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Education Online Education

4 Ways to Connect With Students in a Virtual Classroom

Remote doesn’t have to mean distant

In times of physical distancing, it’s hard to build connections. While online learning is probably the best option in today’s context, there’s nothing like face-to-face lectures to make connections.

Who doesn’t miss the classroom, the campus, those coffee breaks to mingle, the lunch hour to catch up with friends and colleagues? 

We all do. But despite how much we want to come back to our classrooms, the pandemic is still here and there’s no choice but to keep classes online. Now, does it mean we may better forget about connections? 

Well, not quite. I think it’s time we make peace with the challenges of remote learning and start looking at opportunities to make it work.

Learning is a social process. So relationships are crucial.

In this post, I’m going to talk about 5 different ways to connect with your students and how to encourage learning in a remote classroom.


1. Build a community 

Creating a sense of belonging and a safe, nurturing, supporting environment is crucial for learning. Learning is mainly a social and emotional activity.

It doesn’t take the latest technology or complex activities to build a positive learning community. And it doesn’t matter much whether your courses are online or in-person. Creating a sense of community is way easier than you think and is full of benefits for both learners and educators.

Remember that community is built over time, and mutual sharing and trust are essential.

Researchers identify 4 essential elements that create a sense of community:

  • Mutual interdependence among members: show students how their behavior and attitudes impact other members of the community. Show them how they can work as a group towards goals and how they can support each other. Rely frequently on peer-learning and group work to create interdependences and encourage a sense of belonging.
  • Connectedness & trust: students need to learn to trust you and each other. This is crucial for learning. Give your students space to mingle and get to know you and their classmates. Use storytelling techniques and make time for introductions, sharing fears, emotions, and expectations. 
  • Interactivity: give students opportunities to interact with you and with each other, both during lecture hours and beyond. Plan for group activities and learning games. You can also use back channels and forums to maintain the interaction even after class. This creates interdependency, trust, and helps fight the feeling of isolation.
  • Shared values and goals: give students the opportunity to set up their own shared goals, values, and agreements at the beginning of the course. These common goals are crucial to building trust and connections among students, and developing a sense of responsibility.

More on how to create a sense of community in your classroom here.


2. Use social media

Before the pandemic, I’d never thought at my 34 years I will enter the world of TikTok. I mean, Instagram was already new enough for me. Until my young sister convinced me. And I’ve to say that it’s an amazing way for connecting with your students.

My social accounts are mainly for teaching. So, I publish nothing too personal, but I share a part of myself in every post I make. From funny TikToks to short explainer posts, I use social media to connect with my students beyond the classroom’s ‘virtual’ walls. 

Social media channels are an effective way of creating connections with your students because it’s a place where they feel at ease. It’s a great tool to create less formal conversations with your students and to share your human side.

You can use Instagram to post beautiful visuals related to the lecture topics; Visuals are a great way to engage your students and are effective for learning and remembering concepts.

But the most interesting feature of both TikTok and Instagram is the 15 to 60 seconds videos to explain a concept, give real-life examples, or recap on a specific topic. Whether it is only you speaking or an animated slideshow to explain a topic, videos generate more engagement than pictures and are more valuable for teaching. Funny TikTok videos that explain a concept are probably more relatable to students than your slide deck. As a result, they get to laugh and learn at the same time. 

You can also hold live sessions on both TikTok and Instagram, which is an excellent alternative to office hours or Q&A sessions. You can just go live at a planned schedule and your students join to ask their questions. Unlike Zoom or Meet, there’s no need to send invites or give conference access codes. They just need their phone and internet connection to join. 

Other significant features of Instagram are the quiz and polls. While you cannot expect to do a final exam using these functionalities, you can use them to do in-class or out-class fun challenges. You can invite your students to answer your story quiz while they are supposed to be studying for the final term. This can help them study, but what is most, it improves their confidence so they freak out less for the exam.

Social media is a great tool to connect with people remotely. So, why couldn’t we use it for connecting with our students?


3. Keep the conversation going

Most of the learning happens outside the classroom. So remember to keep the conversation going even after lecture hours. 

And I’m not talking about sending emails to your students, but giving them an appropriate space to share their thoughts, doubts, questions, feedback or comments they may have after or before the lecture. 

You can use backchannels as an informal way for students to interact with the educator and their classmates as an online forum designed to complement classroom activity. But you can also create specific channels to discuss topics that are not directly related to your lecture, but that are crucial for students like mental health, stress, or specific struggles.

You can, for example, use slack or discord to communicate with your students during and beyond lecture hours. You can create discussion channels about different topics and invite students to share their thoughts. 

Sometimes it takes just a short encouraging message to let your students know you’re there for them to help them overcome the challenges of remote learning. Check up on your students regularly, and make space for discussion about their mental health, struggles, expectations, doubts, and aspirations. Remember that like you, they miss the connection, the touch, the warmth of socializing.


4. Use video recaps or introductions

Sometimes, remote learning is all about asynchronous activities and there’s brief space to get to know your students or for your students to get to know you. And even when lectures are held completely on Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms, there’s never enough time to make proper introductions and create connections.

It’s difficult to connect with your students, and that your students connect with you and each other when they’re all with their mics and cameras off. And while I truly hate talking to the black squares, I also know that some students are really struggling behind those squares, others are hiding, and many don’t have the proper equipment. Is not just a matter of disengagement.

Thus, an excellent way to create space for connection and for interaction is through video introductions and recap. Think of it as video discussions and threads, you post a short but engaging video in your preferred platform and ask your students to react and post their reactions in the thread.

There are plenty of platforms that can be used for this. I use Flipgrid, a free social learning app, to create and share short and exceptional videos. Each grid has a unique code that you can share with your students so they can access the topics and the videos being posted by the professors and classmates. It is a magnificent tool for reflective learning and for building solid learning communities within your classes. As an educator you can post discussion prompts and students may respond with short videos, whether they are learning in class or at home.

But you can also use your institution’s LMS, both Canvas, and Moodle support video assignments, and it works similarly to Flipgrid. 

I often start all my lectures by posting an introduction video where I introduce myself, the class topic, the primary goals, and the teaching approach I use. Then I ask students to respond with a video, introducing themselves, sharing their expectations about the course and one or two things they would like to address in class. 

Doing this before starting my zoom lectures is really beneficial because I get to know my students and they get to know me and get a hint about what they’re about to learn. 

Now, this video activity can be held all throughout the semester. You can transform traditional written assignments into oral video discussions. This reduces the feeling of teaching to complete strangers and being alone in the journey. 


To sum up

Connecting with your students remotely is not a simple task, and it’ll probably never replace the physical connection. But, with some creativity and minor adjustments to your mindset and teaching approaches, you can make your lectures more welcoming and favorable for bonding. 

Remember that learning is a social process, connection and trust are essential.

As an educator, our job is not only to pass on knowledge and give access to learning resources but also to ensure that the environment is safe and auspicious for learning to happen. 

Remote doesn’t have to mean distant. Virtual doesn’t have to mean computerized. Let’s not forget about the human component of learning. No matter the channel we teach through, we are teaching humans, and humans need connections.

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Education Online Education

3 Simple Strategies for Promoting Equity in a Remote Classroom

How to address the digital and social divide remotely

We all know that teaching remotely is hard. But what about learning remotely? How are students coping? Are they learning? 

I always start my lectures with a simple question: “How are you coping?” During the first weeks of lockdown, I received mostly a “meh”. I guess the situation was so unique that students were almost amused to have their classes moved online and their exams canceled. What a relief. But then, after the first week went by, the ambiance changed. Stress and anxiety took over. Isolation started to look serious. And well, some students just disappeared. 

This fall, things didn’t get any better. Going back to normal is not on our agendas anymore. 

As an educator, how do you meet the diverse needs of each student? How do you promote equity in an online classroom? How can you ensure each student has the same opportunities to learn and thrive? How do you address the digital and social divide remotely?

In this post, I will go through three strategies to promote equity in a virtual, remote classroom.


#1. Start with Empathy

Everything starts with empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Like us, students are going through uncertain times. Many are struggling, and learning is not on their top priorities. Others are trying to stay focus and on track, but distractions keep coming their way. 

This pandemic hasn’t been easy on them. Graduations were canceled. Transitions from one school to another were dismissed. Goodbyes were moved to phone calls. Nothing was smooth, and we have no idea when and how things will move forward. 

When I ask my students how they are coping and how they feel about remote learning, most of them express anxiety. Many feel lost. “It’s hard to concentrate”, “my connection is terrible”, “I have a hard time with the software” are some feedback I frequently get from students. 

Before we can address any learning, we need to care. We need to show our students we are here for them. We need to remember that not every student has the access to technology, or to a quiet study room, or to the needed materials. Some of them have to take care of their siblings while their parents work. Others have to work to pay their rent, meals, and education. Some of them might be going through traumatic or post-traumatic situations, they might have lost someone to Covid-19, their parents might have lost their jobs. 

The last thing these students need is more homework, more applications to manage, more strict deadlines. They need empathy. 

We, as teachers, need to imagine the entire story. Before we frame a student for laziness, we should reach out and try to understand and support them every time we can. 

Having an empathetic approach is not only essential to learning and promoting equity in a classroom, but it also encourages students to develop empathy for others. Empathy increases the sense of community and fosters relationships based on trust and tolerance within and outside the classroom.  


#2. Provide Different Opportunities to Learn

Remote learning can be exhausting and annoying. I know, from experience, that having 3 straight hours of a virtual lecture is painful. I, for example, cannot bear more than 20 minutes of a webinar without doing something else in parallel. Why should I expect more from my students? 

Remote learning shouldn’t mean 100% screen learning. There are plenty of opportunities to learn (and to teach) remotely that don’t involve screens. Also, there are a plethora of activities that can be carried asynchronously.

If we want to promote equity in our classroom, we need to provide students with different opportunities to learn. This means that when we plan for activities and assessments we have to think about learning styles, access to technology, and technical skills.

Some students learn better through visuals. Others learn by practicing. Some rely on memory to absorb knowledge. As educators, we need to think of alternative learning approaches to ensure every student grasps as much knowledge and skills as possible. 

Instead of asking students to hand in an essay on a topic, suggest different ways for achieving the learning outcome. I usually give students the possibility to choose the format of their work. They can choose between writing, making mind-maps, recording videos, or recording podcast series. 

You can imagine also having multiple activities, both synchronous and asynchronous, to convey the same idea. You could, for example, host an online quiz on a topic and also ask students to reflect on the topic by recording a video or writing a blog post. Use different content and vary the assessment methods. The possibilities are vast. The more occasions for learning your students have, the more likely they’ll actually learn. 


#3. Ensure Technology Access and Knowledge

Not every student has the same access to technology. Not every student has the same technical skills to manage those technologies. 

Is not because they are digital natives that they can quickly adopt new software or applications and be at ease. 

