Building Skills for Online Learning

May 7, 2020

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), has caused many institutions (from Pre-K to higher education) to transition from face-to-face instruction to some form of online learning. In order to support the transition to remote learning, the faculty, students, and alumni of the Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) program have put together several blog posts that will focus on general considerations, challenges, and specific strategies.

Laptop with smiling students

What skills, strategies, and mindsets help you to be an effective online learner? In the past, this question was perhaps couched within quizzes to determine whether your personality and work style would make you a good candidate for learning online. But now, for most people, there isn’t a choice — learners are being thrust into online learning without necessarily having been introduced to the skills and strategies that support success in a very different type of learning landscape than brick-and-mortar housed, classroom-based, face-to-face teaching. To complicate this even more, many teachers are in a similar situation, learning to teach online for the first time in the midst of a global pandemic.

For most of us, teaching and learning have changed rapidly, unexpectedly, and drastically in light of COVID-19. What are some strategies learners can use to cope with these changes? While we focus this blog post on online learning, we acknowledge these ideas are deeply connected to online teaching and parenting online learners, too!.

Grieve your losses.

This is all very new. This is not a “normal” school year. You and your classmates are likely to be missing social interactions with your friends, school dances, sporting events, and graduation celebrations. It’s completely  valid to grieve those losses and give space to the emotions you have about missing important milestones you expected to experience.  

Practice self-compassion and prioritize your wellbeing.

Each of us deals with stress in different ways, and there is no reason to feel ashamed or afraid to reach out if you aren’t doing okay. We all have different ways of releasing stress — find the ones that work best for you:

  • Self-compassion is being kind to yourself and treating yourself like you would a good friend – with patience, support, and love.
  • Mindfulness 
  • Movement, exercise, or stretching (yoga, tai chi)
  • Journaling
  • Painting, singing, drawing, writing poetry, crafting…
  • Get outside, fresh air, sunshine (with sunscreen)

Build a routine.

As much as possible, try to set aside specific times for your academic work. Some of this may be decided for you — for example, when the device you use for school work is available, or when you are required to meet synchronously as a class (if that is a requirement). But where you do have a choice, try to find a routine that fits you. Some of us tend to be more productive in the morning — others are more energized later in the day. Some of us concentrate better in a quiet space, and others work well with music in the background. 

We don’t always have the ability to control your environment, especially when members of your family may all be at home, and bandwidth or device time is limited. You may need to negotiate with other members of your household to find a solution that allows each of you the time and space you need. 

  • Reflect on your preferences and the options where you live, and try to find a work space and time of day that will support your needs.
  • Find out what your teacher’s expectations are: Do you need to join video chats at specific times? When are assignments due? PNote important deadlines and put them on your calendar and include deadlines that lead up to final deadlines….
  • Don’t forget to set aside specific blocks of time for relaxation, fun, and social connection! 

Communicate proactively.

If you’re having trouble — personally or academically — reach out for help as soon as possible to a trusted friend or adult. Things can move pretty quickly in online classes. The more you can communicate with your teacher (especially if there’s a problem), the better they can support you. Some things that will be especially important to communicate to your teacher are:

  • Any limitations you have at home: Does your family share one device? Do you have limited/no internet access? 
  • Mental or physical health concerns: If you’re struggling with illness of any kind, letting your teacher know as soon as possible will help them provide the supports you need. 
  • Academics: Are you struggling to understand a reading? 

Find a media balance.

One way to stay connected with our loved ones when we’re isolated is to use social media, texting, and other digital communications. These can be a great source of support — but they can also be academic distractions. And although it’s good to stay informed, the 24-hour news cycle and online news can also increase anxiety during what is already a scary time. With that in mind, strategies for balance include:

  • Build in specific blocks of time to check in with your friends — that time is important! 
  • Limit your media consumption. Staying informed is smart, but try to stick with reputable sources, and avoid checking the news constantly.
  • Sometimes we need “comfort media”, whether that’s reading books by your favorite author, or streaming your favorite Netflix series. But be careful about overdoing it — again, balance is key. Consider scheduling a specific time of day for this.

Provide feedback on your learning experience.

Remember that your teacher may be new to this, too! If a particular approach or activity works really well, let them know. And if something isn’t working, that’s also important for your teacher to know. 

  • If your teacher uses videos that don’t have captions or a transcript, would those features support your learning more effectively?
  • It’s okay to ask for clarification about expectations, due dates, assignments, or anything else that’s not clear. . 
  • We encourage you to think about feedback as a conversation. How are you receiving feedback on your progress? Are you getting enough feedback? Your teacher wants to support your success, so if the feedback you receive isn’t clear, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • If you’re struggling to find the right words to provide feedback or ask for support, this blog post from KeepTeachingMSU has some helpful templates to get you started (although these are designed for college students, they definitely provide a good starting point for students at other levels!)

In so many ways, your life looks totally different than it did a few months ago; none of us have ever experienced this before. Your teachers miss you. Your teachers want what’s best for you. You may not become a “perfect” online learner in the next two months, and that’s okay. Just keep doing your best, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you need it.