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Online learning is a brave new world. You may feel that you’re starting to get the hang of the online learning experience, but you hope to add a little more depth in the coming weeks. That’s hard to do when your online classroom is like the Wild, Wild West of Cyberspace. 

Mute Buttons

Wouldn’t life be easier if we could wield this tool in real life? Can you even imagine? Kindergarten teachers everywhere would be able to finish sentences without interruption! What a lovely dream.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know when to use the mute button and when to ask students to mute themselves. Here are some guidelines you may want to use or share. 

  1. Whenever participants can self-mute, let them. 

Older students, small groups of students, or students whose parents hover nearby to help out may not need you to control the mute button. 

However, there are many situations in which you may need to take control. Many of those situations may be outside a student’s control, and your only choice will be to mute them.

2. Don’t be afraid to mute, but try other alternatives to combatting noise issues. 

Background noise from family members talking, the television, or young siblings can be very distracting. Remind parents that students need to be able to hear to participate. Ask that they allow their child to work in a room away from any noise or distractions whenever possible, not only for their sake, but for the sake of all of the students in the virtual classroom.

Sometimes there is interference due to poor internet connection, other mechanical devices near the computer, or from the device the student is using (ie: the “ding” every time someone receives a notification on the desktop they are using). All those small noises start to add up in a group of 20 participants.

Instruct students to mute all notifications and silence other technology while in class. Ask them to turn off the television and other devices. If it’s not possible for them to control that, mute them as often as you need to.

Poor internet connection can sometimes be the result of too many people in the home using the internet simultaneously. If you are able to record your lessons, you may need to share them with students for whom your time conflicts.

Sometimes students can fix the issue by turning off their camera, so try this before disconnecting with them.

 If you know you’ll have issues every time you try to have one particular student work with you, plan ahead to have that student only respond through chat, to work with that student separately, or to give them packets to work with. 

  1. When in doubt, mute them out. 

Honestly, there are times when you really need to mute everyone. You can do this while you’re teaching. There will be times when you need to be the only one talking. Side conversations, students making distracting noises on purpose, or interference from other family members can happen at any time and can throw the entire class off.

When you know you’re going to be saying something important, either mute everyone (if that’s an option in the program you’re using) or ask them to mute themselves. Make it a classroom standard, and don’t allow your students to hijack your teaching moments.

In discussions, use functions that allow participants to raise their hands, and have students take turns as much as possible rather than just turning all the mics on.

The only times you really need to have everyone’s mic on is before and after class when they are socializing. Otherwise, it can just become too noisy too quickly. 

Unlike face-to-face learning, students really can’t whisper to each other, or ask questions quietly in a virtual classroom. It just kind of becomes an “all or nothing” thing because of the way mics work.

If your students can’t control their noise levels for any reason, mute them. Yes, you may feel terrible because you seem to have one student who stays on mute due to the fact that their mom can’t seem to understand that she needs to talk to her girlfriends on the phone more quietly (real experience!).

 However, the entire class cannot suffer because of that one parent. You really have to moderate heavily in some situations. 

4. Control your own environment, as well. 

All of these are important issues for teachers to pay attention to in their own space. Controlling your own background noise is very important in keeping students from being distracted. 

  1. Be purposeful in providing students with plenty of opportunities to interact with each other. 

About 10 to 15 minutes before you begin class, consider opening up the classroom for students to use the chatbox and talk to each other. You might even post an ice-breaker discussion topic, like a “Would You Rather” question, or something fun they can talk about that has nothing to do with academics (“What’s your favorite cereal?”, “Tell us about your funniest memory with your grandparents, cousins, or family friends.”). 

This is an excellent time for you to either engage your community of learners, or just listen in as they discuss how they are. They also just need the chance to socialize, and if you can offer that before and/or after class, you may find your participation numbers also increase. 

When to Turn Off Cameras

Issues with cameras (video) are fairly similar to mic issues. There are times when you need to see your students’ faces, and you want them to see each other.

There are other times when seeing each other is a distraction.

While you may need to keep your camera on fairly often to keep their attention and make your connection “human”, there are lots of times when you can replace your face totally, and move their attention solely to the virtual whiteboard or some other surface.

If you’re doing worksheets together, the students don’t need to see you or each other. You can take that time to work with the worksheet or an interactive whiteboard projecting on the whole screen.

There should be plenty you can do without being on screen, actually, which may cut down on some of the distraction student’s backgrounds can cause. You can watch a video clip together, allow a student to take the virtual pen and do the work on a worksheet or whiteboard, or ask students to respond using the chat function. Although it may seem weird not to be watching your students all the time, it’s your new normal. Embrace it. 

Chat Box

The chat box can be either very good, or very, very bad. 

Here’s how teachers are using its power for good. The most important thing is that you give it a function and define how you want students to use it.

Students are going to use the chat box if it’s available, and if you don’t harness it and use it as your tool, it will become theirs, and not in a way that necessarily supports learning. 

Quick Assessments

One way to make it work for you (after setting standards about what’s okay to put in the chat box and what isn’t) is to ask questions and require students to respond there. It’s actually a much quicker way to assess who understands and who doesn’t.

Another thing you can do is use it to give each student in the class a different problem or question and ask them to answer in the chat box. That way all of your students are working simultaneously, and you can sit back and drink some wine (kidding!). 

Just don’t forget to jot down each student’s name by the question they’ve been assigned so you can check their answers as they type them in. As they do, you can confirm that they are correct. For those students who don’t get their question correct, you can do the question together as a class as a support or meet with the student individually once class is over.

If you’re using Google Classroom, you could even allow students to use breakout rooms to help each other with problems they get wrong. Just remember to plan something for the other students to do while those students work through problems or questions on their own. 

You can also ask the whole class questions and use emojis as the answer choices in yes or no questions, or in multiple-choice questions. Kids love doing this!

Use It to Take Notes

We learned this trick from our teacher-friends who are teaching online ESL.

As you’re teaching, use the chat box as a whiteboard. Type out vocabulary words, big ideas, instructions - anything you’d like to draw focus to. Seeing it while hearing it helps students remember the information, and it’s also useful for them to be able to scroll up and refer to the information as you teach.

If you want to use this, it may be difficult to do so combined with the idea above for using the chat box for quick assessments. If you want to use the box for note-keeping, you can designate time for answering via the chat box, then allocate a “notes-only” time.

You can also combine the two ideas. Have students write important notes on what they hear and give them participation points. If you aren’t sure they’ll stay on topic, give them a rubric, or establish some norms for acceptable notes.

This will also help you clarify very quickly whether or not they are understanding your instruction.

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