Student Collaboration in the Virtual Classroom


By: Victoria Young, a South Carolina Teacher

When I began teaching virtually this school year, I was excited to utilize all of the technological resources and techniques I learned in university that I hadn’t had the chance to try out. However, as most teachers know, it is almost impossible to effectively teach content in a meaningful way to kids when they are unable to connect with the content and one another. In the virtual classroom, students are unable to simply turn to their neighbor and discuss a problem or quickly whisper questions and comments to one another in class. Sure, no teacher will deny the fact that the mute button is a game changer for classroom management, but they will agree that it does damage the classroom community. The social barrier created by virtual learning seemed to put the important skill of collaboration on hold for this generation of students. So how do we as teachers reignite this connectivity in the virtual classroom?

Tip #1: Build confidence with anonymity

Photo by Philippe Bourhis on Unsplash
Photo by Philippe Bourhis on Unsplash

For me, it was a long process filled with patience. The first day of school is always awkward; but with technical difficulties and lack of participation, the first day shyness lasted the first two weeks. The way I approached a lack of classroom engagement was by treating virtual classes like a shy kid. You know the one – shoulders hunched, little eye contact, and always chooses to do the group assignment alone without asking. With tools such as Nearpod, Polleverywhere, and Google Forms, I did activities in and out of class that allowed students to express themselves and their thoughts and opinions with anonymity. As a class, we would see how we all think alike or learn new perspectives. I would ask for opinions on silly things like what I should eat for lunch for kids who are more outgoing to speak up without pressure of being ‘wrong’. When the more outgoing kids started to lead the way with the easy interactions, I saw that even the quieter students begin to speak up in the chat or even unmute! Eventually, through these distant interactions, I noticed more and more students interacting in class in day to day conversations and in content related discussions. They began to gain confidence once they saw that they are safe to share their ideas.

Tip #2: Use mainstream tools to your advantage

Once we broke the 10 layers of ice, I began to do more collaboration boards and Flipgrids without anonymity in order to encourage more discussion in class. In my very social classes, I have even gone on to do partner projects through remote learning. Middle and high school students are on every type of social media; so many of my students chatted via Snapchat, Instagram, and even Discord. Other students with less access to social media simply communicated via email. All that to say, students are collaborating all the time, we just have to use their methods to our advantage! (If you can’t beat them, join them!) I was never given any issues with participation despite how different this form of collaboration is and how it appears more arduous than simply sitting next to a partner in class. It is as if the ability to collaborate without a teacher facilitating every step was freeing; therefore, I began to see their personalities shine through their work.

Tip #3: Find common ground

Of course, not every class can achieve the same level of collaboration in the virtual world. That doesn’t mean, however, that it can’t be achieved! One of my classes’ favorite activities is to play Among Us as review before an assessment. While talking about our weekend plans, I told my students I was going to play video games with some friends. This built a quick connection between me and my classes. Eureka! We finally had something in common besides being stuck in quarantine. On, there is an activity that allows students to review material while playing in a similar format of the popular game Among Us. Students get very competitive and have to interrogate one another in order to win. There are also several other games that allow collaboration; but I always start with a solo game to help students get used to the mechanics. Nothing says virtual like video games and they are a great way to build community and collaborate in order to learn! 

No matter the grade level or content you teach, collaboration is achievable in your classroom whether you are in person or online (or both!) this school year. Remember that at the end of the day, the goal of collaboration is to build relationships and problem solving skills. If you notice that your student collaboration is lacking in the qualitative results you want in your content, try to treat it more as a social skill. If you nurture your classroom’s environment first with collaboration, the learning will come along with it. Find a common interest, talk to a child or teen about what they like to do in their free time, and use those things to your advantage! Take away the fear of failure and show that you are all just as human as each other and soon your students will see that learning can be found all around us, not just in a school or textbook. And isn’t that the most powerful lesson that we can teach?

About the Author

Victoria Young, B.A. Secondary Education/Social Studies, is a geography and world history teacher at Greenville Technical Charter High School in South Carolina.

Photo by Akshay Nanavati on Unsplash

Quaranteaching: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore


By: Scott Buhr, South Carolina Physics Teacher

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

I was 11 years old when I got my first trumpet. My grandfather bought it for me and I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to learn how to play it. I had taken piano lessons for several years and I can remember my 11-year-old mind thinking, “The trumpet will be so much easier, it only has three buttons!” Silly right? I was taking my knowledge of the piano and superimposing it upon a completely different type of instrument. Sure, there are some things about playing the piano and the trumpet that are alike, but treating one like the other will leave your orchestra one instrument short. My piano literacy did not translate into trumpet literacy, who’d of thought?

Now twenty years later, I am an educator who thinks about the sort of transition that I went through from piano to trumpet on a daily basis. Each hour of the school-day, students arrive in my classroom from all sorts of differing classes—each one teaching them their own literacy practices. My job as a physics teacher is to teach my students how to think like a physicist. How do physicists solve problems? How do they think about the universe? How do they talk to each other about it? This is every teacher’s task. How do I get my students thinking like the professionals in this field think? 


Enter Covid-19. Suddenly, every teacher has been thrust into the unknown world of “quaranteaching”—the strange transition from face-to-face, brick-and-mortar, good-ole-fashion school to the what-in-the-world, crazy-land of eLearning. This unbelievable turn of events has forced teachers to make a literacy transition of their own. From the face-to-face to the virtual. Like many educators right now, you might be struggling to transition from the face-to-face environment that you know so much about to a completely digital experience. If you, like me, found the recent upset to feel rather normal and stress-free, then you might be a digital native—someone who was brought up with today’s technology and whose use of it feels less like using a prosthetic and more like using a natural appendage. Or, perhaps you would not consider yourself a digital native, but are comfortable adopting new technologies and have been for some time. Either way, there are many people whose comfort level with using all sorts of technology is high and there are some whose comfort is low. If you are an educator reading this, you probably could go through the names of the people in your department and pick out the ones who seem to like using technology just because it exists, the ones who avoid it at all costs, and everyone in between. 

