Your Digital Dozen: Cool Cat Teacher’s 12 Tips for Building Your Digital Classroom

Vicki Davis May 07, 2018

By Vicki Davis, @coolcatteacher and Host of the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast

First, we had physical classrooms. I call those bricks. But now, we have online classrooms. I call those clicks. And when we have bricks and clicks, we have to bring them together to create a blended classroom.

As teachers, we’re used to organizing our physical classrooms. We have inboxes, procedures, and color codes. We have a place where students turn in assignments and a process for grading and returning them. We call this workflow, and we plan it before the first student steps into our classroom. But I’ve found that teachers aren’t so methodical in their online spaces. If you don’t organize your space online, students can be confused and won’t perform up to their ability. Our digital classrooms deserve the same attention as our physical classrooms.

Below are 12 suggestions for organizing your digital space.

1) Think About Workflow

Students need a consistent place for getting and turning in their assignments. My learning management system (I use PowerSchool Learning) notifies me when students submit work. But I still need them to know where they can always find assignments. An LMS will include a calendar showing assignment due dates, but I’ve found that students often miss the context for those assignments if they just look at them on the calendar.

So, big picture — I think about workflow, just like in a physical classroom. How will students learn? How will they communicate with me in the online space? How will they receive feedback and ask questions?

In my mind, the test for all of this is the question, “Could I run my online classroom from home one day without being physically present in the classroom?” If so, then my workflow with the students is solid.

2) Organize your content

The first thing I  do is organize my class pages. I consider the webpage design and separate the information by content and topic. I also don’t like having more than five days of work on any one page.

Naming pages is also very important. While I don’t have to include the date in the page title, I’ve found that putting it at the beginning of the page makes it easier for students to figure out where  they need to be.

For example, this week’s work is called “Oct 19-23 Color Theory,” so they know that we’re working on a Color Theory lesson from October 19-23.

I can put whatever I want here, but students should be able to look at it and know which page to visit without always relying on the calendar. That’s because I sometimes have to change an assignment’s due date for students who were out due to sickness or sports activities. The calendar might confuse them about whether they have extra time. So I teach my students that the pages are the ultimate authority.

While pages have the assignments on them, I also include the assignments in the places where students turn in their work.

3) Clearly Outline Assignments (Including All Resources)

Even though everything about an assignment is on the class page, I still copy all of the assignment information into the actual assignment itself. You might think this is duplication, but I believe in effective digital organization: Everything needed for an assignment should be on one page, or one click away. Students shouldn’t have to worry about LMS navigation structure. Any links should take them directly to the assignment. Rubrics, content, videos, and anything else they need should be on the assignment or one link away. I can’t stress how important this is.

Students in my digital classroom don’t see the assignment and the additional material as two separate things. A nice bonus of assigning work this way in my LMS is that PowerSchool Learning and PowerSchool Teacher Pro Gradebook are linked together, so the assignments that I enter in PowerSchool Learning also end up in my gradebook. Parents who are looking at assignments can see a full description as well.

4) Be Consistent

When you’re organizing your online classroom, consistency is everything. So if I see that students are having trouble finding something or struggling with an assignment, I’ll ask if there’s anything in my page layout that’s making it difficult for them to get the work done. Depending on their feedback, I may change how I do things in the future — but I will tell students how I intend to make that change. If you move something, you need to tell students. And no matter what you do, you need to be 100 percent consistent in how you lay out the page, how you set up your assignments, and how students can expect to receive content in the digital classroom.

5) Work Ahead

Sometimes, students get sick and can’t come to school. Other times, they have to be out and will ask for their assignments in advance. Even without these absences, I’ve found that students really like the online classroom because it offers personalization and lets them work at their own pace.

Whatever the reasons, you need to have assignments and information available in your LMS. I’ve found that if I can make sure to always be five days ahead with material published in the digital classroom, everyone will have something to do. There are times when I make sure that everybody catches up, but mostly I let students work ahead at their own pace.

6) Make Sure that Students Can Set Up Notifications

Helping students set up notifications is one of the most important things that you can do for them. This LMS messaging feature helps keep students on track, but at the very least, they should understand setting up a notification for when they’ve properly turned in an assignment. If they know information, they can respond to it. And here’s where you want your LMS to be your teaching assistant.

It’s important that students learn to set up their own notifications. You can’t do it for them. When I take students into the learning management system at the beginning of the year, I have them go into Notifications, set up their cell phones, and strategically set their notifications.

I like them to be notified when:

  • They properly turn in an assignment
  • I leave them a message
  • I return their assignments

Notifications can be customized based on your workflow. You don’t need to be notified about everything, because if you are, then you respond to nothing. So make sure that students are receiving notifications about only the most important things.

7) Demonstrate Your Procedures

As someone who likes the Harry Wong methods of setting up procedures at the beginning of the year, I believe that modeling procedures is so very important. That’s the case in the digital classroom as well. Don’t assume that students know where things are.

