This week will conclude my first-semester teaching chemistry online for GHF Online. Up until recently, my online teaching experience was limited to working with students one-on-one. I quickly realized that teaching groups online is a whole other animal. An animal that I bonded with and grew to love deeply in a surprisingly short amount of time.

Each week I met with a group of about ten students who were excited to know more about chemistry. I’m proud to say we all learned a lot! The kids learned chemistry and hopefully about themselves as a learner. And I learned tons about myself as a teacher and chemist. If you are considering becoming an online teacher, or are thinking of enrolling your child in an online class, you may enjoy hearing about what I’ve learned in the last 16 weeks.

1. Everyone benefits from slowing down.
In an online classroom, inevitably, there is lag. It’s the nature of the technology. The class will wait while a document loads or while a student types an answer to a question. At first, I found this cumbersome and annoying; I thought for sure I was going to “lose” my audience. Then I realized that many of my students were using that time to digest whatever concepts we were covering, and this led to deeper questions and understanding. In fact, most of my students left each lesson understanding the day’s topics with an unexpected mastery. So awesome.

And I benefitted from the slower pace as well. I found time to carefully craft my feedback and the way in which I wanted to present a topic. I had the chance to deeply listen to my students and check for understanding. It was meditative and revelatory. I even thought about chemistry in new ways that I had not considered.

2. Education works best when everyone is involved — teacher, student, and parent.
Many of my students’ caregivers sat with them reading a book or doing their own work while their child took the class. This sort of coworking is awesome modeling of what it means to be an autonomous worker.

Each week I had detailed email interactions with the parents and guardians of my students. Among other things, we would discuss the flow of class, the topics covered, and the materials needed. Parents were able to check in with me in (almost) real-time to discuss their observation of the class. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so supported and free to just… teach. And my students were also well-supported and free to learn.

The positive feedback loop created by this back-and-forth carried us through the semester.  

3. It doesn’t have to be a one-way road; online learning can be very interactive.
I opened every lesson with a question that students are then asked to discuss. A question like, “How does water dissolve sugar?” or “Why is salt shaped like a cube”. If no one knew, and they rarely did, I asked them to make guesses, and I welcome ridiculous responses. This was a great strategy for prompting perfectionists who fear wrong answers.

In every class, each student was tasked to complete a test or experiment that reinforced the concepts covered. These activities brought an aliveness into the online classroom that benefitted everyone, and I can’t wait to make this process even more interactive and streamlined next year.

Of course, I didn’t only learn three things, but these are the biggies! And I’m ecstatic to announce that I’ll be teaching Food Science this summer and Introduction to Chemistry and Chem II next Fall. I hope you can join us for one of these; they’re going to be amazing.

Have you benefited  from having taught or learned in an online environment? What did you discover? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!