually use these sorts of tools for. Do you have to move beyond saying “Hi” to your students across the miles to something more substantial? Is only learning-focused activity valid?

You know the needs of your class (you might have an even better idea if you’ve done some of the work we described last week!) and you are uniquely-positioned to support them now. In terms of what a video call might achieve, you’ll have the sharpest insight as to whether you’ll be focusing on anything close to a curriculum—or just finding out how things are at your students’ new desks in their alien classrooms.

First, make a plan

Your approach will need to have some planning associated with it. It’s highly unlikely that all of your face-to-face lessons are completely improvised, unstructured and ad-hoc festivals of spontaneity—and it’s good practice for class meetups to have a form, a structure, a way of running, so that everyone can feel comfortable (including you).

Think how you are going to structure these meetings. For a start: when will they happen? Will you email or otherwise message your class and hope they show up? It might be worthwhile starting with a regular schedule. If these sessions are effective and your class wants to schedule more of them, then maybe start to have different themes during the course of a week. One could be focused on study topics, a Friday session could be mainly social, whereas a third session could combine the two.

Reevaluate classroom conventions

You probably have expectations of behavior and conduct in your physical classroom: do these all translate to an online space, or are some of them optional? The conventions, grammar, and behaviors students already use in the classroom may not translate well to distance learning.

Think of the classroom norms which existed in your physical classroom space. List them if it helps. Are they implicit or explicit? Did they all come from you, or have your current and previous classes contributed to refining them? Perhaps you’d like to start with a whole bunch of rules of engagement before removing a few as students get used to the new environment. Or perhaps you’ll start with a handful and add more as they are needed. As ever, you know your class, and you know which end of the prescriptive-permissive scale you need to start from.

A case in point: If there’s a classroom discussion, how does someone indicate they’d like to speak? Some tools have a “raise hand” feature, others don’t. How are you going to manage discussion and ensure that everyone who wishes to speak is able?

An interesting tool if your students all have smartphones is Tom Armitage’s VOIP Cards, which can be displayed on a phone and held up to a computer’s webcam to provide non-verbal communication. But , just as you might struggle with the video meeting tools before you eventually succeed, in this case the cards aren’t the end in themselves—effective communication is. As Armitage himself reflects in a blog post:

“If what you come away from VOIPcards with is not a tool to use, but a better way of thinking about your communication processes, that’s probably more important than using a fun app.”

Using tools as immediate as those described above will help you think about what you value in communication and what you miss by seeing someone’s body language.

Respect student privacy

Have you ever visited your students’ homes—or those of your teaching colleagues—before? A teacher we spoke with last week said that it was helpful for him to see, even fleetingly, into his students’ lives beyond the classroom as it gave him a more complete picture of how things were for them.

For those who might not wish to show their home environment, the ability of some tools to change the backgrounds shown on camera, or the option to blur the background, might be useful. However, these are not guarantees of privacy, and if you want some food for your (synchronous class meeting) thoughts, then Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s provocative piece reminds us that we need to think very carefully before allowing our entire class to see into one another’s homes:

“But you need to stop requiring that students show up and show you their lives, especially in ways that can be recorded by their peers and then circulated online.”

Also, bear in mind that students don’t have to start their cameras. You might choose to tell them it’s okay if they do not turn on their cameras—but that you do want to find out how they’re doing, and if you can see them to wave “Hi” then it’s a bonus.

Consider student safety

If your students are old enough to use their own digital devices, then you’ve almost certainly had to pick up the pieces of a local bout of inappropriate content being shared throughout—and beyond—your school. How might you engender responsible and respectful behaviors around the synchronous elements of your class?

Will you record these live classes for those who weren’t there? As well as providing an option for those unable to attend, this might be a useful way of giving evidence of your own professionalism and conduct, so that your school can know that you’re using this tool responsibly. If you do record sessions, however, you should tell your students that you will do so, and give them the option to not be recorded. They should be free to opt-out and watch the recording later. Of course, if everyone opts for that, then you need to rethink things...

