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Professionals offer pointers for teaching online

Faculty members with experience in distance learning, education, and child psychology weigh in on some methods to capture kids’ attention while they learn on their computers.
Professionals offer pointers for teaching online

For some teachers, it’s as easy as a scan of the room to notice if students are understanding a topic. Or, a short conversation after class can help a professor recognize if a student is struggling. 

These are all typical scenarios for instructors who lead classes in person.

But when teaching online, instructors must be intentional about building relationships with their students and fostering a productive learning community. That's a work in progress for teachers—who are undoubtedly appreciated more than ever during this Teacher Appreciation Week for quickly migrating to remote learning. Yet, faculty experts say there are specific ways to engage students from behind a computer screen.

Forge bonds from the start.

A 20-year veteran of teaching remotely, Rik Bair, the University of Miami’s associate dean of the Distance Learning Institute, said one way he has been able to foster connections with students online is through personal interactions. For example, Bair always introduces himself to students in a brief video and then asks his pupils to create their own using a free software tool called Flipgrid. Also, if he starts a discussion board with the class, Bair will respond directly to certain student’s comments and use their name, so they know he is reading.

“If you ask them to make a video introduction, suddenly it’s like being in a classroom, only it’s done by video,” he said.

Bair pointed out that Flipgrid can also be used for icebreakers to start class, to peer review projects, to brainstorm ideas (especially when students are in different time zones), or to debate topics if students are responding at different times.

According to philosophy professor Berit Brogaard, who has been teaching online for five years and is now teaching three courses this semester, she often draws on her life experiences when sharing with students online, and she sometimes gives examples using her teenage daughter. These anecdotes can help students relate to the often-heady material they are covering in class.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Bulotsky Shearer, psychology associate professor, is teaching a 96-student child and adolescent development course this semester. She has found that doing a check-in with students at the beginning of her Zoom classes helps her understand their perspectives. She often gives them an icebreaker-type question to answer in small groups, like one she posted at the start of virtual classes asking about their hopes and fears of taking classes online.

“That was really helpful for me as a teacher to see what they were going through  and to support them, but also for them to connect to each other,” said Shearer, who runs the Early Childhood Social Emotional Readiness Lab

Teach live classes whenever possible.

Shearer, as well as Ana Maria Menda, assistant professor of teaching and learning,  both agree that another way to keep students engaged is to teach classes live (via a video chat service such as Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, or Microsoft Teams), so that the class can see each other and discussions can arise organically. Menda said she has even noticed her high school son is more interested in his classes when they are taught live.

“We miss the human connection, so I think Zoom sessions offer a little bit of that,” Menda noted. “And to me, the fun of learning is when you do a discussion. It’s really hard to cultivate a discussion when you just read something and respond to it, so I have noticed my students prefer coming to class synchronously.”

Teachers should make sure they are part of the discussion, and they should turn on their video and be seen, Bair said.

“Let the kids see each other, as well as the professor, because text is very cold,” he explained. “And it’s hard to understand tone that way. We are a visual culture, so we like to see things and how people react to what’s being said.”

Child psychology professor Jill Ehrenreich-May agreed. Although she is not teaching this semester, Ehrenreich-May is supervising group therapy sessions via Zoom through her Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Treatment Program, and she is watching her elementary school-aged children take classes through the same platform. 

“There is definitely a benefit to the live classes,” she said. “Without that experience, it’s much harder to assess whether people are attending or interacting with the material in a useful way. For the larger university, it may be harder because people are not all in the same place at the same time, but I think to the degree possible, it does have a real benefit to kids.”

Mix it up.

Another strategy that faculty members recommend is to vary the media you are using in an online class (photos, videos, audio recordings, and text). Bair said teachers should use videos as much as possible—to introduce concepts each week, to illuminate real-life examples, to record lectures, and to execute office hours. (He recommends a video chat service like Blackboard Collaborate Ultra or Zoom.) There’s even technology called H5P that allows teachers to embed questions in a lecture video, so students can pause and respond while they are watching, he said. 

Other faculty members echoed Bair’s sentiment.

“Videos are incredibly effective, as we’re seeing today with Instagram and TikTok,” said Tywan G. Martin, associate professor of sport administration.

About five years ago, Martin helped start the Master’s in Sport Administration online program. Recently, he asked his students to create a public service announcement video about the corporate social responsibility in sports for a class assignment. 

Encourage students to use things at home for class.

Brogaard, who is also teaching two other philosophy classes online this semester, often takes advantage of the fact that students are at home and does an activity where they must grab an object from their house that represents a topic they are learning in class. They then have to post a video or photo of themselves with the object and explain why it represents the concept.

Ehrenreich-May has observed her child’s elementary school counselor, Laurenne Moreland, at Henry S. West Laboratory School, do weekly  Zoom meetings where she uses a random name generator that selects a student each session to do show and tell. It helps engage the entire grade because all the children want to see what object, pet, or person the student decides to share. And afterward, the counselor can cover other topics. 

“A number of really effective instructors are finding ways to include something more personal and that involves kids sharing their experiences informally,” she said. “That gives a personal touch that’s really hard to do in this medium.”

Be relevant.

Using current events or trending topics also adds tremendous value to the online classroom, Martin said. For his sport information class, he often covers crisis communication by using examples from the headlines—like last semester, when the Houston Astros scandal unraveled.

“Relevant topics resonate with students greatly, and I’ve found those to be a wonderful strategy to engage them,” he said.

Give meaningful feedback.

Although all teachers should be sure to monitor students and to give them feedback on their work, it is especially critical in online classes, Bair pointed out. He recommends a tool called Screencast-o-matic, which allows online instructors to comment on a student’s paper or project with a short video. He also suggests that faculty members take trainings on Blackboard, the University’s main platform for online classes, because it has a video feature through the gradebook that allows teachers to comment on specific assignments.

Stay flexible.

Menda, Martin, and Shearer all recommend that instructors make sure they are  more understanding with their students and themselves for this semester and the remainder of the regular school year.

“These are not regular times, so we need to be flexible,” said Menda, whose students are mostly teachers working in Miami’s public schools. “I’m letting my students know that their well-being is more important than academics at this point.”

Martin acknowledged that a change in class format mid-semester is not ideal, so even he has had to completely rearrange his lessons and assignments to an online format. And because this is a pandemic, students are bound to be worried or stressed if they have family or friends who are sick or who work in a setting where they could be exposed to coronavirus. For previous classes, if a student is struggling, he has made an individual plan with them to turn in the work and suggests other teachers reach out to students that may not be engaged.

“What I am doing under a pandemic is quite different than what I do normally,” said Martin. “Flexibility is a critical component to getting through this time. While most of the faculty are not psychologists, on many levels sometimes we give although we are trying to deliver an education, we have a couple of hats.”  

Any University faculty member interested in improving their instructional skills online can visit the Distance Learning Institute’s training website here. It offers trainings throughout the week and Assistant Director Johnny Orr will also work with faculty members to improve the design of courses. Here's an interview with Orr:

Also, to read more about how parents can help students while they are working from home, visit