Some students don’t even have a laptop or a stable internet connection at home. Many rely on one computer for the entire household. Others are constrained to follow their classes on their phones. In these circumstances, how can you ensure technology access for each student?

While there are some institutions and governments equipping low-income students with laptops, there are still many that don’t have access to any financial aid. And even when the equipment is provided, many students don’t have the technical skills demanded by the different software and applications used in the virtual classroom.

I truly believe in the potential of technology for education, but I also know that it can cause more isolation and disparity in the classroom if not addressed properly. 

When choosing the technology and virtual tools for your classroom, make sure you check this list:

  • It is available at no cost for students, or the institution can pay for students’ licenses. 
  • It is compatible with all operating systems and devices.
  • It integrates easily with other applications and technologies used by students and the institution, like the LMS from your school, the video conferencing tool you use, etc. 
  • There is an installation and getting started users’ guide. Otherwise, create a short and simple one for your classroom. 
  • Students have access to video tutorials and technical forums.
  • It runs with slow internet speed or no internet connection.

Once you check these, make sure the technology you choose increases the student learning experience and skill development. Ask yourself how these technologies help you and your students achieve their learning goals? What is the added value for you and for them? 

I also recommend devoting at least one session at the beginning of the semester to help learners familiarize themselves with the applications. If you are afraid it takes too much of your class time, you can prepare some getting-to-know-the-tool activities to complete in asynchronous before class. 

I, for example, give students access to the tools one or two weeks in advance. I usually send them preparatory activities just to get used to the applications. So when we use it in class, they don’t discover something completely new. While not every student will do the assignment in advance, those who did can help others, this facilitates the initiation with the tools.


Final Thoughts

Effective remote learning and equity in the classroom rely on empathy. The more we put ourselves in students’ shoes, the more we can imagine better opportunities for learning. 

It is important that, as educators, we promote a fair and welcoming remote learning environment for our students. We need to think about accessibility, empowerment, engagement, and students’ special needs. 

Learning remotely is challenging, but there are avenues to make it better. It takes only a few simple tweaks of mindset but a lot of care. We need to make it better and accessible to all our students. 

For sure we won’t be able to control everything, especially the injustices that subsist outside the classroom, but we can provide scaffolds and support systems that help students learn and thrive.


If you, like me, are interested in making your online classes more engaging, then I’d love to hear what are your strategies and tools you are using in your classroom. Drop your comments with ideas or questions here below.

Ready to shift to Online Education? Subscribe to my newsletter and receive monthly tips and tricks on how to make your online classes more engaging.

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Education Online Education

Top 5 Free Tools to Make Your Online Classes More Interactive

Keep your students engaged and learning

We all know remote teaching is challenging. While we know online classes are the best option in the current context, there is no secret about how difficult it can be to ensure students’ learning and active involvement.

Let’s be honest, Zoom classes and traditional slides are not enough. Students are not participating, and unfortunately, they are not learning. This is not completely their fault. It’s not because they don’t care, but because they struggle. They struggle to stay focus; they struggle to connect with others; they struggle to become active learners.

And it’s not our fault either, we are all doing our best. We are trying to adapt to extreme circumstances, without proper training, support, or even enough time to change the curriculum. 

The good news is that there are plenty of tools and online resources out there to help us make our classes more engaging and interactive. 

To save you time and help you choose the right tools for your classes, I have selected 5 of my favorite tools for online education. In this post, I’ll give you a hint to some of the best-in-market, low-budget, and user-friendly applications for improving the online learning experience and some ideas on how to use them.

Let’s start.


1. Explain Everything

Explain Everything is my favorite interactive whiteboard platform. And quite frankly is much more than a collaborative whiteboard. With Explain Everything, you can create video beats about your lecture topics and share it with students to check for understanding. You can either record your slideshow while you speak, or draw and write on the whiteboard and record everything you said and add to it. 

Another pretty interesting functionality is the collaborative whiteboard. You can create groups and invite your students to collaborate on projects. Students can work on cloud projects simultaneously or at their own pace, and you have an eye on their work in real-time. This is great both for synchronous and asynchronous group work. What I love about this is that participants that join the whiteboard at the same time can hear one another thanks to their audio chat.

Finally, you can also livecast your whiteboard and keep your online classes engaging. Either by using a videoconferencing system (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, etc) or just by sharing the whiteboard link, participants can see in real-time what’s happening. This is a great option for big sized synchronous classes. 

Explain Everything is free up to three simultaneous projects, but for only 3 dollars per month, you get access to unlimited projects, slides, and recordings. 


2. Mural

Mural is also one of my favorite apps for interactive online learning and visual collaboration. Mural is essentially a remote design thinking platform, but its potential for education is outstanding.

As an educator, you can invite up to 100 members or guests to your workspace and collaborate with students and other faculty in real-time. You can have dedicated rooms for each class or group of students to encourage teamwork and project-based learning. Inside each room you can create several murals that can be set to private or public, depending on how you want to share it. 

Screenshot from the Author

Mural works as a big whiteboard that you can organize in different small areas to outline your lecture session. From course kick-offs, warm-ups and energizers, brainstorming, traditional slide-decks, the possibilities with Mural are infinite. 

The functionalities I love the most are their chronometer, the celebrate button, and the facilitator superpowers. With the chronometer you can set up timing for each activity in the Mural and thus plan with more precision each of your lectures, ensuring also time for breaks. The celebrate button is just a lovely confetti party that you can throw every time the class completes an activity. Everyone will get the confetti party on their screen. This is great for rewarding effort and progress. Finally, you can assign Facilitator superpowers to your students so they take the leader role on their team. Facilitator superpowers include the possibility of timing activities, start voting sessions, and celebrate task completion. Giving facilitator superpowers to students is an original way to engage your students and make them accountable for their learning.

Mural is free for educators and students. You just need to create an account with your institutional address and provide proof of your status. For an education plan you can apply here. 


3. Playfactile

PlayFactile is a learning platform that lets teachers create engaging Jeopardy-style quiz games for the classroom. You can create and personalize your own game boards or use pre-made quizzes shared by the community. With PlayFactile you can either host live jeopardy games, regular multiple choice quizzes, memory games, and create study flashcards to improve students’ learning proficiency. 

Screenshot from Author.

These jeopardy games can be a great option to complement the traditional slide lectures, as you can divide the board into different topics and use it as a kick-off or wrap up activity. Students can then review their learning while playing, and you can instantly complement concepts when doubts arise. 

Students can play individually or in teams and they can choose beautiful avatars and nicknames. You can control whether they use their names or a default nickname. 

With the free version, you can create up to 5 teams for each game and you can host up to 3 games. With the education version, only 5 USD per month, you can play and create as many games as you want and have over 50 teams. The premium account offers other amazing features like buzzer mode, memory and choice games, and share flashcards.


4. Edpuzzle

I recently came upon Edpuzzle and I’m convinced of its potential for enhancing online learning. Edpuzzle is a video platform where you can create and edit videos from the web and use them in your classroom. Take any video from YouTube, Khan Academy, Learn Zillion, or your own and build your lessons around them. 

Video and visuals are more effective for learning than traditional slides, but most of us, teachers and professors, don’t have time to create sketch videos for every lesson. Here’s where Edpuzzle stands out. You can just turn existing videos from any platform and tailored them for learning. 

You can use any video and transform it into engaging video lectures thanks to the embedded questions and voice-over features. You can just insert open-ended and multiple-choice questions all along the video to check for understanding. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Screenshot by the Author.

Edpuzzle takes videos to another level, converting them into video lessons. If you want to make sure your students watch and actually learn from the video, then Edpuzzle is just the right tool. 

What I love about this app is that you can integrate it with Explain Everything to upload your whiteboard videos and convert them into quizzes. Edpuzzle is free.


5. Sli.do

Sli.do is a great tool for promoting active learning in online classes. It helps you involve your students in the lectures. The possibilities are endless. With Sli.do you can empower your students to ask questions, vote in polls, and be a part of the lecture by using a simple Q&A and polling tool.

  • With polls, you can learn if your lecture’s content resonates with your students. You can also use them to drive meaningful discussions in your class.
  • Use quizzes to find out how much your students remember from your lectures. Use them to recap the content from the last topic. Or motivate your students to pay attention during your lecture by hosting a live quiz.
  • Use the Q&A feature to collect students’ questions and feedback throughout your lecture and address them as they come or in a dedicated Q&A session at the end of your class. You and your students can upvote and provide answers in real-time, making peer-learning possible.

Another awesome feature is the switcher app. With Slido Switcher, you can display polls or questions on top of your presentation using your smartphone as a remote control. Whether you use PowerPoint or Keynote, with the Switcher app you can change seamlessly between your presentation and the Slido event.

Sli.do offers an education package starting at $5 per month. But you can also use the free version for up to 100 participants and one event at a time.


If you, like me, are interested in making your online classes more engaging, then I’d love to hear what are your strategies and tools you are using in your classroom. Drop your comments with ideas or questions here below.

Ready to shift to Online Education? Subscribe to my newsletter and receive monthly tips and tricks on how to make your online classes more engaging.

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Education Online Education

15 Free Digital Tools to Boost Students’ Engagement Online


15 Free Digital Tools to Boost Students’ Engagement Online

A review of digital tools and ideas for teachers to support formative assessment in online classrooms

Engaging students online is nothing like engaging students in physical classrooms. It can be challenging, especially in times of crisis as students have to deal with more stress and anxiety.

For many learners, online learning is a new experience. And even when they have the best intentions, they can easily get distracted and lose interest. This can cause a higher number of students dropping out of school or resiting classes. Also, students with special needs and learning disorders are more likely to feel lost and disengage.

While engaging students online can be more challenging, the learning experience can be as good or even better than in the traditional physical classroom. With the proper planning and tools, remote teaching can be as effective as in-person teaching.

To save you time, effort, and money, I have compiled a list of the top free tools to increase your students’ engagement online. No matter if you are a newbie or an expert, these tools are the best in their market and are free, or almost.

This post will tell you everything you need to know about from the best online tools and resources for engaging students online.


Collaborative Annotation

1. Diigo

Diigo is a social bookmarking with excellent organization tools. The main value of Diigo is how it increases both students and teacher productivity while making it fun. Teachers can create student accounts for an entire class with just a few clicks and access to premium functionalities for free (apply here).

You can create your personal library in the cloud for each of your courses, with links, pages, notes, pictures, and invite students so that they can access it and annotate. Students of the same class are automatically set up as a Diigo group so they can start using all the benefits that a Diigo group provides, such as group bookmarks and annotations, and group forums. Students can then collaborate and all read the same article and discuss synchronously right on the page.

You can also provide feedback to students’ work and writings by posting sticky notes and making screen captures and marking it up. Diigo provides powerful search capabilities.

You can find anything easily, even your own annotations. Diigo also provides excellent organization capabilities, with both tagging and lists, to suit different needs.

