Skip to content

Caring and Sharing

Focus on taking care of people and relationships in online learning environments

Open Tipsheet PDF

Be kind to yourself and let learners see that you are also learning.

  • Everyone is learning digital skills, no one knows everything, and technology will inevitably have problems. When something does not go according to plan, view it as an opportunity to learn and try again with more information – not a failure but a graceful stumble. Model how to learn from mistakes. Notice the positive growth and learning that comes from persisting through challenges and issues.

Explicitly encourage and model a growth mindset.

  • As in any learning, there are obstacles to overcome in learning and using new technology. Use technical challenges and hiccups as teachable moments to embrace and model a reflective, growth mindset. Be explicit, intentional, and transparent about the challenges. Demonstrate problem-solving skills. Talk, read, and write about positive thinking, perseverance, and self-regulation with learners, and model it yourself.

Check-in with learners frequently.

  • Have frequent, intentional check-ins with individual learners through whatever communication tools work best for them (phone calls, in-person sessions, text messaging, etc.) to touch base, build connections, troubleshoot issues, and support learners as they navigate online program delivery.
  • Do a wellness check-in at the start of an online session to see how everyone is feeling that day and to ease into the learning space. Continue to do check-ins regularly to gauge emotions and readiness to learn.

Beware of digital fatigue.

  • Digital fatigue (or Zoom fatigue) is tiredness or burnout that can occur when you spend long stretches of time on video calls. Excessive close-up eye contact (or at least the sensation of having eye contact) is intense. Constantly seeing yourself is tiring and not part of regular in-person interactions. And video calls mean less body movement (stuck sitting at the computer) than we would experience normally. All of this leads to fatigue and burnout. Here are some tips to reduce digital fatigue:
    • Use the “hide self-view” button and encourage learners to do the same.
    • Include movement breaks, and try standing during calls.
    • Move your camera further away from you, if possible.
    • Have “audio only” breaks: turn off your camera and turn away from the screen. (If you are speaking during this break, check that people can still hear you, particularly if you are using a fixed microphone.)

Beware of cognitive overload.

  • In online programming, learners are learning content and digital skills at the same time. Cognitive overload is a risk to learners due to the task-switching or multitasking required to do this. When you also include other challenges such as trying to read a document on a small cell-phone screen or dealing with technical difficulties, the risk of overload is even greater. This overload can affect learners’ memory and their ability to learn. Design programs intentionally to avoid placing too many demands on learners. Build confidence, take small steps, offer support, and ask for feedback from learners.

Adjust design and delivery model as needed.

Schedule shorter online classes, with longer and more frequent breaks.
  • Break course content into smaller chunks over shorter sessions.
  • Take stretch breaks, body breaks, movement breaks, or fresh air breaks to help sustain learners. Encourage learners to pay attention to their posture and eye strain, etc.
  • Adjust the schedule to include time for whole class work and independent practice sessions.
  • Consider including assignments to be completed outside of class time.
Allow more flexibility in class times for learners.
  • Many learners need to juggle their learning with their responsibilities at home. They may be sharing their devices with others at home, limiting when they might be able to be online. Be ready to adapt and be flexible to support learners in these situations.
Understand that facilitating online learning requires more time and flexibility.
  • It takes more time to connect with individual learners in online learning. Practitioners may need to use a combination of phone calls, Facetime or WhatsApp chats, instant messaging, or emails. This takes more time than in-person learning but it is essential. Managers need to understand the increased time demands on practitioners and adjust their schedule to accommodate that.

Take time to build relationships.

  • It takes time in online environments to become comfortable and to stay connected. Provide a supportive environment with time set aside to build and maintain connections. Take it slow, don’t include too much content, and be prepared to spend more time building the connections needed for learning to flourish.

Use routines to develop connections and encourage engagement.

  • Open the virtual room early, keep it open longer than the class time, and schedule longer breaks so everybody can chat.
  • Start each session with conversation or ice breakers to build connections between learners.
  • Try using music and song: Start class (and the few minutes before) with a song on YouTube – this helps everyone check their audio settings, plus it brings an upbeat vibe to the session. When it becomes a routine, you can start intentionally sharing songs that are thematically connected to your topic for the session. Or, if you use the same song each time as a warm-up, you can turn it into an engagement activity by having the group develop hand symbols to go with the music/words. Use the song as a routine to engage, relax, and connect.

Support social interaction between learners.

  • Lessons can intentionally include times for learners to socialize. Consider opening breakout rooms to allow for social time in smaller groups during breaks or just before or after class time. Learners can use them to meet up and have conversations if they wish. Consider keeping it for learners only, not facilitators. Consider how having an open room might work in different platforms: Can learners self-select a breakout room in the platform you use? Or would you need to manually put them in the room? It may be easier in Zoom, for example, than in Microsoft Teams.
  • Show learners how to message each other privately if they wish to during class time and breaks. Keep in mind that some platforms allow private chat messaging (like Zoom) while others do not (like Microsoft Teams).
  • Offer additional fun activities like a book club or singalong group, or do outdoor in-person gatherings (e.g., a group walk and talk) to allow time for learners to connect with each other outside of class.

Encourage peer-to-peer sharing of skills.

