7 Tips for Educators
New To Distance Learning

The first confirmed case of coronavirus in the U.S. was reported only a few months ago, but the education landscape has already changed immensely. Schools were forced to close campuses with little warning, and teachers were sent scrambling as they had to figure out a way to move their courses online, often with little assistance or guidance. Today, the future remains uncertain as colleges weigh the decision to resume courses in the fall against the risk of a new outbreak. Even if schools do decide to reopen, students and faculty may be hesitant to return to packed classrooms and housing. Nobody knows for sure when we’ll be back in the classroom.

Here’s what we do know: distance learning is currently the norm, and whether or not it stays that way, it’s going to play a greater role in education in the post-COVID world. For many educators, this means a rapid expansion of their existing online offerings. For others, e-learning represents an entirely new venture. 

If you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed, you’re not alone. As a trusted leader in the world of distance learning, we wanted to offer advice on how to best manage your instruction as you continue navigating this new digital environment. Here are seven tips for educators new to distance learning.

a student works on their laptop, surrounded by notebooks and pensOutline clear objectives

Without the structure of a classroom setting, your students might struggle with feelings of isolation. It’s imperative that you do what you can to keep them engaged. One way to minimize the distance is to highlight key due dates and set clear learning objectives — for the course as a whole and for each individual assignment. This way, your students will always understand what is expected of them and won’t feel lost.

Start by identifying the goal of each lecture, exam, project, and discussion on your existing syllabus, and then reframe each assignment to fulfill its purpose in an online setting. For instance, say you had planned a mid-semester discussion about the competing views of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists at the Constitutional Convention. Would it work to have your students participate in an asynchronous discussion on an LMS discussion board? Or, would you prefer an active discussion over a videoconferencing service such as Zoom? 

Maybe neither of those options are ideal, and you’d want to set up shorter, one-on-one conversations with each student to assess their individual thinking on the topic. Perhaps you don’t envision online discussions working for your students at all, and you’d rather re-design the entire assignment as a brief essay. 

Online education offers a multitude of choices when it comes to lesson design. It’s up to you to assess the needs and abilities of your students and decide which avenue to take.

A student works at a laptop which reads "never stop learning"

Get creative with your resources

It’s hard to not feel a little left in the dust at the moment, as many educators have been told to transition to remote learning with little to no help. But there’s a silver lining to the open-endedness of that task: the sky (or, at least, the internet) is the limit. 

With online learning, you have the freedom to think beyond the textbook when designing your course, so feel free to spice up your syllabus however you see fit. You can supplement the course materials with a variety of outside resources, such as podcasts, TED Talks, online games, interactive quizzes, or even Pinterest boards

This is the time to get creative and discover effective teaching resources you might not have otherwise considered. Teachers are truly some of the most innovative people, and as University of North Florida professor Kally Malcolm-Bjorkland describes it, what instructors are tasked with right now is “crisis teaching.” Education during a pandemic is challenging for everyone involved, so make the most of it by thinking outside the box and creatively engaging your students.

a cup of steaming coffee sits next to a laptopCommunicate, communicate, communicate

This unexpected transition to online education will be frustrating for many students, and that frustration will only be exacerbated if they don’t have a direct line of communication with their instructor. When going over the course syllabus, be sure to identify a reliable means by which they can reach you with questions, concerns, or thoughts on the course material. This could be an email you check regularly, a communication app such as Slack or Whatsapp, or even a phone number they can text, if you’re comfortable giving out your personal number.

What’s most important is not that you always respond immediately, but rather that you’re transparent about when students can expect you to get back to them. It might not be realistic to promise that you’ll always text back right away. But as long as the student knows they can expect a response within 24 hours, they’ll feel that they have a reliable connection with their instructor and stay engaged in the course.