2. Evernote

Evernote is one of my favorite apps for learning. Is one powerful tool. Evernote is a note-taking app that can do much more than just taking notes. Like diigo, Evernote lets you save any content, forever. With Evernote you can do almost everything you want, is like a second brain. From a simple checklist to writing business plans, from class note-taking to academic research, from organizing your ideas to organizing your team.

Evernote is compatible with all kinds of devices and operating systems, and it is accessible also through the web app. You can share with your students complete notebooks, composed of unique resources, and organize it with tags. Guests are allowed to annotate and collaborate if you give them permission, or just read if you restrict it.

Evernote has a free version that’s quite complete for students. But the premium version is accessible and gives you the power to add notes to pdf files, do a text search on all your content, save and access revision history of your notes, send yourself emails with notes and integrate other apps like google drive. For a quick guide on how to use Evernote, you can read this article.

3. Notion

Notion started as a collaborative document editor. But you can do many other things. Students can use it to take and share notes in class or to organize their tasks with to-do lists.

But as an educator Notion can be the perfect workspace for your syllabi, notes, assignments, grades, and much more. You can create your course syllabi and share it with your students or create a wiki for the class.

Notion offers built-in templates that make student and teachers’ life easier. Students can find tools for building grade calculators, personal budget, job applications. While teachers can adopt ready-to-use templates for lesson plans, schedules, and class directory.

Notion is free for both students and educators. With an official institutional email address, you get access to unlimited block storage and no file upload limit.

4. Hypothes.is

Hypothes.is is not like any other annotation tool. If I have to be honest, is one of my favorites. Not only it’s a remarkable tool, but it is also open-source and completely free. Hypothes.is goes beyond traditional digital annotation, they enable sentence-level note-taking or discussion on classroom reading, news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation, and more. The beautiful about it is that it promotes web literacy and digital citizenship in students, more than any other app.

Educators need to create an account and then send the registration link to their students. Students will then be able to access the readings assignments and start annotating. You can also create private annotation groups. So, for example, if you want your students to work in smaller groups, you can send them special links. This link will also serve as the group home page with a list of members and texts annotated by the group. You can also link to a stream of annotations created by group members from the group home page.

Hypothes.is has a Chrome browser extension and is compatible with almost all Learning Management Systems (Canva, and Moodle included). For a quick guide on how to use it in your classroom, go here.

Visual collaboration and communication tools are also a brilliant way to make your online classes more dynamic and to motivate your students to be more active. There are several apps for doing this, but Mural and Miro are my favorite.


Visual Collaboration

5. Mural

A digital workspace for visual collaboration. As an educator, you can apply for a free facilitator account and start collaborating with other educators and students. With the educator account, you can have up to 10 team members (which can edit, facilitate and create murals) and 20 guests (only for collaborating to murals you give them access to) to your mural spaces. With Mural you can conduct virtual brain-storming sessions, use canvas layouts and frameworks designed by experts for different activities (business model, mind-mapping, empathy map, many others). you can break out your classroom in groups so that students’ teams can collaborate in different workspaces. You can apply for a Mural educator account here. Here you can find a tutorial on how to use Mural for education.

6. Miro

Similar to Mural, Miro is an app that acts as a virtual whiteboard for team collaboration. Educators and students can apply for a free education account that has the same functionalities as the pro version. Even if you don’t apply for the education account, you can create your free account and have up to 3 whiteboards to play with. You can invite an unlimited number of viewers and have small teams collaborating in your whiteboards. Otherwise, with the educational plan, you can invite and collaborate with as many students as you want and create unlimited whiteboards. To apply for an education account, you just need to apply here.


Engagement and gamification

Games are by far the most effective way to keep students engaged in learning, off and online. There is nothing more gratifying for learners than getting rewards and recognition when they work hard for it. Not only games are fun, but they facilitate learning. There are plenty of apps available for educators (and anyone else) for creating challenges, evaluations, and assignments while leaving the boring side apart. These two are my favorite.

7. Kahoot

The most famous interactive quiz platform is Kahoot, a free student-response that uses many gamification techniques to engage students’ participation and enhance learning. With Kahoot, you can both host live quizzes and self-paced challenges for out-of-class review. You can play Kahoot games in single mode or in team mode and offer plenty of fun features to stimulate students to play and learn. Kahoot offers a basic free plan where you can invite up to 50 players, host online games, play, and create as many Kahoots as you want and have assessments of reports ready to download. Premium plans start at 5 USD per month and you get more amazing features and more players.

8. Sli.do

With sli.do you can empower your students to ask questions, vote in polls, and be a part of the lecture by using a simple Q&A and polling tool. Sli.do is a great tool for promoting active learning in online classes. It allows you to involve your students in your lecture and give them the freedom to express their opinion via live polls, quizzes, brainstorming. The possibilities are vast.

  • With polls, you can learn if your lecture’s content resonates with your students. You can also use them to drive meaningful discussions in your class.
  • Use quizzes to find out how much your students remember from your lectures. Use them to recap the content from the last lecture. Or motivate your students to pay attention during your lecture by hosting a quiz at the end.
  • Use the questions feature to collect students’ questions throughout your lecture and address them as they come in or in a dedicated Q&A session at the end of your class. You and your students can upvote and provide their answers in real-time, making peer-learning possible.

Another awesome feature is the switcher app. With Slido Switcher, you can display polls or questions on top of your presentation using your smartphone as a remote control. Whether you use PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi, our Switcher app allows you to switch seamlessly between your presentation and Slido.

Sli.do offers an education package starting at $5 per month. But you can also use the free version for free for up to 100 participants.

9. Factile

Have you ever played jeopardy? Well, Factile is a free learning platform that lets teachers create engaging Jeopardy-style quiz games for the classroom. You can create and personalize your own game boards or use pre-made quizzes shared by the community. With Factile you can either host jeopardy games, regular multiple choice quizzes, memory games, and create study flashcards to improve students’ learning proficiency. As Kahoot, you can play Factile in teams or individually. With the free version you can create up to 5 teams for each game and you can host up to 3 games. For as little at 5 USD per month, you can play and create as many games as you want and have over 50 teams. The premium account offers other amazing features like buzzer mode, play memory and choice games, play, and share flashcards.

Other great free apps for quizzes and assessments are quizziz and quizlet.


Interactive Activities

Online assessment and homework need not be boring. There are plenty of tools you can use to overcome the physical distancing and the lack of face-to-face interaction between you and your students. Collaboration and social co-creation are possible online thanks to technology. These are my favorite/

10. Wakelet

A free platform that allows you to curate and organize content from different platforms to save and share with students, colleagues, and friends. You need to create a collection — something like hashtags topics on Instagram — and students can contribute to adding text, pdf, videos, URLs, images, and Flipgrid shorts. These are brilliant ways for students to express their learning. Apart from this, the teacher can encourage creativity among the learners by inviting students to approach the assessment the way they want to. The idea behind Wakelet is to curate content like you will do for blogs (like Medium) or magazines. You can synthesize a bunch of different content, filter out the noise, and keep what is valuable in one sole collection to better communicate about a specific concept or topic. Wakalet is completely free and its potential is amazing.

11. Flipgrid

Flipgrid is a free social learning app to create and share short and exceptional videos. As an educator, you have free access to the app and you can create different grids — classrooms — and topics of discussion. Each grid has a unique code that you can share with your students so they can access the topics and the videos being posted by the professors and classmates. It is a magnificent tool for reflective learning and for building solid learning communities within your classes. As an educator you can post discussion prompts and students may respond with short videos, whether they are learning in class or at home. Flipgrid is completely free. For more info on how to use it, read the beginner’s guide here.


Backchannel discussion

Backchannel discussions are a great way for learners to have an on-topic conversation during a lecture. It is an effective way to keep your students engaged during an online session and continue the conversation afterward.

Unlike quiz tools like Kahoot, backchannels are not based on competition or gamification. The aim is not to test students’ knowledge. Instead, a backchannel is an informal way for students to interact with the educator and their classmates in the form of an online forum designed to complement classroom activity.

12. Slack

Initially conceived for business team communication and project management, slack can also be an outstanding tool for education. From planning and teaching curriculum to managing student services, slack offers amazing functionalities for both students and educators. You can create one workspace for each course, each with a set of channels for classroom work, discussion, group projects, and office hours. Students can use channels to post clarifying questions and comments throughout the lesson, and their classmates can use emoji reactions to second questions or show support for comments. Slack is compatible with Zoom, so when running a virtual classroom on Zoom you can directly access slack channels and questions. You can use threads to organize smaller group discussions around specific topics during the class. Slack is free, but for a better experience and more control over your interactions, and data premium plan is a better option. Slack offers 85% discount on the premium plan to education institutions. You can apply here.

13. Padlet

Padlet is a productivity software and we are pretty keen on making your work life easier. It’s essentially an online bulletin board, something like a notice board. It is an outstanding tool for making classes more interactive as it has a wide range of features such as sharing and collaborating documents, videos, post. But the best of it is their Backchannel option.

Padlet Backchannel provides a familiar messaging interface for both synchronous and asynchronous class discussions. You can use Padlet for student conversations during a lecture, for brainstorming ideas, or for Q&A session. You can make your Backchannels private, password-protected, secret, or fully public. You can also make them read-only or add admins. Another exceptional functionality is their Profanity filter that replaces bad words with emojis. You can also turn on discussion moderation and approve all messages before they show up for other readers.

While Padlet is not for free, it is still accessible at 99$/year per educator and includes unlimited student accounts.


Video conferencing and virtual classroom

Video conferencing is one of the best ways to get in touch with your students remotely. It’s a brilliant tool for having engaging conversations and lectures where you need interaction and peer discussion.

14. Zoom

The most common software for videoconferencing used by businesses and educators. Zoom has a freemium service. It’s great for hosting webinars, meetings, group collaborations, and calls. With a free account, you can invite up to 100 participants, have face-to-face interviews, and up to 40 minutes of group conference. With the current pandemic situation, Zoom has removed the 40 minute limit for educators. You just need to create an account with your institutional email address.

15. BigBlueButton

An alternative open source web conferencing system for online learning. The goal of the project is to provide remote students with a high-quality online learning experience. BigBlueButton is amazing because you can have the same Zoom pro functionalities for free. The software is really user-friendly. BBB has a whiteboard that you can share with your participants, you can breakout rooms for team collaboration and create polls during your virtual lecture. Here you can find a user guide on how to use BigBlueButton for education.

Another great software is google meet, which you can access for free if you have a google classroom account. Also, you have Newrow which offers amazing functionalities with its pro version.


Final words

While engaging students online can be more challenging, the learning experience can be as good or even better than in the traditional physical classroom. With the proper planning and tools, remote teaching can be as effective as in-person teaching.

You can anticipate and prevent students’ disengagement and procrastination by implementing these tools.

