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Teaching and Learning

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Focus on engaging in the process of online learning

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Facilitate Effectively Online

Be transparent.

  • To compensate for the distance and disconnection that can occur in online environments, be transparent and “over-communicate” or intentionally and explicitly describe what is happening and why. Being transparent can alleviate doubts or misunderstandings that may arise from the distance created in online environments. For example, if you are facilitating a video conference session and writing something down, the piece of paper is likely out of the frame of your camera and your learners will not see what is happening. They may question what is going on, and doubts may arise in their minds: Is the facilitator even listening to me? Is she texting someone? Maybe she is bored by what I just said. You can reduce those doubts and fears by being transparent and over-communicating like this, “I’m just going to write some notes now while we are talking.”

Encourage learners to communicate with you in whatever ways are most comfortable for them.

  • Be open to communicating using a variety of tools and be prepared for learners to change which tools they use to communicate with you along the way. Intake or orientation is a good time to find out what ways are most comfortable for each learner.
  • Once learners are more confident and connected to you, you may want to consider stretching them by introducing and using a communication tool of your choice. If you decide to do this, use your judgment to select a tool learners can easily access, and that serves an authentic purpose and works toward their goals.
  • If texting or calling is a comfortable communication method for learners, then practitioners and volunteer tutors need to consider what they will give as their contact number. If you use your personal phone, not a work phone number, consider the resulting privacy concerns.

Give learners multiple ways to engage in learning.

  • There are many kinds of activities you can use in online learning. For example, during group sessions, try using group discussion, small groups/breakout rooms, the chat feature, annotation tools, reaction buttons, and polls as ways for learners to interact and engage with the content and each other. Outside the group session, provide learners with opportunities to engage in other ways, such as feedback forms, email, or phone calls.
  • Try different strategies and ask your learners which ones work best for them. And remember, the ones that resonate best with your learners might change over time and in different contexts. Try a variety of options to keep it fresh while also allowing learners to develop confidence with the ones they know and respond to.

Send reminder messages to learners with links and sign-in times.

  • Reminders are helpful! Have you ever missed a meeting or tried to log on to a video call but couldn’t find the link? A simple message by text or email makes it easier for learners to join online, and offers another opportunity to create a positive, welcoming atmosphere.
  • Consider using a “schedule send” function to send reminder emails or WhatsApp messages. “Schedule send” allows you to craft messages and send them out on future dates, so you could set up a recurring reminder message to get sent automatically. And you can edit the message anytime up until it gets sent, so you can insert something new and relevant that you hadn’t originally included, for example, “Remember that last time we talked about…”.

Teach online etiquette for the classroom.

  • In any environment, it is comforting and empowering to know what is appropriate to the context. The rules of video-conferencing etiquette are not self-evident, they are learned. Be transparent and explicit. Discuss etiquette rules and invite learners to make suggestions based on their experiences online.
  • Explicitly teach learners how to mute themselves when they are not talking, how to share comments or ideas in the chatbox, and how to use the functions such as “Raise Hand”.
  • Frequently remind learners of these rules of etiquette. You might discuss how they are socially-constructed but not written in stone. Point out the relevance of these unwritten rules, and how they transfer to other platforms and potentially high stakes online environments, such as an online interview or workplace meeting, an online community event, or an online parent-teacher meeting.

Know how to use the tools at hand.

  • Just like having the keys to the door and knowing how to turn on the lights in an in-person classroom, practitioners need a good working knowledge of the basics of the tools and platforms they are using online. Know your platform well enough that you can admit people into the ‘room’, mute/unmute yourself and other participants, turn videos on/off, and remove people if necessary. You don’t need to know everything about the platform, but you should have a good understanding of the basics.

“You don’t have to be a master before you introduce a new piece of technology but make sure you have a basic understanding so you can guide learners in how to use this tool in this way in this learning environment.”

Remember you might not be seeing the same things that learners see.

  • The way something appears in an online space can look different depending on what device you are using and what view you have selected. For example, the Zoom navigation controls may appear at the top of your screen but for someone else in the same Zoom room at the same time, the controls may appear at the bottom of their screen. Or, for example, you may be able to see the faces of several participants because you are using gallery view on your desktop screen, but someone else has speaker view selected on their laptop, and someone else has to swipe on their phone to see other faces.
  • Be explicit with learners about how they might be seeing things differently than others and explain why and explore the possibilities for changing things. For example, you can discuss how to change the view on their screen, from gallery view to speaker view.
  • Using a mobile device changes how things appear and even what kind of functions are available. To understand what different kinds of activities look like on a mobile device, refer to this Digital Substitution Chart from Jayme Adelson-Goldstein at Lighthearted Learning (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VsEmL28bf528rzEjVybZpLNPtg4rLIAU4HRJlDllPp4/edit).