Since students won’t be able to meet with you in person, you might also consider holding virtual office hours. This could be on the phone or over a videoconferencing service such as Zoom, Google Meet, Cisco Webex, or Microsoft Teams. While email or texting would suffice for quick questions or clarifications, these office hours would provide students with an opportunity for more in-depth assistance.

an educator new to distance learning gives a lecture over Zoom

Provide regular feedback — and ask for it

In Michelle D. Miller’s article on rapid online transitions, the Northern Arizona University professor and author of “Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology” says that teachers in online settings should consider how they will provide students with opportunities for practice and constructive feedback.  

Maybe you’ll utilize in-text comments in Google docs to offer feedback on an essay draft, or maybe you’ll want to respond directly to students’ discussion board contributions. You might even find that the best way to offer feedback is through weekly one-on-one video chats with each of your students. Whatever the case, make sure you’re creating opportunities for your students to offer you feedback as well. You’re likely as new to this as they are, and if something you’re doing isn’t working, you’ll only find out if you open up the communication channels for your students to respond to your pedagogy. 

a notebook lies open next to a laptop

Utilize digital tools, but keep it simple

There’s an app for that. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of distance learning

Whether you’re looking for help with videoconferencing, classroom management, organization, lesson planning, content delivery, studying, screen sharing, or even mindfulness, you’re going to have a lot of digital resources to choose from. While these are all designed to make your course delivery simpler and more intuitive, the law of diminishing returns certainly applies. If you clutter your course with as many digital learning tools as you can find, you’re only going to make your students’ experience more confusing.  

Simplicity is key. Try to design assignments that have clear instructions and use just one or two resources. Additionally, be sure to keep all of those resources in a central location such as an LMS syllabus page or a dedicated class website. This way, your students never feel that they need to dig around aimlessly to find what they need. 

a stack of books sits on the floor next to a student's bedUse each other 

We might all be isolated, but we’re also all in this together. Teachers across the globe are working diligently to figure out effective e-learning strategies, and they’re eager to share what they’re learning. Don’t hesitate to use your fellow educators as a resource. When you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed, reach out to others to learn what’s working and what’s not. 

Let your students (and yourself) off the hook

As you’ve heard a million times over the last few months, these are unprecedented times. All of your students are new to this, and some likely have better digital access and experience than others. Don’t be disappointed when mistakes are inevitably made. 

You’re in this together, so if a student misses a due date or doesn’t have the resources to complete a certain assignment, work with them to develop an individualized plan. Having one’s established routine uprooted is stressful. Remember that understanding, flexibility, and kindness will go a long way.

And that goes for you, too. Try not to hold yourself to too high a standard, and when you mess up, make the most of it. Not only can you learn from your mistakes, but you can use them to model good learning behaviors for your students. Common Sense Media’s senior editor for learning resources, Christine Elgersma, elaborated on this in a recent interview with EdSurge:

“For teachers, it’s really important to let yourself off the hook a little bit. It’s not going to be perfect. And I think there are lessons within the lessons that can come with this whole experience. … When there are problems, we [can be] modeling problem solving. If there are glitches, we’re modeling perseverance. So I think there are a lot of ways that this experience can be instructive in ways we might not expect and might not be part of the set curriculum.”

a distance-learning workstation with laptop, textbooks, notes, and coffee

For more helpful resources on adapting to distance learning, visit our COVID-19 preparedness page

 

The Benefits of Online Learning:
How Remote Learning Can
Enhance One’s Education

Even before COVID-19 spread across the planet and forced the population into quarantine, online learning was growing in popularity. This was especially true for higher education institutions in the U.S., for whom distance-learning student enrollment had increased steadily over the past two decades. Now, after colleges and universities were forced to move online with just weeks’ notice, remote learning is becoming a major component of the way students learn.

As with any shift into a more technologically driven future, online learning has invited its fair share of skepticism. A recent op-ed in the New York Times, laments the loss of essential components of education such as “tutoring, individualized feedback, and mentoring.” (It should be noted here that many online platforms, such as the HOL Cloud, offer effective systems for individualized feedback and remediation.) 

a woman practices online learning because of coronavirus

To be sure, the author posits valid concerns about the significant challenges that can affect online learning, “such as spotty access to the internet or an unstable living environment.” But the notion that distance learning is inherently less effective than face-to-face instruction is unfounded. 

