5 Ways to Make Online Learning Less Distant

By Jean Sharp

As many students across the country return to the classroom for in-person and hybrid learning, others face a choice. Will they continue in an online learning model for this school year and perhaps even longer?

Our students today are learning in an environment that is quite different than just a year ago. And, it’s likely to impact how they will learn in the future.

Successful online learning programs are intentionally designed to fulfill the promise to give students more control over the time, pace, path and place of learning.

It seems likely that districts will continue to offer this learning option to meet student and family needs. After all, for some students, online learning has proven to be effective.

Successful online learning programs are intentionally designed to fulfill the promise to give students more control over the time, pace, path and place of learning. They encourage students to focus on their learning in ways that are relevant, flexible and tailored to meet their individual needs.

Students progress at their own pace, demonstrating mastery of the skills and concepts they already know, while affording more time to master new or complex learning. Because students’ learning time is more focused on their individual learning needs, it often results in more engagement in learning.

While teachers in an online learning environment employ many of the same skills needed to effectively teach in a brick-and-mortar classroom — academic expertise, teamwork and collaboration, organizational skills, creativity, and of course a desire to make a difference for students — there are proven strategies that are particularly helpful when making online learning seem less “distant” for students whom they may never see face-to-face.

  1. Foster connection and community.
    Research indicates that connections with their teachers and classmates is what keeps students engaged. Teachers must place priority on building relationships as they consistently design opportunities to get to know their students and for their students to get to know one another. Tapping into student interests and fostering collaboration will make learning relevant and build community. It all begins with relationships.
  2. Communicate clear expectations for participation and progress.
    Just like students in the brick-and-mortar classroom, students in an online learning program respond best when they know, “What is expected of me at school?” To ensure student engagement and success, teachers should set clear expectations for student participation, pacing, and progress of learning.
  3. Provide relevant and timely feedback.
    Students in an online environment are better able to manage their course activities when the teacher has established expectations for communication, availability, feedback and responsiveness. By providing relevant, specific and ongoing feedback, teachers guide student learning. Further, students benefit from knowing when they can expect to receive feedback on submitted assignments and when their teacher will respond to all other student inquiries.
  4. Monitor and encourage student progress.
    Teachers need to work with students to set goals, including a reasonable schedule for the pace and progress of learning. By regularly monitoring and reviewing student data, teachers can ensure students are accountable for the goals they have set. Further, they can guide student learning and provide appropriate intervention to support students’ progress toward mastery. Learning is a process and students need teachers to encourage their growth and development.
  5. Make learning matter.
    Effective online learning programs understand that teachers play a key role in student success. Teachers facilitate student learning and monitor student progress. They differentiate instruction based on individual student needs. They serve as learning coaches, providing guidance as needed to clarify students’ misunderstandings, provide context for learning, and determine next steps. They use student data to inform instruction and support students as they develop as learners. Effective teachers make learning matter!

While keeping students engaged in learning has proven to be among the biggest challenge schools have faced this past year, on-line learning doesn’t have to be “distant” learning. Supported by effective teachers, successful online learning programs encourage and support positive learning outcomes, one student at a time.

For more than 25 years, Jean Sharp has brought her extensive leadership and management experience to supporting K-12 students by proving new learning opportunities to students in classrooms and homes across the nation as the Chief Academic Officer for Apex Learning. She casts the vision for curriculum and instructional design, aligning the needs of educators today with solutions that meet student learning needs and maximize student success.


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