By Isabella Liu, UTS Science Teacher and IT Integration Coordinator
With the smooth transition from in-person to online learning in March, I naively thought that it would be an easy implementation to transition an in-person summer camp to online for the Experience Innovation @ UTS summer camps. Little did I know that in order to retain traditional summer camp elements (collaboration, fun, interesting topics), the transition would prove difficult. I wanted my students the Bright Lights in the Lab science program to have fun despite not being in the same room as their peers. In order to do that, I invited a lot of guest speakers from different walks of the world and used virtual experiment simulations for students to collect data and reflect on the results.
At the beginning of quarantine, remote learning at UTS was easier to transition to because I had already been building relationships with my students for the majority of the year before switching to online. Aside from re-establishing classroom routines and expectations, for the most part, my students understood my expectations. By contrast, the new camp had different students from different schools across the Greater Toronto Area who didn’t know each other. In addition to that, the camp consisted of students from multiple grade-levels, ranging from grade 7 to 11. It was a huge learning curve for both teachers and students, but in the end our teaching team figured out how to deliver content effectively in a virtual environment.
Here are five things that I’ve learned from teaching summer camp remotely
Students Don't Like Being on Video
Students don’t enjoy being on video. Despite our teaching team modelling the behaviour by showing our faces on video, students were hesitant to show their faces. So I had to change the expectation immediately. I communicated that even though they don’t know each other, the in-person camp would have them talking and working with each other on mini-projects face-to-face. While we cannot (and should not) expect students to use their video, I provided students with different opportunities to collaborate, such as unmuting themselves if they have a question or typing into the chat box if they don’t feel comfortable being on video.
This is an important reminder for me as an educator because it allows room to re-evaluate what engagement and collaboration looks like. We’ve all been trained to evaluate students’ engagement level by their behaviour in class: their body language, their facial expressions… remote learning has certainly changed that for all of us. So in the age of online learning what does engagement look like to you?
Sure it’s a lot of work – in addition to monitoring students’ faces (if they are on camera), I also monitored what was being said in the chat box and listened for microphones being unmuted because there might be a question coming up. Once the students realized that I was building relationships with them, the atmosphere immediately became more collaborative and students enjoyed their experience in the end.
Bright Lights in the Lab students in Isabella Liu's class attend a lecture with UTS Head of Admissions Nandita Bajaj (now on leave) on animal ethics and the importance of it in scientific research, at Experience Innovation @ UTS summer camps.
Students (and You) Need Frequent Breaks
With remote learning, the onus is very much on the teacher to initiate interactions. Since I wasn’t able to see students’ faces, I’m essentially talking to a black screen, but students are present. Similar to a two-way mirror, my students can see me, but I can’t see them. So in order for students and myself to feel like the video conferencing shares some semblance of a classroom, I was asking a lot of questions to see where the students are. Making space for dialogue and questions is important for relationship building, especially in a remote learning environment. As humans, we’re not used to communicating without seeing people’s faces so our mirror neurons aren’t firing as a result. It’s up to the teacher to increase the interaction which can look like:
• Increase in questioning (“How are we feeling?” or “Can you explain this for me?”)
• Monitoring chat box messages every so often
• Exaggerated facial expressions
Games are Excellent for Community Building
Students need breaks, and so do you. Some of these breaks should be screen-free breaks, but some of them could also be content-free breaks.
We’ve had great success with the following platforms in conjunction with smaller groups.
• Skribbl.io: online pictionary game where you can import a customized list of words if you want the students to review. There’s a maximum of 12 users in each game
• Kahoot: online quiz game that allows you to create multiple choice questions, true or false questions and puzzle-type questions (asks students to place answers in a correct order)
Play is the best form of community-building; the stakes are low and students as well as teachers get to find common interests through these games.
Positive Reinforcement Needs to be Said and Typed
Since students now have multiple ways to demonstrate engagement in class, it’s important for you as a teacher to not only acknowledge students’ input by talking, but I found it crucial to type out acknowledgement in the chat box. During a lesson, some messages might not get answered immediately, so it’s important for you as a teacher to go back to the messages and acknowledge students’ input. A simple message like “Bob, thank you for giving your insights, that’s a great discussion point!” is sufficient for making student Bob feel like he’s part of the classroom.
Always Ask for Feedback
This is all new to all of us, teachers and students included, so it’s important for me to know what works and what doesn’t work so I can change my lessons accordingly. At the end of the day, I gave my students an anonymous feedback form for them to ask questions and
address any misconceptions. This was also another opportunity for students to ask for help.
Remote learning has allowed me to look at what matters and what doesn’t in my classroom. No matter what model you are entering in September, I hope these five things are helpful to you moving forward.
About Isabella Liu, the new IT Integration Coordinator at UTS
Isabella Liu brings her passion for learning about emerging educational technologies to her new role as the IT Integration Coordinator at UTS.
“I understand the realities of integrating technology into learning environments, and have been working closely with educational technology companies to foster innovation in education,” she says.
She’ll be working closely with Dr. Cresencia Fong, Head of Teacher Learning, Technology and Research, as well as all teachers and other members of the Administration to support the EdTech integration initiatives at UTS, and related curricular and co-curricular projects in this area. A high school chemistry and mathematics teacher, she is currently teaching Science and AP Chemistry at UTS. She has taught students in three different countries, including Hong Kong and Nanjing, China, and has experience in secondary education and non-profit industries. Through her learning journey with technology, she became an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google for Education Certified Trainer. She has worked with National Geographic in implementing their professional development program for educators around the world.
“Over the years, I have learned the importance of choosing the right tools for my learners,” she says. “Through this role, I hope to share my expertise in using technology to help teachers to engage students in new ways.”