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For the foreseeable future, schools all across the United States have embraced distance learning to help stop the spread of COVID-19. As teachers, students and their parents work to navigate this unfamiliar terrain, ideas have emerged to help improve the virtual classroom experience. We asked people on the frontlines of the digital learning environment to give us their best virtual classroom tips. 

Using live video to teach an online class can be a big adjustment for students and teachers. One of the biggest challenges is to get the tech and classroom setup right. Nothing spoils an online learning experience quite like poor audio, video that freezes or goes out of sync, poor lighting or user errors that slow down presentations and the integration of other virtual learning materials into the lesson.

1. Improve Your Virtual Setup With Clear Audio and a Secure Connection

Teaching a class by live video conference is quite different than being in person with a room full of students. But there are some approaches we can draw from traditional classrooms that work quite well in a live, online environment.

Follow these guidelines to make sure your video, audio and internet setup are high quality. 

Use Headphones And A Microphone

Wired headphones with a built in microphone are often best. Bluetooth headphones and mics are convenient but sometimes lead to latency problems with audio. If this is an issue for you, try a wired microphone. 

Check Your Internet Strength and Use an Ethernet Cable

When evaluating your internet signal strength “it’s more about ping (signal delay) than bandwidth (Mbps)” says Scott Beaver of Easy Hard Science. You can check your internet strength by going to an online internet speed test

Your ping should be below 100ms, though less than 50ms is ideal. To achieve the best possible internet from your location hardwire your connection with an ethernet cable rather than using wireless. 

2. Keep Your Light Source Behind The Camera 

The positioning and type of lighting you use to illuminate your face during lessons can improve the virtual lesson experience significantly. According to Bonni Stachowiak of Teaching in Higher Ed the “lighting in the room makes a big difference in how welcoming you can be perceived to others” during  the lesson. “You want most of the light sources to be coming from in front of you, not behind you.” 

The warmth of the light also makes a difference. If your lessons are during the day, you can set up your workspace in front of a window so that the natural light is behind your camera lighting your face. If this isn’t an option for you, there are many dimmable lighting setups or desk lamps that will work. 

3. Adjust the Level of the Camera 

Bonni also recommends using something to raise your up camera or computer (if you are using a built in camera) so that the lens is level with your eyes or just slightly above them angled down.

“I’ve used a stack of notebooks, a lap desk, and even a couple of pillows to accomplish this task. No one on the session is going to see what you have your laptop resting on, but they will notice if you are literally looking down at them the entire time.” says Bonni. 

4. Set Up Your Screen Name and Make Sure Everyone in The Household Respects Lesson Times

“Make sure the screen name on Zoom is the correct one for the child” recommends Rivkie Berger of Fun and Function. It makes communicating in the digital classroom much easier, especially if you are using the chat feature. Additionally, make sure everyone in your household is aware of your lesson schedule. You want to avoid any unwanted noise including having family members wandering into the frame unexpectedly. 

5. Use a Lesson Transcript Generator So You Don’t Miss Anything!

“Lesson transcript apps help students by creating accurate transcripts so students don’t miss a thing from any remote class” say David Claxton of Otter Ai. Teachers can get the app then distribute lesson notes to students and parents as needed. If your teacher isn’t offering lesson transcripts, you should ask about this feature. Trying to take notes and engage in an online conversation can be more challenging than doing the same thing in person.

6. Begin Lessons With an Interactive Game to Engage Young Students

Sarah Miller of Homeschooling 4 Him loves beginning virtual lessons with a game. “This helps pull the kids in and get them excited to be there. It gives the kids a chance to connect with each other and to have fun. Then, when I am ready to ask them to pay attention to the lesson they are more likely to do so.”

Games like scavenger hunts allow the kids to hunt for items around the house, like a favorite toy, that they will be excited to share with their classmates. Sarah recommends asking the students following up questions that help both students and their teacher get to know each other and relax before diving into the day’s work. 

7. Supplement Online Lessons With Small Study Pod Groups

Arash Fayz, Co-Founder and Executive Director of LA Tutors 123  suggests organizing study pod groups or getting a tutor to supplement learning outside of the digital classroom, with social distancing of course. 

“We all need a break from staring at a screen all day, so a lot of families are choosing to create small group pods with 4-5 similarly aged students. Working with a private tutor who can meet with you in-person in a safe outdoor setting will help break up the screen time with some all-so-important socialization and those intangible aspects of in-person education. Students in high school or college can also meet outdoors and use whiteboards or email to show each other work while respecting social distancing guidelines. Sometimes nothing beats an old-fashioned conversation when it comes to working out a problem or doing a group project.”

