If there’s anything 2020 has taught us so far, it’s that we need to be ready for any last-minute changes. And with so many high schools and universities pivoting to distance learning at short notice, it’s imperative that educators understand that  each student comes with their own unique set of challenges — challenges that are even more pronounced when learning is no longer in the physical classroom. 

Distance learning can sometimes feel impersonal and inaccessible, but there are ways to make it easy for students to feel connected, comfortable, and motivated.

That’s why we’ve put together the best practices and tips for teachers and school administrators during this time (including a free checklist so you can make sure you’ve got everything covered).  These tips are not only to ensure your transition to distance learning is streamlined, but also, more effective and impactful to your students during this time.

1. Provide Necessary Materials and Accessibility

If you haven’t already, contact your students individually to find out whether they each have a device and internet access that’s sufficient for your scheduled coursework. Keep in mind that a smartphone will not be sufficient if you’re planning written assignments like essays.

If too many of your students are lacking the appropriate equipment, you might have to alter your syllabus; but first, find out if any equipment is available to students of your institution. Then set up a time and place where students can pick up supplies safely.

For students who don’t have Wi-Fi at home, make sure to provide a list of community resources that offer free Wi-Fi or internet access. Internet providers often have local Wi-Fi hotspots for subscribers. Your local library, college campus, or coffee shop might also offer Wi-Fi. Some of these resources might have computers available for public use. Make sure when you recommend these resources that they’ll be open right now due to COVID-19. This WiFi Map can show you establishments in your area that offer Wi-Fi.

2. Choose the Right Platforms

In today’s digital era, there is an abundance of software and technology available to help facilitate online learning and learning management. These platforms can provide the perfect online classroom setting complete with calendars, assignment lists and details, external resource links, video conferencing, task management, and more.

Start by identifying which features you’ll require to address the needs of your students and curriculum. Here are some options:

  • Virtual classroom platforms: Having a virtual classroom set up is key to effective distance learning. This technology remains open and available for students to visit on their own time (much like a physical classroom) and it allows students to work on their own or in small groups. There are so many virtual classroom technologies available that empower communication between you and your students (video, voice, chat, whiteboard, calendar, screensharing, recording), as well as simplifies the creation, distribution, and grading of assignments.
  • Live webinar and event platforms: Technologies like TurningPoint, Zoom, and BlueJeans offer live streaming, live polling, interactive homework, tools, and audience participation, and have been optimized in 2020 for education purposes.
  • All-in-one academic platforms: Technologies like CollegeOne can provide dynamic grade books and attendance records, assessment tools, live classes, and virtual whiteboards, as well as automated enrollment, secure exams, and auto-correction. These tools are available for any grade level.
  • Supplementary learning platforms: One of the best advantages of distance learning is that it gives students access to educational tools that otherwise might not be available from their district. Platforms like Skillshare help students learn real-world creative skills — everything from Adobe Creative Suite to Marketing in an engaging and interactive digital setting.
Schools use Skillshare to enhance their curriculum and support distance learning with project-based lessons.
Schools use Skillshare to enhance their curriculum and support distance learning with project-based lessons.

3. Set Up Your Virtual Classroom

One of the most important aspects of a distance-learning environment is the virtual classroom. Students need an academic home where they can find resources, orient themselves, and connect with peers and instructors on their schedule. Just like the classroom you’re used to, this will be your base of operations.

Information can be lost during online communications, so the first thing your virtual classroom should have is an assignment list. Students should be able to go to the classroom and find the current assignment, details, due date, and resources. A calendar will let students know what’s coming up and motivate them to finish on time.

The home environment is also a significant part of the virtual classroom. Ask students and guardians to provide a quiet and secluded atmosphere for learning, during both interactive activities and independent work.

4. Take Time to Onboard your students Virtually

While you might find these online learning platforms to be incredibly helpful and efficient, keep in mind that not everyone is used to managing their schedules and work online. It can be pretty easy for some students to become overwhelmed with the tech. Find out what your students have used in the past and what they enjoyed versus what they’ve struggled with.

