Responding to COVID-19: Transitioning to Online Classrooms

By Ben Linford, author of Labyrinth Learning’s Microsoft® Word 2019 & 365 Comprehensive

With the spread of the Coronavirus, more and more schools are preparing to move the majority of their classrooms online in the case of a public health lockdown. Such rapid implementation of these measures is proving, in many cases, to be a challenge. We’d like to help minimize the stress inherent in making this switch, especially for teachers and schools who may be unfamiliar with online solutions available. Read on for suggestions on how to successfully prepare, cultivate, and implement online classes as quickly as possible.

The Basics: Moving Essential Classroom Elements Online

A typical classroom is conducted in three phases that are repeated for each new subject:

  1. Learning consists of reading, lecture, initial experimentation, or any other methodology specifically meant to help students learn the material.
  2. Working consists of classroom assignments or projects, the actual deliverables students submit to increase their familiarity with the given subject.
  3. Testing is the exam given, typically at the end, where a student proves, in a controlled environment, their understanding of the material.

As teachers, most of us are very familiar with each of these classroom phases. Let’s explore solutions for moving each of these three phases online.

Throughout this article, I’ll be including a BUNCH of links to various resources and help pages. Many of us have a tendency to skip past the links in articles we read, but I highly recommend you pause and consider each link to see whether it’s useful to you and your needs in switching to an online environment. I’ll also include a full list of links, with descriptions, at end. If the company or service you use is not listed in this article, chances are they’ve also begun preparations for adapting to the restrictions brought on by COVID-19, and I encourage you to Google what may be available, for example, “[company/service name] options for switching to online” or similar. These links and solutions are included only as suggestions, and Labyrinth is not affiliated with nor do we receive any payment from these various companies for linking to them.

No matter which of these various solutions for learning, working, and testing you choose to implement, I highly recommend providing yourself with backup options as well. For example, Zoom is a great way to connect with students online, but considering its popularity (plus the fact that it’s free), Zoom servers might become overwhelmed if a mass lockdown is initiated as the virus spreads, and more and more people are forced to use it to connect.

Learning       

Teachers employ a variety of tools to help students learn new material. Reading, online resources, and classroom videos are fairly easy to move online by creating and sharing Google Docs or uploading videos to YouTube. Lectures, however, are a different matter entirely. How does one give a lecture online?

A variety of online video conferencing solutions are available to help you move your lectures online. Zoom is particularly popular right now; it’s completely free, provided you have fewer than 100 attendees inside your virtual lecture space. Plus, they’re hard at work making sure they’re prepared for educators who will be switching to online teaching. Teachers can annotate and share their screens, record lectures for later use (or upload them for student viewing), break the classroom into smaller groups, etc. Students can raise a virtual hand to let teachers know they have questions, type questions into a chat box, or speak live to ask questions. Check out Zoom’s comprehensive guide to educating with the platform or this guide from Tufts University educators.

Zoom attendees can use either a computer or a mobile device to attend your Zoom sessions, so it casts a wide net as far as availability and ease of use.

Other free options include Skype, NewRow, and Big Blue Button; you can also use Facebook Live or YouTube Live. Paid services include Vedamo, LearnCube, Adobe Connect, and Electa Live.

Essentially, you have two options when it comes to lecturing online. You can either hold your lectures live and have students attend via a device, or you can record your lecture and upload it for students to view on their own time (use any online video platform, including YouTube, to do this). Either option has its own pros and cons.

Advantages Disadvantages
Live Lecture You can take live questionsAllows person-to-person interaction Interruptions will occur frequently, especially at first, as everyone is getting used to the new system
Uploaded Lecture Students watch on their own timeNo risk of interruption due to microphone noise from students You can’t take live questions

You’ll need screen recording software to record a lecture. Zoom provides it, as does YouTube. You can also purchase screen recording software, such as Camtasia.

A word of advice: Whichever option you choose, don’t plan anything for the first lecture! Instead, make the first lecture an “Introduction to Zoom” or “Let’s meet our new online classroom!” You’ll almost certainly experience problems in that first lecture (connection issues, sound issues, etc.). Instead of planning curriculum content for that first lecture, plan to resolve the problems that almost certainly will occur. Even if you’re simply recording a lecture, it’s a great idea to keep the first one to just a minute or two as a trial run, something students can use, without pressure, to make sure they understand the system. Trying to cover important curriculum content in an environment under stress due to technical issues is nowhere teachers or their students want to be. Remove that risk as best you can.