Engaging students online is not much more difficult than engaging with them in a physical classroom. Online methods provide a wide range of alternatives to promote active learning and teamwork.


Ready to shift to Online Education? Receive monthly tips and tricks on how to make your online classes more engaging.

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Education Online Education

10 Alternative Ideas for Assessing Students’ Knowledge and Skills Online

Redefining Student’s Learning Assessment for Online Teaching


We are changing approaches, shifting from traditional master class to hybrid, blended, and reverse learning. So why are we taking so much time in changing also the way we assess students?

Why do we still think multiple-choice exams, exercise calculations, or case studies are the best and only way to assess learning and knowledge? Who are we kidding?

The pandemic situation and the abrupt shift of schools and universities to remote teaching are finally opening our eyes: the way we assess students’ knowledge and skills need to change.

I’ve seen many high-ranked schools investing in very expensive software for remote testing and proctoring. These are technologies guaranteeing students don’t cheat during a remote exam sitting session. The software locks down the student device to ensure they open no other windows and provides video and audio monitoring throughout the entire exam.

Hello GDPR and goodbye student privacy!

I’ve seen also professors asking the students to do a 360° tour of their rooms before sitting the exam to ensure there is no whistleblower.

Is this what we want to do now? Are we changing our roles into prison guards?

Traditional assessment methods are far from being a fair indicator of intelligence, knowledge, skills, or effort. And they don’t reflect whatsoever the abilities and preparedness for work life.

Poor performance in an exam has nothing to do with incompetence or lack of knowledge. Many students suffer from attention deficit, hyperactive disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and other forms of attention and learning disorders. Other students just suffer from anxiety, stress, and fear of judgment and evaluation. Others have just bad luck.

The current situation is probably the best opportunity for us, educators, to change the way we approach student assessment of knowledge and learning outcomes.

We need to think about more appropriate assessment methods that encourage reflection, learning, and skills development.

Below, I discuss different effective methods for assessing students’ learning outcomes both online and offline.


1. Discussions and Socratic seminars

Online discussions and Socratic seminars are excellent ways to assess students’ understanding, reflection, and application of concepts. Asking specific, open-ended questions (or topics) can lead to mindful discussions and to the creation of knowledge. Students can share and respond to each other’s ideas with text, images, and videos. These can unfold asynchronously (over time) through open public forums like Quora or Reddit — functionalities also available in Moodle and Canvas. Alternatively, the discussion can happen synchronously by using videoconferencing tools like Zoom and other knowledge management and communication systems like Slack. Here, it’s important to clarify from the beginning your expectations on student’s participation and how their participation will translate into grades.


2. Explanatory student’s videos

Students can be really creative when it comes to recording and editing videos. You can capitalize on those skills and ask them to create short explanatory videos to present a concept learned in class. They can use animations, interviews, hand drawing, or slide decks to create their videos. Then they can share it into the course platform (like Canvas or Moodle) so that their classmates can access it and give their feedback. You can also use social media video sharing apps like Flipgrid, Instagram, or Tiktok. The choice should depend on how you want to manage Data and how comfortable you (and your students) feel with using social media. Flipgrid in this case can be the best compromise as it’s closed only for your class and you have more control over data protection and safety.


3. Self-assessment and retrospective learning

Self-assessment is a great opportunity for students to share their thoughts on the course, the process of learning, their performance, and many more. No one is better placed to know how much effort they put in learning and how much they’ve learned that students themselves. Self-assessment is not only a mean to know how good a student performs in a class, but is an opportunity for the student to learn to judge objectively his/her skills and knowledge. But self-assessment is not always easy. It’s crucial to clarify to the student the importance of honesty, transparency, and the concept of impostor syndrome when using self-assessment. Instructors can provide a sample assessment grid and questions to facilitate the activity.

The agile methodology for management and innovation uses “agile retrospectives” as an opportunity to learn and improve by reflecting on past events and behaviors. The idea of retrospectives is to have participants share their thoughts after each lecture on the following questions:

  • What I’ve learned?
  • What worked well? What did I enjoy?
  • What didn’t work well? What did I find challenging?
  • What are we going to try to do differently?

There are plenty of retrospective activities to derive the lessons learned, and many of them can be done remotely through a visual collaboration platform. But this can also be done asynchronously. Students can use original formats to share their retrospective lessons. Blog entries, 1-minute videos, mind maps, picture collage. Apps such Flipgrid, Wakalet, Instagram, or Pinterest work great for this kind of activity.


4. Simulations and Labs

Students can engage with real-world data or use simulations of laboratory environments. These are useful for practicing skills of the discipline and for engaging in real-world problems. While most simulation games are pricy, you can also find top quality free simulation games on the web. You can also create your own games and simulations easily, even when you don’t know how to code. Nick Case has built different simulations and game designer tools for people with no coding skills, check them out here. You can also use scratch to code games easily.


5. Group Projects

Online collaborations allow students to develop team spirit and team management skills. Working in teams is not only good for students, but it’s also good for educators, as assessment and tutoring can be easier. You can divide your class into several teams of up to 4 students so that each team works on a specific project. There are different alternatives for group projects. You can assign different topics to each group or the same problem to all the teams. Each team approaches differently the topic even when the major topic is shared by the entire class. Canva or Moodle allows you to create group assignments and divide the class into teams. Zoom, BigBlueButton, Glowbl, and Meet also allow you separate teams in different rooms, so when having online video conferencing you can provide personalized tutoring to each group. You can also use visual collaboration software like Mural or Miro for virtual teamwork.


6. Peer Review

Feedback from peers can motivate students to learn from each other. It is also probably one of the most effective approaches to learning. Evaluating peer work helps students to better grab concepts and knowledge. They not only understand better the topics, but they also develop critical and analytical thinking. Correcting the work of others requires students to understand the what, the why, and the how. It’s important to guide students to give each other valuable feedback using rubrics or other prompts. Be sure you provide a sample evaluation grid and examples on how to provide constructive feedback. Provide a list of guiding questions for them to ask each other and so they can evaluate objectively their classmates. To ensure the quality of peer review, you can also include a grade to the peer review activity. You can ask students to evaluate the quality and usefulness of the feedback and they received from their peers.


7. Blogs

Journaling is a great way to reflect on learning and documenting the process. Blogs can allow students to communicate their ideas in a more creative and informal format. There are several platforms that can be used for free by students and professors to create specific class blogs. You can use Medium and create a publication — a collection of stories — for each classroom. Students will then submit their pieces to the publication and you will review them. They are learning not only to write better but also to create content for the online community. They can learn how to apply SEO techniques and digital marketing. But mostly they can develop self-awareness and reflective thinking. There are other platforms that work for blogging like Wakalet, Blogger, or WordPress. Chose the one you prefer.

8.Creative Projects

Creativity is one of the most wanted skills by recruiters. Unfortunately, we give little space to boost student creativity. Using creative projects as a means of assessment is an opportunity to improve this skill in students and improve their learning. Creative projects can include original formats: Music, photography, writing, drawing, painting, etc. The idea is to let student’s imagination fly and use their artistic side to show their learning. Using this kind of format not only improves students’ creativity but also their ability to understand and digest the concepts and knowledge gained during the course. It also improves problem-solving skills and encourages students to think about a problem from original angles. Also, It’s a useful method to solve wicked problems. It’s important to define the criteria of assessment and how it translates into grades. For example, originality might be an important aspect of the grade, but also the ability to pass on knowledge to their classmates — that is, clarity of their presentation — is essential.


9. Open innovation challenges

Professors can use crowdsourcing or open innovation platforms to encourage students to work on real-life problems. Platforms like Agorize connects organizations with students to solve strategic problems and find innovative solutions. Students are confronted with real business (or social) problems and have to apply all their knowledge to come up with a suitable solution. Open innovation platforms are a great opportunity for students to team up with students all around the globe and collaborate virtually while applying their expertise to respond to the challenge. Open innovation promotes critical thinking, the ability to overcome concrete problems, creativity, teamwork, and innovative behavior. Also, students are more likely to show motivation and commitment to their learning process, as they apply their skills in real-life situations and get immediate feedback from the organizations and the crowd.


10. Games & Interactive Competitions

Hosting interactive quizzes during your online sessions are a great way to evaluate student knowledge and engagement. The most famous interactive quiz platform is Kahoot, a free student-response that uses all sorts of gamification techniques to engage students’ participation and enhance learning. With Kahoot, you can both host live quizzes as well as self-paced challenges for out-of-class review. Kahoot games can be played in single mode or in team mode and offers plenty of fun features to stimulate students to play and learn. Another great platform for live learning games is Factile. With Factile you can either host jeopardy games, regular multiple choice quizzes, memory games, and create study flashcards to improve students’ learning proficiency. As Kahoot, Factile can be played in teams or individually. You can also use Flipgrid, Flippitynet, Quizlet, and Socratic to create games.

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Education Online Education

How To Create a Sense of Community in your Classroom in 5 Steps

Create an authentic sense of community in your classroom, regardless of the pandemic

Building a sense of community in a classroom is crucial for learning. The sense of belonging increases students’ motivation to learn, willingness to help each other, satisfaction with their academic programs, and cognitive learning. 

The beginning of the year is the best moment to create a sense of community in your classroom. And while this year feels very different for many of us, there’s no reason we can’t create connections with our students.

No matter if our classes are 100% virtual, or hybrid, or blended, or in-person, creating a sense of community in your classroom is not that difficult, and it will always be beneficial. 

Researchers identify 4 essential elements that create a sense of community: 

  1. Mutual interdependence among members
  2. Connectedness & trust
  3. Interactivity
  4. Shared values and goals

In this post, I go through 5 simple steps that will help you forge bonds and create a classroom environment where every student feels safe and part of the community. 

No matter what’s the format of your course and what are the channels you’re using. Creating a sense of community is this simple, and the learning outcomes are worth it.

Let’s take a look.


1. Define a common goal

A shared culture is only possible when there are shared goals, values, and beliefs. 

The first step to creating a sense of community is defining common goals, values, and agreements. And I’m not talking about the intended learning outcomes you have listed on your syllabi. I’m talking about student’s shared goals.

These common goals are crucial to building trust and connections among students, as well as developing a sense of responsibility. The goals can be a mix of learning goals and life goals. They should be adapted to the type of course, the level and depth of study, the duration of the course, the maturity level of students, and the initial knowledge they have. 

The key idea here is to give students the opportunity to set up their own shared goals, values, and agreements at the beginning of the course. While it might be a good idea to have some outlines on these three elements to guide the class, students must reflect and work on building their own community standards. This not only will increase their motivation towards learning, but it also will hold them accountable for achieving their objectives and complying with the community agreements. 

Use the first half-hour of your lecture to work on the community goals, values, and agreements. Ask your students to work in small groups and reflect on what are the goals they should achieve at the end of the course, and have them classify by priority (top, mid, low). Then have them discuss with the other groups to determine which goals are common and finally have them vote. This activity can be done through a brainstorming session with post-its and voting stickers, but it can be also conducted remotely with tools like Mural or Miro.  

