It’s day 3 for our online classes, and there remain several classes who don’t yet have teachers assigned. We have no system to communicate to students and their families, so as their anxiety grows, so does my inbox.
My morning was spent teaching online: two classes of 38 students each, with a 10 minute break between the two-hour classes. Near the end my webcam failed, and so I was a disembodied voice to bring the class to conclusion.
There was a theme of similar “technology fails” throughout my afternoon correspondence. And this has me thinking about how this new “classroom” is so different from what most people think of when they think “school”.
Rather than hallways, where students wait to enter the class at the bell, we have “waiting rooms” for our MS Teams or Google Meet class. A login gets a student in easily, but there are students who have forgotten their passwords, and so they request to enter as a “guest”. Most are supposed to be there, and gaining entry allows them to join their classmates. But occasionally a student has shared the class link with a friend, and he or she enters anonymously and creates chaos. When the teacher shuts down the class, and reopens a new session without the intruder, that might be the end of it. But, if the friend sends the new link, the “guest” arrives again. A wise teacher refuses to allow them to enter. So the “guest” changes his name repeatedly to profane or racist words, which pop up as messages like “F…Y… is requesting to join”, or worse. Were this a student in a physical hallway we could address the behaviour, but on the Internet they act with impunity.
In the digital classroom we have tiny images of faces, or nothing at all if the cameras are off. We speak without seeing reactions, and can only trust that they are listening. The students, by contrast, have no choice but to see our faces, up close. Or maybe they’re not watching or listening? But how would we know?
Rather than a show of hands, we ask them to “react” with a “thumbs up”, or “applause”. Not quite as revealing as a facial expression, but immediate and clear. If they aren’t paying attention we get no reaction at all.
The chat tool is a step above having everyone shout out an answer. And they can carry on side conversations with each other in chat without disturbing anyone else.
Rather than working on chart paper on a table, they’re working in Google Docs or Slides. And if they each have a slide, we can see what they’re working on in real time. Their “bubble” appears in the slide sorter, so it’s easy to see if a student is on the wrong page, or missing. At the end of the session everyone can move from slide to slide, together. The entire slide stack remains as a record, with 24/7 access by everyone in the class. (Unlike all the chart paper I would roll up and stack at the back of my classroom.)
While they’re working, they’re in breakout rooms. They can speak as loudly as they wish, and with much more privacy than in a regular classroom. The teacher can pop in and out, sometimes without them noticing, but most times with camera and microphone on.
Bringing the entire group back together results in a cacophony, that ebbs quickly. Rather than a shouted “5 more minutes”, they will have seen a message pop up on their screen with that message. As a teacher, it is a relief not to have shout to get their attention.
What is missing from an online classroom is the chatter as they leave class at the conclusion. It’s a rather abrupt ending, with almost no time needed to get to the next class. The casual conversation that provides a mental break between intensive work is not easy to recreate online. There is no “app” that can connect people without deliberate action, so it’s unlikely that new friendships will develop outside of class.
While teachers in physical classrooms might place independent work high on their priority lists, that now needs to change. Online we need to create deliberate opportunities for social connection; our classes are the only place they will meet new people and develop new relationships.
If we want to nurture our students’ mental wellness, we need to ensure that social-emotional learning is a priority. And we will need to learn and develop new classroom routines for our new digital classrooms.
Please share here what’s working for you. How are you making your classroom a place of connection as well as learning?