In classroom-only days, your school might have had policies around the contact that teachers could make with students outside of school. Have those policies and safeguards been updated for the new reality when to see what’s on a student’s desk, you might need to see into their home?

Consider “afterwards”

It’s all about the live conversation, right? Right? Well, maybe… but with a little forethought, you could have more than the face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation, which is the obvious outcome of a synchronous meeting with students. You could also create an artefact or learning resource which can be more widely useful in the future. Two elements can make this more useful, depending on your platform and other choices you make both before and after the meeting.

Element one: a recording

Let’s assume that you can record the session—that you’ve considered the implications, notified folks who are taking part live, and ensured that you’ll be able to control who sees the recording when it’s shared later. All of these issues are important.

Now, the obvious audience for this is that group within your class who couldn’t attend the live meeting—or chose not to. So how do you make this useful or helpful for them? Being told, “Hey, there’s a recording of the meeting you weren’t at” is about as useful as being sent an audio or video recording of a class you weren’t at. Not knowing where the relevant content is—or even if there’s anything relevant there at all—means a lot of spooling through. As a teacher, you can help your students come back to this by creating an agenda, however precise or vague this is.

Say your class has five sections in its agenda, however loose. Once the recording is completed and you have it ready to share, you can link to a specific time. Once you’ve found the relevant points within the recording (in minutes and seconds) to give to absent students, you could also give this bulleted list to everyone, via email or a post in your Google Classroom:

Hey everyone!

Whether you could make it or not, here’s the running order of yesterday’s weekly catch-up. Each section is linked, so if you don’t want to watch all the way through, then click ahead...

  • Hola! What we’ve done this week (0m30secs)
  • Problems accessing last week’s work (8m50s)
  • This week’s work - reading and viewing (14m43s)
  • Things not to forget this week (21m34s)
  • This week’s treasure hunt: Zero to twenty (24m41s)
  • Any other busy-ness? (28m02s)

Why is this helpful? It means that anyone whose access to a device is limited—say, if their computer is shared with two siblings and two working-from-home parents—can get to content relevant to them without having to spool back and forward. Remember, for the most part the video will be a flurry of talking heads, so it won’t have obvious “chapters” to help viewers recognize whereabouts they are in the lesson. Anything you can add to make it more relevant to students will help them. Also: Offering this can diminish how many “the video timeline ate my homework” excuses you have to field...

Element two: a transcript

The creation of a transcript can offer another way of creating useful resources from a synchronous meeting or event. Some tools create transcripts automatically; others will offer the option once a recording is completed. If you use Microsoft Teams in Office365 and have Microsoft Stream (an O365 video streaming / hosting service) available to you, then recordings of Teams meetings are saved to Stream—which, for any video uploaded to it, offers the option to create a transcript on-demand. This transcript is editable, so you can ensure that those odd words are fixed if necessary. This all adds extra work, but if it means that students feel more confident, better supported and can find your words more easily, then it may be worth it for you.

Why is this helpful? It makes a video of talking heads more accessible. Subtitles can be an important tool for those who have a hearing impairment, or for those who have to work in a shared room and whose siblings have borrowed their headphones.

Both of these artefacts are of obvious use to your students, but could also be of use to you. Sharing a recording with a fellow teacher in your school can give you helpful feedback, and watching the recordings of others can give you inspiration and ideas of both good and less-good practice to emulate and avoid. The online teaching community of practice which is the education sector’s response to COVID-19 is a rich resource to tap into, but its localized incarnation among you and your colleagues might well be the one which gives you the most personalized, most focused and richest professional development.

Resources for Synchronous Distance Learning

Ready for more? Check out the next post here!

About the author: Ian Usher is Head of Learning Innovation at Herts for Learning, the UK’s largest school-owned company, and a school governor in his home county of West Sussex. He advises schools on implementing learning technology appropriate to their circumstances and has been named an Adobe Education Leader for his work in school-focused e-learning. He plays the guitar badly and remains convinced that stand-up paddleboarding on the ocean is one of the most rewarding ways to socially isolate.