Published on 2020/09/14

Adapting Teaching Skills to an Online Environment

It does a disservice to students to assume that in-person and online learning is anything similar, so faculty need time and resources to adapt to their new environment. 

Is there a skills gap in classroom teachers now running remote classes?

Classroom teachers who were thrown into online learning have a steep learning curve to deliver effective online content and learning. How can they transition to this modality and continue to ensure students are motivated and engaging in quality learning? Are traditional educational facilities equipped to deliver online learning?

Where are the gaps?

Given the recent and immediate demand for teachers who traditionally teach in a classroom or lecture setting to move to an online environment, many teachers have been thrown into the deep end. The transition has not been gradual but rather a spontaneous demand, given the shutdown of many educational facilities during lockdowns. The questions are: do traditional classroom teachers have the skillset required to deliver online learning, and how can they make the transition smoother? What kind of skills will they need to deliver online learning more effectively?

Teaching in a classroom requires not only a different skillset but also a different mindset from online teaching. To take a good classroom teacher and expect them to be a good online teacher is akin to taking a good carpenter and expecting them to be a good furniture maker. Both may be highly skilled woodworkers, but that does not mean they can do each other’s jobs without requiring more learning and development.

With experience, classroom teachers encounter daily challenges in a particular type of environment, in which they may communicate with students as much through body language as through verbal and written communication. A teacher’s expertise is improved in a classroom with years of experience. Good classroom teachers develop their teaching skills and build up a great repertoire of techniques to use in all the different situations they encounter with time. They learn to observe and interpret students’ reactions. They can detect students who need help and respond accordingly and promptly. They notice that some students may be more alert than others, and at times, some students might display signs of stress or illness. They can intervene and provide advice when needed. In a classroom, though, a single teacher is challenged with needing to communicate directly with many different individuals with different needs, who all respond in different ways. Communication goes from one person to many people. Students cannot avoid participation if motivation is low. Teachers can detect low motivation, react and adjust what they are doing.

Teachers are trained to have a classroom mindset

They may be good at detecting problems and solving them by reading a student’s body language and communicating face-to-face, but that just doesn’t translate to online education any more than speaking in the French language translates to speaking in the English language.

Teachers in an online situation, however, are more likely to:

  • Communicate one-to-one, not one to many as they do in a classroom
  • Have lost the non-verbal cues that can help them see whether a student is motivated and engaged or disengaged and disinterested.
  • Work from a home environment rather than stand in a well-equipped classroom in front of lots of students
  • Use technology they may not be fully skilled or equipped to use.
  • Work within different timeframes and perhaps not under the pressure of completing work for a particular deadline.
  • Be often unable to react in real time to learning problems
  • Need to find different communication methods or demonstrate something that may be difficult for the student to understand.
  • Communicate more with alternative mediums, like writing or videos. Language needs to be straight and direct so that it does not become misinterpreted.

Students in an online situation are:

  • Having to motivate themselves and manage their own time more.
  • Able to avoid participation if they are less motivated or don’t understand the study materials.
  • At high risk of avoiding studying or dropping out if motivation drops too low.
  • In their home environment, which, for some students can be more comfortable, reducing stress, and making them more receptive to learning. For others, it’s the opposite.
  • Learning to use technology or web platforms they may have previously used.
  • Do not have the support or distractions of other students in the class.
  • Less time sensitive

Online learning needs to be different

Classroom teachers’ transition to online learning should be supported by materials, systems and resources that are designed around online learning at a faculty or institutional level. Support for teachers should also be include timing and motivational techniques effective for online learning.

An online course can largely replicate a classroom course, but it must do it in different ways. For an online course, the study guide replaces the classes, and it needs to be seen exactly that way.  Classroom teachers have an inbuilt tendency to view online study guides in the same way they view handouts, textbooks, or sometimes curriculum documents. They are none of these.

  • Handouts, textbooks and curriculum documents are written materials used to expand on the information that the classroom teacher presents.
  • Online study guides are instructions for students to follow. They need to provide a sequence of learning experiences orchestrated to optimise learning. A good study guide applies educational psychology, so the student’s encounters with ideas and information is carefully managed and repeated in varied contexts at predetermined points through the learning experience. Study guides reinforce, strengthen, broaden and deepen learning as the student progresses through them.
  • Study guides will need to keep the student’s interest and motivation high by offering information and interactive activities that encourage the student to keep progressing with their studies.

Online teaching requires an intimate appreciation of how remote learning can work, the unique tools and techniques available to make online work, and the intended learning pathway that a student follows in their study guide.

Providing students with a one-way communication (you just talking at them in the form of a study guide or a video) will be less motivating and will result in a less engaged student. Encourage students to ask questions and give them constructive feedback on their work; it will also help them stay motivated and engaged.

It takes time and commitment for a classroom teacher to reach their full potential as an online teacher.  They must start by appreciating the massive differences in the two approaches to teaching. If they have an extensive understanding of educational psychology and a willingness to adapt, they may change faster; but for most classroom teachers, it may take twelve months or more to make a reasonable transition.

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