Use breakout rooms.

  • Breakout rooms are great ways to create small group sessions, or even a one-on-one session with an individual learner, while the rest of the learners are in the large online room. This can facilitate private conversations with individuals who need additional help or allow learners to partner up and work together.

“Being able to utilize break out rooms has been key as I can assist groups one on one still or have private conversations for participants who have needed additional help.”

Look into the camera, rather than at your screen.

  • It is easy to let your gaze go to the faces on your screen. But remember, when you look at the faces, you are not looking at your camera and it is through the camera that you make “eye contact” online. To the learners, then, it will appear like you are not looking at them or talking to them. It takes a conscious effort to look at the camera instead of the screen.
  • Here are some tips to remind yourself to work with the camera:
  • Attach a sticky note (with a smiley face!) or some other prop on your computer screen or on the wall behind your screen in line with your camera. Let this prop remind you to look at the camera so learners feel you are looking at them.
  • If you are using digital notes, put the window displaying them near the camera. For most people, that will be at the top of your screen, so keep your notes high on your screen.
  • If you are meeting one-on-one with someone, rearrange and/or resize the view on your screen so the window with the person’s image sits near your camera (again, most likely at the top of your screen).
  • Move back from your camera a bit so you are not being a “close talker”.

Stop talking and stop sharing your screen when you ask a question.

  • When you ask a question in an online environment, stop talking and give time and space for learners to answer. Be transparent about this practice so learners know what to expect and why you are doing it.
  • Stop sharing your screen, if possible, so participants notice that something has changed and so they can see that you are interested in listening.
  • Be prepared to embrace the uncomfortable silence that may exist as you give learners the time to gather their thoughts. Some practitioners remind themselves to stop talking and allow a longer silence by doing things like counting to seven or taking a deep breath or a long drink of water.

Give clear directions.

  • Of course, giving clear directions is important in any learning environment, but may be even more important in online environments where there are so many variables. Learners may already feel anxiety, worry, or shame about returning to learning, so adding the use of technology on top can be one more layer of challenge. Slow down, be concise, repeat directions. If you are using a slide presentation, create a slide with the directions written out so learners can both see and hear them.

Take advantage of the opportunity to observe learners’ work online.

  • Some practitioners find it easier to observe and take notes about learners’ work because the learners do not “see” it happening the way they would during in-person sessions. This means there may be less anxiety around being tested or assessed. But you need to find the right balance between using this opportunity and being transparent with learners about what you are doing.

Encourage learners, practitioners, and volunteer tutors to take time to transition.

  • Online teaching and learning from home makes it possible to jump from one thing to the next with almost no transition time. Encourage people to take the time to transition from work or education back into home life, and vice versa. Talk with learners about how the warm-ups at the beginning of class act as a transition time, and how taking some time to transition after a learning session allows the opportunity to consolidate and digest information before jumping into the next activity at home.

“[In online learning] we don’t drive to a class where we take off our jacket and settle in, …and even afterwards, when we might be digesting information, we just go boom, boom, boom, to other things…I don’t get that transition as a facilitator [either]… We don’t have that luxury as much when we’re on Zoom… So having a discussion with our learners and helping them [develop] that routine for themselves of giving them time as a learner to digest that information.”

Be the last person to leave the room.

  • With in-person classes, the practitioner is often the last person out of the room. It is a form of hospitality to allow time after the session is over for people to wrap up and chat as they pack up their bags, grab their coats, and make their way out the door. In online sessions, the same principle applies. Be the last person to leave the online room. If there are still learners present and you shut down the online meeting too quickly, it can feel like a door is being slammed in your face. If you need to move on to another session, do the same thing you would do in person. Be transparent, thank folks for their engagement, and gently invite them to leave the room. Then be the last one out.

“Different skills (are) required for online facilitation, like the relationship looks different, and cultivating or maintaining energy is very different… for virtual facilitation, (you) have to focus on those things (that) maximize the time for the learner to be able to engage in a meaningful way…it’s absolutely drastically different (than the in-person environment).”


Teach Digital Skills

Meet learners where they are at.

