7 Tips for Educators New To Distance Learning

Written by SI • June 3, 2020 •  4 min read
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The first confirmed case of coronavirus in the U.S. was reported only a few months ago, but the education landscape has already changed immensely. Schools were forced to close campuses with little warning, and teachers were sent scrambling as they had to figure out a way to move their courses online, often with little assistance or guidance. Today, the future remains uncertain as colleges weigh the decision to resume courses in the fall against the risk of a new outbreak. Even if schools do decide to reopen, students and faculty may be hesitant to return to packed classrooms and housing. Nobody knows for sure when we’ll be back in the classroom.

Here’s what we do know: distance learning is currently the norm, and whether or not it stays that way, it’s going to play a greater role in education in the post-COVID world. For many educators, this means a rapid expansion of their existing online offerings. For others, e-learning represents an entirely new venture.

If you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed, you’re not alone. As a trusted leader in the world of distance learning, we wanted to offer advice on how to best manage your instruction as you continue navigating this new digital environment. Here are seven tips for educators new to distance learning.

Outline clear objectives

Without the structure of a classroom setting, your students might struggle with feelings of isolation. It’s imperative that you do what you can to keep them engaged. One way to minimize the distance is to highlight key due dates and set clear learning objectives — for the course as a whole and for each individual assignment. This way, your students will always understand what is expected of them and won’t feel lost.

Start by identifying the goal of each lecture, exam, project, and discussion on your existing syllabus, and then reframe each assignment to fulfill its purpose in an online setting. For instance, say you had planned a mid-semester discussion about the competing views of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists at the Constitutional Convention. Would it work to have your students participate in an asynchronous discussion on an LMS discussion board? Or, would you prefer an active discussion over a videoconferencing service such as Zoom?

Maybe neither of those options are ideal, and you’d want to set up shorter, one-on-one conversations with each student to assess their individual thinking on the topic. Perhaps you don’t envision online discussions working for your students at all, and you’d rather re-design the entire assignment as a brief essay. 

Online education offers a multitude of choices when it comes to lesson design. It’s up to you to assess the needs and abilities of your students and decide which avenue to take.

A student works at a laptop which reads "never stop learning"

Get creative with your resources

It’s hard to not feel a little left in the dust at the moment, as many educators have been told to transition to remote learning with little to no help. But there’s a silver lining to the open-endedness of that task: the sky (or, at least, the internet) is the limit.

With online learning, you have the freedom to think beyond the textbook when designing your course, so feel free to spice up your syllabus however you see fit. You can supplement the course materials with a variety of outside resources, such as podcasts, TED Talks, online games, interactive quizzes, or even Pinterest boards

This is the time to get creative and discover effective teaching resources you might not have otherwise considered. Teachers are truly some of the most innovative people, and as University of North Florida professor Kally Malcolm-Bjorkland describes it, what instructors are tasked with right now is “crisis teaching.” Education during a pandemic is challenging for everyone involved, so make the most of it by thinking outside the box and creatively engaging your students.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

This unexpected transition to online education will be frustrating for many students, and that frustration will only be exacerbated if they don’t have a direct line of communication with their instructor. When going over the course syllabus, be sure to identify a reliable means by which they can reach you with questions, concerns, or thoughts on the course material. This could be an email you check regularly, a communication app such as Slack or Whatsapp, or even a phone number they can text, if you’re comfortable giving out your personal number.

What’s most important is not that you always respond immediately, but rather that you’re transparent about when students can expect you to get back to them. It might not be realistic to promise that you’ll always text back right away. But as long as the student knows they can expect a response within 24 hours, they’ll feel that they have a reliable connection with their instructor and stay engaged in the course.

Since students won’t be able to meet with you in person, you might also consider holding virtual office hours. This could be on the phone or over a videoconferencing service such as Zoom, Google Meet, Cisco Webex, or Microsoft Teams. While email or texting would suffice for quick questions or clarifications, these office hours would provide students with an opportunity for more in-depth assistance.

an educator new to distance learning gives a lecture over Zoom

Provide regular feedback — and ask for it

In Michelle D. Miller’s article on rapid online transitions, the Northern Arizona University professor and author of “Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology says that teachers in online settings should consider how they will provide students with opportunities for practice and constructive feedback.

Maybe you’ll utilize in-text comments in Google docs to offer feedback on an essay draft, or maybe you’ll want to respond directly to students’ discussion board contributions. You might even find that the best way to offer feedback is through weekly one-on-one video chats with each of your students. Whatever the case, make sure you’re creating opportunities for your students to offer you feedback as well. You’re likely as new to this as they are, and if something you’re doing isn’t working, you’ll only find out if you open up the communication channels for your students to respond to your pedagogy.

a notebook lies open next to a laptop

Utilize digital tools, but keep it simple

There’s an app for that. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of distance learning

Whether you’re looking for help with videoconferencing, classroom management, organization, lesson planning, content delivery, studying, screen sharing, or even mindfulness, you’re going to have a lot of digital resources to choose from. While these are all designed to make your course delivery simpler and more intuitive, the law of diminishing returns certainly applies. If you clutter your course with as many digital learning tools as you can find, you’re only going to make your students’ experience more confusing.

Simplicity is key. Try to design assignments that have clear instructions and use just one or two resources. Additionally, be sure to keep all of those resources in a central location such as an LMS syllabus page or a dedicated class website. This way, your students never feel that they need to dig around aimlessly to find what they need. 

Use each other 

We might all be isolated, but we’re also all in this together. Teachers across the globe are working diligently to figure out effective e-learning strategies, and they’re eager to share what they’re learning. Don’t hesitate to use your fellow educators as a resource. When you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed, reach out to others to learn what’s working and what’s not.

Let your students (and yourself) off the hook

As you’ve heard a million times over the last few months, these are unprecedented times. All of your students are new to this, and some likely have better digital access and experience than others. Don’t be disappointed when mistakes are inevitably made.

You’re in this together, so if a student misses a due date or doesn’t have the resources to complete a certain assignment, work with them to develop an individualized plan. Having one’s established routine uprooted is stressful. Remember that understanding, flexibility, and kindness will go a long way.

And that goes for you, too. Try not to hold yourself to too high a standard, and when you mess up, make the most of it. Not only can you learn from your mistakes, but you can use them to model good learning behaviors for your students. Common Sense Media’s senior editor for learning resources, Christine Elgersma, elaborated on this in a recent interview with EdSurge:

“For teachers, it’s really important to let yourself off the hook a little bit. It’s not going to be perfect. And I think there are lessons within the lessons that can come with this whole experience. When there are problems, we [can be] modeling problem solving. If there are glitches, we’re modeling perseverance. So I think there are a lot of ways that this experience can be instructive in ways we might not expect and might not be part of the set curriculum.”

a distance-learning workstation with laptop, textbooks, notes, and coffee