This year, teaching has taken a dramatic turn. Teachers and students started learning online this past spring from their homes over the internet. Most of us were unprepared. But we learned a lot.
A pandemic like COVID-19 may only come once in a lifetime. The last disruption similar to this outbreak was the Spanish Flu back in 1918, over 100 years ago. But as we have more and more international travel and global commerce, we are bound to have another one sooner than before.
What we learned teaching online this summer
Teaching in-person and online both have unique advantages and disadvantages. Adjustment need to be made for each option to create the most productive and enjoyable learning experience for students.
While we found many ways to create an enriching online program, here are our top 4 tips for success:
- Virtual online class sizes need to be smaller than in-person.
- Zoom is the go-to platform for a lot of camps because of ease-of-use, but I expect Google Meet to be making a big push soon with new features about to be released.
- Kids ages 10+ tend to do better in online settings than younger kids.
- It is crucial to setup a pre-camp meeting with parents prior to camp; some parents elect not to do this and camp suffers on the first day when this happens.
Virtual class sizes need to be smaller
Typically, in-person classes have 30 students in school. In our in-person summer camps, we only have 12 students in each camp. When teaching hands-on STEAM programs, the lower ratios give teachers more individual time with students.
But when teaching online, teachers can’t walk around the classroom as easily to answer questions and see when students need help. There are features in video conference software programs that allow students to raise their hand, but kids don’t naturally remember to do this when they have a problem. Teachers have to observe the virtual classroom when kids are learning how to complete tasks and step-in when needed. This requires teachers to use probing questions to determine how each student is progressing.
Walking around an in-person room, we can find out how students are doing fairly easily. However, online, it takes more time, so we need to have smaller class sizes to create the same experience that a larger in-person program would offer. This past summer, we limited our virtual summer camps to 5 students per camp.
Zoom is here today; Google Meet on the horizon
There are SO MANY video conferencing software programs out there. But the ones that most students and teachers are comfortable with are Zoom and Google Meet, with Microsoft Teams in a distant 3rd place.
Google owns the classroom. And they did this a long time ago by offering schools an educational version of their software for free and heavily discounted prices. Microsoft has only recently started doing this.
However, a little unknown video conferencing company catapulted to 1st place during COVID because “it just worked” and “it was so easy to use”. Introducing Zoom. It’s unique features like breakout rooms and gallery view were natural needs for virtual classrooms, and nobody else offered them. Zoom offered free subscriptions to teachers as well, which latched schools to use this, even if it wasn’t an approved software platform pre-COVID. Teachers just demanded they use this software if they were going to teach online, and schools were forced to oblige.
Google Meet is a video conferencing tool that comes with G-Suite, which is already approved and being used by schools. And as of this article, many of the features that teachers demand are in development. I expect that Google Meet will take back a large market share among teachers once the tools are available, while some teachers and schools will continue to allow and use Zoom. Microsoft Teams has most of the tools teachers want already, but the switch cost from G-Suite to Microsoft is too great for Teams to ever be implemented for most districts.
Kids over 10 years old grasp online learning
We offered programs for kids 7-9 years old and 10-13 years old on a variety of topics. Just like our in-person camps, we found many younger kids haven’t learned how to use a computer mouse yet. They also haven’t learned how to navigate basic functions on their computer yet. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as teachers, we need to be aware that part of class should be about how to use the computer. Our older kids seemed to navigate the computer much easier.
If your video conferencing software isn’t working, kids may not be able to fix it. Mom and dad need to be available to fix these types of problems at home. Which leads me to our final tip…
Pre-class meetings with parents are crucial
Whether you have 5 kids or 30 kids in your next online virtual class, you need to setup pre-class meetings with parents to ensure their computer can connect to whatever video conference tool you will be using. Trying to address connection issues when class is starting will set you up for failure. This summer, we observed students having problems with the wrong Zoom link, a disconnected webcam, and missing software. All of these situations occurred from families that didn’t schedule a pre-class meeting with their child’s teacher.
Always prepare. Pre-class meetings are critical to that preparation.