As many brick-and-mortar programs move online, we would like to share some of our best practices that might aid your planning and delivery.
Since 2004, the Duke Talent Identification Program has delivered quality online experiences for gifted youth. We knew from inception that we wanted to provide opportunities for students to connect in meaningful, substantive ways with other students, with a dedicated teacher, and with engaging ideas.
How are you moving your face-to-face experiences online?
Share any tips and best practices below!
It’s Not Face to Face, and That’s Okay
Online learning can be excellent, but it’s not face-to-face learning in ways we might be used to. It’s not a space where a teacher can easily “read the room” via body language or quickly circle desks into groups. Making what really feels like eye contact is hard via web cam when you’re operating various tools and windows. Even on the best web conferencing platforms, users can experience delays due to bandwidth and technology glitches, so debates or performances of any kind will feel a bit stilted.
This is part of the online reality: new tools require new decisions and there must be constant learning and adjustment. But teachers are often used to making many decisions an hour already and can have the skill sets for this kind of pivot.
All these adjustments you and your students are making mean a) be gentle with yourself as an educator (you’re learning!) and b) give students space to make mistakes in these spaces. Pivot to different tools and platforms if they serve better.
Online Community Matters
In online learning, just as in a face-to-face classroom, it’s easy for us to default to didactic teaching: uploading lots of content. But in stressful times, maintaining an emotionally safe space while reminding everyone how we’re all in this together is really important. Moving online doesn’t mean you have to give up your classroom community. In fact, online tools can foster that community, building trust, and providing support in various ways.
- Begin live interactions with an icebreaker. During web conferencing/synchronous work, get students connecting with you and and each other using an academic angle, and get them smiling a bit when you can. We have some ideas here.
- Open teacher and student-directed help forums. A tech troubleshooting discussion board or a peer review discussion are ways to build the community further. Students helping students is always a great thing, and you can moderate these spaces.
- Use entrance and exit tickets for web conferencing spaces and also to frame asynchronous modules. Check out how one of our online teachers handled that in chemistry–a tip applicable to all subjects.
- Encourage students who are proven leaders to take the reins as discussion moderators in a chat box, to be lead facilitators in a shared Google document, or to be lead facilitators in a discussion forum. Besides differentiating for student talent and interest, this strategy gives students small leadership opportunities. It allows them a sense of efficacy and ways to contribute in times where we’re all feeling a bit out of control. Giving students ways to reinforce community standards and class expectations solidifies agreements already stated. When students own class expectations, it’s a beautiful thing!
- Use tools to provide increased one-to-one connection and support for your students. Email, chat, and Google documents are a great way to coach students one to one, as are live office hours.
- Give students space to state feelings. When students suddenly go off topic in a discussion forum or a live space, it may not be as off topic as we think. In our programs we have seen students make political statements in math course discussion forums and on documentary film Padlets. We’ve seen students reply-all to class emails with intense comments. It happens. It’s not necessarily an intentional defiance of our authority or policies when it happens. Giving students the benefit of the doubt first is a great way to begin our investigation of a comment or incident. Our students are learning how to communicate professionally online, and who among us hasn’t cast the first online stone?
Online Rules of the Road Must Be Clear
When you move to an online platform, you need the same structures as brick-and-mortar spaces in order to protect individuals and the community. You need agreements and contracts. If your school doesn’t have a Digital Citizenship Agreement or a Participation Agreement, feel free to borrow ours, or remind everyone of your face-to-face class contract already shared at the beginning of a term. Note our participation agreement identifies how each individual involved–student, instructor, and parent/guardian–can play a vital role.
Duke TIP eStudies Participation Agreement
Duke TIP eStudies Digital Citizenship Agreement
Duke TIP eStudies Attendance policy
In our orientation web conferencing sessions, some of our staff not only review these expectations but also lead discussions about what these agreements look/sound/feel like in practice. Students add thoughts to the whiteboard. It’s important for students to help build the virtual contracts with their own additions. Some staff use asynchronous discussion boards instead.
- If a student violates an agreement, ask your department chair, guidance counselors, and/or principals how to notify students and parents where necessary.
- In Duke TIP online programs, we ask a few questions to help guide our response of whether to escalate situations in individual online courses to administrators. If your staff is suddenly moving from a scenario where you need to decide whether to text/email versus stopping by an office, these guiding questions might help. We consider all of these questions when vetting a situation:
- Is a student showing signs of social-emotional distress? Sometimes students are very forthcoming online, and this is information we share with families and professionals where appropriate.
