Thursday, March 12, 2020

What You Can Expect When Teaching K-12 Online

In my considerable experience, here are the top ten things you can expect of parents when teaching a K-12 online class.

  1. Reading their email. 81% of US adults own a smartphone. Pro tip: Internet access is variable. Text only. No fancy fonts or pictures or attachments. Use your subject heading wisely: ____ School - Class - Assignment
  2. Handing children paper. Private school parents will print it out. Consider mailing packets to public school parents.
  3. Listening to you. They may not agree and they may not follow through, but most parents will heed your words. Use your power wisely. Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf.
  4. Follow scripted lessons. You might need to demonstrate it, but most parents can follow a short (10-min) scripted lesson. Hence the popularity of Saxon math and Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. If you don’t know what scripted lessons are, let’s talk.
  5. Set their child in front of a short video. ~14% of US school aged children don’t have Internet access at home, but if they do, carefully curated, short (x<15 min) videos are your friend. Let me know if you need help finding them.
  6. Hand their child a book. Sending your students home with textbooks? You’re in luck! Most parents will say, “Tommy, go read your book.” Follow through varies, and you must impose consequences, but the initial push is a reasonable expectation.
  7. Remind students to turn in their work. Most parents understand that children have homework, although again, follow through varies. Don’t expect parents to figure out how to turn it in online, though. If you teach them, students as young as 10 can upload work themselves.
  8. Follow a calendar of events. In my experience, non-homeschool parents rarely have set daily at-home schedules. Feel free to write up a suggested calendar for them—most will be grateful. 
  9. Not understand software. Even wealthier parents will trip, stumble, and fall though whatever tech you use. Make wordless workshops with screenshots to print/email/download and short videos to walk them through it.
  10. Expect your professionalism.  When teaching online, you’ll interact with parents far more than you do face to face, because other than in video chats, they’re filtering everything to the S. Be patient & kind as they take on an unexpected teaching assistant role.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What Not to Do When Getting Started Teaching Online


As an experienced (I've been doing this since grad school, and I've got gray hair) online teacher, here are my top ten tips for what *not* to do when getting started.

  1. Don't try and wing it. You're not there to change the assignment at the last minute, answer questions if your directions are unclear, or add a tip in class. I prep and post two weeks in advance.
  2. Don't depend on tech. It will break. Prior preparation prevents poor performance. Make sure that students can access information in multiple formats and times. I record all my lectures.
  3. Don't assume students are going to cheat. Then it becomes an arms race. Make them your ally, not your enemy. Students are no more likely to cheat online than they are in a face to face classroom. 
  4. Don't assume your students have unlimited broadband access. Videochat is lovely, but a limited access resource. Test your class -- can they do everything they need on a cheap smartphone? No? Fix that.
  5. Don't give oodles of writing assignments. I once took an undergraduate online course that required 5,000+ words per week, more than many professional authors can write. You bet I wrote a scathing course review. Give yourself a limit. Mine ranges from 500-1,000 words for K12.
  6. Don't try to recreate your classroom. This is a fundamentally different activity, in the same way that riding a bicycle and driving a car are worlds apart. Getting everyone together for a big group videochat to replace your class is not the best use of anyone's time.
  7. Don't presume it's less work. I spend less time in front of my students, it's true, but I routinely spend hours every week creating course content, emailing/calling students, and answering questions in the course management software.
  8. Don't assume you have any privacy. Parents email with  content questions, broadcast lectures on televisions, share assignments with neighbors, etc. You and your assignments are "in public" for all of it--your classroom door is never shut.
  9. Don't just give directions verbally. This helps make your course accessible, but also, when was the last time you paid attention to a boring video and could repeat off-the-cuff remarks word for word? Write it down, in multiple places. Then train students where to find it.
  10. Don't bury yourself in grading. Yes, tell students to do things--but not everything needs a grade or even your eyeballs on it. Write the assessment with the assumption that they did all the things, and they'll do it because otherwise they won't pass.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Managing (the student's) workload in an online class

One thing that is especially important in online ed (or homeschooling, or F2F ed), is managing the workload. It's easy to add things to a calendar and forget how difficult they are for a new student (the curse of expertise), or accidentally create busywork.

