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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

The First Day of (remote) School: How to Get it Right!

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

The first day of school is a celebrated milestone across the nation. But what will the first day look like in remote classrooms? Here's a plan to lay the groundwork for a successful start! #remotelearning#onlinelearning#distancelearning#technology#theresacapra#teachingtips#Covid19


The first day of school is a bittersweet event--bitter because it marks the end of carefree summer days, sweet because it harkens back the exhilaration of new beginnings. In recent years, the first day of school has become a celebrated milestone on social media with customized signs adorned with teacher names and incoming grades. In contrast, the first day of class for college students is euphemistically coined “syllabus day”--the unimportant first session where instructors distribute thick booklets outlining a dizzying array of assignments and readings, which are usually contained in a textbook with a price tag that could choke a horse.

Regardless of the scenario, educators view the first day as a critical moment to establish an environment conducive to learning. Is it possible for educators to achieve the traditional first-day objectives in remote classrooms? Of course this is new territory for K-12 and higher education alike, but there are some strategies for a successful academic launch despite the virtual formats.

Break the ice!

Ice-breakers are widely used by educators at all levels to ease student anxieties and cultivate a comfortable learning environment. They range from sharing summer adventures, to exchanging personal information and academic goals. Students might partner up, chat, and introduce each other to the larger forum to ease apprehensions, or individually share out in a whole group setting through candid dialogue or a fun activity that lightens the mood. Mainly, the goal is rapport while simultaneously introducing learning expectations. This can still happen in remote courses using appropriate technology.

For example, Flip Grid is an application that can be easily downloaded on a smartphone or laptop to record and upload short videos on a thread for invited members to view and comment. Instructors can create an initial recording on the thread to kick off the welcome topic. Make it personal--let your new students know who you are as both a person and educator. Consider sending a welcome note (or a Youtube video) in advance with instructions making the activity even more personal while getting in front of any potential technological issues. This can be a wonderful way to break the ice before the content gets off the ground.

A picture is worth a thousand words!

Today, more than ever, educators realize the power of visual media to motivate students and elicit engagement. When planning remote introductions, swap text-based boards for pictorial forums. Instead of the typical text-based board riddled with platitudes such as, hello, I like cookies and corn, in response to the standard prompt, tell us about yourself, ask students to upload a favorite picture with brief captions, not a full description. Rather than the superficial peer responses that occur on text-based boards, I like corn too, students should be prompted to ask for more information about a classmate's image. This simple tweak can make remote introductions more engaging.

Look out for confusion!

The emergency thrust to remote in March 2020 was guided by panic-- but now we're gearing up for Fall, and the hindsight is not very helpful. Naturally, there is not much research on remote instruction, but there's plenty about distance learning in general. It has been documented that students typically move through predictable stages during a computer-mediated course: confusion, frustration, adjustment, and managing. Confusion that does not abate leads to frustration, which is a risk factor for unsuccessful outcomes and non-completion.

How can you tell if your students are confused? Well, perhaps they're asking good questions--should I do it this way, or that way? Or maybe they're making an effort but it's slightly off. If you notice any signs of confusion a phone call or Facetime can usually set it straight. Keep an eye out for early signs that usually pop up during the first days of school and you'll be likely to have a smooth semester.


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