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Article 5: How can we make online class more interesting in Sri Lanka?
This Article has been written by Nishalie Fernandopulle, MSc (UK), BA (Hons.), LTCL, ATCL, Clinical Psychologist based on experience in teaching online through the Covid-19 Pandemic
I’m not sure if I’m writing this as a psychologist with an exclusive interest in children or as a parent of two children studying online. Perhaps it is a little of both… because one key concern myself and many parents, teachers and students I work with have is about the engagement and effectiveness of online learning. My experience with my two sons, who are a year apart has been very different. So, I’ve taken that anecdotal evidence along with the limited scientific evidence on learning online and put down a few thoughts. I am a firm believer that sharing and replicating the best practices of the amazing teachers and schools we see is the way forward.


Maintaining discipline


Have ground rules: It’s important to have a maximum of 5 ground rules. For example, my son’s teacher has only one rule: “You can’t unmute your mic. You raise your hand and then unmute once the teacher calls upon you”. At the beginning children who ignored this rule were given a verbal reminder and the question ignored until the ‘raise your hand’ process was followed. It worked. These ‘infracting’ children were then frequently praised when they followed the rule. The behaviour was reinforced and two weeks later there was no problem.


Address individual concerns individually: Kids are individuals. Some take more time to understand. Some have lots of questions. Some just want to have a chat. Address these in an individual forum. For example, my son’s teacher requests these kids to wait after class and talk to her.

Similarly, if children need to be corrected these children are addressed alone after class. So instead of wasting half the class complaining about a few errant kids chatting on the side, the teacher continues the class asking the troublemakers to talk to her alone after class. Nobody chats. Teachers who pay attention (even if it’s negative, i.e. scolding/lecturing) to misbehavior are reinforcing the troublemakers and their chats.


Engaging with learners


While discipline is essential for a smooth process it’s important that teachers set a positive tone, so kids enjoy and are excited about learning. If not learning will be unsuccessful.


Ask critical questions: My son’s teacher engages each and every single child via questions that encourage critical thinking or application of the knowledge she gives them. The kids can’t afford to be distracted as she will randomly call upon each and every one of them from her list to give a response.


Encourage participation and discussion: This same teacher praises participation in discussion. Sometimes it’s a simple “thank you for sharing that with me” or “thank you for teaching me something I didn’t know”. The kids love her. Since it’s a catholic school she ensures that the class prayers and reflections are done by different children each day. Kids love being on the mic. It’s the most excited I’ve seen my son about prayers in a long time!


One on one time: In addition to class time, getting some one-on-one time with each student is important. Online studying is lonely, and it helps to have a teacher that reaches out. Get to know your students. For instance, my son loves to send his teacher pictures of his creations and toys. She makes sure she responds with praise, enthusiasm and gratitude to these. The kids feel valued and empowered.


Teach active listening and note taking: Kids struggle to engage online, especially if they have to listen to a lecture for longer than 15 minutes. Research shows that taking notes, highlighting important facts etc. build attention and recall.

Don’t: While there is an importance in handwriting particularly in primary education, there is no research to indicate a benefit in endlessly copying notes off a handout or verbatim.

Do: Teach kids note taking methods like the Cornell Method or Mind Mapping from middle school. Spending a few sessions on teaching and following up on note taking skills, study skills, organization etc. may seem like a waste of time but are more efficient and useful in the long run.


Keep videos short

Videos longer than 15 minutes can cause issues of slow downloading and learner distraction. Test them out before class to make sure they work.


Show your face: Research has shown that lecture videos that show instructors’ faces are more effective than simple narrated slideshows. Intersperse your slides with video of yourself. The children love to see their teachers. Don’t let them stare at a blank screen.


Let students get involved and support one another

Students can work together in small groups to support each other online. Set up online group spaces for small groups of students and ask them to support and consult with one another before sending messages to you directly. This little tip can make students feel socially supported and reduce your inbox traffic.


