March 27, 2020

Big Ideas Facilitating a Shift Toward Distance Learning

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

This article is an adaptation of a text that first appeared on John Spencer’s website. It has been edited to fit Profweb’s editorial guidelines.

As an education professor, I’ve had the opportunity to help teachers develop online and hybrid courses. One of the most common questions people asked me was, “How do I convert my face-to-face course into an online course?” The truth is, you cannot convert it. Learning isn’t like a file that converts between a .doc and a PDF and a Google Doc. We can’t simply substitute new tools and do the same exact activity. But what if we chose a different approach? What if we asked, “How do I transform my course?” rather than “How do I convert it?” The following are a few ideas to consider as you shift toward online / distance learning.

Equity Matters

If you’re reading this in the context of COVID-19 related school closures, there’s a good chance your college is considering moving quickly from face-to-face to online instruction. It’s easy to step into digital spaces and forget that they are not socially neutral:

  • Not everyone has the same access to technology or a quiet workspace at home.
  • Power dynamics exist online. Pay close attention to the role of gender and race in your online instruction.
  • Embracing a Universal Design mindset is equally important online. For example, check that closed captioning is available on videos and that transcripts are available for podcasts.

Students should be creating original content

In education, we often model a particular skill that students then copy. Other times, we help students attain knowledge by reading articles, watching videos, or listening to lectures. This is especially common in online courses, where the predominant model is to consume content and then discuss the information afterward.

However, at some point, we want students to engage in meaningful projects. We want them to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers. This is why they need to engage in creative work online:

  • Blogging: Thematic blogs are blogs based on a student’s interests, passions, and ideas. It’s a great way for students to practice writing in different genres with specific blog topics. They can also add multimedia components, like slideshows, pictures, videos, and audio.
  • Podcasting: With podcasts, students create audio recordings that they then share with an authentic audience. They can work individually, with partners, or in small groups. The prompt can be more scripted or open. If you want, you can have students edit the podcasts and add music by using Audacity.
  • Videos: Video creation is often more time-consuming and sometimes requires additional skills. However, if students are at home, they might just be willing to spend the additional time creating a video. A simple option for video creation is the annotated slideshow. Here, students create a slideshow and then record the audio as they move through it. They can do this on PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides. But you can also ask them to simply record themselves with their smartphones.

Shifting from a consumer to a maker mindset allows students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers.

Leverage the power of online collaboration

We live in a world offering countless online tools for communication and collaboration. We can send emails, instant messages, edit a shared online document, hop onto a video conference, and easily send files back and forth. And yet, when it comes to distance learning, teachers often craft tasks that are entirely independent and individual. To make the most out of online learning, we need to leverage digital tools for collaboration. Students can engage in shared research and then come together to make something new, or they might collaborate by working on independent projects and sharing their processes with others.


  • Chat (Gmail chat, Messenger, Slack)
  • Video conferencing (Hangouts, Zoom, Skype)


  • Messaging options and forums on Moodle, Omnivox, and other learning management systems
  • Project management software, such as Teams, Trello or Asana

Empower your students to own their learning in an online environment

We often talk about what it means to move from compliance to engagement, the idea of creating an environment where students want to learn rather than have to learn. But if we want students to be creative, self-directed learners we need to go beyond student engagement and into empowerment. This requires some paradigm shifts:

  • A shift from the teacher asking all the questions to the students asking their own questions, where they chase the inquiry process and take learning off-road.
  • A shift from uncritical consuming to critical consuming and creating.
  • 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.

This is a challenge in a physical classroom, with each student learning at a different pace, but an advantage of online learning. The physical distance actually makes embracing student ownership less chaotic.

Provide opportunities for vintage and digital mashups

When we think of online teaching, we tend to imagine a student sitting at a computer completing work. However, some of the best tools are low tech. Yes, we need students to use a laptop. But we also need students to use critical and creative thinking. In other words, you need to take a vintage innovation approach.

Vintage Innovation is the overlap of timeless skills in new contexts.

Vintage innovation happens when we use old ideas and tools to transform the present. It’s not a rejection of new tools or new ideas. Instead, it’s a reminder that sometimes the best way to move forward is to look back. Like all innovation, vintage innovation is disruptive. But it’s disruptive by pulling us out of present tense and into something more timeless. As you move toward online teaching, consider how you might embrace this mindset.

Mixing timeless principles with modern tools
Vintage Modern Mash-Up
Journal Blog Visual Blogging
Socratic seminar Podcast Debate podcast
Prototyping 3D printer Blended divergent thinking
Presentation Video recording Video conference
Sketch Digital mindmap Explainer video

Be present as a teacher

Distance learning doesn’t mean we have to be distant. As teachers, we can be intentional about creating a sense of presence with our students:

  • Video announcement. The first week, do an onboarding video of the course and explain how it will work. After that, you can create a weekly short video with a preview of what students will do to create a sense of presence.
  • Small group check-ins. Schedule small group meetings and use video conferencing to meet with groups and look at their progress.
  • Scheduled conferences. Using a 5-minute conference system, you can offer individual video conferences to all students and let them know you are there for them. A shared document can act as a virtual signup sheet, or you can use a free app like Picktime.
  • Email or message check-ups. You can send out a whole class message with expectations and deadlines, but a more engaging option might be sending a short message to each student asking how they’re doing. If you have 180 students, rotate with 18 per day. You can create an email template and personalize it.
  • Surveys. Ask students to fill out a short course survey every week.

Ultimately, there is no one single way to do online teaching. It’s an experiment and it varies depending on your subject, your context, and your students. You’ll make mistakes—and that’s okay. The beauty is in learning from those mistakes and iterating toward better and better instruction.

Editor’s note

On his website, John Spencer offers a free eBook, along with a toolkit full of resources you can use as you shift toward online teaching. You will find examples of lesson plans, writing prompts, projects, protocols, and guides.

About the author

John Spencer

He is a former middle school teacher and current university professor on a quest to transform schools into bastions of creativity and wonder. He wants to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that learners can also be makers, designers, artists, and engineers. He explores research, interviews educators, deconstructs systems, and studies real-world examples of design thinking in action. On his website, he shares what he is learning in books, blog posts, journal articles, free resources, animated videos, and podcasts.

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