Now, I find myself in the comfortable position of being a digital native as well as having been enrolled in online grad classes for some time. My wife has taught virtually for years, and I am about to begin teaching my own virtual class. Many other teachers did not have my circumstances and were faced with the daunting challenge of online teaching with about two days notice. 

Here is the interesting bit. I haven’t noticed that technology integration has been the biggest hurdle for teachers. Indeed, many teachers have been surrounded by all sorts of technology for quite some time—both in and out of the classroom. No, from my perspective, the biggest struggle for many teachers hasn’t been “How does this thing (Zoom, Google Docs, etc. . . ) work?” But instead, “How do I put it all together to work for me and my students?” “How should it work?”

The biggest struggle for many teachers is not “How does this thing work?”, but instead “How should this thing work?”

Let me explain: 

I have seen many teachers share their plans of how they are going to replicate their classroom experience online. This includes bell work, short lectures, and even the possibility of taking tests online. These plans seem to elicit “oohs” and “aahs” for their elaborateness and are applauded for the fact that this teacher has created something so close to a brick and mortar classroom experience. Now don’t get me wrong, context is everything and there may be scenarios where any one of those strategies is really the best one for that particular age, class, or context. As a digital native though, here’s my two cents:

 Is replicating the brick-and-mortar experience the best way to provide eLearning? 

It is likely that your teacher-education program took a traditional approach to lesson planning and unit planning that involves students working linearly through materials as you guide them. This form very much fits the context of students who enter my classroom at the same time each weekday, stay about an hour, and leave with whatever, if anything, I have tasked them to do at home. Still doesn’t mean it is the best, but it certainly fits the context. Now, does a traditional lesson plan seem to fit our current context? Any online context? 

  Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Perhaps the nuts and bolts of the eLearning technology is really not the biggest issue. Maybe our approach to teaching in this sort of environment is what needs the most attention. Most online courses that I have taken have offered me less direct instruction and more opportunities to create things based upon research I have set out to accomplish with resources that the instructor has provided. That is, I have taught myself for the most part and then created some sort of product based upon my learning. Sometimes this has worked really well and other times it hasn’t. 

The thing that has made this model the most successful is how the teacher approaches the class. If they take a “set it and forget it” approach, I am almost sure to be frustrated and unsure of what I am supposed to be doing. If, however, my first attempts on projects are met with specific, helpful feedback, then I am sure to thoroughly engage with the class. 

Educational technologists have long towed the line that technology is a tool, but today it seems that the technology is more a context or environment than merely a tool.

So did you catch the key? Feedback. In my face-to-face classes, I provide this in a thousand small ways. Verbal feedback, facial expressions, and body language are paired with my planned materials to facilitate my being able to accurately gauge and respond to student understanding. Without those tools in an eLearning environment, my students will experience the same frustration that I had from my own online teachers who seemed to treat the courses I was in like an automated machine. In an online environment, many excellent teachers likely struggle to provide the incredible feedback that they normally would when working face-to-face. Could it be that the pressure to make eLearning look and feel like a traditional classroom is the wrong approach? Educational technologists have long towed the line that technology is a tool, but today it seems that the technology is more a context or environment than merely a tool. If my students are primarily engaging with me and my course through hardware and software, then hasn’t that repositioned the technology to more than just a tool?  In fact, it becomes a whole different social discourse in which the ways we act, think, and communicate are quite foreign from the space of the traditional classroom. The literacy paradigm has changed. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Personally I have faced this challenge with my honors physics students. I introduced them to a new online tool called MasteringPhysics as a part of my doctoral work. This platform provides immediate and elaborated feedback to my students, but many of them still struggled to connect with this feedback. This program is specifically designed to use a host of technological magic to give electronic feedback to students and yet they still struggle. How much harder it must be for new eLearning teachers to adjust to this new paradigm. 

Hopefully, educators all across the country will begin to pressure themselves into designing online lessons rather than teaching lessons online.

Reshaping your thinking isn’t easy. Even as a digital native, I have found myself trying to force my prior learning experiences as a student onto my current classes. It just feels “right” sometimes. My 11-year-old self had to learn to treat the trumpet as a completely different instrument complete with all new ways of thinking about music. It could well be that teachers who have been thrust into eLearning need the same kind of adjustment in their thinking. So have you felt pressure as a teacher to replicate face-to-face style learning in the virtual world? Was this pressure internal or external? Hopefully, educators all across the country will come out of quarantine with a fresh perspective of the advantages and disadvantages of eLearning and begin to pressure themselves into designing online learning using online literacies rather than teaching lessons online. This is going to require New Literacy Studies.

About the Author

  Photo by Kyle Gutschow

Scott Buhr is a high school physics teacher in Simpsonville, SC. He is a doctoral candidate at the U of SC College of Education studying Curriculum and Instruction. He has been involved with physics instruction, instructional design, and public speaking for nearly a decade. He was named in the Top Ten Teachers of the Year for Greenville County Schools in 2017-18 and shortly thereafter led his physics class to break a Guinness World Record. Scott also operates a small, gourmet popcorn business and actively ministers with his wife in their local church.