Taking Great Teaching Online

April 24, 2020

Taking Great Teaching Online

By: NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen

Many of us are asking the question: Can online teaching ever be the same as brick-and-mortar instruction between a teacher and student? Simply, probably not. There is something uniquely special about daily human interaction that is genuinely hard to replicate online. We have all felt this truth during this time of social distancing. We miss the casual conversations, interjections, and advice-giving that comes when you are simply around others. We miss the physical nature of interacting and the body language cues that send messages about security, feelings, emphasis, and understanding. While glimpses of this can certainly happen online, it is usually felt differently and not at the same depth. Also, the challenges of communicating and assisting individual students in a virtual environment come with great complexity and time commitment.

Even so, I am convinced that strong instructional practices transcend modality and can be understood and adapted for distance learning. While we certainly can't replicate all the intangibles and all the supports that happen daily in a brick-and-mortar setting, we can plan for most of the inadequacies of a virtual environment and mitigate them through intentionally incorporating effective strategies. This requires us to go back to the basics of good instruction.

At NIET, we have some of the most knowledgeable instructors in the country thinking about how to take K-12 instruction and move it into a distance learning setting, and here is what we are learning.

  1. Start with the content.

    Choose the most meaningful content to help students meet academic standards. Don't start with the virtual platform or fun new technology tool. Teachers need to start with the content itself and anchor on what they want students to know and be able to do, and then think about how this learning translates remotely. Too often, we get overly excited about the options we have for online learning or steeped in trying to learn every single function of a virtual platform, and it cripples our ability to translate our content. Selecting focus standards and then choosing materials, resources, texts, and problem sets from aligned curriculum is job one.

  2. Get clear on outcomes.

    Once you know the content "destination," decide what you want your students to be able to do to demonstrate that they know the content. Then, be crystal clear on final expectations. This looks like defining success criteria, modeling, and providing examples. In an asynchronous environment, this can be in the form of posting rubrics, examples, and even a video of the teacher modeling steps toward the outcome with think-alouds of expectations at every step. Teachers can also record narration of the analysis of an exemplar with reference to success criteria. In a synchronous environment, teachers can engage the students in real-time questions about the success criteria and how to apply it to the expected outcome.

  3. Create a virtual roadmap to get there.

    Backward map all of the information and resources students need to have a successful outcome. Then, storyboard the lesson plan and post and present materials in the order students will need them to be successful. Create clearly labeled documents and/or folders that signal the order and flow of the lesson. You should intentionally utilize recorded videos or slides to discuss and/or display the lesson agenda at the beginning of and throughout the lesson. Also, utilize pictures and visuals via shared documents or embedded in slides to deepen student understanding (e.g., actively model how to label a picture of the solar system or circulatory system in a diagram of the human body).

  4. Choose tools and strategies that focus on the student.

    When designing virtual learning experiences, it is crucial to keep the student at the center of every part of the lesson. For example, teachers should plan for student engagement and actively use virtual tools such as virtual manipulatives, videos, and websites providing texts with multiple reading levels to adjust content to meet the needs of all learners. Record a video of thinking aloud through the skills and content that students may struggle with the most. Turn on closed captioning for videos to support student understanding and language development. In a synchronous environment, allow opportunities for students to share their thinking with the whole group and critique each other's solutions and thinking and provide feedback.

  5. Spend lots of time on feedback.

    Plan to spend as much or more time on feedback as you do on planning. Provide regular office hours for students to log in or talk directly in order to receive timely feedback on assignments. To ensure quality feedback and student growth, provide written feedback through email or discussion platforms to the elements of assignments that are directly aligned to the lesson's objectives and success criteria. Also, engage in written discussions and check for understanding between students by making comments on their written responses in a collaborative document tool or platform. Finally, engage students in providing feedback themselves by having them share their work with other students for feedback prior to submitting to the teacher.

Today, NIET is releasing a new tool to help educators take these five steps – and more – to deepen their virtual instructional practice. As we have worked with educators in their transition to distance learning, we are learning what good virtual instruction "looks and sounds like" and how effective teaching strategies can be translated into an online environment. Our new resource – Instructional Strategies for Virtual Learning: A Companion Tool to the NIET Teaching Standards Rubric – connects those best virtual learning practices to specific teaching standards. The Companion Tool takes the Instructional domain of the NIET Teaching Standards Rubric and outlines effective virtual teaching strategies for every indicator side by side. It also includes examples of the tools and functionalities educators may want to leverage in their practice.

This tool is designed to be used alongside the NIET K-12 Teaching Standards Rubric, but it could support any teacher or leader to deepen their understanding of high-quality virtual learning instruction. The Companion Tool is meant to supplement what educators already know about strong instruction, regardless of delivery method, and it may be helpful for leaders in giving their teachers guidance and feedback about how to design and deliver virtual instruction.  

NIET is also continuing to develop additional webinars that show what the rubric looks like in action. Today, we released a new webinar, Presenting Instructional Content: How to Engage Students in a Virtual Learning Environment through Models and Examples, which includes examples from Louisiana classrooms for how to use models, examples, and success criteria with students in a virtual setting.

We also previously released a webinar on Standards and Objectives: Setting Success Criteria in a Virtual Learning Environment.

And, we know planning tools are important to getting this right. Today, we are releasing a set of new templates, examples, and guiding questions, including:

While most of us entered distance learning in a way that was not ideal, there is so much we can learn now that has implications for improving our instruction in both virtual and brick-and-mortar settings. While there may only be a few weeks left, taking time to practice these strategies and re-centering on strong instructional practices will pay dividends later – no matter what next school year looks like.