I manage this in several different ways.

  1. I buy curricula made by professional instructional designers whenever possible. I'm not wasting my time reinventing the wheel. I choose time-tested curricula, paying attention to editions with scripted or clear goals. I also look for curricula with pre-made tests, quizzes, graphic organizers, presentations, etc. Even if I don't use them as purchased, it's good to have. 
  2. I test how long it's going to take. Homeschooling, I'll give it a test run for a week or four. In the online classroom, I'll sit down and do the assignments myself, correcting for my expertise whenever possible. It's humbling, let me tell you.
  3. I try and give students information in different modalities--not because of learning styles--but because it helps to prevent boredom. 
    1. Some non-academically-inclined students view themselves as artistic, so I always make sure I have some kind of hands-on artistic type assignment every week, across the content areas. Yes, you can do it for 
      1. math--art/music & math are tightly intertwined, thank you ancient Greece/Vi Hart
      2. science--drawing the natural world has a long, storied history often associated with women
      3. social studies--art history is a Real Thing
      4. literature--how many poems have been inspired by a work of art? Ode Upon a Grecian Urn, anyone?
    2. I also make sure to assign reading, preferably not a textbook. I mean, I do assign textbooks, but news articles, essays, and the like are vastly more interesting and help stave off those "When am I ever going to *use* this?" questions. Generally, I have students discuss amongst themselves, but then I refer to them during lecture. 
    3. Carefully curated videos on the content area can be a great help if you have students with reading issues or gifted students who want to go deeper. I tend to spend a an hour or two per week, per class, selecting videos.
  4. Most textbooks are garbage. They're visually cluttered, full of extraneous details, double as doorstops, and present information as a static point of reference. That said, they're also invaluable sources of information. So, every week, I write guided notes and/or knowledge organizers for my students to pinpoint vocabulary, concepts, and maps/diagrams I want them to know.  Generally, I give it to them blank and have them fill it out while they read.  Allotting time for this helps me feel better about "read chapter 6, section 2." 
  5. But perhaps the most important part of their workload is the weekly assessment. I'm a #cogsci stan, and continual low-stakes formative assessments make or break online classes (so they don't wander off to play video games) and learning (for info retention). I have been known to give:
    • multiple choice / matching / etc quizzes
    • a series of short-answer essay Qs
    • 20/30 problems to solve
    • metacognition self-analysis frameworks
    • "letters to friends" explaining a concept
    • short (2/3 pg) essays, or sets of essays
    • long term project check-ins
    • final drafts of sci/ss projects
    • timelines
    • research papers
    • unit exams
    • comprehensive exams
These items are one aspect of managing the workload for online and/or face to face and/or homeschooling classes. 
  • pre-made curricula
  • test run time
  • hit the same info in different ways
  • guide the reading
  • assess weekly

Making Connections When Teaching Online

Making connections with students you're teaching online is critical. So here are my top ten tips:

