Sharing Good Teaching Practices in Online Learning

When taking stock of what makes a good teacher we now must consider how teaching translates through the screen.

COVID-19 forced even the seasoned teacher to reconsider what effective teaching methodology is in a world where virtual schooling is becoming the norm. With the bulk of teaching work being interpersonal, how have teachers managed to adapt to the world of online learning and online classes?

Articles have been written about the paradox of good teaching. In his book entitled Great South African Teachers, Johnathan Jansen explains that good teaching is not solely centered on subject knowledge but has a great deal to do with the interpersonal experience with the student. We can surely all agree that a lot of the work of teaching happens with managing emotion and not simply transporting knowledge to learners. This is what makes online teaching so challenging.

A personal account

When the pandemic of 2020 rendered classrooms dangerous, I was one among the army of teachers who had to recalibrate and replan all my lessons to have them taught through a screen. To say I was under prepared is an understatement. I had to find ways to keep learners engaged through background of commotion, while they logged onto classes in their pajamas, with their breakfast in front of them and sometimes, a few relatives in the background.

Furthermore, in the first week, attendance at morning classes was embarrassingly low and I found it difficult to judge student engagement when they did choose to log on. But when four weeks of lockdown turned into months, this seasoned teaching ‘dog’ had to learn new tricks! Thankfully, I soon realised that the new tricks weren’t so new – they just looked a little different.

Three ‘tricks’ that helped

The first trick was parental involvement. Of course, this concept is not new to those who study the components of an effective learning environment. During COVID-19, parental involvement was an integral part of ensuring that each learner’s school day happened. What this looked like for my classroom was a message sent home outlining exactly what was expected of parents in helping their teenage children succeed in the online teaching space.

The communication contained everything: time that classes needed to be attended, the expected dress code for classes, timetables (with break times included), and the learning environment that I felt would be most conducive to their children’s learning. Learners could not simply fail to show up, because parents or guardians were made aware of where learners needed to be.

Trick two: ‘no pajamas’

Once parents were involved, I instituted a no pajama rule when logging onto online classes. Although I couldn’t dictate exactly what that meant, I articulated that anything that was not suitable to be worn outside of the home, was not suitable to be worn in my online classes.

Of course I knew that this is a very polarising rule. However, I needed learners to log on with a serious, respectful attitude. And, even if the dress code did not guarantee that learners would be engaged in classroom discussions, it did guarantee that they were out of bed long enough to shake off the ‘I just woke up’ and thus not be too dazed from sleep when they logged onto classes.

There are some schools that adopted the full school uniform policy for online classes. But, of course, learners living through a pandemic deserved a little break as they navigated their schooling, so I didn’t go that far.

Trick three – cameras on

Learners were required to have their cameras on all the time. The videos of nude parents unwittingly and only occasionally popping in on their children’s Foundation Phase classes did scare me a little, but the literature on the importance of learner engagement in ensuring effective learning had me holding on to this strategy.

Numerous articles have been written about how learner engagement has a direct impact on learner performance. Insisting on their cameras being on was the equivalent of me walking around in the classroom and realising that one of my learners was daydreaming. It allowed me to call their attention back to the lesson.

Of course, simply being present in class with their eyes on the camera is not enough to ensure learner involvement. An extended way to ensure that my learners were involved was employing the ‘no-opt-out’ rule in my online classes.

I know of several teachers who have employed this strategy, as outlined in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. This practice was useful in my online classes because it meant that learners knew that I expected them to answer my questions. Even if the answer was ‘I do not know right now’; that ‘right now’ meant that by the end of the lesson I had every expectation that they would know or at least would have tried to work out an answer.

With cameras on, and my expectation of their learning articulated to both the learners and their parents, I saw how my lessons changed from me trying to pull out answers from reluctant students, to seeing the learners actively taking notes and asking questions.

This could work for you too

These strategies are simply practical suggestions that may help in the unknown ocean of online learning. They helped me navigate the demands of online teaching and I offer them in the hope of more ‘good practices’ being shared among us teachers.

They do not take account of the very real household income disparities that are ever present in all South African schools. Neither do they address how online teaching can beat the constraints of load shedding and connectivity issues that come with being in South Africa.

As the threat of COVID-19 lessens, the teaching fraternity can enter a phase of building pedagogical approaches that will ensure learner success through the lens of a laptop.