A healthy mix of group and individual projects is the best way to ensure success with online learning. Try and think of ways where children can work in groups in the virtual world. Giving students this variety of learning styles will enhance their learning capabilities and teach them the importance of both group work and individual achievements.


Set reasonable expectations

This is not a normal time. Children are struggling. Parents are struggling. Teachers are struggling. School administrations are struggling. Be kind. Be empathetic. Remember there are kids who need extra effort and motivation to learn and parents who are struggling to balance everything. Don’t overload kids with work. Lower your standards and expectations. These kids have already missed a year. Reach out, and think of gentle, empathetic, positive and responsive ways to problem solve together with your students and their families. For example, my son’s teacher often asks her students “What shall we do to fix this problem?”.


Have A Closing Activity

The goal of teaching is not to complete a syllabus or be proud of the smart kids (who will learn regardless of teaching). The goal is to make sure the weakest and most demotivated student in your class understands the concept and is excited about learning. To check if teaching has achieved this it’s good to complete each lesson with a low stakes assessment that helps students to reflect on everything they’ve learned.


If learning hasn’t occurred do small group re-teaching. This online forum of teaching allows this flexibility as compared to regular school. Remember to teach in using a variety of methods. If the adult repetitively teaches in the same way that the child does not comprehend it’s the adult that’s the slow learner.


Ask for feedback

Keep communication lines open and sometime around the 2nd or 3rd week, ask your students and their parents for direct and honest feedback on how things are going. This feedback should cover everything from content to teaching methods, and request any areas requiring improvement. The best way to achieve this is in a somewhat formal tone, so post something on the discussion board and see what pops up. You need more PTAs now than ever before.


Tech stuff and keeping your sanity


Test out slides: Make sure you test slides/videos on a smartphone so all text is readable on small screens.


Use existing resources:It is unrealistic to expect that you, on your own, will produce a term’s worth of high quality videos/slides/worksheets. Organise the work together with other teachers in your school so you can share resources. Teachers already have a lot of work converting to online so reduce the workload by sharing. Use pre-developed resources available online and provide students with clickable links. With older children especially use easily accessible resources such as digital publications, news sites, and online videos. These students will be far more engaged than if they had to only refer to an outdated textbook.


Set up office hours

Teachers need down time to avoid burn out during online school Set up “virtual office hours” where you are available. Avoid using WhatsApp and try to use your learning management system or zoom. For example, my son’s teacher’s office hours are for 30 minutes after class each day on Microsoft teams. Worksheets are only sent on Friday evening. Any home task is given directly at the end of class directly to the students so the ownership is on them not their parents. This organized and timely approach is important as parents are balancing online school with work and home responsibilities. When worksheets and homework come late it puts kids and parents out of routine. Giving this consistency and routine is critical at anytime, but especially during a pandemic. With my own children, I am able to teach the little one with the fantastic teacher who uses these skills time management. Every Sunday we sit together and note the work due and classes for the week on a weekly schedule. I can do that because the teacher is so organized and teaches the kids to be organized. With my other son I can’t as the work is given in a more haphazard manner. Classes are changed, sometimes to Saturday or Sunday when teachers and kids should be relaxing with their families. Homework may be sent days after a lesson. As a result, neither the kids nor the teacher can be on a consistent schedule/routine – which is so important for everyone’s mental health.


Don’t use WhatsApp: When sending and receiving worksheets avoid using WhatsApp which can be overwhelming for teachers and parents. Use the learning management systems like Teams and Google Classroom which have options to share.


Get trained on the tech: Spend time getting to know the learning management systems available to you whether it’s Google classroom or Microsoft teams. Learn how you can share resources, worksheets and do quizzes etc. in an efficient and easy manner. Ask your school to provide training and technical assistance. Many parents will be happy to volunteer.


Tech support: Principals need to have a go-to person for technical support. Make that contact information readily available to parents, students and teachers.


Expect the unexpected and remain flexible

At some point technology will fail, whether it is a video chat not connecting or resource links not working properly. Have a backup plan for all assignments and assessments that rely on technology so kids can work during real time without having to reschedule.


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