We’ve talked about being consistent in your organization and practice, but we also have to train students on how to get the material. Additionally, parents who want to access the LMS need to be trained. And while you can do this with a video, I prefer to do it in person at the beginning of the year. I start with a brief tour, and then I gear my first few assignments to train students on how to use the system. This helps me understand how well they’re learning the procedures, and it helps them understand what I’ll be expecting from them during the year.

8) Demonstrate by Masquerading

Students  need to understand and be exposed to the LMS how they’ll see and use it — not the through the teacher’s view. There are significant differences between the two. So when I want to demonstrate something to them, I “masquerade” as a student to show them what it looks like from a student’s perspective. Whenever I see that they’re having trouble with procedures or forgetting how to find assignments, I begin at the start screen, log in as a student, and do what they would do so that we can model and reinforce those procedures.

Remember to do this when a student transfers in during the year. If you have a lot of transfer students, create an orientation video for the online classroom along with an assignment to help make sure that they understand virtual classroom procedures.

9) Give Verbal Reminders in Class

Eventually, students should be able to come into the classroom, check PowerSchool Learning, and know exactly what they’ll be doing that day. However, students still need verbal reminders — they are students — so we have to prompt them about things that are due or activities that they should be doing. This is especially important if you have kids working at their own pace, because while some will work ahead, the slower ones may just try to relax and turn things in as they see fit. They’ll never meet the standards or accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

So, when necessary, I tell students that today is a “drop dead day,” or the final date that I’ll accept a particular assignment, so that they’ll understand where they must be as a class. I simply cannot have two or three weeks’ difference within my class.

10) Use Color

Color is an important tool. But sometimes teachers forget about it, use it too often, or aren’t consistent with how they use it.

For example, specific and very important instructions could always be in red — or in bold and red. When students see that, they’ll know that it’s very important. You could also base your LMS color code on icons that you’ve created for your pages in Steps 1, 2, and 3.

These are just two of a variety of ways that you might consider using color.

11) Number Every Assignment

I’ve borrowed my LMS numbering system from accounting — certain kinds of accounts are assigned a certain range of numbers. All assignments have three digits and are numbered sequentially. For my eighth-grade students, the first digit is always 0. My ninth graders get the 100 series, where the first digit is always 1. My 10th graders may have some review lessons in the 100 series, but their first digit is always 2. And so forth.

The power of numbered assignments is that they make things so clear when you’re communicating with your students. For example, PowerSchool Learning has a search box at the top of assignments. If a student turns in work late and wants an assessment, they give me the assignment number, and I type in three digits, press “Enter,” and have that assignment up on my screen in moments. The problem with text-only assignments is that they require too much back and forth to figure out the exact name of the assignment. But if you train them to give you the number, everyone saves a lot of time.

Numbered assignments make it so much easier in my lesson planning book, too. For example, if a natural disaster hits and we have to be out of school, we may end up with two assignments due on one day. I’d rather not go back to the page and figure out which assignment came first. If they’re numbered, I can move them around quickly on the calendar without a lot of digging and research.

12) Show What is Needed When It is Needed

I used to show the whole school year in the LMS. However, I found that students were getting lost. Now, I schedule a start and finish time for pages. This way, students can see what they need at that time and won’t get confused looking at other pages.

A common issue with many online classroom systems is that they show too much. Our students are experiencing information overload. Since I started scheduling pages, students no longer “get lost” and can easily find what they need.

Conclusion: Honoring the Bricks and Clicks

Everyone’s physical classroom is slightly different, which is fine as long as we have procedures for checking grades, getting feedback, checking the online classroom, and updating assignments. These routines should be in place so that students can count on their teacher to be on top of things.

But as more of us are moving our routines online to teach for all or part of our classes, please consider design. Use color. Be consistent. Use photos. And work with tools that will help you teach effectively in your online classroom. Some of my favorites are EdPuzzle, Google Docs, and others that plug right into PowerSchool’s LMS to help me be a better teacher.

Yet everything that I use in my digital classroom should allow me to do the same things that I do in my face-to-face classroom. That includes formative assessment, two-way communication with students, and running my classroom of bricks just as I did before we had classrooms of clicks.

Learn More Take a deep dive into PowerSchool Learning — The Cool Cat Teacher’s LMS — by signing up for a free demo of the software in action. You’ll see how the system can give your educators tools to help make blended and tailored learning a reality.

Register for a demo today!

About Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time teacher and the IT director at Westwood Schools in Georgia. Vicki co-created more than 20 award-winning international global collaborative projects, the MAD about Mattering App Development Project, the Flat Classroom project, Digiteen and more.

You can follow Vicki’s commentary at the Cool Cat Teacher blog, which has more than 100,000 views a month and was named by Onalytica as the top female edtech influencer on Twitter. She’s also the host of the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast, a five-day-a-week show that tops more than 60,000 downloads a month. Vicki has spoken at Microsoft, Google, Discovery, and more than 30 edtech conferences. She serves as a judge for the Global Teacher Prize and as a Top Global Teacher Blogger for the Global Search for Education. Vicki is a Google Certified Teacher and Discovery S.T.A.R. Educator. She lives in Camilla, Georgia with her three children and husband, Kip.

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