Working

Chances are, you’re already been assigning classwork or homework that, at least in part, uses online resources. Perhaps your school uses Canvas or Blackboard or a similar LMS (learning management system). If so, you’re already familiar with using these solutions to have students submit their work. If you don’t use any of these options, a couple of great (and free) places you can use to begin accepting submissions and managing your online classrooms are Google Classroom or Edmodo. Both offer solutions for communicating with and accepting submissions from students.

While I suggest ultimately moving your assignments onto online platforms such as Google Docs, you can use paper and pencil assignments in an online environment. For example, students can use mobile devices to quickly snap photos of their completed assignments and submit those to you.

Testing

Testing in an online environment can be a significant challenge, especially considering the difficulty in proctoring tests properly to ensure students are not cheating. However, there are some solutions that, while not a permanent solution, will get you by during any potential lockdowns

If you’re already planning to use Zoom for lecturing, might I recommend using it for testing as well. With Zoom, you can keep an eye on your students to make sure they’re not looking for answers, and you can also use private messaging to get individual answers to test questions. For example, you can begin your Zoom session and ask a question verbally or put up a list of questions on the screen. Then, you can either use Zoom’s private messaging to open individual chats with each student, allowing them to submit their answers directly to you, or simply have them enter their answers into a Google Doc, which they then share with you.

In the end, the nature of this type of testing makes it difficult to conduct in an online environment. Considering this, the best solution may be to simply adapt your test to something more suitable. For example, rather than giving students a multiple choice exam, have students do a “production test,” where they produce proof of understanding by writing an essay, or doing a science project and taking pictures, or giving a Zoom presentation.

Steps You Can Take NOW

There are many steps you can take right now to start preparing your online classroom for use in the event of a potential COVID-19-related lockdown. Sign up for an account on the various solutions you choose and run a test. Use your classroom time (while you still have it) to show students how it works. Send a handout (and an email) to parents telling them your plan. Do everything you can now to lessen the burden for if/when the switch happens in your area. The more you do to prepare early, the easier the transition will be, should a lockdown occur.

A great way to get your school and classroom ready is to hold an “online day” where no one comes to school and, instead, everyone tries the online system from home. That way, you can identify challenges early, and when everyone comes to school the next day, help to address them with the advantage of being physically present, something you won’t have if you wait to test things until the lock down. Trust me, it’s far more difficult trying to resolve things over the phone than it is being physically present.

For Labyrinth customers, there are also a wide variety of tools for making online classrooms as user-friendly as possible. Labyrinth textbooks are available online, and the eLab is a great way to accept student submissions. You can use the assignments already built into eLab or create your own.

Adapt, Postpone, or Cancel

I’m sure anyone familiar with teaching online already knows that certain aspects of the online environment necessitate some changes to teaching style. Simply put, you must be willing to change some things. It’s not possible to teach your classes online in the same way you teach classes in the classroom. It’s just different. As suggested previously, you may have to find a way to submit pictures of completed assignments, as submitting paper assignments isn’t possible online.

Choose the tools and solutions that provide the most “bang for the buck.” Rather than trying to come up with ways to personalize online education for individual students, step back and focus on making sure your solutions cast as wide a net as possible. We all have particular students who we know are going to struggle more than others with the switch to online (typically, they’re the same students who were already struggling), but for now, don’t focus your efforts on accommodating those students. Instead, focus your efforts on a one-size-fits-ALL strategy as much as you can. If that’s not possible, then go for one-size-fits-MOST. Once you have that in place, you can start making small, individualized adjustments. For classes that are very difficult to teach outside the classroom, such as lab-based science classes or public-speaking classes, just do your best. It won’t be ideal but, again, find that one-size-fits-all solution first so main concepts can be taught—even if not in the most ideal way.

