Vishal Raina, CEO and founder of California-based YoungWonks, shares his thoughts on tips for delivering the best virtual learning experience during COVID-19:
1. Arrange for a good internet connection: Given that the class is now taking place online, it is imperative to make sure that your internet connection is not patchy. It would be a good idea to perhaps even have a backup of sorts (through an Internet hotspot dongle) in case your home WiFi isn’t doing a good enough job.
2. Ensure total online privacy and safety: Every online teacher needs to recognise the utmost need to ensure this, especially given recent instances of Zoombombing (Zoombombing refers to unwanted intrusions into video conference calls which in turn cause disruption).
a) For starters, the instructor should not allow students / attendees to use fake names while logging in, particularly in online classrooms where students prefer not to switch on their video. This, along with keeping tabs on the final list of attendees expected to join the class, will help weed out any walk-ins/ unregistered participants.
b) Many video conferencing platforms have an online waiting room; so it may be a good idea to have students wait in such an online room, before their attendance is vetted and they are allowed to join the actual online class.
c) Several online meeting platforms allow meetings or classes to be conducted without the need for a password. This should be avoided and instead, instructors should create passwords for signing into the admin account which allows them to start the online class. They should take care to use a strong, unique password, preferably one not used anywhere else; especially since these meetings are attended by kids and student privacy is a sensitive matter that deserves serious attention.
3. Pick a plain background for the online class: Like in a physical classroom, it would do well to have minimal distractions so that students can focus on the subject at hand. In a virtual classroom, the instructor can do so by picking a plain / white background to sit or stand against and teach. In fact, several meeting platforms offer in-built virtual backgrounds.
4. Enable drawing on screen on a case-by-case basis: A good way of enforcing discipline in an online class is to not enable the drawing feature for all students in your class. Before the class begins, it would be good to disable this and allow students to draw on screen after they seek permission from you to do so. This will ensure that kids get to draw only when needed. Allowing all students to draw, instead of letting them do so on a case-by-case basis – can lead to unwarranted nuisance and waste of crucial class time.
5. Hosting rights: The host of an online meeting (read: classroom in this case) typically has many overruling rights and hence it is important to make sure that these rights are not misused or passed on easily. To begin with, it is recommended to disable the “join before host” feature, which means no one will be able to join the online class in the absence of the teacher. This will ensure better student supervision. Similarly, it is also advised to avoid sharing host rights with students. Often the settings in video conference apps are such that the meeting host changes automatically in the event of the original host having a weak Internet connection. It would be wise to change such a default setting so that the hosting rights do not pass on to a student in the online class.
6. Clamping down on unnecessary chatting between students: Much like in a physical classroom, it is important to contain the distractions and one way of doing this is making sure that the chat settings are in order. This means that the chats in the online classroom should be sent to everyone and individual/ private chats between students is disabled. Muting all students by default is also a standard move in an online classroom. Of course, the teacher would have to keep telling students to unmute themselves before talking and mute themselves after talking.
7. Encourage use of the raise hand feature: In digital classrooms, teachers must explain and encourage the use of raise hand features provided by the online meeting platforms. Often too many students have a query or a point to be made at the same time and the raise hand feature comes in handy in such situations. It basically keeps track of the order in which hands were raised and allows students to speak up accordingly.
8. Use breakout rooms whenever needed: In digital classrooms where you wish to break up your students into smaller groups, using a virtual breakout room is a good idea. This will allow students to split into smaller sets where they can work on their project / assignment even as the teacher gets to move between groups and keep track of each group’s progress. However, such virtual breakout rooms are ideal for older, self-driven kids that do not need constant monitoring.
9. Take time out to explain how an online class works: This may sound trivial, except it is far from it. Even in today’s day and age, many students may find it tough to log into an online class; this is particularly true for younger students. To avoid the ensuing confusion and waste of time, it is better for teachers to follow a standard protocol where they start out by devoting a few minutes to explaining how a digital classroom works, what are the different features being offered by the video conference platform, how the mute and unmute buttons work, and so on. At least in the initial sessions, it would be a good idea to do so.
10. Streamlining the publication of online handouts, assignments: With students no longer turning in their assignments on paper, schools need to figure out a convenient way in which students can submit their online handouts and assignments. Platforms such as Google Classroom, EdOptim are ideal as these are feature-packed school management softwares that facilitate the above in a smooth manner.
11. Sending out meeting links on time: Teachers should take care to email meeting links well before the class is scheduled to begin. Often parents and students just end up waiting for the meeting link and join the class a lot later so it certainly helps if one is organised about sending these links. Often, parents may request that teachers do not change the meeting link as it is convenient for everyone to just go to the same one each time. But it is important for teachers to evaluate the pros and cons of doing so. While retaining the same link is no doubt convenient and can be time-saving (it does away with the need to send out a new one for each session), doing so also increases the chances of non-participants joining the session. In case of meetings with unique links, it is important for teachers to send them across well in advance and not at the last minute.
12. Opt for meeting platforms where distance learning is integrated into the student portal itself: A meeting that can be logged into by accessing the link from a student portal is typically more secure than one where one awaits the link to be shared via a different channel. Also, accessing the link from a password-protected portal also means there is no need for a link to be generated by the teacher hosting each session. This in turn helps avoid outsiders and a scenario where parents and students end up waiting for the said meeting link.