  • Online learning offers new opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction where learners can practice their digital skills and increase their confidence. In small or large groups, have learners show other learners (and the facilitator!) how to do something. For example, a learner could show others how to use the annotation function, or how to share their screen.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity for learners to demonstrate non-digital skills and accomplishments they would not be able to show as easily in an in-person environment. For example, learners could show something they created at home like a painting or craft, or they could demonstrate their skills in cooking or baking. This values life-wide learning and can also highlight emergent themes and topics for authentic lesson planning.

Understand unique privacy concerns of online learning.

  • Online learning brings practitioners and learners together, virtually, into each others’ private homes. This means both practitioners and learners may be exposed to sights and sounds that they would not usually experience in a classroom or other public, in-person environments. This situation creates unique privacy concerns that must be recognized, understood, and adequately addressed for the safety and comfort of learners and practitioners.

Allow learners to choose their level of engagement online.

  • Sharing is always optional. There are many ways to participate and engage in online environments beyond speaking aloud: showing hand gestures or simple homemade signs to the camera, using the chatbox, answering polls, annotating, and other ways of responding non-verbally. Use a method of sharing that matches the learners’ skills and that does not create new barriers or stress. Learners should always have the right to say “PASS”, and facilitators should be intentional about frequently making that explicit to learners. When a learner passes, the facilitator moves on to the next person without delay.
  • Allow learners to turn their cameras off, while gently encouraging them to be on. Video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams allow users to turn off their cameras. Allowing learners the choice to have their cameras on or off is critically important for them to feel agency and control over their situation. There are many reasons why they may want their camera to be off – learners (and practitioners!) may have Zoom fatigue and need a break from looking at the screen, or their internet may be unstable and they need to save bandwidth, or they may not want to show their living space or the people and activities happening in the room with them.

Rethink how to “read the room”, especially when learners have their cameras off.

  • In an online environment where you can only see people from the shoulders up, you cannot feel the energy of the room the same way you can in an in-person class. A screen full of learners’ faces appearing to look at the practitioner does not actually indicate much about their engagement levels. They may be totally engrossed in what is happening in the class, but they may be doing something else on their computers or they may be texting their friends. It is even harder to read the online room when learners have their cameras off; a screen full of black boxes does not give any information about engagement levels.
  • Consider various ways to get feedback from learners in an online environment such as asking individuals for feedback after lessons, or using the poll feature or annotation feature during the online session. Recognizing, and acknowledging, that there are many reasons learners may have their cameras off can reduce the impact on practitioners.

Encourage learners to change what it looks like when their cameras are ON.

  • Video conferencing platforms offer options to change screen names and alter the look of users’ backgrounds .
  • Change screen names. Show learners (or have one learner show the rest) how to change their screen name.
  • Use virtual backgrounds or blurred backgrounds. This allows the person on camera to be seen clearly while the actual background behind them is covered with a virtual image or blurring effect. It is important to know this option may not be available to everyone as it is dependent on hardware capacity (i.e., it doesn’t work on older computers or laptops).

Encourage learners to change what it looks like when their cameras are OFF.

  • When a camera is turned off, the default visual is usually a black box or initials. It can be difficult for practitioners (and other learners) to only see blank screens instead of faces. Depending on the video conferencing platform, it may be possible to change what shows. As was mentioned earlier, discuss the impact blank screens can have on others in the online room and be transparent about how changing their visual representation can have positive effects.
  • Add a profile image. Adding an image gives learners agency to choose what they want to share about themselves with the class. They can use photos or BitMojis of themselves, or maybe an image of something they like, such as an animal, object, or cartoon image they choose for themselves. Invite a learner to teach their classmates how to add a profile image. Encourage learners to change their profile pictures whenever they want. Discuss what a profile picture says about a person, and how that transfers to other online contexts such as online interviews, workplace training, or meetings with your children’s teachers.

Reduce distractions from home environments.

  • Encourage learners to keep themselves muted and to unmute only when they need to speak so the sounds of their environment do not enter the learning space. This can be particularly helpful when learners’ home environments are loud, busy, or distracting to others in the online room.
  • Encourage learners to use headphones, if possible. Using headphones can help block out some distractions and surrounding noise in the environment. But remember to be flexible and understand that inevitably there will be times when learners are distracted by their home environments.

Have the group develop guidelines for online class.

  • Groups can focus on what matters to them most, including possible guidelines around participation, etiquette, and how to show respect for privacy in their online class.

Have healthy boundaries that respect private lives for practitioners and learners.

  • Consider keeping personal and work phones (or phone numbers) separate. There are privacy concerns when practitioners and volunteer tutors use their personal phone numbers with learners. If you need to use a personal phone because a work phone is not available or feasible to use, you may want to explore options that keep your personal phone number private, such as using a virtual secondary number, sometimes called “call forwarding” or “call redirection” phone numbers. Services like the free Google phone number and “2ndLine” allow you to get a new phone number that you can have text/ring on your personal mobile device. You can share this number with learners, allowing them to contact you but keeping your personal phone number private. Other options might also work such as hiding numbers or changing the caller ID settings on your phone.
  • Have virtual office hours. These are predetermined times when learners are encouraged to contact you through text, email, or calling. This allows you to set boundaries around when it is appropriate to be contacted and when learners can expect to receive a reply. It avoids the “always on” mentality that can creep into the online lives of both practitioners and learners.