Quality Digital Learning Needs Traditional Teaching Techniques

February 23, 2021

As in other areas of life, the history of education now has a B.C. period — before COVID-19. This spring saw instructors scrambling to take their classes online as the pandemic’s spread made in-person classes too dangerous. Through no fault of their own, teachers were ill-prepared for this shift. Their effort was nothing short of valiant, but education still suffered. One key element, that seems to have been widely overlooked, is the fact that digital learning needs traditional teaching techniques in order to be effective.

While teachers enter the fall semester with battle-won experience, the majority still suffer from two fundamental misunderstandings concerning online education. The first involves the conflation of remote teaching and digital learning. The second is a misconception of what a more sophisticated digital-age pedagogy does—and does not—demand. 

A rich online-learning experience does not require teachers to abandon traditional teaching techniques. Quite the opposite.  Rather, it includes new tools that can maximize the potential of tried educational staples. 

As we begin the next phase, we need to push beyond simple remote instruction and take advantage of this forced opportunity to grow as educators. We need to sustain proven pedagogical practice, translating it into an online format. 

Digital learning needs traditional teaching techniques. Teachers need to form partnerships that enable us to supplement conventional materials with newer tools — ones that will benefit them and their students even after the pandemic has passed.

Remote Instruction vs. Online Learning

Many assume that COVID-19 has accelerated and advanced online education and poised us for an effective hybrid in years to come. This assumption is misguided and optimistic. Instead, the conflation of remote instruction with online learning sets up academia for a backlash against the latter.

UC Davis’s Keep Teaching website offers this useful distinction between the two:

  • Remote instruction: Moving content designed for face-to-face instruction online for limited or one-time-only course instruction
  • Online teaching and learning: The purposeful design and implementation of an online course to support online teaching and learning. Courses are designed and facilitated according to best practices for online teaching and learning

Even the definitions import a comparative value judgment, pointing to the “best practices” for online courses. And yet, UC Davis follows this with an exhortation that inexperienced teachers aim only for remote teaching — at least, for Spring 2020. When teachers had only a week to effect a massive shift, this preference made some amount of sense. But now we must enact more ambitious plans to better benefit our students.

Taking Traditional Teaching Techniques to the Internet

The primary criterion that determines an online class’s success is the same as it is for an in-person class: student engagement. If the students aren’t invested in the environment and the material, they won’t learn. 

But how do we keep students engaged without in-person interactions, which naturally facilitate active and reciprocal relationships between student and teacher? How can we avoid defaulting to passive learning? Recorded lectures and posted readings are relatively easy to generate, but this content lacks the mutual feedback vital to the transmission of knowledge. 

The answer lies in the translation of proven teaching techniques to the digital classroom, allowing teachers to take advantage of both traditional and modern teaching methods. We might be driving new and unfamiliar vehicles, but that doesn’t mean we should reinvent the wheel.

Real-Time Lectures and Discussions: Tips For Engaging Your Class During Class Time

Some lecture material can — and should — be recorded and distributed rather than live-streamed. Both professors and students benefit from greater flexibility in scheduling, but there is still a need for real-time interaction between students and teachers. 

The forced transition to distance learning has introduced the academy to online communication platforms that allow teachers to engage numerous students at once. The omnipresent Zoom may be the most popular, but — if you have the freedom to do so — it’s worth checking out a variety of competitors to find one that best fits your needs. 

You should also ask yourself how your students will be accessing your classroom. If many of them will need to rely on their phones, select a platform such as Zoom or Slack with apps that work well on mobile devices. 

To make this real-time engagement as fruitful as possible, you should follow a few key practices.

Provide Technical Support 

It doesn’t matter how personable and brilliant you are as an instructor if your students can’t access your classroom. Check into resources that your institution has available. Many universities offer both students and teachers training in new digital platforms. Suggest that your students complete these tutorials prior to the first class. 

While some schools have moderators designated to assist during class time, some of the burden may still fall on you. Learn how to troubleshoot the most basic problems, and watch for issues that might arise throughout the class. 