We can do the same to reflect on classroom values and agreements. For example, you can ask them to brainstorm on what are appropriate/inappropriate behaviors both in physical and virtual lectures, and then make them ‘sign’ the agreement contract.

Finally, you can ask questions such as “How will we help each other adhere to the agreements we’ve adopted? What forms of reminders will you prefer and allow?” This will help you and students take actionable steps to accomplish those objectives and keep up with the community norms.


2. Use a common reward system

Recognizing individual accomplishments is a great way to motivate learning. Positive psychology studies show that by creating positive affect —  like giving constant encouragement or focusing on students’ strengths rather than weakness —  improves students’ self-efficacy. Learners with higher self-efficacy are more likely to achieve their goals and overcome challenges.  

Also, gamification has been proven to be a great approach for teaching as it enhances students’ engagement and learning. 

However, relying solely on individual rewards and recognition might also have a negative effect on learners, as it can increase the feeling of isolation of some students, especially those who are less extroverted or who struggle with some topics. 

A great way to overcome the pitfalls of individual recognition is by building a common reward system. The principal aim is to increase connectedness, trust, and interdependence between students. 

Instead of working individually to achieve their personal learning goals and secure their reward, students work as a group to achieve the community goals and obtain a common (bigger) reward. 

There are plenty of ways you can set up a common reward system, but let me give you an example. 

You can imagine a set of badges that go in line with the class goals, like “Effective communicator” or “Amazing tutor” or “Math genius”, or whatever suits your class goals and content. The idea is to encourage every student to obtain one badge, of course, after accomplishing the task for it, and if at the end of the class every student has gained a personal badge a common reward is revealed. The common reward can be something like “One extra week to finish mid-term paper” or “no-homework for tomorrow” or “one point in the final exam for everyone”. The idea here is to provide a greater and more satisfying collective reward than just individual recognition.

You recognize individual progress (badges) but also collaborative progress (big common reward). This encourages students to work in cooperation rather than in competition towards their common goals, increasing their sense of interdependence, connectedness, and belonging. 


3. Keep the discussion going

Most of the learning happens outside the classroom when students are home and have to prepare assignments. Keep the conversation going even after the lecture, and provide a space where students can ask, comment, and give feedback regarding the lecture material, their struggles, and their learning experience. 

Backchannel discussions are a great way for learners to have an on-topic conversation during and after the lecture. Having a Backchannel is also an effective way to maintain a connection with students in hybrid and online lectures. 

There are several ways to keep the conversation going either through collaborative spaces, blackboards, blogs, chats, wikis, or forums. The fundamental idea behind these Backchannels is that students can log in questions, comments, feedback, doubts, or even learning notes, both during and outside classroom hours. 

Think of it as a specialized Wikipedia for your own class with a complete FAQ section. Every student will contribute to the discussion and will have access to answers and feedback given to their peers. So, instead of answering the same question to every student that sends you an email asking about reports deadlines or precise guidelines, you can have them all go to the same wiki where all these questions have been already answered. 

Another outstanding feature of Backchannels is that you can ask students to moderate the discussion, provide feedback, and answer their classmates’ questions when they know the solution. This opportunity to give feedback encourages peer learning, but also improves learners’ self-confidence and helps them build trust. 

As a professor, you benefit also from it, as you spend less time answering the same questions repeatedly, and you delegate some of your responsibilities to the learners. Your job here is only to verify that the feedback given by other students is appropriate and accurate. 

If you want to learn more about Backchannels, you can look at some digital tools I recommend for creating beautiful and organized backchannels. Remember to reward students for participating in the discussions by both asking and answering questions.


4. Encourage peer learning

As I mentioned before, peer-learning is an outstanding approach for inspiring responsibility and motivating students to take ownership of their learning. 

When students are given the opportunity to teach and tutor other classmates, they’re not only revising their knowledge and own understanding, they’re also building self-confidence and trust in their community.

Peer learning activities are a powerful way to create a sense of interdependence, connectedness, trust, and shared goals between individuals.

You can easily implement peer learning through Backchannel discussions. But you can also imagine asking students to evaluate and give feedback to their peers after performing an assignment or class activity. You can give them instructions on how to evaluate and give feedback to others, and provide them with an evaluation grid so they can appreciate the work of their colleagues. 

Another example of peer-learning is pairing students with different skills and backgrounds, but that share common learning objectives, for in-class activities. You may give them specific goals to focus on for the class and challenge them to achieve them through collaboration. 

Other than learning and gaining a better understanding of the topics seen in class, students develop practical work skills such as teamwork, time management, organization, effective communication, and constructive feedback. 


5. Reflect on the journey

The most effective way to enhance learning is to learn about how we learn. Every individual is different and their learning journey is unique. 

However, we hardly ask students to reflect on their learning journey or give them enough space to think about what they’ve learned, how these match their goals and expectations, and how they felt during those lessons.

The agile method for management and innovation uses “agile retrospectives” as an opportunity to learn and improve by reflecting on past events and behaviors. The idea of retrospectives is to have participants share their thoughts after each lecture on the following questions:

  • What I’ve learned?
  • What worked well? What did I enjoy?
  • What didn’t work well? What did I find challenging?
  • What are we going to do differently?

When students answer these questions, they actually are thinking about how they think and learn. This encourages them to look closer at their learning journey, adjust and adapt goals, and take the actions to achieve those goals. 

You can for example dedicate the last minutes of your class to wrap up on retrospectives by having an open discussion on what they liked, how they felt, and what could be improved. 

There are plenty of retrospective activities to derive the lessons learned, and you can carry out them remotely by using a visual collaboration platform. It can also be an asynchronous activity. Students can rely on original formats to share their retrospective lessons. Blog entries, 1-minute videos, mind maps, picture collage. Apps such Flipgrid, Wakalet, Instagram, or Pinterest work great for this kind of activity.

Retrospective learning highlights the importance of honesty, transparency, and the concept of impostor syndrome for self-assessment. 

This exercise also helps learners to build connections and interact with each other, as they might discover they are not alone in their struggles and feelings. 

They’ll feel more empowered to work as a community, to meet their common goals, and to take action to solve potential conflicts or disagreements between them. 


Final thoughts

Creating a sense of belonging and a safe, nurturing, supporting environment is crucial for learning. Learning is mainly a social and emotional activity. 

It doesn’t take the latest technology or complex activities to build a positive learning community. And it doesn’t matter much whether your courses are online or in-person. Creating a sense of community is way easier than you think and is full of benefits for both learners and educators. 

Remember that community is built over time, and mutual sharing and trust are essential. Physical distancing need not mean social distancing. 

With a little creativity and willingness to create a positive environment for learning, we can create an authentic sense of community in our classrooms, regardless of the pandemic. 

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Education Online Education

5 Tips to Avoid Online Classroom Fatigue

Improve your mental health and make your online classes more engaging and easy to digest

Let’s face it.

We are kind of getting sick of Zoom, or Teams, or whatever other videoconferencing tools we are using. It’s exhausting.

Being in front of a computer all day long is exhausting. But we were all used to that before Covid-19, sort of. But being in front of a computer with our camera and microphone on most of our day is exhausting to a whole new level. We are in the spotlight all the time, all of the sudden. 

Whether is a department meeting, or a research committee, or a virtual class, Zoom has become our ‘can’t live without’ app. And while there are many benefits we are for sure valuing — especially the convenience when it comes to unnecessary meetings — , it can be challenging and it can easily become a burden for both students and professors.

Zoom classroom fatigue is real and more common than we can imagine. In this post, I go through simple strategies that will help you and your students fight online classroom fatigue. Not only this will improve your mental health, but it will also make your online classes more engaging and easy to digest. 

Let’s start. 


1. Balance synchronous and asynchronous activities

When it comes to online classes, it is important to understand that time and pace have not the same connotations as in a traditional physical classroom. While you can plan for 3 hours of face-to-face teaching, you may not do so for online lectures.

Remote learning, to be effective, needs to rely on different activities that happen both during and outside the lecture hours. 

Being in front of a zoom conference for over 40 minutes straight is just unproductive. Students, no matter how engaged they are in your lecture, have many distractions at their disposal and easily space out from the conversation.

A great way to avoid the loss of your students’ attention and fatigue is to blend both synchronous and asynchronous activities all along during your lecture hours.

You can follow the flipped classroom approach, for example, and give your students material to read and analyze before the zoom meeting (asynchronous) and then conduct a Socratic seminar during the lecture time (synchronous). 

Not only this will make the zoom lecture more interactive and rich, but it will also give the opportunity to students with technical and technological issues to follow up with the class and not left behind. 


2. Plan frequent short breaks

Our attention span in online lectures is shorter than in traditional in-person classes. We receive stimuli from different sources and the opportunity for procrastination is vivid. 

If you want to keep the attention of your students and help them keep up with the lecture content is important to plan frequent brief breaks.

Imagine your lecture as a bunch of Lego blocks. Instead of having one big construction handed to your students, give them small chunks so they can assemble the pieces.  

A good idea to implement this is to break your slide presentation in small sections and inserting a ‘break alert’ between your sections. This will help you not forget having frequent brief breaks, even when you are in an inspiration zone. 

Planning the breaks when you are preparing your lecture is essential because it gives you better control over the amount of content you want to share. In this way, you make sure you finish a concept or topic before having a break and avoid the loose ends. Also, if your students know in advance when they will have breaks, they are more likely to put extra effort to keep focus until the next break. 


3. Assign discussion leader roles for each session 

Interaction can be challenging when you are conducting online lectures. And sometimes you may feel you’re talking to a computer and that no one is behind those black squares. 

You ask a question and an awkward silence takes over. It can be because students are shy, disengaged, distracted, or just have connection issues. Whatever the reason is, it is always a painful situation for everyone in the (virtual) room. 

An original way to prevent this from happening is naming discussion leaders among the students. At every lecture, you can randomly select 4 to 5 students to be the leaders and moderators for the discussions of the day. By assigning these roles, you are empowering students to voice their opinions and also inviting them to take ownership of their learning. 

In virtual classrooms, interaction is difficult because students don’t feel solicited to interact and they feel there is no implicit, nor explicit, request to take part. When you give them the responsibility to lead the discussion, they become accountable for their learning.

The leader roles are not only something beneficial for the students assigned with this mission but to class as a whole. Sometimes it is easier or more acceptable to be called out by a classmate than by the professor. Other students feel also responsible for their classmates’ performance as leaders and are keener to take part in the discussion and keep the interactions. 


4. Make space for fun

Teaching and learning can be fun. Games, energizers, and ice-breakers are a great way to break the monotony of a course. Not only they bring up some fun to the classroom, but they also increase focus and improve learning. 

If learning through games is effective in the physical classroom, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work remotely.