If there’s something you had planned in your physical classroom that’s too challenging to bring to an online classroom, don’t. Instead, adapt it, postpone it, or cancel it. For example, if you have an upcoming science fair, don’t try to force it to work with an online platform by having everyone be on Zoom at the same time to virtually “walk” through the exhibits. Rather:

  • Adapt by having students use mobile phones to record a 2–5 minute presentation and upload it, allowing teachers and other students to watch it on their own time.
  • Postpone that assignment until after the lockdown has passed and everyone is back in class.
  • Cancel the assignment entirely and replace it with something more manageable in an online setting, such as a research report.

Choose what’s best for YOUR class.

Finally, Don’t Worry!

I cannot emphasize this enough: THINGS WILL SHAKE OUT IN THE END. Certain students will step up and get the work done on their own, others will email you constantly with questions, and still others will require extra attention and harping from you to make sure they turn the work in on time. It may seem like absolute chaos at first, but things will even out. It will be okay. While there are bound to be some challenges in switching over, and a mistake or two here or there, you’ll find that most students and parents understand the circumstances and are willing to accommodate. Even just a few years ago, switching temporarily to a fully online classroom would have been far more challenging.

I’ve heard a lot of concern that students will try to “take advantage” of the online system in order to do less work, or that the online system “naturally” allows for students to get away with doing less, or that certain students “need” physical interaction, or any number of other reasons why online simply won’t work. While I completely understand the reasoning behind these worries, please be assured that most of them are far less of a problem than one may initially assume. Moving online is not better or worse in these aspects, it’s simply different. Students have been cutting corners since time immemorial, and they will do so whether online or otherwise.

Just do the best you can, and everyone (including you!), will eventually find ways to adapt. We’re human; it’s in our nature to adapt when we must. Some of the students you’re most worried about will surprise you and do well in the online environment. Others won’t, but that’s okay! Students will still have to fulfill the same assignment requirements whether online or in the classroom, and again, their doing so will not be better or worse, just different. If they fail to meet deadlines or fulfill assignment requirements, they’ll have to face the consequences just like they would in a regular classroom. Trust that this “difference” is not a bad thing and just let it go. Do your best to prepare, plan for extra time to resolve issues, and let the temporarily online class go forward as best you can.

Full List of Links/Resources

Google Classroom, Google Docs/Google Drive

Google Classroom: https://edu.google.com/products/classroom/?modal_active=none

How to create new docs: https://edu.gcfglobal.org/en/googlespreadsheets/creating-google-docs/1/

How to share Google docs: https://support.google.com/drive/answer/2494822?co=GENIE.Platform%3DDesktop&hl=en

Labyrinth

Labyrinth Online Learning: http://www.lablearning.com/Distance-Learning/

YouTube

How to upload videos: https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/57407?co=GENIE.Platform%3DAndroid&hl=en-GB

Zoom

Tufts University guide to using Zoom for the classroom: http://tuftsedtech.screenstepslive.com/s/19028/m/94934/l/1213459-how-can-i-use-zoom-to-pre-record-lectures

Use Zoom to record lectures: https://otl.du.edu/knowledgebase/using-zoom-to-record-a-video-presentation/

Zoom homepage: https://zoom.us/home?zcid=2478

Zoom’s preparations for COVID-19, resources for use in classroom: https://blog.zoom.us/wordpress/2020/03/06/how-to-use-zoom-for-online-learning/

Zoom’s “Comprehensive Guide” on how to give lectures: https://zoom.us/docs/doc/Comprehensive%20Guide%20to%20Educating%20Through%20Zoom.pdf?zcid=1231&_ga=2.105634948.685729637.1584026206-153802096.1584026206

Other

Adobe Connect: https://www.adobe.com/products/adobeconnect.html

Big Blue Button: https://bigbluebutton.org/

Camtasia: https://www.techsmith.com/video-editor.html

Edmodo: https://new.edmodo.com/?go2url=%2Fhome

Electa Live: https://www.e-lecta.com/

Facebook Live in the classroom: https://www.weareteachers.com/facebook-live-in-the-classroom/

LearnCube: https://www.learncube.com/

NewRow: https://www.newrow.com/virtual-classroom/

Skype: https://education.skype.com/

Vedamo: https://www.vedamo.com/

Using YouTube to record lectures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0i9C8GpRedc

YouTube Live in the classroom: https://www.edtechteam.com/blog/2018/07/3-ways-teachers-can-use-youtube-to-save-time/

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