Virtual Teaching 101
Learning in a virtual environment is different from learning in-person. We know that Zoom fatigue is real, distraction is a serious challenge, and independent learning without a teacher, mentor, or peer present is often less effective for K-12 learners. Yet here we are, amidst a pandemic, with many of us facing digital instruction yet again.
Fortunately, online instruction, or e-learning, is not new. There are some takeaways with action items that we can use to improve our instructional practices for our students. Here are 13 tips that have worked for me in virtual teaching.
Tip #1: Opt for synchronous
Burch, Good, and Heinrich found that synchronous instruction allowed for feedback, live questioning and answering, and troubleshooting. Children also learn more with technology when an adult is present to create a safe environment, encourage conversation, set objectives, and goals, and help maintain engagement. If it’s possible and appropriate, opt for synchronous instruction. The school I work at started with asynchronous instruction and pivoted to synchronous after about three weeks. It marked a drastic change in the success of our students, their connection with their teachers, and structure at home for families.
Tips 2 & 3: Keep it casual & activate the senses
When delivering instruction, keep your delivery casual and conversational, include images to go along with narration, and use an agenda. According to Baddeley and Sweller, it can be helpful to think about humans like computers. We can only process so much information at once from each sensory channel (touch, smell, auditory, visual, and taste). In virtual learning, the sensory channels most used are auditory and visual. By keeping your teaching simple and having only one piece of information on each sensory channel, your students will be less likely to become overstimulated, making it easier to process the information. For example, if you are talking, don’t have music going at the same time. These two pieces of information will compete on the auditory channel. Furthermore, learning is best accomplished when all five senses are engaged. Consider having students bring materials to your virtual class and peppering in activities that engage touch. My favorite lesson from spring virtual learning was a lesson on texture in second grade. Students brought an object with a texture to class to share. I was surprised by the close observation and attention to detail that students demonstrated when describing the texture of their objects. It was significantly more than what I typically received from students when doing similar lessons in the classroom. In sharing something from their world and environment, students were invested and engaged.
Tip #4: Keep scaffolding in the curriculum
With inconsistent attendance and participation, it can be alluring to conduct one-off lessons. However, especially in the arts, building on prior knowledge will give students a baseline of understanding from which to grow. Consider having other modes of engagement for those who can’t make class: a live recording, a dinner prompt for conversation, or other mode of communication. Starting each class with a brief content review may be enough to catch up absentee learners. Having this review led by students can also serve as a check for understanding. As distance learning continues, I plan to post SeeSaw prompts and create “dinner menu” conversation starters to both help reach those who can’t make class and to extend learning beyond the virtual classroom.
Implementation & Working with Non-Standardized Materials
Tip #5: Consider how you are using technology
Are you using technology as a substitution or augmentation of traditional face-to-face instruction? Is it a catalyst for modification or redefinition of content and curriculum? Arguably, designing a curriculum specifically for distance learning that embraces the technology instead of fighting it will result in a better experience for both the teacher and learner. Consider asking what unique benefits this mode of delivery has to offer instead of focusing on all the things that can’t be done virtually.
Tip #6: Plan Differently
E-learning should not be an attempt to plop classroom learning onto a virtual platform. These two environments are apples and oranges, especially in any materials-heavy or project-based class. By changing your perspective and looking at it another way*, you can create a positive experience for everyone. Virtual learning allows for on-demand individualized demonstrations in the form of pre-recorded videos, the ability to go back and review content whenever needed, and documentation of class discussions. I know I will be re-evaluating my virtual curriculum to ensure that I am looking at it from an asset perspective and utilizing these assets to benefit my students.
Tip #7: Use digital software to engage student participation through polls, discussions, and virtual collaboration.
In my experience, children love polls about anything: polls about pets, polls about colors, polls to check for understanding. Polls are an opportunity to do an emotional check-in at the beginning or end of class, or to develop community and prompt discussion. The possibilities are endless.
Tip #8: Slow down
Learn how the technology can enhance your program offerings, and then intentionally roll those features out for student use. If you have tech support at your school or in your district, ask them for advice and support when using new technologies with students. Children (and adults) will make mistakes. Consider turning these mistakes into teachable moments. I have always found it endearing when a teacher admits their mistakes. It helps to humanize us to our students and can help to create a connection, making it easier for them in turn to discuss their own mistakes.
