Transitioning to the Online Classroom

By Emma Wright

According to the World Economic Forum, “over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. For teachers, this means a significant shift from face-to-face workshops to online methods of workshop delivery. American academic Bill Harder says “anything you can do in a face-to-face class… you can do a version of in a virtual space”, and we have generally found this to be true, though there are some variations and considerations to account for in ensuring a high-quality experience for participants. This article will specifically address adapting to a digital classroom in the context of youth drama workshops, based on research and personal experience as arts educators.

In our experience at Jump StART Youth Theatre, online workshops require more upfront work. There is less room for improvising, so we’ve found course organisation is key. We also quickly discovered a greater need for splitting focus and multi-tasking, as rather than teaching with students in our eyeline, we now have an individual video panel per student and a chat panel to monitor. This was overwhelming in the first instance, particularly with larger classes, but we found it didn’t take long to adapt.

It is difficult, impossible really, to know how at ease a class will be with the online format, and how this will affect their engagement. As time progresses we are noticing the novelty of the online format dissipating, and an ‘online fatigue’ setting in. On top of this, with the everchanging Covid-19 restrictions, we’re observing challenges to our young population’s mental wellbeing. As in the physical classroom, you are responsible for setting and maintaining the class’ energy level, whilst being energetic, warm, sensitive, and welcoming in what can feel like a ‘cold’ space. You should also be open with your students as you adapt to the new technology and delivery methods, and schedule time for wellbeing check-ins.

At Jump StART, we’ve found a combination of Zoom and Google Classroom platforms to serve us best in holding our online workshops. Zoom is web-based, suitable for large groups, accessed by URL. It also offers a chat stream function, which runs alongside the video stream. We use Zoom to host our workshops, and Google Classroom as the entry point to our classes, a place to interact with students, for students to interact with each other, and to share course resources and information.

This combination of programs is also a security provision. Once our students have booked, we send them an email containing the Google Classroom link and password. They can then access the Zoom link and password in a post protected inside the Classroom. Of course you must be explicit in instructing that these passwords and links are not to be shared. Be sure to look over your account settings in Zoom and Google Classroom and limit permissions where needed.

All instructions as to workshop expectations and how to join the class must be clear and easy to follow. We suggest touching base with participants in the days leading up to the session to assist with any problems, ensuring a smooth transition online. Encourage students to test their sound and video equipment prior to the workshop,  but be prepared for technology to fail and have strategies in place for dealing with this.

At the start of the workshop make sure you give students a quick run-down on how to set up their screens. You want everyone in the same view (gallery or speaker), and to press and open the chat and participant panels. Note that often students will know these programs better than you do, so be sure to keep an eye on things like the chat so as to keep students focused and using the software appropriately.

Ask students to make sure their screen name is their own name, rather than that of a parent or a sibling, to avoid confusion. We also encourage using the waiting room function, so that as the tutor you can permit everyone to enter the session at once, or as they arrive, rather than students entering on their own accord when you may or may not be ready or present.

We’ve found best practice is to assign two tutors per workshop. This is a safety precaution, as students are often joining from their bedrooms (we advise recommending against this, but if it is the only option ask them to keep their door open), and the personal nature of this is something to consider in protecting both tutors and students. This is also a failsafe for any technological issues, such as loss of internet connection, and means you have two sets of eyes for monitoring students.

For the classes themselves, we have a few recommendations. First of all, it’s important to make it clear that the same behaviour expected in-person is expected online. It’s still important, for example, that one person speaks at a time, that phones and other disruptive devices be put out of the way, accessed only in breaks, and that students are respectful, safe, and engaged.

We suggest structuring lessons in forty minute blocks. Online classes are tiring, for students and tutors, so every forty minutes schedule a five minute break. This is on top of your regular morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, depending on the age group. Ask students in this time to step away from their screen, to have a drink, go to the bathroom, stretch their legs. Keep an eye on the clock, and make sure students return at the set time.

You may choose to ask students to turn their videos off during certain sections of the class, particularly if you’ve got content to talk through without discussion. If there is an issue with focus or distracting behaviour this can be a good way to reset the room. We suggest that microphones are muted when students/tutors aren’t speaking, as background noise and feedback can be disruptive. A lot of students will do this automatically, but it is worth mentioning at the start of the class.

You can’t escape the fact that students are in their own personal spaces with countless distractions, and there’s therefore greater potential for disengagement. We’ve experienced sibling interruptions, pets have frequently been brought into the Zoom, and occasionally a student has disappeared unannounced, and there wasn’t a lot we could do about it. This comes back to setting clear expectations at the beginning of the session, and gently reminding students throughout to stay focused and participate in activities as if they were in person. It is also worthwhile reminding them that breaks will occur every forty minutes, and that they will have opportunities to step out of the room every hour. If someone’s behaviour is particularly problematic, address it as you would in-person.

We also encourage finding the positives in this arrangement and maximizing them in your lesson planning. Being in their homes, students will have access to all sorts of potential props and costume items. You could structure a game that involves students spending five minutes gathering items around their house to build a character, or ask them to pick up the object closest to them to then sell to the class as if they were filming an infomercial. Make the most of this kind of novelty.

Incorporate a variety of media in your sessions. Be creative. Use the white board function to brainstorm as you would in the classroom, make use of the chat, and get the class up on their feet as much as is possible and practical. Screen-sharing is also a valuable tool for script-reading, for sharing YouTube videos, music, and so forth.

The breakout room function is incredibly useful and worth utilizing. At Jump StART one of the first things we do in our online workshops is put students in breakout rooms and ask them to come back having learnt as many facts as possible about their partner who they then introduce to the class. This is an excellent way to break the digital ice, and establish the session’s tone. Make the most of opportunities for students to work together on their own. Set a clear task and timeframe, keeping the time they’re away from the class short, and enter the breakout rooms at certain intervals to make sure everyone’s on track and to provide assistance where needed.

Finally, keep your classes interactive. This cannot be overstated. Avoid the “talking heads” scenario, and if you do have content to talk through make sure to follow it with a discussion or something physical. It’s all about balance, but interaction is vital, especially when we’re dealing with something as creative and collaborative as the arts. Try to find opportunities for students to lead discussions, ask them to provide constructive criticism, and allow time for questions and feedback. Don’t be afraid of a pause. Remember that students attend drama workshops to learn, to create, but also to socialize, and the development of social and interpersonal skills should remain a key outcome of all online workshops.

Ultimately you will learn through practice, and it’ll become very clear where you need to adapt your teaching methods once you’re immersed in the digital classroom. Ultimately, the objective remains the same. Impart knowledge and life skills, encourage creativity and expression, and support the students in developing their artistic skillsets.

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