Classroom Strategies, Tools and Resources

Enhancing Remote Learning and Student Engagement With Online Tools

Five tools to make virtual learning more social for students

As an elementary school teacher, I know each day has a measure of predictability to it. Students enter my room and I greet them. I consider previous conversations and ask about a game they may have mentioned, a book or tv show they referenced, and activities they have expressed interest in. 

When students are settled, they answer questions on my whiteboard that refer back to previous learning and build to new learning. When it comes to debriefing the work, my students do most or all of the talking from facilitating the conversations, to calling on each other, to working with strategic partners to build understanding.

It took me years to refine the protocols and consider the evidence to support them. This has all taken on a new significance because I am no longer teaching my students in a brick-and-mortar classroom; instead, I am a 4th grade distance learning educator. 

As I consider how to best support my students and design instructional experiences, I am learning two things: the first is that many of the things that I did in the past do not work in a virtual classroom (or do not work as well); the second is that I am learning that the evidence that guides our instruction looks different online than in our buildings. 

These two new learnings were the impetus for this post. That is, I wanted to share applications that not only enhanced student engagement in a distance learning classroom, but were also supported by evidence. Given the very real challenges associated with Zoom fatigue, the affective filter, and working memory, I am limiting myself to applications well-matched to evidence and that account for the difficulty of learning through a screen. Furthermore, I want to highlight tools that are reasonably easy to use, are free, and fit with just about any curricular resource. Here are five you can incorporate into your lessons today: 

  1. Edpuzzle: We know it is important to space learning, or spread the learning out over time. That is difficult in the classroom and especially challenging online. A resource like Edpuzzle, however, allows students to work with content either as a preview or as reinforcement. Edpuzzle lets students watch videos from YouTube that are tagged with questions and pause points. For example, I found a video on Edpuzzle about the three branches of government. As part of an asynchronous experience, students watched the video and at different points had to answer a question, which helped with a number of things: it held students accountable to the learning, reinforced what we were doing, and leveraged what we know about spaced learning.
  2. Classkick: My biggest challenge with teaching online is not being able to see what students are doing while they work. With Classkick, however, I can see what all of my students are doing in real time. Classkick is a digital white board that you share with students. No personal information is required from the students to use it and as they are using it, you can monitor, write feedback on their boards, and share in a whole-group setting. Additionally, you can set the background on their boards to content you are working with. For example, you might use a place value table, a reading passage you want them to annotate, or a series of math problems you want them to solve.
  3. Flipgrid: Given how many of the learning experiences students have online are asynchronous, it is difficult to attend to the speaking and listening standards. Flipgrid is one avenue to help with this. For those unfamiliar with Flipgrid, it is a video discussion tool. It is relatively simple to put in front of children. Students get a URL from you and record a video, after logging in. Classmates can respond with their own videos, and an approximation of a classroom discussion can take place. The URL can be limited to specific domains, thus protecting student privacy and keeping unwanted visitors out. I use Flipgrid to have students rehearse before completing a writing activity. Or, I leverage what cognitive scientists call “elaboration.” My kids have also taken to using Flipgrid to share birthday greetings with classmates and putting together talent show presentations.
  4. Padlet: A familiar instructional move in a physical classroom is posing questions, having students respond on Post-it Notes, and then displaying the responses. This move can be approximated online with Padlet because the application allows students to post notes on a virtual wall. There are any number of ways to use Padlet that likely match what you did in a brick-and-mortar setting. This includes as a formative assessment tool, a chance to brainstorm, and as a “consensogram.” You can also use Padlet as a form of retrieval practice by posing a question at the beginning of class and asking that students respond to it. The link you share with students is private and Padlet does not require children to login or reveal personal information to use.
  5. Breakout Rooms: School is social and I struggle with recreating the energy of a classroom. A good example of this is allowing students to work in small groups and think-pair-share. The breakout room in Zoom, however, enables me to put kids in settings that feel like the classroom. Since Zoom remains free for teachers with a school district domain, I can use its breakout rooms to have students work on a project together, provide feedback on their written work through sharing screens, and do partner reads. In fact, doing enough reading fluency practice was a worry of mine but the breakout room mitigates most of the challenge. Moreover, I am now doing Learning Buddies with a 2nd grade class and the breakout rooms help with what Dr. Tim Rasinski calls Assisted Reading. That is, a more proficient reader is matched with someone who needs support. Zoom remains free for teachers, with a school district domain, and continues to build out features reflective of the classroom. 

I know the list I have shared is not comprehensive but it has proven a good first step in making my online instruction stronger than it otherwise might be. Further, it helps me continue with evidence-based practices.

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About the Author: Aaron Grossman is a 4th grade Distance Learning teacher in Reno, Nevada. Aaron was his district’s 2017 Teacher of the Year and a Nevada 2018 Teacher of the Year Finalist. Aaron cocreated the website where he posts curricular supplements, for the Benchmark Advance reading program, strongly aligned to the expectation of the standards. You can learn more about Aaron and what his students are up at his Twitter feed