With that in mind, we wanted to highlight the ways in which remote learning can, in fact, enhance one’s education and better prepare them for their future. Here are just a few:

Greater Flexibility and Expanded Access

The most evident benefit of online learning — and the one most often touted by those who support it — is its ability to close the education gap. The population of students who could excel at and benefit from a higher education is much larger than the population of students who are physically, situationally, and financially able to attend strictly scheduled face-to-face classes on a college campus. 

Think about part-time students, single parents, students with a full-time job, and students who are financially independent, all of whom require the flexibility to work on their own time, at their own pace. Online learning opens up access to quality higher education for these non-traditional students. 

a woman takes advantage of the flexibility of online learning late at night

This was actually the impetus for Hands-On Labs being established. The company’s founders, Peter and Linda Jeschofnig, first had the idea for at-home lab kits when a blizzard hit their hometown of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, closing roads for a week and keeping their off-campus students from getting to class. The Jeschofnigs realized that the commute to campus could be a major roadblock for students in pursuit of a STEM education, so they developed at-home lab kits that would allow anyone to complete a lab course from the comfort of their own home.

But online learning surmounts more than just geographic restraints, as HOL has discovered through the creation of the HOL Cloud course platform and an extensive catalogue of digital lessons. These sorts of online learning tools open up a world of opportunity to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend or afford traditional college courses. No longer do they have to skip a family dinner to get to class, or deplete their savings on gas and campus fees. Given the freedom to schedule their learning around their life, as opposed to the other way around, distance-learning students can achieve a healthier, more fulfilling work-life-school balance.

A Diversity of Perspectives

Allowing more students into the classroom benefits more than just those students; it enriches the class itself. When only students from a particular background are able to enroll in a course, class discussions suffer from a limited variety of opinions and perspectives. On the other hand, welcoming a greater diversity of students into a class invites new worldviews into these discussions. It enriches the topics explored within the course and forces students to consider perspectives other than their own. 

a man and woman practice learn online

This understanding of diverse perspectives is essential to a student’s development. In addition to richer class discussions, diversity in the classroom promotes student growth and reflection, fosters a sense of empathy and cultural awareness, supports mindfulness and tolerance, and prepares students for the diversity of the modern workplace

One of the main goals of higher education is to prepare students for their future. In an increasingly global society, the cross-cultural understanding facilitated by a diverse classroom is absolutely critical.

Improved Time Management and Self-Motivation 

As any college student understands, knowing how to manage one’s time is a difficult, yet crucial, step along the path to success. This rings especially true for non-traditional students, who often have to juggle family duties and multiple jobs on top of their coursework. 

The flexibility afforded by online learning is a double-edged sword — to benefit from it, students must develop both the vision to craft an effective schedule and the discipline to hold themselves to it. If they do so, not only will it provide them with the tools they need to learn more effectively, it will give them an upper hand when entering the workforce as well.

Any veteran of distance learning will tell you that two of the most important skills for remote learners are staying organized and managing your time effectively. Honing these skills, in turn, also leads to greater self-motivation. In the distance-learning environment, the professor isn’t standing at the front of the classroom to encourage students to participate and remind them about the upcoming due dates; that responsibility falls on the students themselves. The online classroom teaches students one of the most important lessons they can learn: with any of their life’s endeavors, they’ll only get out of it as much as they put into it. 

Becoming Proactive About One’s Own Education

In a similar vein, the freedom and flexibility afforded by distance education encourages students to take ownership over their learning. This runs contrary to the common assumption by many traditional educators that students outside a face-to-face environment lack the structure needed to properly engage with the material.