  1. Answer your email. I train my students to email me with even the smallest questions, and then I check my email as frequently as a hobbit eats. Even if I have to send it up the chain of command, I'll respond back with a "I'm looking into that, and I'll get back to you!"
  2. Introduce yourself. I give them my name, my hobbies, my educational background, photos of my spouse and children, a photo of my teaching license, etc. It humanizes me, lets them know that I'm more than a faceless automaton. Then I ask them to introduce themselves!
  3. Send a welcome email with an orientation date & time, course rules and expectations, including notice that you will follow any SpEd request, remind them writing is important, and that you *want* them to ask questions.
  4. Conduct a student survey. (I use Google Forms) You can't see them, so ask them to tell you their preferred name, gender, age, best contact information, previous online ed experience, other responsibilities, travel expectations, and straight up *ask* what you can do for them.
  5. Have an orientation class session. Show them how to use software, where to find assignments, the general course schedule, key syllabus points, communication policy, chat etiquette, course grading breakdown, sample assignments, and give them direct contact info.
  6. Make your class accessible to *everyone.* I do not have mandatory written/oral participation during lecture. I don't use timed assessments. I do provide copies of slides in advance, copies of concepts/problems worked during class, and review of past problems. Lectures are recorded and anonymized for posterity.
  7. Always be positive. Assume that students didn't mean to write the email snarkily, that their repeated interruptions during lecture mean they're enthusiastic, etc. Never, ever write an email while you're angry or upset. Really angry? Pop it upstairs & ask for help responding.
  8. Do not tolerate off-topic chatting, either in the written discussion or during live lectures. According to my semi-scientific S surveys, that is the Number One thing they hate abt online classes. Really. Use the ban hammer when you need to. Disciplined classes are safe places.
  9. Don't hesitate to reach out. Every time a student misses/does poorly on an assignment, I send an email to the S & parent within 72 hrs, usually 24. AWOL Ss get phone calls. Knowing that I pay attention matters to them (and it CYAs for the "How Dare You Fail My Child" set).
  10. Respond to every S, every week, at least once. Praise students for doing well. Random emails like "Best in class on last week's quiz!" or "Great answer, Maria! How did you know?!" during lecture or "Ever thought about being an engineer?" on assignment feedback all work.

Creating A Week's Worth of Online Assignments


  • Open your textbook to the section you want to cover.
  • Open a blank document. I use MS Word.
  • Read through the textbook as if you, a skilled student, were taking notes. Create blank note pages customized to the material, hitting vocabulary, concepts, and diagrams. 
  • Open up presentation creation software. I use MS PowerPoint. Go through the notes, and make sure that you hit every key word, concept list, diagram, etc in your presentation. 
    • Use no more than five words per line, and no more than five lines per slide. 
    • Use an image on every slide--if every student has the textbook, then you may use images from the textbook. Otherwise, you might end up spending some time searching for copyright-free images, or drawing your own. I often use photos I've taken for other reasons--a photo of my newborn when discussing reflex behaviors, for example.
  • Do some research for your lecture notes. You should only spend three minutes on each slide, so make them count. Remember that students can hear and understand lectures far, far above their reading levels. Do not just copy and paste from the textbook--give them enhanced, detailed information. I have favorite encyclopedias, textbooks grade levels above, professional journal subscriptions, etc.
  • Create written discussion questions for asynchronous interaction based on key concepts from the notes pages. I make the initial response to me due on Mondays, and responses to two other students due on Wednesdays. 
    • I use a rubric to grade it (self-totaling, of course, that auto-populates to the gradebook), and I'm harsh. 
    • Every response requires two parts: 
      • they must say something in response that's distinctive enough for me to read it and know what they're responding to "I also went camping in the Rockies" and 
      • they have to bring in new information/disagree politely/ask a question "Did you know that the Rockies have an outbreak of Lyme Disease?" 
    • I also offer curated choices here: they can watch a video, read an online article, or do a small hands-on project. I don't care which, because it's mostly about keeping their attention on the class and reviewing concepts. 
  • Select 4-6 carefully curated (always, always watch the whole thing, make sure they're from reputable sources, etc) videos and/or websites for extra reinforcement of key concepts from the notes pages for students to watch/read, or not, as they choose.
  • If you don't already have a sketch for your students to label, make one. Use the overarching concept for the week.
  • Create a weekly assessment. It's often but not always a short (10 +/- questions) multiple-choice and/or matching quiz based on that week's concepts from the notes pages. Autograding is your friend here.
  • Create a list of weekly assignments. My assignment list looks like this, and the only thing that varies each week is the specific vocabulary, pages to read, and weekly assessment
    • attend lecture
    • answer discussion questions
    • respond to two other students
    • add vocabulary ____, _____, ____ to your memory work
    • read the textbook chapter ____, section ______ and take notes using the notes sheet
    • read pgs. ___ from your other book 
    • label this week's sketch
    • complete the quiz
  • Create a daily calendar and slot the assignments and lecture into them. Typically, the only thing I assign on Fridays is the assessment. No homework over the weekend--they need downtime too, and this way I can grade on the weekend.
  • Email parents and students about missing assignments, or any failing grades from last week.