Essential Elements for an Effective Distance Classroom


Robert Barnett and Kareem Farah

by | 04.15.20

Robert Barnett and Kareem Farah are former teachers and co-founders of The Modern Classrooms Project.

You’re a teacher who has just been asked to move your class online. This may be a completely new experience for you, and you may not have been given much guidance for how to teach virtually. 

Many of the ways you’ll be challenged by virtual learning are consistent with the ways you’re challenged by teaching itself. Things won’t work the first time, and when they do work, they won’t work for every kid. You will evaluate different approaches and try new things. Like kids who don’t raise their hands in class, you’re going to have students who don’t connect – and that will be for lots of different reasons. 

So, what can you put in place in order to create the most effective learning environment possible for your students?

As former high school math teachers and co-founders of The Modern Classrooms Project, we’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks supporting educators in their transitions to distance learning. In that time, we’ve identified a few of the most important ingredients for an effective distance-learning experience.

Before jumping in, we want to acknowledge that we know some of you are working to solve a more fundamental challenge: making sure students have access to the internet and devices in the first place. These tips won’t solve those critical equity issues, but will help if and when those pieces are put in place. Even then, every teacher and school is unique, so the specific strategies that are best for one teacher may not fit perfectly for you.

All that said, we’ve found that nearly all teachers engaged in virtual teaching can benefit from the following:

1. A Stable Digital Home Base

There are thousands of e-learning tools and platforms out there, which is overwhelming. What your students need is ONE home base where they’ll start every lesson. You can use that home base to link to resources across the internet and opportunities for offline learning – but students will always know where to start and where to end.

If your school has provided you with a learning management system like Canvas, Schoology or Google Classroom, then by all means, use that! You can find some tips on Canvas here and some tips on Google Classroom here. If not, consider creating a simple Google Site (like this one) that students can bookmark and visit every day.

Whatever system you use, keep it as organized as possible, and update it regularly. This will keep students focused and grounded, even in turbulent times.

2. A Way to Record Videos 

Live online classes work for some students, but not for others: it can be hard for many students to attend in light of internet access issues or unpredictable schedules. Moreover, live lectures are unlikely to stimulate high levels of engagement and will inevitably lead to a large number of students checking out. Teachers can surmount this obstacle by creating your own instructional videos, based on research-backed best practices. This gives you the freedom to personalize your digital instruction to the needs of your students. Once the videos are ready, they are posted on your digital home base so that students can access it at any time.

What do you need to record a video? The most basic elements are simply a computer, headphones with a microphone and a screen recorder, such as Screencast-o-Matic.  (You can see our guide here.)  To create a video, simply talk through a set of slides or visuals on your computer while recording your screen. 

If you happen to have a tablet, you can take advantage of on-screen annotations by using an app like Explain Everything (guide here).

The last step is to upload your videos, which you can do through YouTube, Google Drive or any other video-hosting platform. We like Edpuzzle, which allows you to embed questions and comments to keep students engaged. Post the links to your digital home base, and students will be ready to learn!    

3. A Means of Connecting with Students

Once your learning material is online, you’ll want to find a way to connect in a personal way with students. As educators, we know that this human connection is essential to learning. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this.

One easy way to connect with multiple students at once is to host virtual office hours, using a video-conference software like Zoom. (There are plenty of other options as well, but we find Zoom easiest to use.) Set a time, post the link on your digital home base and let students join you to ask questions and catch up. This is a great way to facilitate inter-student conversations as well. But unlike traditional class, this is not mandatory or designed to deliver new content. Instead, it is used in lieu of small group instruction as needed.

There are also ways to cultivate more personal interactions with students. Use Calendly to set up times for one-on-one appointments; create a free Google Voice number to text with students and families (without needing to share your personal cell phone number); or just send good old-fashioned emails to keep in touch. In times of disconnection and isolation, these human interactions can make the difference between losing students’ interest and keeping them engaged.

4. Patience and a Growth Mindset

This is going to be hard. Your digital home base won’t look exactly the way you want it; you’ll need to re-record videos over and over; your students won’t remember how to contact you at first. That’s part of this experience; prepare for it. Developing new systems always takes time.

Lastly, remember that your students are your partners here: Their feedback is more valuable than anything an outside expert can provide. If your students tell you that something isn’t working for them, listen and adjust! Your students are accustomed to navigating the digital world in their own way, so they can guide you toward a digital set-up that works for them.  

Making the switch to effective distance learning won’t happen overnight – and the ideal online classroom will look different for every teacher and student. But with the essential elements above, you should have enough to get started. You can learn more about our approach and methods through our free online course, which is at learn.modernclassrooms.org. Go forth and conquer – and let us know how it goes!

Kareem Farah and Robert Barnett are former high school math teachers who co-founded The Modern Classrooms Project in 2018, a nonprofit that equips and empowers educators to create blended, self-paced, mastery-based classrooms where all students can truly learn.


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