8. Prioritize Quality Time over Quantity by Limiting the School Day to 2 to 4 Hours

Many of our experts were passionate about limiting the school day to a fewer hours than traditional learning and including ample movement breaks during the day. Digital learning shouldn’t mimic exactly what happens on campus. Instead the school days should be limited to 2 to 4 hours depending on the student’s age and ability. 

“The dedicated school day should only take 2-4 hours – unless your kids are really interested in the topic and want to keep diving in. Allow them the rest of the time to just be. Don’t fear unstructured time. Don’t try to keep your children from being bored. In fact, boredom in childhood has many life-long benefits, such as: cultivating creative thought, inspiring self-reflection, allowing for self-motivation, sparking decision-making, stimulating new personal interests, and fostering confidence and independence” says Lindsey Wander, Founder and CEO of WorldWise Tutoring LLC.

Alicia Hough of The Product Analyst agrees: “your kids will get exhausted if they only attend virtual classes, which is why you should consider allowing break times.” Virtual learning involves a lot of screen time and can be especially exhausting for students who have trouble concentrating in the virtual format. 

9. Make Older Students Responsible for Organizing Their Own Schedules to Improve Accountability

Virtual learning can be a great opportunity for older students to take responsibility for managing their own schedules and might actually help with follow through for students who struggle with task management. According to Robert Johnson founder of Sawinery and father of two shares “if you let students take the lead in the creation of their schedule, they will feel responsible in accomplishing it.”

You can start by giving the students some guidelines and asking them questions like:

How much do you think you can get done today?
What are you excited to work on today?
How long do you think this task should take?
If you were to break up this assignment into 3 parts, how would you do that?

10. Keep Students Engaged With Classroom Narration that Catches Them Doing Right!

Classroom narration is a great technique to keep students engaged during lessons and involves praising students and naming behavior they are exhibiting in the classroom.  Melissa Scatena, a former educator and CEO of Scattered Solutions gives these examples: 

“After setting expectations, scan the room and narrate 2-3 scholars who are meeting your expectations. This

sounds like, Scholar name is tracking me or Scholar name is sitting up straight with his/her eyes glued to the screen. Nice job! Continue narration throughout the lesson. For example, once scholars are directed to get started working on a math problem, say, Scholar name has her pencil to paper and is focused on solving neatly!”

This helps students  feel connected to each other, engage in the lesson and reinforces positive behavior that you want to promote in your online classroom. 

Author and speaker Jessica Speer suggests that teachers focus on catching students “doing right” because recognizing small successes builds confidence and encourages growth. Try phrases such as “I appreciate how you were at your desk this morning at 9am.” “Do you know you just worked for 15 minutes straight? Great work!”

11. Use Body Language to Keep Students Engaged and Energy High

Teaching is a high energy job, and doing it online means focusing that energy and paying special attention to body language and presentation so that your personality can come through. 

Alison Henderson of Moving Image Consulting says that “Students and teachers should sit back from their screens so more gestures can be seen in the view. Everyone needs as many body language signals as they can get to help them understand each other and build trust. By nature, we don’t trust if we can’t see gestures.”

12. Get Regular Feedback From Students

Justin Menda, founder of Rocket Prep, LLC  is a proponent of involving students in the learning process through regular feedback.

“ I use online forms that my students fill out at the end of each session to help them plan their time between sessions, and at the beginning of the following session to assess how the plan worked and what could be better. While they’re doing these activities, I offer them as much guidance and feedback as they ask for. In the short term, this helps them stay on task and work effectively. In the long term, it helps them improve their understanding of how to work effectively and gain comfort with their own unique constellations of skills and challenges. It also provides a lot of opportunities for us to turn situations that might ordinarily provoke anxiety or withdrawal (e.g. not getting any homework done) into opportunities to learn about what actually works and do better next time.”

The Best Tips Are the Ones That Work For You

As you navigate the online learning environment and research different ways to make the experience more engaging and enjoyable for everyone you’ll come across a lot of ideas and things to try. Ultimately, the best tips will be the things that resonate with you and work with your students. Try our different techniques until you find a good fit for your virtual learning experiences. Whether you are a teacher, student or parent you should communicate openly with others in your virtual classroom about what is working best for you. 

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