Online Distance Learning – What is most important?

So… this week is Spring Break for my school in China. I certainly never imagined that at this point in the year, we would have completed 8 weeks of online distance learning. I also never imagined that my family would be in Ontario for our Spring Break, watching snow fall while in self-isolation. I have promised myself that I would work very little this week, but with no opening date for our school from the government yet, I felt the need to reflect before embarking on another round of distance learning that does not yet have an end date. (I would also like to give a shout out to the rest of the secondary instructional coaching team: Tanya, Celeste, Yolanda and Jason. It is extremely difficult to collaborate across multiple time zones, but I am grateful for the collaboration that we have been able to engage in and the support that we have provided for one another. Some of resources included in this blog came from conversations and collaborations with my coaching colleagues.)

Over the past couple of weeks, as more and more schools engage in online learning, I have been reflecting on what is most important for educators to keep in mind in order to best serve our students. Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has become an unprecedented worldwide concern and many boards/districts are closed indefinitely, I think it is more important than ever that educators focus on:

  • self-care and supporting one another;
  • student well-being through maintaining a sense of community;
  • strengthening relationships through online interactions; and
  • seeing online distance learning as an opportunity to develop student agency and increase student engagement through student-directed learning opportunities.

1. Self-Care and Supporting One Another

We all know that “we have to Maslow before we Bloom.” Particularly in these uncertain times, we must prioritize taking care of our families and ourselves. We need to incorporate physical activity, time to connect (virtually!) with family and friends, and other coping strategies, so that we are better equipped to support our students.

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid

In her recent blog post Distance Learning: A Gently Curated Collection of Resources for Teachers, Jennifer Gonzalez (Cult of Pedagogy) wrote about the need to keep perspective that we are in the midst of a GLOBAL PANDEMIC, the likes of which we have never seen in our lifetime:

There will likely be times when the people in charge of you start to expect too much, or you expect too much of yourself.  If you’re in a situation like the one we happen to be in right now, in the spring of 2020, you may need to regularly step back from what’s right in front of you and remember that we’re dealing with life and death circumstances right now. None of this is normal, and there really is no precedent to follow. Most people are doing the best they can on any given day, and that means things will not go smoothly. And by “people,” I mean everyone: students, parents, your colleagues, your administration, your family members, and you. YOU. Giving yourself plenty of grace is key at times like this.

Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy, March 30, 2020

2. Maintaining a Sense of Community

Some middle/high schools maintain a sense of community during online distance learning by adapting or developing an Advisory program to keep students connected within smaller groups. Other strategies suggested in the Edutopia article Focusing on Student Well-Being in Times of Crisis include checking in with students through short surveys, making occasional calls home to students, or even helping students to create self-care plans. Such strategies allow teachers to better advocate for struggling students, which can also minimize the number of emails or phone calls needed from multiple teachers. (This benefits both teachers AND families!) Having regular check-ins with individual students or small groups helps students to feel less isolated. Another way to maintain a sense of community is to hold an online ‘Spirit Week’ where students have crazy hair or pajama day… which truly isn’t difficult when we’re teaching and learning from home anyway!

PE and Health teachers at my school have done a great job helping students to remain physically active and focus on wellness through journalling, meditating and connecting with peers. Student check-ins with – and weekly video messages from – social-emotional counselors have been much appreciated by students at my school. However, even if a school does not have a clear system-wide approach to maintaining a sense of community, teachers can include simple strategies such as incorporating social chats into their courses to help replace the more personal connections that normally happen before class, in the hallway, or during activities, clubs and sports.

3. Strengthening Relationships through Online Interactions

Just as in more traditional classrooms, in online environments “every interaction is an opportunity to strengthen relationships and learning” (Global Online Academy Video: Student to Student Feedback​). Intentionally building in opportunities for quality student interactions supports ALL learners, including our most vulnerable learners. What might this look like?


When we interview students on what they understand by feedback and why it is important to them, one theme emerges almost universally: they want to know how to improve their work so that they can do better next time. Students tend to be future-focused, rather than dwelling on what they have done beforehand and left behind.”

Hattie and Yates, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, 2014 p. 64-65

Teachers tend to feel a sense of responsibility to provide feedback to students. Isn’t it our job, after all? While teacher-to-student feedback is of course important, teachers should also leverage peer feedback and student-to-teacher feedback. Students providing feedback is a powerful learning experience in itself.

All feedback should be specific, actionable and constructive. Feedback should be focused on a clear goal or learning target, as opposed to comments related to task completion. To guide students towards quality peer feedback, it is useful to provide prompts or sentence stems. It can also be helpful to ask students to provide feedback to only 1 or 2 classmates, and to direct them to give feedback to someone who has not yet received any so that all students receive feedback. Part of the power of peer feedback for students is that it makes their thinking visible to one another. This helps students who are struggling or feeling isolated in their learning.

Student-to-teacher feedback provides information about what is working for students, and what could be improved. Such feedback could be provided anonymously through a survey, or it could be a short video submitted to the teacher. Three Questions for Effective Feedback describes the simple but powerful SKS process developed by two Harvard professors:

  • What should I STOP doing?
  • What should I KEEP doing?
  • What should I START doing?

Utilizing a variety of feedback types and modalities (written/audio/video) is not only powerful for students – it can also help teachers to ensure a more manageable workload. This is win-win for students and teachers!

Research shows that less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning. And there are numerous ways—through technology, peers, and other teachers—that students can get the feedback they need.”

