Top 10 Lessons Learned in Transitioning to Distance Learning

Over the past 6 months, educational institutions have made a radical transformation to an online-only structure. The long-term consequences of this shift are still unknown, but several short-term findings show that for many students, online learning is not as engaging as in-person learning. A recent report from NPR found that 4 out of every 10 teens in online learning environments are not tuning into their online classes or not participating in online work.

As online schooling is expected to stick around for the near future, educators and administrators are looking for ways to make online learning more effective. Here is what we have learned about the transition to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Technology is Not a Silver Bullet

Many who are not worried about the transition believe that existing internet technologies can fill in any of the gaps left over from transitioning away from an in-person model of classroom instruction. No doubt, technologies like Zoom and Google Hangouts have features that greatly streamline many parts of the online instruction process such as recording lectures, sharing presentations/documents, and live collaboration.

However, technology is not a silver bullet and cannot be relied upon to facilitate every aspect of the online teaching experience. Part of the disconnect is that many existing technologies do not take into account how modes of learning are different in the online classroom. Leaving out this important fact while trying to plug the holes with technologies runs the risk of shoehorning online learning into a specific structure that may not be optimal for all students.

2. Experimentation Is Key

Moving to online learning requires restructuring lesson plans for an online environment. For example, assigning traditional worksheets may not work as well in an online environment, even if they are effective in a physical environment. Experimenting with new teaching strategies is a way to help restructure lessons to be more conducive. For example, in-room teaching assistants or breaking up lessons for physical movement breaks can be ways to change up the lesson structure for online instruction.

3. Online Classroom Etiquette

Not only teachers need to learn how to function in an online environment. Students too need to learn how to properly comport themselves while in the online classroom. For example, many students may not have familiarity with the technologies being used to facilitate lessons. Good digital habits include not speaking over other students and learning how to use the various features of their video software.

4. Student Home Life is Important

One other great challenge faced by online educators is how to tailor online learning to sync with students’ home environments. Learning about students’ home situations is a necessary part of understanding how to maximize engagement in online lessons. For example, many students may have taken on numerous home responsibilities that affect lesson participation. These kinds of insights can be used to tailor lesson plans to better fit students’ schedules and individual circumstances.

5. Go Beyond Lectures

Numerous studies indicate that online instruction is vastly more effective when the course moves beyond simple lectures and rote information memorization. These insights can be applied to current distance learning to maximize student outcomes. Two-way engagement protocols, in particular, are very effective at stimulating student engagement, ensuring that they get the most out of online lectures.

6. Family Input is Very Important

Parental activity has been found to be an important factor in online lesson engagement. For example, parents are more likely than their children to have Internet-compatible devices for lessons and they are more likely to keep these devices active and in operating order. Integrating parental input into lessons also can help children engage actively with lesson material. It is well known that when community and parents are intimately involved in a child’s education, they see better outcomes.

7. Equitable Access to Technology Is a Necessity

One of the biggest hurdles to adopting distance learning on a large scale is the inequitable distribution of learning materials necessary for online instruction. For example, children from families with lower socioeconomic standing are less likely to participate and engage in lessons. Much of the time, this is because poor families do not have the resources to ensure their child is attending classes (e.g. internet access, internet devices, etc.). Inequitable access to educational materials is a massive barrier that future distance learning efforts must address.

8. Student Wellbeing

The global pandemic has hit everyone hard, but no group more than children. In-person learning has traditionally served a function of socializing children with their peers. With the online model, this socialization aspect is noticeably absent. Many schools have taken it on themselves to assist with the mental wellbeing of students by hiring counselors and behavioral interventionists. A balance between protection and education is important for future distance learning efforts.

9.   Hybrid Models Have Potential

It is important that schools take a multi-pronged approach to student instruction. One pressing issue is whether schools should increase the amount of live synchronous instruction or asynchronous (pre=recorded lectures) instruction. Many districts realize that they cannot realistically expect students to have access to all the same technology at the same time. Many schools have been focusing on incorporating hybrid models of instruction which may involve alternative school days for groups of students.

10. Student Feedback Is Important

It is important to ask students for feedback on their online learning experiences. Older students, in particular, are in a better position to provide suggestions for how to streamline the online learning experience. Student feedback can help identify critical barriers to online instruction from the student perspective, one that could not be gained otherwise.


Online learning seems to be here to stay for the immediate future. It is important that educators and administrators take the reality of online distance learning seriously, and work to find ways to make the process more accessible and engaging for students. For many people, the switch to online instruction represents a seminal moment that will shift large scale public attitudes about education and must be handled responsibly and equitably.

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