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Online education: mistakes and life hacks
We answer questions from teachers
25 March / 2020
Dear friends, as you know online classes account for two-thirds of the Le Sallay Academy's curriculum. A few days ago we announced a webinar on online learning for parents whose children have transitioned to e-learning because of the quarantine in their countries. Quite unexpectedly we started getting questions not only from parents but also from teachers. They wanted to know the best way to organize online learning, so we decided to compile a list of recommendations and lifehacks from the Le Sallay Academy.

There were many questions about the software that we use. We will touch upon that towards the end of this article, but we would like to emphasize that the tools are not as important as the way you use them. The numerous posts by parents indicate that the software is not an issue, while the school's approach to e-learning clearly is.

What is the main difficulty of online learning? Remember your first online conference, you might have noticed that online communication feels flatter and less engaging. The tone of voice is less noticeable, non-verbal signals are easier to miss, especially when there are more than two participants. Online communication is much less saturated with emotional content. In case of a working meeting between adults, this might not be an issue. But in online learning lack of emotional feedback does become a big deal. Children learners, especially in primary and middle school, are motivated by an emotional connection to their teachers and classmates. In school children are in constant contact with each other and their teacher, both verbally and non-verbally. In the case of online learning, the child has no connection to their teacher and other students. In the absence of emotional contact student's motivation and performance suffer. This is one of the main reasons why online schools have not been able to replace regular schools. When we started Le Sallay Academy, we made sure that all of our students have met each other in person before transitioning to online learning. This is what blended learning is all about. It is not just a buzzword, it is actually very effective.

Now the good news. When your school has closed for quarantine and students were sent home to study, you have all started blended learning. Your students are not just entering the world of e-learning, they are studying together with their classmates and teachers they are well familiar with. So the emotional aspect is taken care of. That's great!

There is, however, a number of smaller issues.

Problems teachers face when teaching a class online:

- As we have said before, the online learning creates less emotional connection. Students get easily distracted and find it harder to focus. When in class, a charismatic teacher can hold the attention of at least 80% of the students, but online is a different story.

Solution: draw the students in by increasing interaction. Dialogue and Q&A work much better in an online setting than a simple lecture.

- There are too many students in an online class. You can not fit everyone in one screen. Connection breaks, sound lags, and the video stalls. You could try redirecting students towards the chat, but this allows some of them to get distracted by other activities since the teacher can not see them.

A better solution: break the class into smaller groups. Maybe your lesson will be 30 minutes instead of 45, but there will be 15 students as opposed to 30. You will be able to see all of them on one screen and there will be more opportunities for interaction. The group of 15 students is also not ideal, we prefer 6-8 students in one online-class. However, it is best to have a smaller group over a shorter period of time than a larger group over a longer lesson. If dividing the class into smaller groups is not possible, try to maximize interaction in order to prevent the students from tuning out.

- During an online class, students tend to speak over one another. Everyone has a mountain-sized echo and the words blend together.

Solution: ask all the students to turn off their microphones, unless they are answering or asking a question. Some apps allow the teacher to mute the mic for any student.

- Children get tired of spending hours in front of the computer screen.

Solution: Rearrange the schedule. Do not keep regular hours of 8.30 AM - 2 PM, but spread the classes throughout the day. Give enough time for long breaks. At first, this schedule might seem strange, but we have found that it is much better suited for the online setting.

- Kids play online games or use chat apps during class.
This can happen in school too, but the difference is that this behavior is harder to control when the class is online. Smaller groups are easier to manage, especially since the person who is distracted has a different expression. If managing distractions is difficult, you can ask parents to install a program that allows the teacher to see the student's screen. Some use the Go Guardian app that has a steep learning curve. Our US colleagues recommend ProctorU, while teachers in Russia use remote access applications (ask your system administrator for details).

Now a few words about the common mistakes that teachers make when teaching classes online.

- I am not going to tell you that, just watch this video and ask questions.
Unfortunately, this approach does not work. Or at least it works only for a short amount of time. We all understand that simply giving the student a textbook to read is not enough. Video is the same thing, even if watching the video is easier than reading a text. When watching a video, students lose focus and either tune out or switch to more entertaining content. A short video in class is fine, but the online class should be focused on encouraging communication between teachers and students.

- Your parents can help you with this assignment since you are all staying home anyway.
This is not the way to go. If parents wanted to homeschool their children, they would not have chosen a regular school. And if they opted for homeschooling, they would not follow your instructions. Parents already have a hard time with their children at home 24/7, so giving them more work to do, is not an option. Teaching is our job, so we have to do it.

At the same time, parents tend to get more involved when the child is studying from home. Try to find time for feedback. School administrators can hold an online conference for parents to address their questions. The web-conference app will allow you to take questions via chat and answer them on live video for several hundred parents.

A the same time, online learning can open up new opportunities:

- Introduce new online applications
You can show a video or a presentation (it is much easier to see it on screen than in class). Different online tools can help boost engagement. We use a gamification app called Сlasscraft, it is like Dungeons&Dragons, but aimed at helping students achieve their study goals. We also make use of virtual labs for online experiments.

- Help students focus better.
A well-organized online classroom can be very calm and peaceful. Many students get distracted by the noise or their classmates chatting, but e-learning allows them to enter the full-screen mode and focus on the teacher. Some children have difficulty keeping still. They need to twiddle, rock their chair or even walk around. In school, they might distract others, but this is not a problem in an online setting. We have seen hyperactive or ADD children to get much better results with online learning, where they can feel less restricted.

- Focus on individual learning
If you can make your groups smaller, you will have more time for each student. You might get a chance for a more personalized approach that we prefer.

- Build teamwork and assess involvement
Online studies are a great way to teach remote teamwork. You can assign them a text, a presentation or a multimedia project. In the school setting, they would assemble after class and discuss their common tasks, but in an online setting, you have more ways to track their individual contributions. If the project is based on Google Documents, the teacher can see edits made to the document, the level of involvement, student's comments and notes.

Finally, a few words about the instruments
. You might have a set of applications already, but we will give an overview of what we use so that you can check that you have all the necessary tools covered.

- A web conference software to conduct your lesson.
Zoom is the most popular one, but we use whereby (does not require any installation). Some use Hangout or even Skype. What is important that the virtual room would fit your group and the group leader would have the necessary options of muting mics, locking the room to the outsiders or after the start of the lesson.

- We use Google Classroom as our learning management system, but there is a number of options you can explore.

- We use idroo or BitPaper to work on in class, but there are other online whiteboards available as well.- We use Classcraft, to gamify the learning and many children enjoy it a lot. The students get even more motivated if you promise to convert game points into something tangible, such as currency for the future school auction that you would hold after the quarantine is over.

This is our baseline set, but sometimes our teachers use applications tailored to their needs, for example, for online language tests.

In conclusion, once again: it is not about the tools. The teacher's personality, professional stance and ability to absorb new trends are much more important. If you have got this, the quarantine will not break your rapport with your class. This forced transition into e-learning might prove to be very valuable to you and your students.

Good luck and carry on!