Ocean County College professor Marc LaBella discovered this when he began teaching remote lab science courses using LabPaqs, the original incarnation of HOL’s lab kits

“LaBella has found that because of the flexibility and independence they offer, the LabPaqs actually increase student engagement. Instead of taking instruction from a professor at the front of a lecture hall, students in these online courses are forced to take ownership over their own learning. Without an instructor constantly watching over their shoulder, ready to answer any question at the raise of a hand, students must regularly solve problems on their own. That ability to think critically is a key component of a science student’s education.” (to read more of LaBella’s story, view and download our case study here.)

By assuming responsibility over their education, students also gain the ability to work through the course material at their own pace. Rather than relying on office hours to review past material with the professor, distance learners can pause and rewind lectures, flip back through old notes and lessons, and truly ensure that they’ve mastered the material before moving on to the next module. This added flexibility allows them to get the most out of their course.

a man raises his hand during a Zoom discussion

Improved Virtual Communication Skills 

Gone are the days of ubiquitous handwritten correspondence. From sending emails, to monitoring Slack channels, to hosting Zoom conferences, the modern workplace is dominated by virtual communication. And with companies continuing to streamline communication and project management through technology, the physical office is gradually becoming less relevant.

This trend toward a more remote workforce was occurring even before COVID hit and forced employees into their homes. Data from 2018 shows that 5 million Americans worked from home at least half the time, and regular work-from-home has increased 173 percent since 2005. The current pandemic has caused remote work to become necessary around the globe, and experts believe that will have a lasting impact on the way we work moving forward. 

Just as learning to use a pen once prepared students for communicating in the physical workplace, the digital learning tools students utilize in their online classrooms will help them succeed in an increasingly remote future. Additionally, in the process of becoming more technologically literate, students will develop the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate new trends and technologies and assess if they would be beneficial to their work. 

Virtual communication is the medium of the future, so it’s essential that students learn how to properly and effectively operate within it.

Conclusion: The Future of Online Learning

At the beginning, we said that face-to-face instruction is not inherently more effective than online education. That said, the opposite is true as well. The act of signing up for remote courses won’t automatically make a student a better learner. Online courses still require both student and instructor engagement in order to be effective. 

Susanna Loeb, the director of Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, noted this in a recent op-ed, saying, “just like in brick-and-mortar classrooms, online courses need a strong curriculum and strong pedagogical practices” in order to enable positive student outcomes. 

A woman graduates from higher ed

What is certain is that remote learning will continue to play a greater role in education, especially now that the coronavirus has demonstrated how necessary it is. It’s important that we continue to invest time and research into understanding how it can best benefit all students. 

As Loeb concluded, “Right now, virtual courses are allowing students to access lessons and exercises and interact with teachers in ways that would have been impossible if an epidemic had closed schools even a decade or two earlier.” Some people “may be skeptical of online learning, but it is also time to embrace and improve it.”

Teacher Appreciation Week: A Heartfelt Thank You To Those Who Teach

 

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

Teacher Appreciation Week 2020

Throughout the month of March, schools all around the world closed their doors. And as that happened, as students returned home wondering about the future of their education, teachers everywhere did exactly what teachers do. You got to work. You adapted. You thought to yourselves, how can I keep inspiring and educating my students? How can I keep meeting all of my students’ individual needs?

This came as no surprise. We know how tenacious teachers are in the face of adversity, how committed you are to your students. We know that as powerful as the HOL solution is, it doesn’t work without talented, compassionate educators at the helm. As we’ve said before, HOL provides a set of tools, but instructors are the ones wielding those tools and affecting meaningful change. We wouldn’t be here without you.

Teacher Appreciation Week comes at a pretty fitting time this year. We’ve all watched as educators around the world rose to this challenge, and many parents who are now tasked with homeschooling their kids have developed a newfound appreciation for what teachers do every day.

So, before you get back to tomorrow’s lesson plan, we’d just like to say thank you for all that you do. None of us would be here without you.

#ThankATeacher

 

Education During a Pandemic:
Insights from a
Hands-On Labs Insider

As we’ve mentioned throughout the pandemic, this is an unprecedented time in the world of online education. The spread of COVID-19 has forced higher-ed institutions to shift completely to a remote-learning model, and while many schools have set about expanding their existing online offerings, others are wading into this territory for the first time. It’s undoubtedly an unsettling time for students and educators alike, but many are already rising to the occasion and adapting to their new environment.

