5 Pro Tips and Free Tools for Moving Your Class Online

As of the time I am writing this blog, here in Virginia we are on day 2 of our school shutdown. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all schools here were given orders to close last Friday for a minimum of 2 weeks. Moreover, that number could grow as the situation changes. Schools across the country are dealing with similar closures and uncertainty.

This means that across the country we teachers are facing the daunting task of having to move to online teaching.

Having taught online for 6 years, I am here to tell you it will be okay. Take a deep breath and relax. With careful planning and the plethora of technology options out there (many of which are free), any teacher can create meaningful learning experiences for their students.

Here are my 5 top tips for approaching a sudden move to online learning.

  1. Shift Your Mindset

This is the most important step when moving online and it is the hardest for most teachers. You may have heard the phrase “I’m the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” This pretty much sums up the role of the online teacher: you can no longer stand in front of students and “teach” them, so you need to move to a supporting role and students (with their parents’ help) need to be empowered to take ownership of their learning.

Two main ways you can empower students to take ownership of their learning is by giving them choice and tapping into their personal interests. I know here in VA, teachers have been encouraged to assign no new work, but rather to focus on review and enrichment activities. This opens the door for teachers to have students take concepts they have already learned and dig deeper by connecting those concepts to others they are interested in or to their own lives. This is why creative and/or inquiry-based projects are perfect for online learning.

Rather than just assigning the same project to all students, what about creating a choice board from which students can choose the activities they will complete?  We Are Teachers offers some good tips for creating effective choice boards.

  1. Be Equitable

Another reason I like the idea of choice boards right now is that, for some schools, teachers cannot assume all students even have access to the internet to complete online work. Therefore, teachers can make sure some of the learning activities or projects on their choice boards are low-tech or no-tech. Have students read, write, build with Legos, or use good, old-fashioned paper, scissors, and glue to create — no computers required!

Even if your students do have computers and internet access, make sure you are offering resources that address their various needs, like videos with closed captioning or podcasts with transcripts or translation software. If you have students with IEP’s or 504 plans or English language learners, consult with your special education or ESOL colleagues for good resources to use.

  1. Organize Intentionally

If you are building your class in a learning management system (like Schoology, Canvas, or Google Classroom), take some time to plan how you will organize the class. The goal is to make it super easy for students and parents to navigate, so you need to try to think like your students. This is the basic principle behind User Experience Design theory (aka UX Design theory). This short video by John Spencer sums up how to apply UX Design when creating your online class.

The first thing to consider is what organizational structure will make sense to your students? Organizing by week? By unit or topic? By type of resource? By project?

Then you need to make sure that all instructions are short and simple so students will know exactly what to do. Having everything written in a consistent format also helps students know what to expect.

Finally, make sure to create a point of entry into your class or an “orientation,” if you will. This could be a welcome announcement or video that explains how to navigate the class.

  1. Continue to Collaborate

Let’s face it, the next few weeks are going to be hard at times. Social isolation is important to stop the spread of Covid-19, but our students will miss their peers and us! Luckily, there are great tools out there that allow students and teachers to continue to collaborate asynchronously. Using one of these tools could really increase student engagement and help them stay connected as a class.

Zoom is an easy-to-use video conferencing software, similar to Google Hangouts, and it is offering an upgrade to their free basic accounts for teachers during the school shutdowns (click here for details). It works well on both computers and mobile phones.

Elementary teachers can have students create online books using Book Creator and share them with the other students in the class. Right now Book Creator is offering teachers a free library with up to 40 student books (click here for details).

Secondary teachers can get students discussing online using discussion boards within their school’s learning management systems. Or they can take discussion to another level with tools like Parlay or Flipgrid. Parlay is currently offering free accounts for teachers (click here for details) and allows teachers to create a discussion, track student engagement, and offer individual feedback. Flipgrid is a free tool that allows students to record their discussion responses in short videos and then respond to their classmates’ videos. The teacher moderates the entire discussion and can post video responses as well. Both Parlay and Flipgrid are widely used and keep students’ responses and videos safe and private.

  1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

Remember what I said under tip #1? You are now the guide on the side. This means you need to be sure you are communicating often with students and parents. In fact, when you move online, your “lesson planning” is done ahead of time, so the majority of your time should be spent answering questions, assessing student progress, and communicating meaningful feedback about that progress to parents and students. It also doesn’t hurt to just check in each week to see how everyone is doing. Remember, this is a new experience for all involved, and your families will need support.

Exactly how you communicate will depend on the systems in place at your school. E-mails and good,and old-fashioned phone calls do the trick. Some schools are also using apps like Pronto (see details here) and Remind (see details here) to keep families updated. Both apps are offering free access right now for teachers.


More Free Curriculum Resources to use during your Covid-19 Shutdown

  1. Age of Learning – gain free access to ABCmouse, Adventure Academy, or Reading IQ here
  2. Discovery Education Experience – gain free access here
  3. BrainPOP – gain free access here
  4. Kahoot Premium – gain free access here
  5. Scholastic Learn at Home – gain free access here
  6. Time for Kids – sign up for weekly teacher resources here
  7. Flocabulary – gain free access here
  8. IXL Learning – create a free classroom here


-Megan Panek


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