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4 keys to making online learning work

New to this world of virtual instruction? Here are four strategies to help you get moving.

6 min read


4 keys to making online learning work


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School closures amid the coronavirus pandemic have put many educators in an unfamiliar position, forcing them to quickly transition to a distance-learning model with very little time to prepare.

Teaching in an online environment requires many of the same strategies that lead to success in a traditional classroom setting — like cultivating relationships with students and providing them with timely, relevant feedback — but doing it right requires thoughtful planning. Here are four tactics that can help educators who are new to this experience ensure their students’ success.

Provide Ample Support

One of the primary keys to distance-learning success is providing structure for students. Virtual instruction is a big shift for everyone. Students are used to having their teacher nearby monitoring progress as they work, even in the most student-centered classrooms.  

It can be disconcerting for students when they don’t have a teacher physically present to work through a lesson, identify areas of confusion or misconceptions, or redirect their attention. Teachers must find ways to provide that support online. Here are some ideas:

  1. Give students a way to reach you for help. Let students know how they can get in touch with you if they have any questions, and the timeframe that they can expect a response. These parameters are important. They set reasonable expectations for students and families and (hopefully!) prevent you from getting a flurry of calls, emails and texts during dinnertime.
  2. Check in with students frequently. Set virtual “office hours” so you can check in with students and provide extra help. You can use a video conferencing tool like Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts to set up and host these sessions. It will be encouraging for students to see your face and hear your voice.
  3. Help students manage their time. Without a structured school day schedule, some students may flounder in a distance-learning environment. Teachers must help students hone their time-management skills. Provide explicit guidance for how students should plan out their work for the week. Suggest a daily schedule to keep them on track. This will help prevent them from falling behind and getting overwhelmed by a mountain of weekly work.
  4. Break down assignments into manageable chunks. This provides more opportunities to give feedback and gauge progress. When students feel they are making progress, they are more likely to continue working and stay on task. 

Create Sound Structure

The framing and informal explanations that teachers provide verbally in the traditional classroom are equally as essential in the online environment. Before teachers post lesson plans online, they should think about framing the work they are assigning, or students might miss the bigger picture and the critical connections in that work that they are doing, both of which are essential to their learning. 

Consider recording a quick video to introduce topics and skills each week and identify the flow of work that students will complete. Make sure assignments clearly communicate instructions and expectations; teachers may need to provide additional details where they would normally do so informally in the face-to-face classroom. Provide just a few key high-quality resources; too many resources will overwhelm and distract students. 

Maintain a Sense of Community

Students are motivated when they feel connected with their peers. Teachers should think of ways to build and maintain that connection online. This can help offset the isolation that many students are likely feeling with a sudden departure from their physical classrooms. 

One way to do this is to facilitate virtual class discussions. You can do this synchronously (live) or asynchronously (allowing for participation at different times and across multiple days). Teachers may find that students who are reluctant to contribute to a class discussion in person are more inclined to participate online. 

Another idea: offer ways for students to share their work and ideas, as they would in a traditional classroom. This might be done using Google docs, videoconferencing tools or a blog.

Provide Engaging Work

It’s just as essential to vary the types of assignments that students are provided in a distance learning model as it is in the face to face classroom. Students will get discouraged with recurrent lists of reading, videos, and worksheets. 

Think about ways they can actively learn and demonstrate their virtual learning. Many of the same things done in a traditional classroom can be done fairly easily online as well; one engaging lesson can be much more meaningful than several dry lessons. 

For example, get students interested in STEM content by using simple hands-on lab activities that allow them to make observations and collect data. Or consider simulations and modeling activities to practice key skills.

Don’t Worry About Having “Perfect” Technology

If your school has a learning management system, chances are it has features that allow you to perform most of these functions. If your school doesn’t have an LMS, you can use a free platform like Moodle or Google Classroom, or an online app like one of the ones highlighted here — or even just Google docs or a blog that students can contribute to. 

Be sure to check in with your local policies regarding student privacy and online access when identifying technology tools. More important than finding the perfect tool is approaching this change with effective design in mind.  Keeping it simple and using familiar technology, if possible, will help everyone succeed.

As teachers and students transition to online learning en masse, it’s important to keep in mind that both groups are challenged with adapting quickly in this chaotic time. Ample support, sound structure, a sense of community and engaging work are four keys for successful distance learning.

Kim Spangenberg is the associate dean of STEM and AP Coordinator for VHS Learning, a nonprofit provider of online courses for middle and high schools. Kim has over 10 years of experience in online learning, including teaching, curriculum design and professional development to support collaborative online STEM classrooms. Prior to working in online education, Kim was a biology and chemistry teacher and worked in both public and private school settings. 


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