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Best Practices for Teaching Distance Learners

Across the U.S., schools have embraced distance learning as part of their daily program. While this is, of course, not a recent phenomenon, it has caught up in ways we never expected. Many schools have asynchronous or "real-time" virtual learning programs. They primarily execute this through video conference software—Zoom classrooms, for example. Other institutions have engaged asynchronous (not real-time) learning. This involved using worksheets and other documents to facilitate home learning.

Overall, when planning with such techniques in mind, you can proactively bridge the learning gaps usually associated with distance learning and effectively engage all students in your class. We invite you to use the following best practices to run a successful distance learning program regardless of your class size and program type.

Take Advantage of Smartphones

Use smartphones to your advantage—your students most certainly are. Use this technology to facilitate the online learning and teaching process instead of seeing it as an obstacle. True, some teachers might wonder whether smartphones can have a wholesome effect on the e-learning environment. But for many, this could be the perfect time to experiment with a tech-ready virtual classroom setup.

Choose a communication platform that is mobile responsive, and have your students set up alerts on their phones when you post an update. Create a class hashtag project through TikTok or Instagram. Let students know that it's okay to use their smartphones to call into a meeting if they are on the go.

Assign Class Note-Takers

Many students having difficulty following instructions over a video stream, finding it challenging to connect, focus, identify key ideas, and process information in a virtual class. But, not to worry, there's a way around this! Let your senior students (in high school or middle school) work together. This way, they help each other. Furthermore, assign students as class note-takers. To this end, use Google Classroom applications.

The average student will often use such notes to complement live recordings and transcripts. Ultimately, such notes are crucial for helping those who have problems reading, focusing, writing, and tackling other multitasking challenges.

Engage Students as Collaborators

Provide your students with initial thoughts and a sketch of what the lesson will look like. These will guide them on how learning and teaching go hand-in-hand. Go the extra mile; allow students to give feedback on your plans. Of course, since distance learning is now the modus operandi (and many are engaging remotely), let your students co-create what learning and teaching truly mean.

Never underestimate the value of excellent communication. This is crucial for remote learning. Regularly ask the students about their needs. Be flexible; address the students' interests and worries. Don't forget that many of them are digital natives. As you learn, ask them about their preferences. Welcome any innovative ideas on the latest approaches to learning. Doing this will boost the learners' self-determination, motivation, and agency. Ultimately, it's the best way to fire up your students.

Try Asynchronous Learning

As a teacher, keep in mind that the entire class will not always be there to watch a live stream. This might be due to internet access issues, inability to focus on a videoconference lesson, or timing. Also, remember that some students may have problems processing information that comes in auditory form.

Solution: when running a live video conference class, don't forget to record it for your students to access and review later. Simply upload the video to Google Classroom. Alternatively, email the material to your students to download.

Make Your Learning Resources Accessible

To get everything right, you shouldn't merely avail video resources to your students. Instead, think about how to make digital documents and images accessible to all students. You can design short text descriptions of videos and images you use during distance learning. It's best to avoid using image-based PDFs and other digital materials for handouts since they are usually inaccessible. Instead, use Google Docs, Word, or other easily accessible formats.

Use formats with a screen reader or optical character recognition (OCR) access. Ensure to check the screen reader accessibility for written materials using tools like WebAIM. Consider this a golden opportunity to learn the various accessibility skills to get your class ahead.

Build a Socially Supportive Class

Most teachers know that it's quite challenging to keep tabs on the students' physical and emotional welfare unless you're together in a classroom setting. To remedy this and keep up with distance learning demands, make time within your learning schedule to discourage self-isolation. Promote feelings of belonging among the students. Smart tip: initiate small video discussions and encourage discussion boards for the older students.

You can use modern video applications (like Zoom) to create separate discussion rooms. Also, consider setting up weekly individual virtual check-ins for your students (this involves making short phone calls with each student). To make the student feel they're an integral part of your class, encourage meaningful interaction and engagement. Make them feel they're an essential part of the distance learning class and community—you'll reap big rewards!

Systematically Teach Engagement and Expectation

Always keep this in mind: distance learning is an entirely different medium of learning; it's unique. Both the teacher and the student need the time and support to engage effectively in this digital space. Assume that your students possess skills in virtual learning technology. This will usually include virtual conferencing and digital material connections. Of course, individual skills will vary for each student. 

As a remedy, take the initiative to teach your students the best way of using new instructional media—do so explicitly. Share expectations on the best way to engage in this vibrant learning climate. Don't forget to give your students some crucial practice opportunities.


Experts admit that effective distance learning lessons can present formidable challenges. Both teachers and students require time to practice and accept this mode of learning. If you're running a video conference session, it can simply be overwhelming to encourage all students to participate. Fortunately, teachers can use a wealth of resources in this crucial transition process.

Overall, many seasoned teachers have discovered that distance learning can be constructively engaging, collaborative, and imaginative in one big, fun roller coaster ride! It merely depends on how well you're ready to employ these useful tools. Yes, exciting things can happen when skillful pedagogy comes face-to-face with modern technology.

Written by John Ndar

Education World Contributor

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