Set Up Your Home “Classroom” 

There are a lot of factors to take into account when setting the scene. Once you’ve gotten the students there, you still need to make sure that they can see and hear you without distractions. 

Practice with your webcam and audio equipment. Place your camera at eye level if possible, and stay a comfortable distance from it. Backlighting will result in a dark professor silhouette rather than a recognizably human instructor, so adjust your lighting accordingly. 

When speaking, you want to use a comfortable speaking voice. Over-projecting can create feedback, but you should also ensure that you’re audible. Check in with students at the beginning of class to make sure they can hear you.

Your space should be uncluttered and neutral, allowing students to focus on you. It should also be quiet. You don’t want to compete with your washing machine or loud music next door. Don’t be afraid to ask neighbors to adjust their volume. 

Many digital platforms have an option to record online meetings—take advantage of it. Then you can assess and refine both your home classroom and your delivery.

Use Group and Chatroom Functions Strategically 

Groupwork and small, independent discussion are still possible online! Zoom has a breakout function in which large meetings can subdivide into smaller ones, and many other platforms also offer ways for smaller groups to connect. 

Unlike in an in-person classroom, you will not be able to supervise and direct everyone at once, so it becomes more important to focus them productively beforehand. Make sure that groups are sent off with specific objectives rather than vague instructions to discuss a topic.

As for the group text function, don’t let it entirely replace or distract from oral discussion. Instead, use this feature as you would a blackboard — but one with internet access. Write down certain names, titles, or resources for your students to add to their notes. You can also send out links to outside material or invite them to answer questions or take surveys through Google Forms or Formative, ways to make lectures more interactive.

Students also have access to a chat function. In fact, text is sometimes the most reliable means of communication if students are having trouble with audio or visual features. Moreover, speaking up in an online meeting is often a more intimidating proposition than in person. Allowing shier students to volunteer comments in writing opens up a means of participation for them. 

In addition, you can invite student feedback and questions during lectures. Just don’t forget to check in periodically so that you can address them.

Set the Right Emotional Tone

Odds are, you’re anxious and stressed. Already overworked and frustrated, teachers found themselves facing Herculean challenges when COVID-19 hit. Take care of yourself, ask for the institutional support you need, and try not to infect your already worried students with your concerns. They’re having enough trouble with their own.

Stay positive and connected. Psychologists have found that students actually take in information more effectively from an instructor who appears happy because they’re undistracted by concerns over the instructor’s emotional state. You can also reinforce the sense of a person-to-person interaction by making eye contact (as much as you can) and using personal pronouns.

Hold Office Hours

For some teachers, taking office hours online has begged the question: why didn’t we do this years ago? The remote location and greater flexibility in hours have made them more accessible to some students

Whether you wish to independently schedule meetings with students or make yourself available to all at a designated time, don’t let office hours be a casualty of the pandemic. More than ever, students need to be able to talk with you about their concerns regarding course material and the way their personal challenges affect their ability to participate in the class. 

Student situations are particularly fluid at this time, so make sure students feel comfortable reaching out throughout the course.

Feedback and Forums: Tips For Engaging Your Students Out of Class

According to a recent article in Education Week, one of the biggest mistakes made by newcomers to teaching remotely has been the assumption that live instruction should overwhelmingly predominate. Not so. Much of online education takes place outside of official class hours, through assignments and provided media.

Students need a variety of ways to connect with material and the other members in a course’s community, but how can teachers supplement regular class hours in distance learning? Two methods that can help replicate or replace lost opportunities involve encouraging student-to-student interaction and rethinking feedback and assignment schedules. 

Give Regular, Constructive Feedback

Regular, constructive feedback should already be part of your teaching toolkit and incorporated into any class you teach. In digital learning, the need for consistent evaluation becomes even more important. It’s all too easy for students to feel lost when all teaching is conducted at a distance. Allow them to track their progress and mastery of the material with regular assessments, and incorporate personalized feedback on how to improve. 

