The joys and challenges of COVID19 online teaching and learning

In NSW, Australia, school students will return to face-to-face learning in the classroom full time from Monday 25 May. As a teacher and parent, I couldn’t be happier. As a teacher, I miss my students. As a parent, I feel my child needs the teaching expertise of her teachers, which are beyond what I can offer as a parent. So on the day before things move to new normal, I thought I’d reflect on my own joys and challenges of COVID19 online teaching and learning, from the perspective of a teacher and a parent.

Equipment set up for online teaching

I absolutely loved learning new ways of working with technology

In just under two months, I think I have learnt what I would usually learn with technology in 12 months. This included new ways of using Google Classroom, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Screentastify, Loom, Explain Everything, Microsoft Whiteboard, Microsoft Stream. You name it, I probably learnt it. Leading whole school technology meant that I had to learn probably a lot more than others in order to make recommendations for whole school approaches. It meant learning as many digital tools available, evaluating the pros and cons for your own school context, setting up whole school processes, communicating the case for change and then supporting all teachers, students and their families through the change processes, in a very narrow timeframe without the luxury of the usual consultation and prototyping processes. These are complex processes without COVID19.

We evaluated over 1200 surveys to establish a whole school approach to online teaching and learning.
One of the whole school approaches to online teaching and learning was how every teacher used Google Classroom so students have a consistent user experience.

Seeing some students thrive in online learning

Some of my students thrived in the flexible approach to online learning from home. These were the students who already worked well independently and had strong metacognition and self-regulation skills. They were able to work at their own pace and not be dictated by the school bell. If they needed more time to do their maths, they could. They could continue learning without being forced to move to another subject and class. If they finished early, they can pursue personal interests. Some of my Year 12s liked doing their work at 9pm the night before and sleep in the next day. Some students were able to better fit in their class work with their family schedules. For example, they could do their class work before school started so they can go to a medical appointment in the afternoon.

It was hard, very hard to be a teacher and parent simultaneously

On some days, I worked from home. This meant I had to be a teacher for my own students and support my own child to learn from home. There were some days in late Term 1 (when there were very high new cases of COVID19 being reported each day) where we decided to keep our younger child at home from day care. These were really challenging times. I had to schedule my own Zoom lessons around my five-year-old’s Zoom lessons, juggle supporting my own students on Google Classroom and helping my five-year-old with her work on Seesaw, timing the three-year-old nap times around Zoom meetings and ensuring I didn’t use YouTube and the TV too much as a babysitter. I have never want to have to do this ever again.

But I became a better teacher by being a part of my child’s learning

While I never want to go through teaching online from home and being a parent supporting online learning from home ever again, I did learn to be a better teacher from playing a larger part than usual in my own child’s learning. Being 5 years old, my child cannot operate Zoom and Seesaw independently so I often sat next to her to help her mute and unmute, and to type or take photos on Seesaw. I learnt a lot of new teaching skills while watching my child’s teacher teach on Zoom and how she structured the learning on Seesaw, which I used with my own students. High school teachers have a lot to learn from primary school teachers.

Numeracy activity on Seesaw on an iPad as an example of online learning from home.
My child using Seesaw during online learning from home.

I’m really glad things are moving on from tomorrow

While I enjoyed many parts of online teaching and learning, I’m really excited that things are moving to a new normal from tomorrow. I can’t wait to have all my students back in the classroom and my child cannot wait to have teacher back. And I’m excited to be able to get new home readers.

Photo of a classroom set up with individual desks apart.
My classroom set up for the return of students on Monday.

Parent teacher conferences on Zoom

Our school’s usual parent teacher conferences happen in the hall. It’s like speed dating where each teacher has a small desk in the school hall and parents move from one teacher to another. However, COVID19 means we can’t run our parent teacher conferences in our usual way. So we decided to use Zoom. Overall it was a success. We had 78 teachers hold hundreds and hundreds of conferences.

How we did it

Our school uses the NSW Education Zoom so only people with a Zoom account can enter a meeting room. Each meeting room has a password and a waiting room. The teacher is the host of their own meeting room and they have to let the parents in from the waiting room. We used the following steps to set up the conferences.

  1. We used Edval for parents to book times. Usually we allocate 5 minute blocks per teacher. This time we allocated 10 minutes so there was enough buffer time to make sure all conferences ran on schedule.
  2. We created a meeting room for each teacher. In the future, we will use each teacher’s personal Zoom meeting room.
  3. We created a parent guide to explain how to create a Zoom account and how to join meetings. The parent guide listed all teachers’ meeting room IDs and passwords. We decided to send out meeting room IDs rather than links as it was less overwhelming and easier for parents using tablets for Zoom.
  4. We created a teacher guide with step by step instructions. We emphasised teachers need to effectively manage the waiting room and stick to their conference schedule.
  5. We encouraged students to be part of the conference and help their parents with Zoom.

Zoom enabled teachers to share their screens so they can show student samples of work to parents. This would not be possible over the phone.

COVID19 can make us feel isolated. A Zoom parent teacher conference, where you can see each other’s faces, is very valuable in fostering the school-home relationships in these uncertain times.