In the visual arts and any other hands-on class, it can be daunting to reconsider the curriculum. How will students gain material expertise? How will they explore processes? How will they collaborate meaningfully? For those of us who are TAB teachers (Teaching for Artistic Behaviors), material exploration is foundational to our way of teaching. So what are we to do?
We need to employ our creativity and be flexible*!
Tip #9: Redefine goals and objectives
For the upcoming semester of virtual learning, I plan to focus my curriculum more heavily on the Studio Habits of Mind envision, express, observe, reflect, and understand art worlds. These can all be readily achieved in the home environment with minimal materials. All four studio structures—teacher presents, students at work, talking about art, and showing art—can be achieved digitally, even if the students only have toilet paper tubes and crayons. As for the remaining Studio Habits of Mind? I’ll emphasize them more heavily when we are back in person to compensate.
Tip #10: Modify expectations
I am not expecting students to create their most innovative, creative, or groundbreaking work during these turbulent times. Making art at home is hard. I know that I’m personally struggling with this. My space is cramped, carpeted, and not exactly inspiring. I’m also dealing with the emotional toll of living through a global pandemic, which makes it hard to focus on art making. If as an adult I am finding this difficult, I can only imagine what it is like for my students. What I am expecting of students is for them to participate, reflect, try, and hopefully, find some joy in art making during this time. In the middle of a pandemic, this is enough.
Tip #11: Keep prompts open-ended
Allow for flexibility* and choice in both materials used and subject matter portrayed. The worst assignment I gave this spring required students to have scissors. One young student didn’t have them handy and couldn’t get an adult to help him find them. This resulted in an on-screen meltdown of frustration—the poor child just wanted to be successful! By keeping assignments open ended* and not focused on specific materials, but rather focusing perhaps on understanding art worlds or expression, students can be successful independently with whatever tools and materials are available to them.
Tip #12: Provide constraints
Constraints help to cultivate creativity and get students away from the habit of using the same ready-to-grab material for each prompt. I was fortunate to attend a California Art Education Association conference presentation by TAB teacher Linda Papanicolaou (2020). In spring virtual teaching she modified the elementary set of Terra Forma cards to create challenges for her students. These exercises provided her students with a choice in materials, subject matter, and techniques. It allowed her to check for learning without leaving the assignments too open, which can make it difficult for students to independently generate ideas, choose new materials, or try new techniques. Sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming. I saw this a lot in spring virtual learning: students using the same materials again and again, possibly because it was all they had, but more likely because at home the options available to them were not evident. By providing constraints, we allow students choice and open up possibilities, all while requiring creativity. I plan on using a similar format for my students this fall to encourage more exploration in art-making.
Tip #13: Keep open
However you decide to construct your curriculum and manage your virtual classroom, be sure to communicate your expectations for students and what the class structure will look like with parents and administrators. Always keep open* and be receptive to feedback from others. If the school year gets going and your delivery method or lessons are not working for students or families, be ready to pivot to determine where they are at and meet them there. Unlike at school, we have no control over the learning environment, so we need to be receptive to teaching what works in context*. Keeping these lines of communication open will help to create a meaningful and positive experience for you, your students, and their families.
Remember, you are not in this alone. We are all in this together.
Keriann Armusewicz has over a decade of experience teaching visual arts to students around the globe, having worked in schools from Singapore to New York. She holds a Masters in Art and Art Education from Teachers College and a Bachelor’s in Art Education from Buffalo State College. Keriann is currently pursuing her second masters in Creativity and Change Leadership at SUNY Buffalo State. She is interested in educating teachers and parents about how authentic artmaking can be used to cultivate children’s creativity. Keriann teaches art to K-5 students in Menlo Park, California.
* Look at it another way, being flexible, keeping open, and putting ideas into context are four of the original 18 Beyonder creativity skills as discovered by E. Paul Torrance.
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 Baddeley (1999) & Sweller (1999), as cited in Mayer, 2003
 Mayer, 2003
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 Burvall, A. & Ryder, D. (2017). Intention: Critical creativity in the classroom. EdTechTeam Press.