Four Strategies for Effective Online Instruction


In 2015, I published 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? with ASCD. The central premise of the book was that some technologies were necessary while others were nice to have but not essential.

With schools closing everywhere and more instruction moving online, some of those “nice to have” tools have become necessary.

And yet a tool is still a tool. Its purpose, whether a hammer or a computer, does not fundamentally change even if its usefulness and effectiveness might. So now that we are teaching and learning from a distance, how might we now leverage those digital resources more effectively?

After giving this question some thought, I offer four strategies here to consider as you engage with your students in online spaces. These ideas are influenced by other thought-leaders along with my own experience teaching online graduate courses in curriculum and instructional leadership for three years.

1. Be clear about the learning processes and outcomes.

This is probably the most important strategy, so I’ll say it again and in a different way: you cannot be clear enough about what will be learned and how the course will facilitate this learning. This information is best delivered in a developmentally appropriate learning management system.

Clarity of processes and outcomes means:

  • Clear learning objectives, student-friendly and concise

  • A schedule of activities with due dates

  • Links to content that are accessible to all learners

  • Criteria for success for the performance tasks and projects

When I first started teaching online, the most frequent critique about my instruction was something like “the instructor wasn’t clear what he expected of me for the final project.”

So with each future offering of my course, I would clarify expectations. For example, I would post the objectives and required content to read/watch/listen to in multiple locations, such as the syllabus and the module’s landing page. Within each module (one week), I would have a suggested calendar of when to complete each part of the work, such as reading on Days 2-3 and written responses on Days 4-5.

What you can do for your PK-12 students: Reduce and clarify the language of your learning expectations as much as possible. You aren’t going to be there to read through the directions or ask for questions. If you think it would be helpful, record a two-minute video explanation of the assignment and post it for kids to watch multiple times. Screencasts of demonstration lessons are also very helpful.

2. Curate and create high-quality content.

Teaching and learning online is typically not as effective as in-person instruction. We cannot ensure students are paying attention or manage group conversations like we can in the physical classroom.

That means whatever we are posting for students to read/watch/listen to, it should capture our students’ hearts and minds. The content, whether discovered from someone else or developed by you, needs to be created with an audience in mind.

When I taught graduate courses online, I went back and forth between a textbook and open-education resources. I finally found a balance and offered both. The primary textbook was helpful in grounding our work and conversations; the additional articles and content I selected brought a new and sometimes contrary perspective. I also paid attention to diversity in whose work I was selecting and posting.

For creating original content, such as a recorded slidedeck or a screencast, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Ensure you are not infringing on copyright when sharing content from another source.

  • Keep video lectures (i.e. you talking to the students) between 1-3 minutes.

  • Keep slidedecks and screencasts between 3-6 minutes.

I found that if I went any longer in my lectures and demonstrations, most students didn’t watch them to the end. In the world of online learning, brevity is a virtue.

What you can do for your PK-12 students: With any complex texts you post and expect students to read/watch/listen to, consider accompanying the resources with a brief lecture and/or demonstration. This will differentiate your instruction for students’ varied learning preferences. Most computers have built in cameras to capture video lectures. Favorite applications for screencasting include Capto (for Mac), Screencastify and Screencast-o-matic.

3. Develop thought-provoking questions to guide learning.

When teaching online, my guiding and essential questions at the beginning of each module were noted and appreciated in student feedback surveys. “They helped give me a focus for what we should be learning for the week,” was a common comment. One example, “How can we lead from a distance?”, was the guiding question for my first module in the Director of Instruction course.

These questions should frame the learning at a conceptual level. They shouldn’t be easy to answer and can allow for multiple ways of responding. The questions also connect the standards and objectives with the actual tasks we ask students to engage in and complete.

For information and examples on how to organize modules or units around big questions and idea, check out the first chapter from Ensuring High Quality Curriculum by Angela di Michele Lalor:

I don’t think you have to develop many thought-provoking questions; just enough to capture the attention of your students and foster curiosity around the upcoming instruction.

What you can do for your PK-12 students: In your learning management system, create a discussion board for every module or unit you post. At the top of the board, pose the guiding/essential question. Then expect all your students to offer a response to the question that incorporates the content presented plus their own experiences and ideas. In addition, require that students respond to at least two classmates’ posts in a thoughtful and positive way by modeling it in the discussion board.

4. Be flexible with the “how” while tight about the “what” and the “why”.

When I first started teaching online I carried an assumption that, with the fluidity of information and interaction online, my instruction should match the environment. “Select any curriculum template you feel is best for your project” was one descriptor for my initial Curriculum Management and Development course assessment.

What I learned is students appreciate knowing specifically what they’re supposed to do. Online learning does not lend itself well to the give-and-take clarifying conversations we might find common in a physical classroom. This means providing common templates, protocols and ways to respond. The messiness of the Internet almost demands more structure for successful learning experiences online.

Our directions and examples should also be accompanied with the why for the work. Because students are losing some autonomy due to the competing need for structure, the bigger reasons for the learning experience become more important.

Keeping both structure and purpose tight does not remove all opportunities for student voice and choice. How students learn can be very flexible in online spaces. For example, I used to require all my students post an introductory video in Flipgrid. A few struggled with the tool. In my future classes, I simply posted a discussion board for introductions. Students could select any tool to record and post their videos introducing themselves to their classmates and me.

What you can do for your PK-12 students: Organize the course layout thoughtfully. Use a natural progression when posting each piece of content or a task. Also, keep a clean interface: avoid clutter and lots of sidebars. Make sure that the content or task is the focus. We are giving kids a gift when we structure the learning in a sensible way. They will be successful because they don’t have to look around and find what they are supposed to be learning. It will also save you from answering lots of emails.

Whether online, offline or a mix of both, effective learning experiences still rely on excellent teaching. The strategies shared here are applicable for most contexts. When all of this is over and we come back to our physical classrooms, I hope we have developed a new appreciation for the possibilities of online learning while still maintaining our core beliefs about effective instruction.