5 things I’ve learnt to improve my online live lessons

In NSW, Australia, NSW public schools moved to a ‘learning from home’ model on 24 May 2020, due to increased restrictions to combat COVID-19. Parents were asked to keep their children at home if they could learn from home Overnight, we moved from face to face teaching to online remote teaching and learning. Like many other teachers, I started to experiment with using online meetings. This is what I have found to be useful.

1. Play around with different tools

I tested Adobe Connect, Microsoft Teams and Zoom for online live lessons with my classes. Overall, I prefer to use Zoom with my students for the following reasons:

  • Many of them already use it with family and friends.
  • Many of their parents use it so they know how to help if required.
  • It has breakout rooms that is easy to set up and use (more on this later).
  • It generates a meeting link that you can use over and over. I have this link as the top post on Google Classroom so it is easy to find for students. See here for instructions on how to create a link for recurring meetings.

For staff teams, I prefer Microsoft Teams for online meetings as it offers a more efficient experience. Microsoft Teams is the easiest to run an online meeting when you have everyone you need in your Team. You literally just click a button and voila! I like how Microsoft Teams allows for staff teams to be broken into smaller teams through Channels (Eg. Our Year 7 Middle School team has a main Microsoft Team and then the STEM teachers and Humanities teachers have their own Channels. If you run a science faculty for example, you can have all of your teachers in the main Channel and then break off smaller teams of teachers into their own Channels like a separate Channel for each Year 11/12 subject.) In those channels, teachers can easily run their own online meetings.

You can also collectively take notes while you have an online meeting in Microsoft Teams. We ran an executive meeting on Teams and notes were taken live during the meeting. Everyone can see the minutes being entered.

You can also schedule online meetings in Microsoft Teams, but it’s trickier than Zoom if you work in a NSW public school. The video below shows how to do it. It’s important to let colleagues know who is starting the live meeting. Otherwise you may have enthusiastic teachers going into Teams early and then starting the meeting and end up two different meetings happening simultaneously.

After a few weeks of testing, it’s important to discuss a whole school approach to online meetings and come to a consensus on which online meeting tool to use with students. This is particularly important in high school where a student can have up to 8 different teachers and it will be challenging for them to use a different online meeting tool for each teacher.

2. Keep online live lessons short

I like to keep online live lessons at around 20 to 30 minutes. Our school periods are 50 minutes and that is way too long in an online lesson environment. Think about the purpose of the online live lesson. If it’s to explicitly explain a concept (eg. how to add fractions with different denominators), then it is better to record a video rather than a live meeting. I like to use live meetings for welfare check-in’s, collaborative discussions and feedback; basically things that cannot be done effectively with a recorded video on online posts.

3. Use breakout rooms

I like to use breakout rooms in Zoom for students to have small group discussions (about 3 to 4 students). Breakout rooms are where you can send students into their own online meeting spaces and you as the teacher can ‘drop in’ and monitor each one. It’s the online version of separating students into smaller groups in a classroom and the teacher walking around. Students have more opportunities to actively participate in an online discussion and some are more willing to when they are in smaller groups. You can randomly assign students to breakout rooms or choose your own student groups.

Breakout rooms can also be done in Microsoft Teams.

4. Give students something to do while they are waiting

In a regular face to face classroom, I start every class with a quick quiz. This is for several reasons:

  • Retrieval practice – The questions I set requires them to remember content they have learnt in previous lessons, which helps them to consolidate the information into their long term memory.
  • Classroom management – As soon as students walk in, they have something to do. They have to unpack their equipment and they have to engage with the course work straight away. It allows me to manage students coming into the classroom at different times. Some may be coming from the classroom next door and others are walking from the other end of the school. The quick quiz mean I have a five minute window of ensuring everyone is on task and attentive. It’s a good crowd control strategy. I can also mark the roll.

An online live lesson is very similar to a face to face class. Some students will log on before you do. Others will log on a few seconds after you. And others will log in minutes later. I like to use the Polls feature in Zoom for retrieval practice. I usually do 3 to 5 multiple choice questions for them to do in Polls while I allow students into the meeting from the lobby.

I also like to use the Whiteboard feature to tell them they need to be answering the questions in Polls, list the meeting’s agenda, learning goals, etc.

5. Set and practise routines

An online live class needs to have learning routines and they need to be explicitly taught, just like in a face to face classroom. I like to start my online live classes the same way every time – the quick quiz in Polls and use the Whiteboard to communicate what we are doing in this online class (and tick them off as we go). Students know they have to use the hands up features to ask a question and they know when and why to use the chat. Some teachers like to disable the chat, but I like it. Yes, my students have used it to talk about irrelevant things, but 99% of the time they use the chat to help each other and alert me to technical issues (like the YouTube clip I’m trying to share is glitchy).

Overall, my students really value live online classes. I think they value the connection with each other and with their teachers. As we move into Term 2 where they may be a continuation with remote teaching or some sort, I would like my students to lead the online live lessons more. Have them share their screens and show their work or use breakout rooms where there is a student leader to facilitate the discussions.