Do you teach online? While there are many benefits to distance learning it can be challenging to keep students engaged and motivated. In this interview Mickey Revenaugh shares her top advice.
We speak to Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder of Connections Academy, about her experience of online teaching and virtual school administration. Mickey has been involved in e-learning for many years and works closely with educators around the world in an effort to meet the educational needs of students everywhere.
She explains how educators can manage student motivation, accountability and retention when teaching online.
Why students choose online learning
There are lots of reasons why students might decide to learn online. A few might come from a highly mobile home life, some may have experienced bullying or other difficulties at school, and others might be especially gifted and need a more challenging syllabus. Some are even training for the Olympics or performing in Hollywood.
“Students often decide to study online because something wasn’t working for them in regular school. One of the things we see at Connections Academy is that many have experienced serial frustration throughout their school lives.”
Whatever the reason, it’s key to take each student’s past experiences in education into account.
“If a kid has gotten the message that they’re not good enough, the first order of business is to unwind that. This is a clean slate: We have to show them they can succeed in small increments.”
This is especially important when a student is repeating a course or a grade.
“If they come to us to repeat a course, we test them to see exactly where in the syllabus we can teach them from. In brick-and-mortar schools students are often just put back at the beginning of the course. That can be demotivating – and possibly even humiliating for them – and that’s never the goal.”
Setting your class up for success
“Ahead of taking a course all our students and their parents sign a ‘good digital citizen’ pledge. It’s part of the orientation to ensure students act in a way that’s safe online,” she says. “If they break the rules we discipline them, typically by shutting off access to tools like webmail or even the platform as a whole.”
At Connections Academy, all activities and webmail on the system can be monitored. If students want to work with each other outside the platform, teachers give strict guidance on what’s appropriate.
Once you have a good system with rules and consequences in place, Mickey says you can focus your energy on what the students are learning and how they are progressing.
“In the online classroom it’s much easier to see who is struggling and who is not. As you might expect, it’s impossible to ‘hide’ from the teacher. A student’s work is there for you to see and – at any moment’s notice – you can step in to remediate any particular topic.”
Depending on the virtual learning environment you are using, your intervention might be via chat, an online call, or an email messaging system. At Connections Academy, teachers have a virtual office, which students can step into.
Mickey also says that having contact with a person other than the student is very important.
“Each student has what we call a learning coach (usually a family member), whose job it is to make sure the student logs on, stays focused, and does the work,” she says. “They’re also asked to alert the teacher if the student is struggling, so the teacher can intervene and give support where it’s needed.”
Building rapport, discipline, and engagement in the online classroom
Many teachers with classroom experience worry about building rapport with students in a virtual classroom. They feel a lack of a real-world space means there’s no control over the learning environment and that students won’t engage as well as they might do with a teacher in the room with them. Mickey, however, explains that the reality is quite different.
“It’s a little counterintuitive, but in my experience teachers have a more intimate relationship with kids online than they do in face-to-face classroom,” she says. “First of all, you tend to have smaller groups online. This means you can really get to know each student and learn about their interests and motivations.”
Connections Academy trains teachers to dig into each student’s previous learning experience, which is something all online teachers can do ahead of starting a new course with a student.
“We start with a conversation, which might take place on a video call or by phone. The teacher asks students to show them where they’ve gotten to in the syllabus and tries to get a better sense of where the kid is at and how they like to learn.”
During the course, teachers can use this information to personalize activities and ensure learning goals are met, which really helps with motivation.
“We’ve realized that kids like to learn in different ways; some need to talk it out to really grasp the concepts, some like to watch videos, and others need to learn by doing. As the teacher gets to know what makes individual kids tick, they can design activities to suit them and keep them motivated.”
Using data to support your teaching
While we have access to a certain amount of data in physical classrooms – including attendance rates, exams and classwork scores – there’s a lot more to inform us in virtual classrooms.
“Good online platforms can support your instincts as a teacher by providing you with some really deep data insights,” she says. “These might include the time they spend on any particular activity, when they did their homework, what they keep going back to, and – of course – their results. You can pay close attention to each of your students and see how they are progressing and what you need to do to help them succeed.”
This data can also be used to spot demotivated students.
“Online content is built to be very interactive and designed to gather a lot of data. Teachers can immediately see when students aren’t engaging with the materials and they have to tools to proactively help them learn.”
She adds, “in both the online classroom and the bricks-and-mortar classroom, there’s an 80-20 rule: 20% of the kids need 80% of your time. The remaining kids need more standard input – and your primary job is to modify and personalise the learning materials.”
How to get feedback and achieve high student satisfaction rates
It’s important to get feedback from your students whenever you can.
“We see good teachers poll their students after every live synchronous class, asking for students to give anonymous feedback. They then take this to heart and try to deliver more relevant lessons.”
On top of this micro-feedback, it’s important to get overall feedback on each of your courses.
“At Connections Academy we ask students to rate each class on a scale of one to five. If a course falls below about a 4.3, we look for ways to improve the content. We also do an annual satisfaction survey aimed at parents,” she says.
Mickey also acknowledges that some students inevitably drop out. When this happens it’s also important to find out why this is the case.
“We hold an exit interview or send a survey. We want to know what happened, what we could have done – and then try to use it thoughtfully to improve things for the future.”
Mickey’s model provides a great starting point for online teachers everywhere. By beginning with a pre-course interviews you can get to know you students better and tailor your classes accordingly. By setting out rules and protecting your students, you create a safe learning environment. And by paying attention to the data and getting regular feedback during the course, you can aim for continual improvement and ensure your students remain engaged and motivated at all times.
Connections Academy is a virtual school provider for students of all ages (Kindergarten to 12th Grade). Founded in 2001, it serves approximately 70,000 students through U.S. public school virtual schools and around 1000 international students through a global virtual private school.