Making the Transition to Online Learning

Getting Started

As you transition to teaching in an online environment, remember—your relationship with your students is still at the heart of their learning.

Whether you are a seasoned teacher or just getting started—tech-savvy or unsure of what the best ed tech tool is for your discipline—teaching online requires a shift in how you think about constructing lessons and presenting content to encourage and support student engagement.

What you will soon learn is teaching online isn't about taking lessons and posting them—creating what I like to call a "data dump." It's not effective to simply put an endless scroll of text on your course page and expect your students to engage with the material.

Successful online learning requires you to think deeply about the way you teach. You will need to present course material in a way that encourages student engagement and allows them to demonstrate and share their understanding with you and their peers. Online learning generally has the same outcome as when you teach face-to-face—it just requires you to take a different approach with different tools.

Here are a few thoughts and tips to get you started.

Set Realistic Goals

If you haven't taught an online course before, it's important to know that you will not be able to cover the same amount of material at the rate you did in the classroom.

Perhaps your school has cancelled classes and set a date to resume a week or two in the future. Before you start designing lessons, take stock of what you would like to cover on a week-to-week basis, but do start slowly; both you and your students are new to this learning environment and need time to adjust.

Set realistic goals with that in mind, but be flexible. These are uncertain times and uncharted territory in our recent history. What we do know is that no one can accurately predict how long it will take to contain the COVID-19 virus. We may end up teaching online anywhere from two weeks to two months, so pace yourself.

Set Clear Expectations

Hopefully your school has already set clear expectations for what type of instruction is expected—synchronous or asynchronous—and how often your class will meet, or the amount of time you need to be available for office hours to connect with students one-on-one.

Once your administration sets these global expectations, it is important for you to set class expectations, not only around assignments, but also around any synchronous class meetings. Below is an example of guidelines for a Zoom meeting to ensure students are fully present and engaged.

Poster source: Holly Hatton, Trinity Christian Academy, Addison, TX

Help Students Connect with You and Each Other

Learning online can be a very isolating experience. Couple that with the current COVID-19 social distancing recommendations and your students may be struggling to feel fully engaged with school.

Create opportunities within your lessons to encourage social connections. We need to find ways to fight the sense of isolation that often comes in an online learning environment.
  • Post video messages on a regular basis so your students can see you and hear your voice. Doing this will help them stay connected with you which will help them stay engaged with the material.
  • Give feedback with audio notes (Google Docs) or Screencastify.
  • Incorporate collaborative assignments. Students are used to working with each other on group projects and many of the tools available have collaboration features.
  • Google Docs, Slides, Sheets, Forms all have sharing features. Flipgrid allows students to post videos that classmates can comment on. Padlet encourages collaboration as does Nearpod and many others.
  • Choose several and use them judiciously. This is a great opportunity to take a survey of the tools that students prefer.
  • Mix it up: students can meet in smaller groups and present to the class via Screencastify or any platform that supports presentation.

Be Present

In her article, "How to Be a Better Online Teacher" published on The Chronicle of Higher Education Advice Guide, Flower Darby recommends:

  • Post a weekly announcement to provide an overview of the coming week’s topic or a recap of the previous week’s work, or both.
  • Respond to questions posted in an online question-and-answer discussion forum or sent to you by email.
  • Hold online office hours according to a schedule, by appointment, or both.
  • Post a quick video to clarify misconceptions about a class topic or assignment.
  • Grade and return students’ work in a timely fashion.
  • Talk with students in online discussions.
When you are regularly present and engaged in the online classroom, your students are more likely to be, too.

Special thanks to Ms. Darby for permission to reprint the above content from her article. Click the link above to read in its entirety.

Keep It Simple

Use of technology isn't a learning outcome. Don't let it overshadow or take the place of your teaching. Not every step of your lesson needs to incorporate technology.

There are so many useful and amazing educational technology tools, it's tempting to go overboard. For your own sanity and that of your students, keep the tools you use to a minimum. Only use ones that give your students a voice and amplify their learning experience. Consider this:

  • If every teacher uses three to five different tools, your students might be struggling to master and use a total of ten or twenty.
  • It's overwhelming to have to learn how to navigate new tools as well as course content.
  • We can only cope with so much information. The articles linked below will give you a better understanding of cognitive overload and how to avoid it.

