Getting Started with Teaching Online…Again

By Mary Burns

As we put the never-to-be-forgotten school year of 2019-2020 in our rearview mirror, we turn our attention to the 2020-2021 school year. And though we all wish otherwise, the upcoming school year will likely involve more online teaching. During the initial pandemic outbreak, many teachers focused on learning technology at the expense of instruction. Now that we’ve taken some time to learn new technologies, this school year should be about focusing on effective online teaching. 

Over the last few months, I’ve been helping teachers get started with online instruction. I’ve organized this blog around their most common questions about teaching online.

How can I teach interactively online?

As with offline learning, good teaching matters online. In fact, given how important the online teacher is to student satisfaction with and completion of an online course, we can reasonably argue that good teaching may matter even more online!

The good news is that the same engaging instructional strategies you use in a face-to-face setting can be applied online.

What’s different, and challenging, is adapting these instructional approaches for a technology platform, but web conferencing platforms like Zoom or Adobe Connect can facilitate and approximate the interactive instructional strategies you use in classrooms.

For example, use breakout rooms to organize students into small groups, in which students come to consensus on a decision, collaborate on a shared document, or do a Think-Pair-Share activity.  As you do in a classroom, you can drop in and out of breakout rooms (virtually) to facilitate and check for understanding or you can do a virtual Carousel Walk where you organize students into different breakout rooms where they view each other’s creations (Google Slides, etc.). Since most web conferencing systems come with polling features, you can check for student understanding or see if they’re paying attention via polls or via the “thumbs up/thumbs down” features. Finally, to accommodate the students who always come after class with a question, teachers can leave the web conference room open for 15-20 minutes after a web meeting for those who want to “hang out” and chat or ask a question privately.

Above all, as you do in a face-to-face setting, think about how to maximize student interaction in your online classes—move lectures to pre-recorded video so you can maximize “live” small-group activities where students are interacting with content, with each other and with you, the teacher.

What should students do on their own time and what should they do in real time?

During emergency remote teaching, issues with access to technology and Internet connectivity demanded that many teachers focus on asynchronous learning. Asynchronous learning (on one’s own time) in an online environment has its advantages—students control the pace of learning and their own schedules. Certainly, for busy teachers, asynchronous activities are easier to design and manage.

However, asynchronous learning also has its drawbacks. It makes online learning a lonely experience; too much of it results in students dropping out of a lesson or activity.

For that reason, it’s important that we balance asynchronous learning with synchronous, or live, learning. Synchronous activities are more challenging to design and manage but when designed to be interactive and collaborative they can promote learning that feels less distanced—that allows students to see each other, see their teachers, and feel part of a community of learners.

When thinking about asynchronous versus synchronous learning, here are some design-, technology-, learner-, and organizational-related factors to consider:

  • When is it best for students to work on their own time versus working in real time?
  • How can we design asynchronous activities that are more collaborative?
  • If we are bringing all students together for a live class, how can we capitalize on this time together? What can we do together that we can’t do alone?
  • Can most students join in a scheduled meeting?
  • How can we design live web-conferencing meetings that are truly interactive?
  • Does every student have good connectivity and his/her own device?
  • How can we best blend synchronous and asynchronous activities within an overall unit of study?

In addition to these considerations, Figure 1 outlines benefits, instructional strategies and technologies to help you think through when and how to design for synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Figure 1: Asynchronous vs. synchronous learning (Note that there will often be overlap between the two).

Type of InstructionGood forStudents can…Technology Options
Asynchronous-Presenting new information/content
-Reviewing new content as needed
-Individual practice
-Promoting independent learning
-Giving students choice
-Application of information
-Processing time for students
-Chunked learning
-Introverts Students who prefer to write versus talk
-View/listen to pre-recorded lectures/demonstrations (reading, video, audio)
-Participate in written discussions
-Prepare for tests/exams
-Review/edit documents
-Collaborate asynchronously
-Develop portfolios
-Follow personalizing learning pathways
-Do enrichment activities
-Do remediation activities
-Research/do Internet scavenger hunts  
-Learning Management System
-Webcasts (recording live webinar and sharing with students)
-Choice boards
-Research sites
-Subscription sites (DreamBox, etc.)
-Games (e.g., Flippity)
-Presentations (PowerPoint/Google Slides, Videos, Audio files/podcasts)
-Office software
-Cloud-based applications
-Discussion boards (Padlet or discussion boards within an LMS)
-Scaffolded support
-Social learners/extroverts
-Creating a sense of community
-Students who prefer to talk versus write
-Building relationships and nurturing connections
-Formative assessment
-Getting everyone on the same page
-Observing students
-Facilitating student learning
-Supporting students
-Social Emotional Learning    
Participate in peer instructionPeer assessParticipate in small-group or individual tutoringShare ideas etc. live with a small-group sharingParticipate in an oral/ chat-based discussionPresent information liveLead class/small-group (discussion, activity)Participate in a Q&A sessionCollaborate in real timeGet guided practice from a teacherHave a live conversationSee their classmates and teachers-Web conferencing system (Zoom, Connect, WebEx)
-Instant messaging/chat
-Anything that is scheduled (webinar, discussion, class presentations)
-Live presentations
-Application sharing
-Whiteboards (group notes, sketch notes, Google Jamboard)
-Cloud-based applications
-Games and gaming  

For a fuller list of technology tools and ways to use them for asynchronous and synchronous learning, check out this web site from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  

What should students do offline and what should they do online?

This final question is an important one because many students still lack access to their own technology and have suffered de facto exclusion from school as a result. Additionally, there is real concern about too much screen time (for students and teachers) and the poor ergonomics of sitting in front of a screen for hours per day.

As with the previous two questions, the answer is really one of balance, complementarity, and purpose. First, think about your learning outcomes—what do you want students to know and be able to do? Next, what kinds of information and activities would best attain these outcomes? More often than not students will need to tune in online for pre-recorded lectures, instructional videos and meetings with you. Yet, as in school, they can also interact with traditional print materials (such as textbooks and school-supplied learning packets) and offline activities and experiences to complement and supplement online learning.

There is a lot of learning that can occur offline. For example, many of the technology tools in Figure 1—choice boards, writing activities, playlists, and discussions—can be done offline, either alone or with others. Students can build models, read novels or watch films on TV and start a book or movie club where they meet and discuss, safely, their book or movie online—or, provided your district approves, with classmates who live in the neighborhood. (Please be sure your students understand the importance of always wearing masks, keeping six feet apart, and meeting outdoors during these discussions. This is an activity better suited for older students.) They can take apart a discarded “found” object or hand draw a T-chart outlining pros and cons of an issue to better understand the concept of “analysis.” Keeping a learning journal, writing letters, taking observational nature walks, and meeting safely with a classmate to do schoolwork are all ways to blend offline and online learning for a fuller learning experience for students.

Mary Burns is a former middle and high school teacher and university instructor who has taught in the U.S., Mexico and Jamaica. Since 1997, she has worked with teachers across the globe helping them use technology online and offline to improve student learning. You can reach her at or follow her @countykerrymary.

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