The transition from face-to-face to online learning presents multiple challenges, not the least of which is the behavior expectations to carry forward and those to leave behind. The temptation is often to keep the same expectations since they are comfortable for us and familiar to students who have experienced face-to-face education. However, experience shows that the application of traditional school expectations in a new context is not always successful and can be problematic.
We no longer control the physical environment within which students are being taught. Families have behavior expectations and rules that are not necessarily consistent with formal school. Students may face distractions such as noise and pets, and responsibilities such as caring for siblings during instructional time that compete for their attention.
Further, our ability to assign consequences for unacceptable behavior is limited and follow through can be difficult. Dismissing a student from a class session for not paying attention may mean they never return. Assigning a lower grade as a consequence for distracting behavior may work for some students, but grades are supposed to reflect learning, not behavior.
So, how can we approach the task of setting behavior expectations in an online environment in ways that support order and efficiency, but do not result in making threats that cannot be implemented? How can we avoid “overreach” that gets in the way of learning and invites unnecessary conflict? We can start by asking ourselves four questions related to expectations and use the answers to calibrate the behavior expectations we establish.
Question #1: What basic conditions or norms will be necessary for instruction and learning to occur without confusion and conflict? Here we might think of expectations such as turning on computer screens, muting microphones, not talking over each other, being respectful, and using the technology or another method to raise hands or otherwise gain attention when needed.
Question #2: What do I need to let go of either because it will not work in the new instructional context, or because I cannot exercise control over the behavior? We need to accept that there are limits to how much of the new environment we can control. We may have had classroom rules governing how students come dressed for school, but now some students log in while in their pajamas. We may not have allowed snacks during class, but now some students may be offered snacks by their parents during online class sessions. We may not allow pets in school, but they may appear unannounced on student’s laps. At first these aspects of online instruction may be distracting and frustrating for us. Yet, they may lie beyond the limits of our control. Trying to manage them remotely can lead to conflict with students and parents that is neither worth the trouble nor helpful to our goal to have students learn.
Question #3: What core behavioral elements must be present for learning to occur? We might consider the importance of paying attention, following instructions, asking questions, and completing tasks. Obviously, offering engaging activities, clear instructions, meaningful tasks, and other key instructional elements will be important to the engagement of students in the learning process.
Question #4: What behavioral expectations will resonate with students so that they will have a satisfying and successful experience? In response to this question, you may need to consult your students. Depending on their age, students may be quick to suggest norms and expectations that will be useful. Remember, while having school online may be new to most students, many will have had extensive experience with online activities through video games, social media, and other engagements. The key in asking this question is to understand what students see as important and what they are willing to adopt and support.
The answers to these questions will likely vary some from educator to educator. However, the thinking and reflection they generate can help us to create conditions where teaching and learning will thrive. They also help us to avoid more frustration and stress than we need right now. Flexibility is key. Letting go of what is not important frees up energy for what is. Choosing which battles to fight can determine whether the war will be won.