Make Your Class Inviting

When you teach in person, you do a lot of things to help students feel welcome and comfortable in the classroom. You greet students. Smile. Make eye contact. Answer questions. You show your support in countless ways. Even when the physical classroom is not particularly attractive, you do a lot to improve the atmosphere in the room to make it more pleasant and therefore more conducive to learning.

Students will want to be in your online class if you:

  • Use plenty of visuals, media, interactive tools, and learning activities.
  • Streamline course organization and navigation. Organize the furniture in the room, so to speak, to create maximum flow.
  • Convey positivity and optimism that students can succeed.
  • Demonstrate compassion and caring for your busy online learners. Respect their time and engagement by being present and engaged yourself.
By making your online class more enjoyable, you make students want to show up. And students have to want to be in class before they can learn anything.

Special thanks to Flower Darby for permission to reprint the above content from her article.

Don't Re-create the Wheel

There are a number of organizations whose mission is to support the use of technology in education. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has great resources. Their infographic below helps break down blended and online learning in an understandable way.

The 5E Model

If you're teaching online for the first time, use a time-tested model like the 5E for designing lessons. You'll save yourself time creating successful and engaging lessons, making sure you address the key elements of curriculum design.

The 5E model, developed by Rodger Bybee, is a widely accepted instructional model used in the sciences and STEM/ STEAM curriculum design. Based on a constructivist approach, the 5Es—Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate—encourage student engagement and inquiry.

Catlin Tucker—Google Certified Innovator, bestselling author, international trainer, keynote speaker, and 2010 Teacher of the Year—writes and blogs extensively about blended learning, including this timely post titled, Tips for Designing an Online Lesson Using the 5 Es Instructional Model. Her videos are a great introduction to working with this approach.

Permission generously granted by Catlin Tucker to share her work.

Expand Your Personal Learning Network

Teachers and librarians are amazingly generous and are sharing their knowledge and insight on Facebook groups, in Twitter posts, on blogs and through listservs.

This is a great opportunity to connect with other educators who are facing the same challenges with this shift to online learning. Consider joining Twitter if you don't already have an account and find educators and organizations to follow. There are a number of Facebook groups devoted to educational technology and online learning.

Here are a few links to get you started - check back often as this list will be updated:

Key Points to Remember

By Tess Hardcastle, Kent School

  1. Think about your in-person class when developing online content, but acknowledge that you won’t be able to replicate that experience.
  2. Think about whether it makes more sense for your students to progress through material at the same time/rate (synchronous) or work at a pace that works with their schedule (asynchronous).
  3. Whatever you decide (synchronous or asynchronous) try to be present for your students approximately as much as you would be if you were teaching in-person. Email, timely feedback on assignments, and online “office hours” will be helpful.
  4. Convey your personality/warmth/humor/quirkiness to your students, whether in writing, or video, etc. This is especially important during a time of disruption when our presence can be reassuring/comforting for students.Use “student view” and related features so that you can experience content and materials from your student’s perspective (you can also join a colleague’s course on PowerSchool to get a better idea of how to use it effectively).
  5. Give your students opportunities to practice using the technology before holding them accountable for an assignment (i.e. an early homework could be a practice Google Hangout before a mandatory discussion).
  6. Create opportunities for students to interact with each other. They’ll be losing the social element of an in-person class.
  7. Consider the length of tasks and chunking material into smaller pieces than you would for an in-person class.
  8. Vary the media and ways you deliver content. Variety will help with student engagement and support students who learn differently; it will also keep your students motivated.
  9. Be aware of accessibility issues. Yes your students probably have wifi and laptops, but does your material also require them to have certain software already installed on their computers?


This Spark was created with resources generously shared by educators and librarians across the globe. Stay healthy and happy!

Created By
Nancy Florio


Photo Credits: StartupStockPhotos - "student typing keyboard" • Thought Catalog - "Taking notes with a pencil" • ejlindstrom - "coffee school homework" • © Can Stock Photo / ammentorp • © Can Stock Photo / deandrobot • © Can Stock Photo / 4774344sean • © Can Stock Photo / Esermulis