Like you plan for breaks and a blend of synchronous and asynchronous activities to do during your virtual classes, you may also make time for fun. 

You can, for example, start your class with a short fun warm-up game to set the ambiance.

You need not prepare a complex ice breaker. Something as simple as doing a gif contest will do. You can ask your students to share a gif that represents their current state of mind — and body — at then have them vote for the best one. Everyone would have a laugh and will get energized to start the lecture.

You can try also an emoji tournament or a show and tell. 10 to 15 minutes is enough to get the ambiance going and give students time to energize and get ready to absorb new knowledge and stay focus.

Another effective way to make learning fun is by instilling some gamification into your assessment activities. You can host fun quizzes or polls all along with the lecture by using apps such as Kahoot, Flippity, Playfactile, or Slido. You’ll be assessing student knowledge and guaranteeing some entertainment and diminishing Zoom fatigue. 


5. Use break rooms frequently 

It’s quite difficult to maintain student engagement and follow up on students’ learning when you have to give virtual lectures to a big number of participants. When your class size reaches 20 or more participants is hard to ensure everyone is keeping up.

To avoid losing your students to distractions, you can use break rooms to work with smaller groups. If you use the Zoom premium license you can create break rooms easily by setting them up on your account settings. If you don’t have the premium license or you use another videoconferencing system that doesn’t provide the breakout room option, you can program short slots to work with each group of students separately. 

So you can program the first 40 minutes to give your lecture to the entire class, and then have 10 to 15′ one-to-one group-meeting slots with each team to follow up on their learning and progress. With the breakout feature, you can assign students from the same group to different virtual rooms so they can work together without the distraction or mess of other students working in similar activities. Also, it is easy for the professor to identify students that are struggling with the course notions and provide more personalized support to each participant, without spending much more time in office hours giving help to students. 

Breakout rooms are also great for teamwork and to increase student participation. 


Final thoughts

We all hope we’ll be back to our physical classrooms soon. Everyone — students and professors — misses face-to-face learning. In-person classes will return, eventually. However, online will not go away.

Remote learning and remote work will be now part of our new normal. Hybrid, flexible, and flipped classrooms will become the new norm. The use of digital tools and online learning platforms will continue to speed up. And some meetings and other gatherings will continue to be held online. 

No matter what the future of education looks like, one thing is for sure, Zoom will continue to be part of our daily life. So, if we want to keep our mental health and prevent burnout and fatigue, we better start using strategies to make our virtual courses more energizing and easy to digest. 

Online teaching (and learning) need not be painful, we just need to reimagine our teaching approach and have the proper tools to make it memorable and rewarding for both students and teachers. 

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Education Online Education

The Ultimate Guide to Online Resources for Educators

20 free apps for online teaching

Being an educator in times of lockdown and pandemic can be both exhausting and overwhelming. There are so many brilliant tools and resources out there for online teaching. But when you have to shift suddenly to remote lectures, you might find it hard to keep up with all and chose what works best for you. It can be frustrating to see so many apps and tools but not knowing if they will work for your classes.

I’ve been there. I know how overwhelming it can be.

You must be wondering how you are going to continue providing great lectures remotely when you have not done it before.

I know also (from experience) that universities and schools are not all equipped with the most user-friendly tools for class management and remote teaching. Sometimes they are not equipped at all. So you might think: how can you get access to best quality tools if your institution doesn’t provide them? How can school pay for those if we don’t have any budget?

To save you time, effort and money, I have compiled a list of the top free apps, tools and resources that will help you shift to remote teaching. No matter if you are a newbie or an expert, these tools are the best in their market and are free, or almost.

This post will tell you everything you need to know about the best online tools and resources for online teaching.

So, let’s begin.

Table of Contents

  1. Creative content creation
  2. Animation tools and storytelling
  3. Voice lecture recording
  4. Video recording and editing
  5. Video conferencing and virtual classroom
  6. Teaching Platforms
  7. Communication and visual collaboration
  8. Engagement and gamification
  9. Interactive Activities
  10. Knowledge and project management

1. Creative content creation

Forget PowerPoint. Yes, I know this is your default application for creating lectures’ slides, but it’s far from being the most effective and engaging content creator for learning (or for anything else). 
Nothing is worse than old-fashioned PowerPoint slides full of text and with outdated animations and slide transitions. 
There are plenty of apps in the market that are more interesting than PowerPoint for creating beautiful content. Not only they are free and easy to use, but they also provide you with amazing ready-to-use layouts for your lectures, posters, course syllabus, learning cards, and many more. Most of the designs are free to use and you only need to put the text you want on it and that’s it. You need not be a graphic designer to create beautiful and engaging content for your courses.

Canva

With a free account you can have access to over 8,000 templates, over 100 design types (social media posts, presentations, letters, and more) and hundreds of thousands of free photos, icons and graphics. You can have free access as an educator forever, just by applying to their educational program here. You can do a lot with Canva for education. Here are some helpful tutorials to get you started.

Crello

A brilliant tool for creating graphic and video content that looks professional. Also, for free you get access to over 30,000 graphic and animated templates and over 140 million of images. This tutorial will help you get started.

Prezi

is another brilliant tool for creating animated and engaging presentations. With a Free account you can have access to unlimited content and to their latest products: Prezi videos and Prezi design. Also, if you apply as an educator you can have an affordable price (3USD/mo) for the features available on the premium version. Another exceptional Prezi functionality is that you can convert your PowerPoint slides into Prezi presentations with just one click. Some tutorials available here.


2. Animation tools and storytelling

Storytelling is a great approach to engage students and to enhance their learning experience. Storytelling is a technique that helps to create connections with the audience and involves them in an experience that may ultimately result in memorable moments. Storytelling help students to convey the content being taught, create emotional experiences, appropriate and exchange knowledge.

But enjoyable stories need friendly characters and the best way to create those when you are teaching is through cartoon animation.

There are plenty of fun and easy apps that you can use to create compelling characters and motion designs to tell your stories, without having designer skills.

Powtoon

A brilliant tool for creating animated motion design videos. This is really helpful for explanatory videos. With a free account you can create up to 3 minutes, but they have also affordable plans for educators. For as little as 6 dollars per month you can get create 20-minute videos, up to 10GB storage, unlimited access to royalty-free music and objects and the possibility to export your videos to mp4. You can apply to educational access here.

Animaker

Another platform that works great for video and animated content. You need not have design skills to create outstanding and beautiful videos. With a free account you can create and download unlimited videos, build up to 2 custom characters, access to some free music, and gifs.

Toontastic

An app built by google. With Toontastic you can draw, animate, and narrate adventures, breaking news stories, science reports, and all your other ideas completely for free. The app is available for iOS and android devices but not yet for desktop.


3. Voice lecture recording

Giving voice to your lectures is important when you are doing online courses. Since your slides presentation should be simple to be interesting, few words and a lot of images, you need a speech that goes with those visuals. Giving voice to your lectures ensure that you provide your students with all the knowledge they need without overwhelming them with slides full of text. 
While PowerPoint and other default presentation software have the option to record your voice, most of the time is not top quality, and it makes the presentation heavy and difficult to share.

An amazing tool for voice recording and screen recording is Loom.

Loom

A video recording and editing freemium application that you can download on any device (desktop, phone, tablet). With Loom, you can record your device screen and record yourself while narrating your slides or content on your screen. You can also create and edit videos and add filters or text. Loom is free for students and educators. You only need to have a valid institutional email address and you will have loom pro for free. Loom is also great for flippe classrooms, making students tutorials or peer learning and giving feedback to students’ work. If you want to know more about what you can do with Loom for education, you can read the guide for education here.How to Use Loom to Make Better Educational Videos by Digital content producer Daniel Rubio


4. Video recording and editing

Video recording and video editing is also an important step for making online lectures. There are default applications that are pre-installed in your devices, like iMovie and QuickTime if you use Mac. But many times these apps are difficult to use or not suitable for creative videos. Alternative and much more easy and fun apps are available on the web for free or for a low budget.

Animoto

One of my favorites. It’s a free app for teachers and students where you can create amazing videos with no knowledge or skills on video editing and design. With the free version you can have access to more than 1 million ready-to-use video and image templates, over 350 music tracks, 3 different fonts and 30 color swatches. Also, you can download unlimited videos of standard quality (720p), which is already good. With Animoto you can also create accounts for your students and create a virtual classroom. For more information on how to use Animoto for education, you can read the FAQ for schools and educators here.

There are other video editing solutions such as Ligthworks, but these are less user friendly and are more suitable for people with editing skills. Then you have Blender, an open source 3D animation suite, but then again you need to have excellent skills in design and editing.


5. Video conferencing and virtual classroom

Video conferencing is one of the best way to get in touch with your students remotely. It’s a brilliant tool for having engaging conversation and lectures where you need interaction and peer discussion.

Zoom

The most common software for videoconferencing used by business and educators. Zoom has a freemium service. It’s great for hosting webinars, meetings, group collaborations, and calls. With a free account you can invite up to 100 participants, have face-to-face interviews and up to 40 minutes group conference. With the current pandemic situation, Zoom has removed the 40 minute limit for educators. You just need to create an account with your institutional email address.

BigBlueButton

An alternative open source web conferencing system for online learning. The goal of the project is to provide remote students with a high-quality online learning experience. BigBlueButton is amazing because you can have the same Zoom pro functionalities for free. The software is really user-friendly. BBB has a whiteboard that you can share with your participants, you can breakout rooms for team collaboration and create polls during your virtual lecture. Here you can find a user guide on how to use BigBlueButton for education.

Another great software is google meet, which you can access for free if you have a google classroom account. Also, you have Newrow which offers amazing functionalities with its pro version.


6. Teaching Platforms

Teaching platforms are great for organizing all your lecture plans, contents, assessments, feedback, and tracking students’ progress.

While some universities have institutional licenses to online platforms. Many institutions don’t have the budget to pay for it. Gladly there are some free software that you can use.

Socrative

Socrative is one of the most used virtual classroom platforms all over the world. With a freemium business model, educators can have access to Socrative functionalities for free. With a free account, you can have one virtual classroom for up to 50 students and launch one activity at a time, do on-fly questioning (quizzes), and other assessment activities. You can also visualize results in real-time and do reporting. Your virtual room is accessible in any device, and students can join for free.

Easyclass

An open-source alternative for virtual classrooms. By creating an account with your institutional email address, you have access to Socrative pro-like functionalities for free and more. With Easyclass, educators can create online classes whereby they can store course materials online; manage assignments, quizzes, and exams; monitor due dates; grade results and provide students with feedback all in one place. Here is a short explanatory video on how to use the platform.

Google classroom is also a suitable alternative for creating virtual classrooms, but to have access to your institution needs to create an institutional account.


7. Communication and visual collaboration

Visual collaboration and communication tools are also a brilliant way to make your online classes more dynamic and to motivate your students to be more active. There are several apps for doing this, but Mural and Miro are my favorite.

