One of the most important lessons Sophie Abitbol learned during the Stanford course Teaching Your Class Online: Essentials and Practice was to keep things simple – technology-wise – when she welcomes students into their virtual classroom this fall.

Lisa Hicks, who teaches philosophy at Stanford Online High School, was one of seven instructors who led small group sessions during the “Teaching Your Class Online” course designed for middle school and high school teachers. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“We have to be realistic and start with what we know, which is teaching and kids,” said Abitbol, who teaches English to 9th and 12th graders at Burlingame High School, a public high school in Burlingame, California. “The technology bells and whistles will follow.”

Abitbol was one of thousands of middle school and high school teachers from across the country and around the world who participated in the virtual courses offered through Stanford Continuing Studies and taught by veteran instructors from Stanford Online High School, an independent high school within Stanford that offers real-time, online seminars to a worldwide student body – grades 7 to 12.

One course, which was designed for a global audience and attracted 3,000 teachers, focused on the essentials of online teaching. Videos from the course are available here.

Teachers enrolled in the essentials course introduced themselves by chat, saying hello from countries around the globe, including Japan, India, Indonesia, Australia, Brazil, Romania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the United States.

The second course, focused on practice, offered a hands-on workshop devoted to adapting and presenting individual lesson plans in small groups of up to 10 teachers.

Seven instructors from Stanford Online High School, which was founded in 2006, led the practice course, sharing insights from their experience teaching English, math, physics, Latin and history.

Among the 70 teachers who participated in small group sessions, which were organized into humanities and STEM tracks, were 41 teachers from the Bay Area, including schools in San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz and Oakland.

Teaching philosophy remains the same

Meg Lamont, who co-taught the essentials course with Latin instructor John Lanier, said one of the first things instructors told teachers was that their teaching philosophy remains the same whether they are meeting their students in a physical classroom or online.

“They are still the same teacher, the same person,” said Lamont, who is the assistant head of school at the high school. “They will need to adapt some of their techniques to the online format, and sometimes incorporate new techniques made possible by the online setting – like text chat – but all through the lens of their own experience as teachers and their own deeply-held philosophies about teaching.”

Lamont was inspired by the dedication of the teachers who took the five-day courses.

“They had already done a lot in adapting on the fly last spring, and they were so motivated to do more for their students this coming year,” she said.

“One of the most exciting things was seeing them take bigger risks in the practice part of the course – to really engage with trying out something that they knew they wanted to do in their teaching in the fall, but had not been able to accomplish last spring when their school moved online unexpectedly.”

Building supportive communities online

Lamont said teachers in both courses wanted to know how to best connect with students and build a community online. The veteran online instructors shared some key steps:

  • Check-in with all students at least once a week. This is worth live class time, because the more bonded the class is, the more engaged the students tend to be with the course content. In their check-ins, the instructors ask open-ended questions and have every student in the class reply briefly on microphone and camera. This helps create a sense of people in the virtual room and gives the instructor a good sense of different personalities.
  • Make sure to hear from every student every week. It’s easier for a student to disappear online, because they can simply log out of class or not reply to a text chat or email. So be sure to have a touchpoint with every student every week, ideally during the live class, but if not through office hours or another contact.
  • Hold virtual drop-in office hours outside of class time where students can stop by to ask questions, get help or just socialize.
  • In addition to allowing chat during class, consider allowing time for general chat at the beginning of class. If possible, let students stay in the classroom and chat for 5-10 minutes after class ends, too.
  • Sometimes, “low-tech” is the answer – a phone call to a student’s home can do wonders for troubleshooting problems and lettings students know you care.

Lamont, who teaches English, said there are definite benefits to teaching online, such as the ability to share a poem or passage on a whiteboard and invite students to mark it up with her in real-time with notes and observations.

“The online space is also terrific for gathering quick contributions from students, either anonymously – as in a poll – or by asking students to put their answers into chat or a shared document or whiteboard,” she said. “You can gather contributions from all students much more quickly than in a physical classroom.”

Let students chat during class

Lamont said instructors encouraged the teachers to use text chat, which she described as an essential tool for creating bonds in the virtual classroom.

“It provides a real-time call-and-response-type atmosphere in the virtual classroom as students cheer each other on in the chat, raise questions or try out ideas,” she said.

“Many teachers are hesitant to use chat because it feels hard to control and keep track of, but we emphasize that you get used to keeping an eye on it and it has a huge payoff in the classroom, Lamont said. “We’ve also found that for many students, contributing to text chat is less intimidating than speaking aloud, and so it’s a great way to get shy students involved.”

Teresa Kawamata, who teaches Latin at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, said the instructors modeled excellent teaching – by compassionately listening to and acknowledging the challenging situations the teachers are facing and offering possible solutions. They shared their successes as well as their failures.

“What these instructors shared during the past two weeks will have a positive effect on each community they touched,” said Kawamata, who is also a director of faculty at Loyola, a private, college- preparatory high school for boys. “Hopefully, each teacher will go back to her or his community and share the techniques and strategies they learned, and model that collaboration for their students.”