To learn more about this rapid transition, we wanted to share some thoughts from someone working directly with those who are shaping the future of education. Joe Schubert has been an Account Executive at Hands-On Labs for a year and a half, helping schools such as Moraine Valley Community College and Loyola University – Chicago develop and implement sophisticated online lab science offerings. Here’s what Joe had to say about the pandemic, student tenacity, and the new global education environment.

I recently read an article from USA Today that discusses how students are weary of online classes. The article, which is one of many recent stories I’ve seen that point in the direction of students avoiding online college courses this fall, said that students have “threatened to revolt if universities put another semester of classes online.” If you ask me, these stories are missing the full picture.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, there isn’t a certain time frame for when it will be safe to reopen college campuses. Over the last two months, I’ve spoken to dozens of professors at universities and community colleges from Boston to Los Angeles, and one common theme has emerged: no one is certain what will happen in the fall. These instructors are scrambling to prepare for the future without sacrificing the quality of their students’ education. 

And while this uncertainty is undoubtedly creating discomfort, I feel that these stories about “revolting” students are misrepresenting the current situation. What is certain is that students are proving their tenacity by adapting to the new circumstances in which they find themselves. 

The instructors that I’ve spoken with who were already running an online section of their courses have seen enrollment increase for their summer offerings. In fact, I’ve seen some sections of courses double in size heading into the summer semester. Students are already preparing for the role online courses will play in their ongoing education.

A laptop used for online learning

To be sure, there is no substitute for an on-campus experience, especially for students just out of high school. This rite of passage gives students the freedom to express themselves and the ability to start making adult decisions on their own. Going to college is one of the first steps in preparing students for the real world. 

But you can also look at online college as a step in that same direction. We send kids to institutions of higher learning to gain the skills and knowledge they will need throughout their careers. Our colleges and universities are there to educate the workforce. Preparing young adults for a career doesn’t always have to be done in a brick and mortar classroom. 

Transitioning college courses online represents an important step in getting these young adults ready for a career in today’s world. Distance-learning students must schedule their time to complete their assignments without having an instructor remind them in person. Rather than taking passive lecture notes, they’re forced to take responsibility for their own learning. This sense of independence will prove indispensable in future occupations, where supervisors will expect projects to be completed on time. 

The pandemic has accelerated this transition, but colleges have been slowly working toward online models for the past 20 years. In addition to a steady increase in online enrollment and course offerings, many Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Canvas and Blackboard, now keep track of grades, test scores, and assignments online. These web-based LMSes have given instructors the ability to conduct their courses effectively and efficiently. 

Colleges are not the only institutions that have been expanding their online environments. Businesses in general have been working toward this model as well. With innovations such as VPNs and Zoom meetings, the future workplace may end up being completely remote. The online learning environment is a useful tool to help students prepare for the future workforce. 

As an early student of online learning, I can attest that there can be some challenges when it comes to distance education. Yes, it will be an adjustment for students to shift to online courses, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, life itself is an adjustment. Maybe this type of learning will make students adapt more quickly to their changing environment. 

For more online education resources during the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 Preparedness page.

COVID-19: Hands-On Labs
Helps Higher Ed Institutions
Shift Labs Online

As the coronavirus continues to spread like wildfire around the globe, higher educational institutions have faced the difficult task of shifting their courses to remote learning quickly and efficiently. COVID-19-related campus closures have posed a particular problem for lab science instructors, who now have to coordinate their instruction without access to higher-ed lab facilities. During this time of crisis, Hands-On Labs has emerged as an industry leader, guiding hundreds of new schools as they transition their students and faculty into a remote-learning system. Click the link below to learn more about what HOL is doing to help these institutions take on this new challenge. 

A graphic of a red virus

EdSurge: COVID-19 Forces Science Labs Online and in Homes