While written comments are the standard, it might be time to try one of the new possibilities that technology makes possible, such as video or audio feedback

Instead of typing out your thoughts at the end of a report, record a short message. Letting students hear or see you gives the feedback an air of immediacy and personalization that can be lost through writing. 

Your inflection can also help students understand and triage your suggestions. As an added bonus, recording a short message rather than crafting a long note might save you some time — just be sure to get straight to the point. 

Rethink Your Assignment Schedule

Instead of simply cutting work or lowering standards — popular solutions in the spring — try to assign work that’s due at more regular intervals. Help your students manage their timelines for longer projects or change them out for a greater number of smaller projects. Students will feel more consistently accountable for their participation and performance. 

In addition, an increased frequency of exchanges between teacher and students will enable the continual feedback championed above, giving you more opportunities to assess students’ work and individually guide them.

Promote Student-to-Student Learning

This crisis hasn’t just deprived students of their teacher’s presence. It’s deprived them of one another. Peer communication improves students’ abilities to process and retain information, an axiom as true of online education as it is elsewhere. These connections further contribute to the perception of community within a classroom, one way in which people connect to their coursework. 

You can facilitate these interactions in a variety of ways: small group discussion, discussion boards, group assignments, study groups, and more. Have some of these built into your syllabus from the first day, but also give your students the opportunity to impact the framework of the course. 

A lack of in-person interaction has led many students to struggle more with self-motivation. Ask them what they would find most helpful. Do they need prompted discussion boards with specific assignments? A general forum for them to ask one another questions as they come up? Even the simple act of encouraging students to contact one another can help motivate them to reach out for accountability partners.

Finding a Partner: Online Course Providers

Partnership is important for teachers as well as students. Partnering with an online course provider such as Caduceus gives you the structure and support you and your students need for the best digital learning experience, freeing you to focus on what you do best.

While some institutions have spent their summers working with their professors to develop high-quality immersive courses for this fall, most leave instructors to their own devices, causing the majority to default to videotaped lectures and emailed assignments. Let us help! Our systems were not cobbled together in the midst of panic and pandemic. We have a seventeen-year history of proven success in online instruction, specializing in health science.

A Digital Classroom Should Be an Ecosystem

In the midst of this crisis, there is also opportunity. With adaptable material, an online course provider can work with you to develop a more complex and responsive learning community that provides for the individual as well as the group. An effective digital age classroom should be an ecosystem, allowing for the interaction between teacher, students, and material in ways that enable organic learning experiences.

The digital space presents the opportunity to use new tools to assist traditional methods. Caduceus can supplement course material with multimedia content. For example, we offer 3D models to assist student understanding of anatomy. We also help ensure student accountability as testing moves online with an online proctoring service.

A good OCP should ease the adaptation of differentiated instruction, a principle widely employed in K-12 classes, to higher education. In addition to providing assessment tools, Caduceus’s content allows for multiple approaches to a topic, engaging people with different learning styles. Having material online further creates opportunities for dynamic engagement and recursive learning, both hallmarks of differentiated instruction. 

A Digital Classroom Should Have a Dedicated Support Structure

The teacher should not have to pull double duty as IT staff for their website. Through our toll-free support line and online service, Caduceus will always respond with dedicated support staff, not an automated directory. You can rest easy in the knowledge that access issues will be resolved with speed and competence. 

There and Back Again: Post-Pandemic Teaching

As hard as it can be to remain hopeful in these times, the immediate health crisis will end, leaving a changed world behind it. 

In some ways, that world will have changed for the better. The pandemic has forced teachers to innovate and become more flexible, leaving them with traits and tools they can put to good use even when in-person instruction again becomes prevalent. The specific challenges and opportunities of delivering content through platforms such as Zoom can even aid teachers with their discussion and oratory skills. 

In the meantime, we’re here for you. For more tips on COVID-era teaching, see our post, “Helping Students Thrive During the Pandemic.” 
And contact Caduceus today to discover how a partnership with us can prepare you and your students for success — regardless of the world in which you find yourself.

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