Grant Wiggins, 2012


Asynchronous interactions can be incredibly beneficial for students, particularly those who are less confident, more introverted, learning in a language other than their mother tongue, or who need more time to process and organize their thoughts. Sometimes students who are very quiet during face-to-face discussions can really shine in asynchronous discussions. In the article What Harvard Business School Learned About Online Collaboration from HBX​, Harvard describes that “women were more likely to both ask questions of others and to answer others’ questions – nearly twice as likely as men” in their online courses. This is the opposite of what they see in their traditional classrooms. Even when schools return to ‘normal’, some teachers might consider continuing to incorporate asynchronous discussions at times.

In order to be effective, asynchronous interactions must have a clear purpose. There are many ways teachers can ensure high quality, engaging asynchronous discussions, such as:

  • varying the modality (e.g. written, audio, video)
  • varying the tool used (e.g. Schoology discussion boards, Flipgrid, Padlet)
  • avoiding overuse of discussion boards – consider other purposes such as peer feedback, social connections, real-world connections, etc
  • using small-group discussions to keep conversations manageable
  • using open-ended, rich prompts or questions that ensure students will go beyond surface-level knowledge
  • using clear processes, such as:
    • limiting responses to 1-2 classmates who do not yet have feedback
    • 3CQ developed by Jennifer Stewart-Mitchell (students respond with a compliment, a comment, a connection, and a question)
  • providing teacher guidance early in the conversation
  • using a rubric that ensures quality over quantity (e.g. building on another’s ideas, or sharing a new insight, or making a connection)
  • requiring students to cite or hyperlink sources​, when appropriate

Some of the tips above come from the following resources. (Thanks to my colleagues Celeste & Jason for these!) Check them out for more suggestions:


The debate about asynchronous vs synchronous learning has clearly surfaced during this period of online distance learning. It is perhaps understandable when people assume that more synchronous learning = better education. Unfortunately, online synchronous learning does not take the place of the classroom; it is often more teacher-directed and allows fewer student interactions than a typical classroom. The Unproductive Debate of Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning reminds us that “a good online teacher facilitates a variety of forms of interaction” and incorporates dialogue which ensures that students can “ask questions, engage in discussions, receive and give feedback, and actively participate in class activities”. As with anything in education, it is about finding the right balance between asynchronous and synchronous learning.

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 5.56.09 AM

Incorporating synchronous sessions into online distance learning certainly helps to maintain or strengthen relationships between students. Synchronous learning opportunities include partner work, small group collaboration or larger group sessions.

Synchronous partner work and small group collaboration should ideally:

  • have clear outcomes that connect with standards or daily learning targets
  • be very clear about both process and product (What exactly should students be DOING and/or CREATING? Note: Creating a product is not necessarily preferred.)
  • ensure individual accountability
  • make student thinking visible to the the rest of the class
  • start with something ‘low stakes’

In addition, small group collaboration may also benefit from:

  • teams taking time to get to know each other (e.g. discussing strengths and areas for growth, creating a contract, etc)
  • students having assigned roles
  • incorporating asynchronous collaboration to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in synchronous sessions

Larger group synchronous sessions would also benefit from many of the points listed above. If larger group synchronous learning is optional, teachers may increase attendance by asking students in advance for suggestions in order to help determine clear outcomes / topics for the session. One concern with larger group sessions is that it can feel too teacher-directed and/or it can be difficult to ensure all students’ voices are heard. Some ideas for increasing student participation and engagement in larger groups include: incorporating student presentations, using clear processes that ensure all voices are heard, or using ‘chat’ functions for smaller group discussions during the session.

4. Incorporating Student-Directed Learning Opportunities

Schools engaging in online distance learning during the current Covid-19 pandemic have an incredible opportunity to shift teaching and learning in ways that are more personalized and student-directed. Students who take responsibility for their own learning (through having input into what they are learning about, how they learn it and how they share what they have learned) are more likely to be engaged and able to develop student agency. What exactly is student agency? Jennifer Davis Poon from the Center for Innovation in Education outlines four components of student agency that students can develop over time:

The Four Components of Student Agency with stick figure drawings of a learning ideating, running, thinking, and wearing a hero cape.

With respect to the power of increased student agency, John Spencer emphasizes the need to move students beyond “critical consuming to inspiration to creativity” in his blog post 7 Big Ideas as You Shift Toward Online Teaching,

It’s a shift from differentiating instruction to personalizing learning.  And it’s a shift from rigid to adjustable systems so that students own the process. They can set their own pace, choose their own formats, and decide what resources they want to use to accomplish their goals.  It’s a shift in mindset from compliance to self-direction.  In other words, it’s a shift toward student ownership. When that happens, our students become the creative, critical thinkers who change the world.

John Spencer, 7 Big Ideas as You Shift Toward Online Learning

How do we help develop student agency? Students need to be given voice and choice in: the topics they choose, the process they engage in, the resources they use and/or what they produce. Students also need to be given opportunities for self-reflection and revision throughout the process. There are many great resources to support teachers in engaging students in inquiry and design processes, including great videos and free ebooks on John Spencer‘s website. There are also resources about learner-centered education on the Education Reimagined website, including a new Distance Learning Resource Center.

In the current climate, some students may be able to stay engaged in online learning for a longer period of time if they have more ownership over their own learning. However, we also need to be open to the fact that some students may not have some of their basic needs being met (think Maslow’s Hierarchy), so they may need more support and guidance. Personalized learning may help us to better meet the social, emotional and academic needs of ALL learners – and perhaps even support families.

In Conclusion

Jennifer Gonzalez (Cult of Pedagogy) says that we should be giving ourselves “plenty of grace” right now. John Spencer echoes this with an invitation to experiment and find a way to engage your students that works for your context:

We all need to be gentle with ourselves and with one another as we navigate this unprecedented time. We also need to lean on – and learn from – one another in order to best meet the needs of our students. It won’t always be easy, but as Glennon Doyle says… “We can do hard things!”

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