The last few years have changed all of our lives—and education is no different. While most traditional classrooms have gone back to teaching in person, it’s clear that virtual teaching methods will continue to have a big role to play.
Whether it’s dealing with illness, teaching across the world, or even making sure that students don’t miss out on learning, virtual teaching remains useful for educators.
However, many of the problems that teachers had to deal with when originally shifting to the virtual classroom still persist. Particularly when teaching younger children, it can be difficult to replicate the feeling of community and belonging when teaching online.
Despite this, there are ways in which you can make the most of virtual teaching. By reading this article and implementing the information within, you can ensure that your students don’t miss out on the communal aspects of education while also enjoying the new opportunities offered by online technology to build innovative and exciting lessons.
How can you create a great online learning environment?
Every teacher knows how important it is to build an open and caring learning community. This is even more important when teaching is restricted to video calls. The following tips can help your students feel like they belong, even when learning from their bedrooms.
1. Establish routines and expectations
Having a clear understanding of the routines and norms of any school environment is one of the most important ways that a teacher can confidently lead a class. Without this consistency, pupils will be uncertain of expectations around their work and behavior.
The same is true when teaching virtually. When you start to teach a new class online, begin by outlining what you expect of your students. Consider how pupils should contribute to classes and ask questions, where they can submit work to you, and whether you want all of your pupils to have their cameras and microphones turned on.
For older pupils, encourage a discussion of what a professional learning environment looks like online. Ethical culture is defined as a set of expectations shared by people, and this should shape the environment that you want to create.
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It might be most effective to do this through an online video call with your whole class. This can let you agree on expectations together and ensure that all of your students will have a good understanding of what is expected of them.
At the same time, you should set out a clear routine for the online school day. This can include setting time aside every day for full class discussions or setting tasks for your students to complete each morning, such as filling out a section of a shared Google Doc.
Once you have established the routines and expectations of online learning in your class, you should make sure that your students are following them. You should also continually check that they are happy with them and understand them.
2. Use morning meetings
When designing this routine, try to fit in a meeting with your class in the morning. This helps to build community, while it also builds a good structure that gets your students in the mindset to learn.
For younger children, you can use this time to focus on creating a community. Think about what you would usually do to engage them in a physical classroom, and try to replicate that through an online call. This can include classroom singalongs, interactive games, or teacher-led readings.
Morning meetings are also useful for older pupils. They can be particularly helpful to prompt recall of yesterday’s learning. Another thing to consider is how you can use cloud collaboration tools to get students to work together to summarize previously learnt information.
You should also use this time to try to build a community within your class. If one of your pupils has a birthday, encourage the class to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in the morning meeting. You can spend this period congratulating pupils on good pieces of work or classroom contributions.
3. Make the most of technology
While teachers might understandably focus on the disadvantages of teaching virtually, hosting your lessons through the internet nevertheless opens up new possibilities for your teaching.
This can include very ambitious new ideas. As an example, AR and VR learning has become increasingly popular. If your pupils have access to AR or VR equipment, you can use this technology to really bring your teaching to life.
One example of how AR and VR can be used is through increasing gamification. Think about parts of your curriculum that students would understand better if they really interacted with it—for instance, you might want to teach history by using a first-person VR video of a major event.
It should be noted that not all educational institutions are able to provide their students with potentially expensive equipment such as VR headsets. However, this doesn’t mean that they are unable to make the most of modern technology.
Online learning is the perfect opportunity to use games and internet quizzes. While these might be a distraction in a physical classroom, encouraging your students to complete these can be a crucial part of online learning.
As well as this, you can use social media in your teaching (with appropriate age groups). You might want to create a teaching social media account and, for instance, produce Instagram Reels for classroom use—these would include small, easily understandable bits of information for your students to learn.
4. Encourage collaboration and peer learning
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The main difference between physical and virtual learning for children is the social element. If you want to ensure that your pupils develop correctly, it’s important that you provide plenty of opportunities for collaboration.
This can be done in full-class meetings with the use of breakout rooms. Use these to get pupils to discuss questions or worksheets in small groups. This peer learning can be a great way to make sure that your virtual lessons are more than simply a live stream of you talking about a subject.
As well as this, you should encourage discussion between your pupils in order to build a sense of community and belonging in your class. You could give pairs of pupils specific classroom jobs, such as responsibility for moderating chats or greeting other pupils who join the video call.
If you use an advanced virtual office phone system, you should also be able to connect your classroom to other classes. Your pupils might not have seen their friends in other classes all day, so organizing lunch calls between classes can be a great way to build a feeling of community.
5. Make your teaching personal
When teaching virtually, it can be easy to lose yourself behind your webcam. While a physical classroom will constantly require you to maintain excellent personal relationships with your pupils, it can be much more difficult to achieve this through online teaching.
One way that you can make sure that you are building personal relationships is by knowing your students more. Virtual teaching allows you to schedule specific one-to-one meetings that you can use to check individual students’ progress and well-being, as well as talk to them about their hobbies and interests.
Of course, it can be difficult to remember every single detail about the lives of every pupil in a large class. Luckily, teaching virtually means that you can access a record of this, whether it be through a Word document or dedicated software. By recording certain details about individuals and mentioning them, you’ll be sure to build personal relationships even when teaching online.
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As well as knowing your students, it’s important that you give your pupils a chance to know you as an individual. As such, consider how you present yourself to the students. Think about what is in the background of your webcam image—maybe show off a poster that demonstrates a bit of your personality.
Another way that you can achieve this through virtual learning is by using an online form to get students to vote on questions that they want to ask you. Incorporating these answers into a morning meeting, for example, can be a fun way to make your teaching personal and build a sense of community within your class.
Virtual learning—not an impediment to building a classroom of community and belongingness
As we’ve seen, teachers can often be intimidated by the thought of teaching virtually. Especially when trying to build a learning community, many teachers are unsure about how to replicate the best parts of physical classrooms in the online classroom.
However, by following the advice in this article, you can make sure that the pupils in your online classes are able to achieve the same level of community and sense of belonging as pupils in a physical classroom.
Ensuring that you build clear routines and norms and encourage collaboration will mean that your pupils have a great learning experience and are able to learn to the best of their ability. As well as this, using regular morning meetings and emphasizing personal relationships will allow your classes to be communal and positive environments.
Virtual learning also offers you new opportunities to engage pupils, notably through AR and VR learning. All of this means that you’re able to create an online classroom that is perfectly crafted for your pupils to succeed!