- Are multiple students affected? (For example, an inflammatory discussion board post or a bullying statement seen by several students.) Are students not connected to the original incident potentially affected? If yes, then we make sure we capture screenshots and take appropriate action to message the community while dealing individually with a student.
- Is the incident something that could escalate more quickly, due to the nature of online interaction, and therefore it’s good to inform administrators and ask for guidance? We tell our staff that where we can help advise, craft emails, and support them in online communications, we should.
Great Work Can Lead to Great Behavior
If assignments are meaningful, that often takes care of a lot in terms of behaviors. In other words, meaningful work leads to productive, on-task behavior, whether online or face to face. Don’t focus on uploading tons of content and tasks, but do focus on finding a few meaningful assignments that take thoughtful independent and/or collaborative work to complete.
- When we design both formative and summative assessments, our course designers and instructors ask, Which products and performances ensure the highest levels of thinking for gifted students: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation?
- Here are some samples of wonderful products our eStudies students have created for their courses. See how they are using high levels of critical thinking with awareness of audience, purpose, and medium.
- We have tons of ready-to-use materials with meaningful assessments that you can link to, today. We provide many free independent study courses and ready-to-use lessons here at this blog.
Interactivity Happens When There’s a Plan
Whether in web conferencing or in asynchronous lessons, creating truly interactive experiences (students connecting with a student and with an instructor) and truly meaningful (students connecting to ideas) is challenging. Here are some tips on how we ensure meaning and a sense of engagement.
- We ask students to be active learners. We have an Active Learning Skill we assess, and we use these various methods to ensure students are engaged.
- Begin each unit and lesson with a driving question. Essential Questions engage curiosity and get students thinking. See how our eStudies syllabi in a range of courses provide that weekly directive, and feel free to borrow our EQs. Make sure assessments require students to answer open-ended questions whenever possible.
- For an excellent set of steps for online course design, check out this post, Online Avengers: a Teacher’s Design Guide to the Virtual Gifted Classroom.
- See our mystery-driven eInvestigators courses, or cases. What case could your students crack? We also offer a free medical mystery in lesson 8 of our epidemiology course and a cryptology mystery informs this mathematics course.
- Use an interactive lesson agenda for your live times together. Here is our Interactive Live Session agenda that we ask our staff to use when designing an hour of live time together. While office hours or tutorial times serve very important functions, we ask that our two hours of Live Sessions be truly interactive to forge those connections mentioned above.
- Here is a rubric for effective live discussions.
Sometimes asynchronous is better than synchronous. Keep in mind that sometimes a discussion forum with a well-crafted Socratic question can do ten times the work of a live session.
See our discussion prompts in our eStudies syllabi for suggestions.
See a video about how to design questions (didactic, maieutic, and Socratic here).
Technology Troubleshooting Adds Time for Everyone
You know how tech troubles add to your time. It’s possible some of your students may not have the access needed at certain times or lack resources. It’s possible that both student and parent learning curves are very high while taking on new platforms. It’s possible there’s no quiet space for learning at home. Keep all of this in mind when working with families.
Providing screenshots for families when emailing and providing step-by-step guides is helpful. Asking students to write complete descriptions of what they’ve already attempted and providing you with screenshots is also helpful.
Integrate new tools at a slower pace if you’re new to this. For example, the web conferencing chat box can sometimes feel overwhelming – as if every student in your class were speaking simultaneously. It’s okay to turn it off and take turns via hand raising. Maybe you want to observe a colleague try breakout rooms before you put students in groups, or maybe you’ll try a collaborative Google document instead. It’s okay to rehearse and make a script for yourself.
Check Out Our Free Lessons and Free Online Courses
Duke TIP has tons of materials you can use today. Maybe some of these will meet your needs:
- Our online book club activities for gifted 4th-6th graders
- Our online independent study courses for gifted 4th – 10th graders at our TIP Curriculum Vault
- Our Lesson Blueprints for two-to-five day lessons in a range of subjects
Stay Kind and Keep Learning
Be kind to yourself as you master new modes of teaching and to your students as they learn a new way to learn. As you pivot to new tools and experiences, give yourself the space and grace to be a lifelong learner, and, in the process, an important role model for your students.