Mural

A digital workspace for visual collaboration. As an educator, you can apply for a free facilitator account and start collaborating with other educators and students. With the educator account, you can have up to 10 team members (which can edit, facilitate and create murals) and 20 guests (only for collaborating to murals you give them access to) to your mural spaces. With Mural you can conduct virtual brain-storming sessions, use canvas layouts and frameworks designed by experts for different activities (business model, mind-mapping, empathy map, many others). you can break out your classroom in groups so that students’ teams can collaborate in different workspaces. You can apply for a Mural educator account here. Here you can find a tutorial on how to use Mural for education.

Miro

Similar to Mural, Miro is an app that acts as a virtual whiteboard for team collaboration. Educators and students can apply for a free education account that has the same functionalities as the pro version. Even if you don’t apply for the education account, you can create your free account and have up to 3 whiteboards to play with. You can invite an unlimited number of viewers and have small teams collaborating in your whiteboards. Otherwise, with the educational plan, you can invite and collaborate with as many students as you want and create unlimited whiteboards. To apply for an education account, you just need to apply here.


8. Engagement and gamification

Games are by far the most effective way to keep students engaged in learning, off and online. There is nothing more gratifying for learners that to get rewards and recognition when they work hard for it. Not only games are fun but they facilitate learning. There are plenty of apps available for educators (and anyone else) for creating challenges, evaluations and assignments while leaving the boring side apart. These two are my favorite.

Kahoot

The most famous interactive quiz platform is Kahoot, a free student-response that uses many gamification techniques to engage students’ participation and enhance learning. With Kahoot, you can both host live quizzes and self-paced challenges for out-of-class review. Kahoot games can be played in single mode or in team mode and offers plenty of fun features to stimulate students to play and learn. Kahoot offers a basic free plan where you can invite up to 50 players, host online games, play and create as many Kahoots as you want and have assessments of reports ready to download. Premium plans start at 5 USD per month and you get more amazing features and more players.

Factile

Have you ever played jeopardy? Well, Factile is a free learning platform that lets teachers create engaging Jeopardy-style quiz games for the classroom. You can create and personalize your own game boards or use pre-made quizzes shared by the community. With Factile you can either host jeopardy games, regular multiple choice quizzes, memory games, and create study flashcards to improve students’ learning proficiency. As Kahoot, Factile can be played in teams or individually. With the free version you can create up to 5 teams for each game and you can host up to 3 games. For as little at 5 USD per month you can play and create as many games as you want and have over 50 teams. The premium account offers other amazing features like buzzer mode, play memory and choice games, play and share flashcards.

Other great free apps for quizes and assessments are quizziz and quizlet.


9. Interactive Activities

Online assessment and homework need not be boring. There are plenty of tools you can use to overcome physical distancing and lack of face-to-face interaction between you and your students. Collaboration and social co-creation is possible online thanks to technology. These are my favorite/

Wakelet

A free platform that allows you to curate and organize content from different platforms to save and share with students, colleagues and friends. You need to create a collection — something like hashtags topics on Instagram — and students can contribute to a adding text, pdf, videos, URLs, images and Flipgrid shorts. These are brilliant ways for students to express their learning. Apart from this, the teacher can encourage creativity among the learners by inviting students to approach the assessment the way they want to. The idea behind Wakelet is to curate content, like you will do for blogs (like Medium) or magazines. You can synthesize a bunch of different content, filter out the noise and keep what is valuable in one sole collection to better communicate about a specific concept or topic. Wakalet is completely free and its potential is amazing.

Flipgrid

Flipgrid is a free social learning app to create and share short and exceptional videos. As an educator, you have free access to the app and you can create different grids — classrooms — and topics of discussion. Each grid has a unique code that you can share with your students so they can access the topics and the videos being posted by the professors and classmates. It is a magnificent tool for reflective learning and for building solid learning communities within your classes. As an educator you can post discussion prompts and students may respond with short videos, whether they are learning in class or at home. Flipgrid is completely free. For more info on how to use it, read the beginner’s guide here.


10. Knowledge and project management

Slack

Initially conceived for business team communication and project management, slack can also be an outstanding tool for education. From planning and teaching curriculum to managing student services, slack offers amazing functionalities for both students and educators. You can create one workspace for each course, each with a set of channels for classroom work, discussion, group projects, and office hours. Students can use channels to post clarifying questions and comments throughout the lesson and their classmates can use emoji reactions to second questions or show support for comments. Slack is compatible with Zoom, so when running a virtual classroom on Zoom you can directly access to slack channels and questions. You can use threads to organize smaller group discussions around specific topics during the class. Slack is free, but for better experience and more control on your interactions and data premium plan is a better option. Slack offers 85% discount on the premium plan to education institutions. You can apply here.

Notion

Notion started as a collaborative document editor. But you can do many other things. Notion is a workspace for your syllabi, notes, assignments, grades, and much more. Students can use it to take and share notes in class or to organize their tasks with to-do lists. Educators might use it to create course syllabi and share them with students or create a wiki for the class. Notion offers built-in templates that make student and teachers’ life easier. Students can find tools for building grade calculators, personal budget, job applications. While teachers can adopt ready-to-use templates for lesson plans, schedules and class directory. Notion is free for both students and educators. With an official institutional email address, you get access to unlimited block storage and no file upload limit.


If you want to know how to make your online courses more engaging, then you might want to read my next story.5 Ways To Make Your Online Courses More Engaging
And how not to get shadowed by TikTokmedium.com

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Education Online Education

5 Ways to Improve Students’ Engagement in Online Classes

5 ideas to make your online classes more engaging

Effective online teaching often requires more planning and more effort than in-person teaching. It calls for strict discipline and a lot of energy, and if not managed well it can easily turn into ‘Zoom Classroom Fatigue’.

Our challenge this fall is clear, we need to reimagine our syllabus and pedagogy and deliver more engaging, interactive, and flexible classes.

While engaging students online can be more challenging, the learning experience can be as good or even better than in the traditional physical classroom. Teaching online need not be painful, even if we didn’t grow as digital natives.

Here are some simple and straightforward ideas to make your online courses more engaging and meaningful.

Watch my 1-min video on how to improve students engagement online

1. Create a connection with your students

It’s not because you’re behind the screen that you have to forget about the human element. Physical distance should not mean social distancing. The emotional component in a class is the key to engage your students. This is especially true in online environments.

Both students and professors need interaction to build trust and create meaningful discussions. So start creating this connection as soon as you kick off your lecture.

Use storytelling and visuals to talk about yourself. Give the students the opportunity to know you better by asking questions about your career, your research, and your teaching methods.

Ask students to introduce themselves to the class and use fun ice-breakers to encourage teamwork and build trust.

Dedicate the first five minutes of your class to ask your students how they feel, what are their expectations and learning goals, what are the difficulties they are facing. These will make participants more at ease and keen to interact.

Try to call students by their names and remember details about them to make them feel unique and listened to. Use personal and professional stories throughout the lessons to create a fun, safe, and effective learning environment.


2. Create a sense of community

“Online communities are quickly becoming a critical part of the digital strategy for many organizations as a platform to establish ongoing conversations, trust relationships, and meaningful engagement with customers, employees, partners, and suppliers.”

– International Data Corporation (IDC)

The feeling of belonging is a strong driver of engagement. We all need to be part of something. That makes us feel unique and seen. The community plays a central role in making meaning.

According to the Social Learning Theory, learning occurs in a social context when the learner observes and then models a behavior. Knowledge is created through peer-to-peer communication, debate, critical thinking, and the development of leadership skills.

Building a sense of community for your classes helps learners become accountable for their own learning goals and outcomes. They are more likely to work together to achieve those goals and take ownership of their learning process. IT encourages peer learning, trust, and teamwork.

Skills that are too difficult for the learner to master on their own can be mastered effectively through interaction with a more knowledgeable person.

To create a sense of community in your classroom, whether online or offline, there are three key elements to consider:

  • The content needs to be relevant and engaging. It should provide opportunities for learners to connect and collaborate in task and assignments. The learning material should motivate participation in discussion groups, both during and after class, rewarding meaningful contributions.
  • Connection opportunities for learners. You should provide a space for learners to connect inside and outside the (virtual) classroom. Encourage participation in discussion forums linked to lectures, seminars, webinars, or other learning events. Organize mentoring programs pairing more experienced learners with younger participants so they share their experience and provide guidance.
  • Make space for collaboration. Make teamwork an integral part of the learning experience. Use group projects for assessing knowledge, skills, and learning outcomes. Group work challenges students to solve problems, share experiences, and knowledge to achieve a common goal.

3. Identify and support struggling students

Struggling students are more likely to disengage and drop out of courses. And during the current crisis, many students are struggling. Some are even encountering issues that go beyond the academic context. They might suffer from the loss of a close one to the pandemic, or battling mental health conditions. Many students suffer from attention deficit, hyperactive disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and other forms of attention and learning disorders. Other students just suffer from anxiety, stress, and fear of judgment and evaluation.

Empathy in teaching has never been more important. Check-in on your students regularly. Reach out to them or send out alerts promptly when you see they are falling behind. Make yourself available during office hours to provide one-to-one tutoring or just having a quick checkup. Encourage students to reach out to you when they feel lost or when struggling with the learning material, technology, schedules, or other non-academic needs. Be more flexible over deadlines, provide different assessment alternatives, and give timely feedback.

4. Keep the conversation going

Remember that most of the learning happens outside the classroom. Make sure to keep the conversation going even after the lecture.

Backchannel discussions are a great way for learners to have an on-topic conversation during and after the lecture. It is an effective way to keep your students engaged during an online session and continue the conversation afterward.

Use forums, chats, Facebook groups, or live Q&A. This not only strengthens learners’ engagement but also encourages peer-learning. Reward students for participating in the discussions by both asking and answering questions.

5. Mix it up

To keep your students’ attention and enhance the learning experience, mix things up. The current situation is probably the best opportunity for us, educators, to change the way we approach student assessment of knowledge and learning outcomes.

There are plenty of fun and meaningful activities that promote active learning. Instead of sticking with traditional quizzes and slide presentations, be more flexible and provide a wider range of activities to develop and assess students’ knowledge and skills.

Ask students to take part in Socratic seminars, record and edit explanatory videos, write blog posts, or play simulations. Giving them a plethora of activities increases their chances of actually learning the subject and their commitment to the class.


Bottom Line

The key to success relies on proper planning, in advance preparation, and access to the right tools.

Whether synchronously or asynchronously, with proper planning we can replicate remotely almost all activities and experiences we would do in a physical classroom.

