How to Make the Internet a More Familiar Place for Learners

Laura Head

Log on. Go to your Drive. I’ll share my screen. Click the invite. Put yourself on mute. Chat me your answer.

A year ago, this kind of language was foreign to the vast majority of students — if it was familiar, it was probably only in the context of TikTok or Minecraft. But today this terminology is the basis on which we’re asking kids to make rigorous strides in learning. For many students, the unfamiliar lingo serves as a roadblock to making academic gains and showing what they know while signed into a remote lesson.

For many, the new learning culture isn’t simply going to assimilate itself seamlessly into already-established learning habits of kids. And for every lesson during which a student struggles to understand their platform, they’re losing opportunities to meet their potential and run the risk of falling farther behind.

To relieve the culture shock that accompanies remote learning pods and digital assignments, there are three things you can do. One is to draw explicit associations between the new tech protocols and familiar classroom habits. Another is to make time for designated tech tutorials, showing the ropes to all the new interfaces. Finally: repeat, repeat, repeat the new digital instructions. Doing so will ease online learning, introduce to your students a new tech-savvy language that they’ll use for years to come, and ultimately bring the focus back from remote learning tools to content areas of study.

Drawing Explicit Associations

Let’s start back at drawing explicit associations. My students, for example, start each online lesson by signing onto their Google Classroom Drive. It’s a totally new interface for many, and the page of geometric shapes and labels can be quickly overwhelming (read: can quickly evoke disinterest). So upon signing on, I describe the Drive to them as their “virtual desk;” just like their personal bureau at school which has a stack of folders differentiated by subject, so too does their Google Drive. At school, we can open a folder to find worksheets separated by unit or date, and we can use the same sort of thinking to find today’s work, too.

I often refer to the Google Calendar too, where students can find their schedule of pod classes to come. Without context, the site is a potentially dizzying array of colors and plans, but with a little suggested association, the Calendar is suddenly no more than an electronic version of their homework or agenda book. Presto, magic. The paperback version, which presents a month at a time and 4 pages of weekly breakdowns, is a display that Google Calendar uses too. Just press the “M” and “W,” respectively.

The opportunities for association are countless. If I’ve pulled up a Zoom whiteboard to have learners show their thinking, their instinct is to find a thrill in drawing bigger and bolder over one another’s work (yes, despite our inspired classroom rules). It’s a perfect opportunity to point out that we wouldn’t take a classmate’s worksheet and scribble on it in the classroom, and we shouldn’t do it online, either.

If students see their computer station as a stop-over between frequent snack and bathroom breaks, you can liken it to their desk at school, where generally they sit to focus for relatively long periods of time.

When creating a degree of familiarity between the classroom and new technology, you accomplish a few things at once: 1) you activate the mere-exposure effect, promising more engagement from your learners, 2) you expand their digital literacy while leading your content-rich lessons, and 3) You validate what is for many the very real confusion of trying to adjust to the remote classroom setting (and a little student validation can go a long way).

Tech Tutorials to the Rescue

Before leaning on your familiar associations to expand your students’ schemas, go back to the basics. Clear your calendar of any content instruction, and teach a little tech up front. Doing so is an excellent investment of time - While you may use up valuable class minutes on the front end, you’ll end up saving hours of technologically illiterate woes from your worried little learners in the long run.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the Google platform — It’s easy, accessible, and done right, scaffolds considerable autonomy to students. Starting at Gmail, I show my younger students how to check for new mail (from their favorite teacher!) and draft a new email. All Google services are linked at a common hub; the corner of the page is where they can pull up the Calendar, their Drive, or any other tool they might need. In the Calendar, I draw their attention to their weekly class invite from me, and we practice hovering over the event to find the video link — Just one click away from joining the regular class call.

Once we’re in the doc, I like to show my students that each colored icon in the top right corner is actually clickable — tap it, and I can see where in the document all of my classmates are. I can zoom in and out, change my font size, and even pull up old versions of the doc if I want to see previous revisions.

And so on and so forth.

In true “I do-we do-you do” fashion, I first share my screen to give a visual of all the software operations. I then ask a student volunteer to share their screen, so that we can repeat the tips and tricks as a group, and finally give students time to practice on their own accounts while I stay on to answer questions and troubleshoot issues that come up.

Zoom, SeeSaw, Jupiter, even the touchpad and computer keyboard — They all work uniquely, and students can benefit from learning how to use each one upfront. Remember: A stitch in time saves nine, and a quick tech tutorial before everything else saves a teacher from pulling out all her hair.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

There’s no one-and-done when teaching a new language and culture (take it from a bilingual educator!) It may be tempting to give a quick tutorial on your new mode of learning and swiftly move on to more important things. But here’s your reminder that the average brain needs exposure to something 7 times before it’s been committed to long term memory - and that’s adults! Younger kids especially will benefit from more, and more frequent, reminders of how it’s done.

A good rule of thumb is to put aside a designated time to do a thorough and dedicated tutorial from start to finish. From there, repeat the same tutorial at the start of every lesson, each one more abbreviated than the one before it. After a couple of weeks, your tutorials will sound like little pro tips more than anything else - but directives should still be consistent and explicit. This way, the digital culture becomes a part of the fabric of your online learning, appearing as an effortless addition to the ways you’ve long done things.

Remote learning is a culture of its own, so don’t be afraid to treat it that way. As your students make the shift, ease their transition by familiarizing the unknown - again and again and again. You just might find that they walk away with all the content knowledge they need, and some impressive tech lingo to boot.

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Passionate educator writing insights on learning, sharing travel thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.

New York City, NY

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