  • Find out what learners already know and have access to and start there. Build on the digital skills they already have. During intake and orientation, use a digital audit or self-assessment tool to find out about:
  • Learners’ access to the internet. Can they access the internet at home, or do they go to a library or other public Wi-Fi location? How available/reliable/affordable is their internet access?
  • The digital devices they have access to, such as a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or computer.
  • The digital tools, apps, and platforms they already use, such as email, WhatsApp, YouTube, Zoom, etc.
  • The digital skills they have and what they feel confident doing online, such as texting, using a cell phone to take pictures and videos, uploading pictures, and answering video calls.

“I think sometimes when we’re going top down, because we’re trying to solve problems, we [say] everyone should be using this platform or something. But if someone doesn’t know how to do that, they’re just not going to stay in the class… so I think that’s super important… we say ‘meet learners where they’re at’, but what that actually means is that sometimes you are not using the recommended platform.”

  • Choose tools based on what learners already know. When possible, let learners decide what they want to use for a platform: Zoom, Google Classroom, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, etc.

Expect fragmented skills.

  • Avoid making assumptions about learners’ digital skill levels. Digital literacy skills are on a continuum. Learners (and practitioners!) may have fragmented digital skills (e.g., might be able to record and share a TikTok video but not yet able to download an app to use at work). Assessing digital skills at intake and across the learning means than unidentified gaps will not become insurmountable barriers.

Introduce new digital tools and platforms gently.

  • When learners are ready to experience a new tool, be sensitive to the demands it brings. New tools can stretch learners in a positive way, but avoid overwhelming them with too much, too fast. Go slow, be intentional about when to introduce the tool, and be transparent about why you are introducing it. Be sure to highlight elements they already know, such as symbols, signs, and vocabulary, that are transferable across different tools and platforms.

Make it relevant.

  • People are motivated by things they care about. Focus on transferable digital skills that learners can and will use in other contexts – at home, work, or in the community. The digital skills become more immediately relevant and purposeful.

“Highlight in the beginning of the session…the transferable skills that they’ll be learning apart from what they’re actually in the class for. So it’s like you’re going to be learning how to work Zoom, you’re also going to [learn] to work MS Teams. So actually highlighting that they are going to be getting a lot of those digital skills.”

Teach digital skills explicitly.

  • Learners may need explicit instruction on the functions available in digital tools. Do not assume they know and understand how to use the chatbox, annotation, muting and unmuting, etc. Break the information into small chunks, and use lots of repetition to help them practice and become confident with  these new digital skills.

Embed digital skills across content areas.

  • Your learners need to develop their digital skills, even if that is not the main content of your program. Keep the focus on learning while using digital tools and practices that develop and strengthen skills. Look for ways to embed digital skills as part of the actual lessons.

Build routines that use technology tools the same way across many topics.

  • Routines that use digital tools are regularly repeated activities that get learners using a tool in predictable ways across different content and contexts. Routines create sustainable, authentic uses for the tools and allow learners to develop confidence with the underlying digital skills needed to complete the routine. For example, consistently using a KWL chart (“What I Know about this topic, what I Want to know, what I Learned”)  as a basic spreadsheet each time you introduce a new topic starts to build more skill and comfort with using spreadsheets for other purposes. With explicit teaching of the skills, support, and repetition, learners can get real world practice using tools to complete an authentic task.
  • For more information on integrating routines to develop digital skills, visit Digital Skill-building by Design: The EdTech Integration Strategy Toolkit from EdTech Center @ World Education (edtech.worlded.org/digital-skill-building-by-design-the-edtech-integration-strategy-toolkit/).

Be open to trying new strategies to find what works best for learners.

  • Listen to learners and invite their feedback on what is working for them and what is not working. Use discussion, self-assessments, polls, or exit tickets, for example, to gather and reflect on their insights. Then be flexible, adjust, and try something new.

“I supported people with whatever strategies they were willing to try to overcome these barriers.”

“My agency was very supportive and helpful to my transition to online/blended learning. They were willing to work with me to try new strategies to see what would be the most successful for our learners.”


Create and Manage Materials

Create materials for low bandwidth users.

  • Think small for file sizes of digital resources. Keep videos very short. Opt for smaller, lower-resolution photos rather than larger, high-resolution photos. Avoid unnecessary graphics, images, and colours in your documents (this is in keeping with plain language principles). Use PDFs when possible, as it can be easier to reduce the file size of this format and thereby minimize how much bandwidth it takes to view and download.

