Teaching Online: Getting from Surviving to Thriving

SEPTEMBER 01, 2020

Getting from SURVIVING the day to DRIVING meaningful student engagement to building a THRIVING online classroom community. 

Before joining the amazing iCivics team, I was the Civic Engagement Coordinator for the Bob Graham Center for Public Service center at the University of Florida. One of my major projects was to design a fully online, innovative civics course. That was about as much direction as I was given. I had no idea what innovative meant. All I knew was that my course had to be different from the usual online course formula. You know the one: do the reading, watch a recorded lecture, participate in a discussion forum, take a quiz, rinse, and repeat.

I also knew that student engagement and connection was key. I remember sitting down with former Florida Governor and Senator Bob Graham who believes very strongly in active citizenship and is known for his saying, “Civics isn’t a spectator sport.” He asked me bluntly: “Emma, how on earth can you teach civics online.” My response: “I’m not sure yet, sir. But I promise you I’ll figure it out.”

Over the next few months, I read widely, interviewed experts, surveyed students, and started experimenting with different approaches. I won’t bore you with all of the details of my <ahem> award-winning course, but I will tell you what I ultimately figured out about innovative online teaching and some of the principles that I now follow:

  1. There’s no need to replicate face-to-face instruction. Instead, re-imagine it. Seriously, do not try to merely replicate your physical classroom experience. Sure, your objectives can remain the same and so can your teaching philosophy and personality. You are who you, whether in your classroom, recorded in a video, or live from the moon! But the way you approach the learning activities must be thoughtfully designed for the online space. Instead of asking, “How can I deliver this mini-lecture online?” ask yourself, “How can I best convey the content from my mini-lecture in an online space?”
  2. Just because the course is online, doesn’t mean all of the learning has to happen online. Whichever learning management system (LMS) you use can be a great place to communicate expectations, build community, and allow students to document their learning and submit their work. But the learning can happen anywhere! For my online civics course, the learning almost exclusively happened “out in the real world” where students completed learning challenges and civic missions. As one example, students could write and submit an op-ed, interview an elected official, or attend a local government meeting. None of that happened in our LMS. They just had to come back to the LMS to document their mission and submit a reflection on it.
  3. Online spaces can be optimized for building deep classroom community. This can be done either synchronously, asynchronously, or both. The neat thing about a dual approach is that you’ll get to witness some students thriving under one approach while others are more engaged in the other. You know this is true because you have Facebook friends like this, don’t you? You know, the ones who are super opinionated and witty with their posts but more quiet and introverted when you’re around them in person? You know what I’m talking about. And students can be the same way in their online learning interactions!

I truly believe this third principle is the most important, so let’s now explore some specific techniques for optimizing your online instruction toward a goal of deeper classroom community:

  • When teaching synchronously use breakout rooms for paired or group discussions to allow students to really talk and dig deeper. Whole class instruction and interaction is just fine, but not all the time. Break ‘em up!
  • Encourage students to fully utilize the chat function of the online platform and to respectfully respond to their classmates’ questions. This allows students to co-educate one another in real time and takes some of the pressure off of you!
  • Use a flipped approach in which students read and watch recorded content before the live class meeting. Then, instead of using precious time for direct instruction, you can immediately dive into more meaningful discussions and activities that foster connection between you and your students.
  • Use different approaches that help you to dissolve the screen. The idea behind dissolving the screen is to help students see the connection and the interaction that exists between you and them even though you’re not physically together. The idea is to communicate to students that you see them and you value their work – that despite the physical distance between you, you are still connected. There are many ways to achieve this. 
    • Start class by “calling roll” and saying one specific thing about each student. 
    • Review a recent assignment by giving shout-outs to students who submitted something exceptionally creative or interesting or just really well done. 
    • Make a statement to the entire class about how much you enjoyed reading their most recent essays or grading their exams. 
    • Start a class “leaderboard” for iCivics game scores. Pick a few games or maybe just one and challenge your students to beat your high score. Then keep a leaderboard for the top 5 to 10 players (note: you don’t want a whole class leaderboard that would shame the students in the bottom quartile of game scores). Here’s a sample leaderboard I made in PowerPoint.

Look, this may very well be the most challenging year of your entire teaching career. Some days will feel like you’re merely surviving, and I want you to know THAT. IS. ENOUGH. Other days – hopefully more than those survival days – will feel like you’ve found a decent rhythm that is driving meaningful student engagement in their learning. But I wish you lots and lots of days when you feel like you’ve built a thriving classroom community in which students feel connected to you, to one another, and to their learning. 

I hope these tips help you and your students to thrive this year, if only sometimes. If you want to dig in further and really hone your online teaching skills, I encourage you to explore a new free Teaching Online Masterclass (TOM) with 50+ bite-sized videos iCivics helped create with Makematic, Adobe, Participate, and ClickView. The videos feature experts and share real educator experiences, focusing on pedagogy over technology. 

Take good care and stay healthy, my friends. I’m rooting for you!


Written By Emma Humphries 

Emma Humphries is the Chief Education Officer at iCivics where she serves as the organization’s pedagogical expert, leads the curriculum team, and supports teachers in deepening their engagement with iCivics’ products. She taught high school civics and government in north central Florida and later earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida with an emphasis in civics.