Start slowly by introducing your chosen platform’s basic functions. Once your students have a solid grasp of the basics, introduce them to other functions that will help them be more organized and efficient.

Once everyone is comfortable, these platforms are a great way to check in with students and keep them engaged. You can even do fun activities like have breakfast or lunch together, provide video game-esque checkpoints on assignments, or hold exciting competitions that don’t favor students with better accessibility.

5. Track Your Student’s Technology Performance

During this transition, students are having to learn not only the curriculum but how to access it as well. As a teacher, you’ve probably encountered formative curriculum assessments that help determine how well the students are absorbing the lessons. You can administer the same type of assessment for the technology to determine if it’s enhancing or getting in the way of learning.

Develop a protocol for technical difficulties and encourage students to engage that protocol. What should a student do if they suddenly lose audio or video during a lesson or activity? Would you prefer that the student speak up and take a moment to try to correct the issue or would you prefer that the student catch up with you privately later?

Your solution will depend on your teaching style, class size, and other unique factors. Consider setting aside time for academic help and a separate time for technical help. It’s a good idea to keep detailed lecture notes in case you’re unable to connect with the student privately promptly or in case technical difficulties persist.


6. Make Your Virtual Classroom a Welcoming and Inclusive Space

In physical classrooms, teachers rely on physical greetings (high-fives!) and 1:1 conversations to stay connected to their students. Don’t be afraid to give your virtual classroom some personality — whether it’s starting every class with a personal greeting or providing space for each student to answer a fun ice breaker question.

Additionally, with less access to 1:1 time, it’s highly important in a virtual setting to set clear and realistic expectations to your students before every assignment and class. This will ensure there isn’t any confusion and every student has the most information to complete assignments successfully. 

If you are concerned about inclusivity in all your virtual lessons, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are lessons provided in a variety of different mediums (video, photos, readings, and discussion)?
  2. Are prompts and assignments flexible to different needs?
  3. Will students get timely feedback after each assignment?
  4. Are resources in your online learning platform easily accessible?
  5. Do any video classes include closed captioning? Are classes easily digestible?

7. Assign Virtual-Friendly Projects

Project-based assignments are a great way to give yourself some time to catch up while keeping your students engaged in collaborative, creative tasks. This gives them a chance to exercise critical thinking and communication skills and gives you a more accurate assessment of their real-world retention and abilities.

Projects can be online or can be used to get students off of the computer for a bit. The same project management tools you use for your classroom can be used for student groups to communicate, share resources, and monitor progress. Project presentations, milestones, questions, and more can also be facilitated by your online learning platform (e.g. having a student watch a Skillshare class and finish the accompanying project).

When creating your assignments, remember not to overdo it on the text. Students are going to have to navigate a lot of text throughout this whole virtual education period we’ve entered into. Try creating some easily-digestible infographics, bullet points, or pictures wherever possible.

8. Ask for Feedback and Keep Track of Students Falling Behind

With a new virtual classroom, it’s even more difficult to track how individual students are performing or if they are falling behind. And it’s more important than ever to intervene early on in a student’s progress. Always keep a line of communication open so you can field real-time feedback (e.g. office hours or an accessible messaging channel).

If you have high school students, consider sending them surveys for feedback so you can get a better idea how you can improve your own virtual teaching style.

Teachers should also schedule short check-ins (virtual, email, phone etc.) with the families or guardians of students to ensure that each student is feeling connected and thriving in this new type environment.

Free Distance Learning Checklist - Build and optimize your virtual classroom with this printable checklist.
  Free Distance Learning Checklist   Build and optimize your virtual classroom with this printable checklist.

Distance learning is challenging but we want to help make the transition easier. Download our free Distance-Learning Checklist to ensure you got all your virtual learning boxes checked.

Skillshare works with many schools to drive alternative and supplementary learning for its students. Want to learn more? Check out our offering: Skillshare for Schools.

Written by:

Esther Chung