• Steve Taylor

The New (Virtual) Reality: Part III

Updated: Mar 21

The third of a three-part article by WillowWood's Steve Taylor, MBA

III. Strategies for Success

Haphazardly slapping an offline curriculum on Zoom is a reliable recipe for mediocrity. You cannot simply take exactly what would occur in the classroom and hope that it will perfectly translate into an effective virtual version. Careful preparation and planning are necessary. So how do we make our online classrooms as engaging, interesting, and successful as the real deal? Some research and conversations with colleagues will hopefully bring some clarity to the topic.

Incorporating interesting and engaging videos into the course is one fruitful strategy. Research into multimedia learning theory has demonstrated that our brains learn much faster when knowledge is presented via a combination of words, pictures, and auditory information. Videos can reinforce concepts that were presented by a teacher during a lesson; they can help to engage students who have attention deficits or who tend to be visual learners; they help to break the monotony of using a single modality to deliver education by breaking a teaching session into smaller manageable chunks. Studies have shown that videos engage the visual parts of the brain, thereby creating a synergistic learning effect when combined with oral discussion, writing, and listening exercises.

Individually engaging students has also been found to be a useful way to keep them involved. Instead of teaching "at" a group of learners in the classroom, teachers need to address them individually during their lessons. “Ask questions, use their names, do whatever you need to do to make your pupils feel included,” says Hilary Rhabar, a grade 7 teacher at WillowWood School. “This approach lets students feel like they are a part of the classroom. Otherwise, they are bystanders or members of an audience.”

The Middle School has also started a morning newscast to get students primed for a day of remote learning. “We start each morning off with our WillowWood News (WWN) on Zoom to get the students excited and hyped up for class”, explains Brian Reigate. “It has really paid off. Students get excited to start their day because they have something cool to look forward to”. They also get informed on national and international current events and this can help them feel more connected to the world outside their bedroom. The WWN is a great warmup for spending the day online.

Getting students engaged is the first step. Getting them to absorb information effectively is the next. Educational academics have made several research-backed suggestions to facilitate effective learning online. Teachers must consider that attention spans will be reduced for students learning virtually. To enable students to stay focused, microlearning principles are recommended. This requires chunking content into small, focused bits that can be consumed more easily. Large topics should be partitioned into smaller constituent parts. These smaller bits of learning should be connected to one another and finally tied into the overarching lesson theme and at the end of the class.

Another suggestion from child development experts is to vary the medium whenever possible. Online classes require variety. For example, start the class by introducing the topic, then play an interesting video; deliver the lesson; solicit questions from the class, and break into small groups to discuss them.

Recording lessons is crucial. There may be occasions when one or more students cannot attend a class. Having access to a recording allows them to catch up on their own time and avoid falling behind. Additionally, video recordings will prove to be a useful resource in the future. Students can review them in preparation for a test or an exam or to recap subject matter that they found challenging.

As a classroom teacher, splitting a class up into smaller, task-oriented groups also works well because it inspires peer-to-peer participation, encourages teamwork, and helps drive creativity. There is no reason why this approach can’t be used in a virtual class. Most video conferencing tools offer breakout room functionalities. Group work can also help to mitigate feelings of isolation when learning from home.

Finally, there are a number of free online applications available to help teachers spice up the classroom. Learning games such as Jeopardy and Google Jamboard and quiz sites such as Quizlet and Socrative allow students to gauge their knowledge. Animoto video maker prompts students to create 30-second clips that summarize what they learned in class, while Aurasma, an augmented reality app, enables learners to create and share experiences by combining interactive digital content including video, animations, and 3D. A wealth of research has shown that if gamification is done right it can lead to the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals that your brain uses to send signals) that drive learning associations, help develop relationships, and make us feel happy.

Embracing the digital revolution can be daunting. Learning and mastering new software can seem overwhelming, especially during an already demanding and uncertain time in our lives. Rest assured that the learning tools and teaching strategies mentioned in this article are not difficult to master or hard to implement, and the time spent becoming familiar with them will pay massive dividends down the road.

We got this.