Effective online learning relies mainly on empathy. If we want to provide better online classes we should not forget about the human component.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” — Theodore Roosevelt


This post will tell you everything you need to know about from the best online tools and resources for engaging students online.15 Free Digital Tools to Boost Students’ Engagement Online
A review of digital tools and ideas for teachers to support formative assessment in online classrooms

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Education Online Education

Hybrid and Flexible: A Professor’s Guide to Hyflex Teaching

How to conquer teaching during a pandemic

We have to recognize that educators have responded amazingly to the abrupt shift to online teaching. Of course, it hasn’t been easy, but in general terms, it all worked out pretty well.

I mean, we were agile.

We adapted and effectuate with the resources we had at hand and tried to continue providing our very best to our students. Other organizations couldn’t adapt that well. Many just closed down and went out of service.

We can criticize as much as we like, but let’s admit it, educators adapted fast. Chapeau.

However, we were reacting to a first-in-our-times pandemic. It caught us unnoticed. We had no choice. Adapt was our only option.

Now is time to prepare for the new normal. If we can call it normal.

A second wave of the pandemic is just around the corner. In the U.S. and South America, we are still struggling to control for the first wave.

So, no matter how much we miss our students and classrooms, we have to come around the idea that remote learning will be our new normal.

But we need to be prepared. If we want to keep our sanity and that of our students, we can’t continue functioning in an urgent-crisis-mode, not for long.

We need to think about more appropriate teaching and learning methods that encourage interaction, reflection, learning, skills development while still guaranteeing safety and health conditions to professors and students.

Below, I discuss why hybrid and flexible (Hyflex) approach is an exceptional alternative to 100% online or in-person teaching. I go through 4 crucial factors to consider when transitioning to Hyflex courses and how to provide an effective learning opportunity for all students.

Let’s begin by understanding what Hyflex is.

The Hyflex approach

The Hyflex (Hybrid-flexible) approach was first created by Brian Beatty who is Associate Professor of instructional technologies in the Department of Equity, Leadership Studies, and Instructional Technologies at San Francisco State University.

The idea behind the Hyflex method was to provide a bridge to a fully online program. A Hyflex program consist of hybrid classes — blending online and on-site participation modes — that provide a more flexible learning experience to students. While in a typical hybrid or blended course all students have to take part in both classroom and online sessions, Hyflex courses take into account also the possibility for some students to be 100% online or on-site. Hyflex programs allowed maximum student choice in participation mode. Students can decide for themselves which path is the “best” for them on a daily or weekly basis.

In short, the basis of Hyflex programs is to provide students with multiple forms of learning approaches: from the way content and information are presented, to the place they receive those contents, to the way we assess their knowledge.

The main difference between hybrid and Hyflex courses is the flexible component. That means that instead of building something, whether is class material or assessment activities, for just one mode (online or on-site) you build it so it’s adaptable for both modes. In this way, you are optimizing the effort and providing equal opportunities for learning to every and each student.

Example: Imagine that you were trying to fix your computer on your own. You have mainly three options: 1) you can call someone who knows how to repair it and explain to you how to do it, 2) you can check out on an online forum and follow the step-by-step instructions given by someone who has already repaired theirs, or 3) you can watch a YouTube tutorial and mirror the steps followed in the video. Probably the easier option would be to watch the YouTube tutorial. But it would also be nice if you had the written instructions to go through just in case you missed something, and why not had direct feedback from an expert to be sure you got it right. Well, that’s kind of the idea behind Hyflex.

Students as Active Learners

Contrary to traditional lecture-type teaching methods, the Hyflex approach is aimed to be student-centered. This means that students have an active role in their learning process and experience. As educators, our role is to encourage students to take full ownership of their learning, from the definition of their goals throughout the assessment of their outcomes. The role of the educator is to facilitate learning and not to impose or direct the lecture. Our major concern should lie on how to ensure our students meet their needs as learners and to adapt to the changing conditions and dynamics.

One of the four pillars of Hyflex courses is the “learners’ choice”. The idea is to give students a choice in how they complete course activities in any given week or subject. The fundamental goal of this approach is to provide flexibility to empower learners so they pursue and attain their learning outcomes in the best way.

Together with active pedagogy, Hyflex approach can only be successful if students, both online and in-person, are strongly involved in the dynamics and functioning of the course. The active role of learners should be part of the expectations of the course and need to be stated and well-established from the beginning. Consider assigning rotating roles to your students to assist you with the technology, the online discussion board, note-taking.

There are plenty of roles you can assign to your students to ensure the course and learning activities run smoothly.

You can also consider pairing or grouping students, so there is always at least one student from a group in class responsible to transfer knowledge and support to others in their group.

Active learning is not something reserved only for in-person classes. It is also suitable for remote and Hyflex approaches if you prepare well in advance the activities and ask your students to appropriate their learning process.

Having your students actively involved both in the activities and the functioning of the course will encourage them to engage with the course material and to understand the challenges of this kind of learning mode.

Asynchronous and Synchronous Student Engagement

Student engagement is by far the most critical aspect of any learning process. Without student’s engagement learning is ineffective, or not possible at all.

One of the biggest fears of shifting to hybrid, remote, or Hyflex teaching is not being able to connect with our students and to make our classes memorable.

In both remote and HyFlex classes it is crucial to establish a set of rules and expectations from the very beginning of your class. It’s important that the teacher and both in-person and online learners are on the same boat sharing a common goal: make the most of their learning together.

If this is not well-established from the first moment things can get really messy. In HyFlex classrooms, in particular, it is easy for remote students to disconnect and feel neglected by those taking part in the physical classroom. It is an enormous challenge for the educator to maintain effective communication and collaboration with both audiences. This is why it’s essential to plan for synchronous and asynchronous activities to ensure that all participation modes which lead to equivalent learning outcomes.

The key relies on how to mix distinct types of active learning activities that promote the interaction of both physical and remote learners. The aim of Hyflex is to provide equivalency and reusability of activities and resources that challenge the learner, regardless of their learning mode, to reflect upon the content and to contribute to the discussion.

Activities in both learning modes can be easily adaptable to other learning approaches and have great potential to strengthen the learner’s experience. Podcasts, video recordings, collaborative note-taking, and handouts, can be very effective both for remote and in-person students wishing to review after class. It also encourages peer-learning. The activities completed by remote learners, such as chats, forums, back-channel can of great support for in-person students and inversely.

The learning experience in Hyflex environments can be as good or even better than in the traditional physical classroom. Engaging students online is not much more difficult than engaging with them in a physical classroom. Online methods provide a wide range of alternatives to promote active learning and teamwork.

Skill and Knowledge Assessment

Another major challenge for any teaching approach is the assessment of student learning.

In a HyFlex environment, the challenge is twofold. First, we need to ensure we use techniques and tools appropriate for effective assessment both online and offline. Second, we need to coordinate the assessment activities that assure the equivalency, accessibility, and usability to all students, despite the place, the time, and the format in which learning takes place.

Traditional assessment methods are far from being a fair indicator of intelligence, knowledge, skills, or effort. And they don’t reflect the abilities and preparedness for work life.

As instructors, we need to reflect on how we can effectively evaluate student’s learning outcomes. We need to ask ourselves how the same learning outcome can be assessed both online and offline? We need to think of new approaches that are more flexible and appropriate to the environment in which learning takes place. Practices that promote reflection, learning, and skills development.

Assessing learning through group project reports, hybrid paired work, video presentations (delivered live or recorded and shared online), Backchannel discussions, Socratic seminars, blog posts and other forms of original assessment are often appropriate in all modes of instruction with very little changes needed.

We need to redefine students’ learning assessments.

Technology and Classroom setting

The main goal of Hyflex teaching is to provide students equal chances to learn and effectively participate in class activities regardless of their delivery mode (online or offline). The Hyflex approach is only effective and successful if the appropriate technology is put in place to back it up. Students, both online and offline, need to be equipped with proper hardware, software, networks, and the skills for using it. Remote learning will not be a possible alternative for a student who does not have reliable access to the internet. Accessibility is crucial. Thus, appropriate support from educators and institutions is essential for providing the appropriate environment to Hyflex teaching.

Classrooms need to be set up and equipped with image and sound capture technologies to support online learners. And both students and educators need to be proficient in the use of synchronous and asynchronous digital tools to collaborate. This technology includes videoconferencing systems, Integrated Learning Platforms, document collaboration, digital whiteboards, digital quizzes, and polls apps, collaborative annotation software, and backchannel discussion rooms.

The key to success relies on proper planning, in advance preparation, and access to the right tools.

Final thoughts

Hyper Flexible model goal is to provide an effective learning opportunity for all students, no matter where they are, and no matter the learning mode they choose.

But flexibility is only possible when all learners have proper access to it. This means that is not only about the content and information itself that has to be accessible to convenient technology and technical skills, so they have a legitimate choice to make.

Hyflex requires interactive and engaging class experience with innovative application of class content to provide optimal learning interactions. Content and activities that are easy to shift directly to fully online or fully offline and a mix in between. The main aim is to provide the most equitable delivery format to students that aligns with their needs and learning preferences.

However, shifting to Hyflex programs requires in advance and constant preparation and organization of pre-class content and coordination of both synchronous and asynchronous activities. The main challenge is to align both types of learners and instructors toward the same goal: effective collaborative learning.


Resources

Abdelmalak, M. M. M., & Parra, J. L. (2016). Expanding learning opportunities for graduate students with HyFlex course design. International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design, 6(4), 19–37.

Beatty B. (2012). Hyflex course design: The advantages of letting students choose the blend. Online Learning Collective.

Beaty, Brian J. Ed. (2019) Hybrid-Flexible Course Design Implementing student-directed hybrid classes, EdTech Books.

Bruff, Derek. (2020). Active Learning in Hybrid and Socially Distanced ClassroomsVanderbilt Center for Teaching.

CNDLS. (2020). Guidebook: HyFlex TeachingInstructional Continuity at Georgetown.

Hyflex (HELIX) Implementation at Harvard Division of Continuing Education: https://teach.extension.harvard.edu/helix

HyFlex Course Design Model with Brian Beatty (2020), Think UDL Podcast.

HyFlex Course Development Guide (2018). Cambrian College Teaching & Learning Innovation Hub.

Hyflex Learning with David Rhoads” (2020). Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast.

Leijon, M., & Lundgren, B. (2019). Connecting physical and virtual spaces in a HyFlex pedagogic model with a focus on teacher interaction. Journal of Learning Spaces; 1, 8.

Miller, J.B., Risser, M.D. & Griffiths, R.P. (2013). Student Choice, Instructor Flexibility:

Moving Beyond the Blended Instructional ModelIssues and Trends in Learning Technologies, 1(1).

Sowell, K., Saichaie, K., Bergman, J., & Applegate, E. (2019). High Enrollment and HyFlex: The Case for an Alternative Course ModelJournal on Excellence in College Teaching30(2), 5–28.

Talbert, R. (2020). Research report: Experiencing the hyflex modelRobert Talbert, PhD.

What To Expect in a HyFlex Course: A Faculty Handbook. (2017) Texas A&M University.