Design for mobile.

  • Many learners will use their mobile devices to access online learning environments. When planning instruction and materials, consider how slides and other materials look on a mobile phone or tablet. Try it out first with your mobile device; maybe even test it out using a free Wi-Fi location to see if it makes a difference. Is the text too small? Is there too much on each screen?
  • Again, to think through how mobile users view and experience different kinds of tasks, materials, and activities, refer to Digital Substitution Chart from Jayme Adelson-Goldstein at Lighthearted Learning (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1VsEmL28bf528rzEjVybZpLNPtg4rLIAU4HRJlDllPp4/edit).

Organize all resources and documents in one location.

  • Make it easy for learners to find and access the necessary resources and documents . Consider developing a digital library, for example in Google Drive. Support learners to access those digital resources – create and print out “how-to” documents with screenshots to show learners the steps to find and get them. But also have the option for learners to access the resources in print, and inform them how to get them this way.

Ensure learners have the resources and supplies they need to participate fully.

  • Don’t expect learners to have basic school supplies at home. Put together packages for learners to pick up if needed. Include paper, pencils, markers, and small white boards. White boards and markers give learners an easy, low-tech way to show their work through the camera. They can draw or write their ideas on the white board and then hold it up to the camera to share.

“[Using whiteboards and markers] lessens the amount of paper we have to send back and forth, plus it’s easier to see through the screen.”

  • Don’t expect learners to have access to printers. Offer packages of printed course materials for learners. Be sure to prepare printed materials well enough in advance that they can be ready for learners to pick up before the class or be delivered to them in time through the mail.

“We delivered paper copies of workbooks and resources, and created [PowerPoints] that mirror some of our learning resources, so that learners see something on the screen that they can relate to paper copies in front of them during program delivery. Even when the programs do not draw heavily on the print materials, and are more driven by the group and facilitator, we have heard that participants like having a tangible resource for ‘class’ time.”

Offer short, simple recorded videos for learners.

  • Create short, informal videos to share with learners. There are many free web-based tools you can choose to use such as Loom or Screencast-O-Matic, or simply use your video conferencing platform (e.g., Zoom) to record yourself.
  • Prepare supportive messages to build community and confidence, or to reinforce previously learned content, Consider using screen captures to show learners how to do something.
  • Keep videos very short, 2 or 3 minutes at most.

“If you find the same things are coming up again and again, do a little video and use YouTube…where you can just show it. So you’re not having to [explain] it every time. It takes a bit of pressure off the facilitator.”

Create and share presentation slides.

  • If possible, make your PowerPoint slides available for learners before and after the session for review and reinforcement. Invite learners to engage and interact with your slides by embedding questions into the slides and enabling annotation tools so learners can answer by drawing or typing directly on the slide.

Create simple, low-tech visuals to support learning.

  • Use paper, markers, popsicle sticks, etc. to create simple signs to “show” rather than “tell”. Try drawing the symbols and buttons that are in the platform you are using that learners will need to know about. Hold the signs up to the camera to show learners what to search for. For example, hold up signs with the “mute” and “unmute” symbols on them so learners can see what the buttons look like. Learners can also create and use their own handmade signs.

Complement live virtual sessions with asynchronous learning activities.

  • Asynchronous learning activities are resources for learners to work on outside of the virtual sessons. These can either be required or supplementary. They can be brought into the live sessions or left totally separate. However you choose to use them, be sure learners can easily access the digital materials.

Use digital drawing tools.

  • It can be helpful to draw something rather than use words to explain or describe it. There are many tools available that allow you to draw and have it show up on the screen. Using tools like graphic drawing tablets, digital whiteboards, or annotation tools help both practitioners and learners to “show” rather than “tell”.

“I love using the whiteboard feature of zoom, as a way of just drawing what I’m doing or making pictures.”

Take advantage of the opportunities that cameras offer.

  • Use the “flip” featureof a camera on a mobile device (change from camera facing the user to camera facing away) or direct moveable webcams to show an object, like a notebook or paper. This, for example, would be a way for learners to show and share their written work with you (and others).
  • Have learners take photos of their work and send them to you as an alternate way of submitting their work.
  • Use document camerasto show learners a close-up look at what you are doing. Document cameras are typically mounted over a surface and allow learners to watch as you write on a paper or use three-dimensional objects in your hands.

“I purchased a document camera which allows me to work with math manipulatives or write equations/examples on a white board and the student can follow along in real time.”