Top 5 Tips for Teachers on Distance Learning and Remote Instruction

March 24, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak has upended education at every level, forcing teachers—many of whom have never taught an online course—to become overnight experts in remote instruction. These unprecedented times are unnerving, but Professor Martin Schedlbauer, Director of Online Faculty & Programs at Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences, says that teachers should cut themselves a little slack.

“Perhaps the greatest piece of advice I have to offer teachers today is to take things week by week and prioritize only what must be accomplished in the next 10 to 12 weeks,” says Professor Schedlbauer. “Developing an online course is a significant effort that can take upwards of three to six months. This is not what teachers are being asked to do; what must happen now is triage.”

By focusing on what is most important in the short-term and remaining flexible to make inevitable and necessary adjustments, Schedlbauer says that teachers will be able to better support students and their families moving forward. For educators new to online teaching or those looking to optimize their approach to remote instruction, Schedlbauer recommends the following:

1. Choose Teaching Tools & Technologies that Best Serve Your Students

Successfully moving a class online requires the right kind of technology. In terms of hardware, teachers should have a webcam and microphone at home, which come standard and built-in to most laptops. Some teachers choose to use a computer headset for hands-free instruction, which is also beneficial in terms of cancelling out background noise at home. In addition to these tools and a reliable high-speed internet connection, Professor Schedlbauer says that careful consideration should go into selecting software platforms used for course delivery. If one has not already been mandated by an instructor’s district or school, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and BlueJeans are common video-conferencing options—though not all will necessarily work for all students (e.g., mainland China does not have access to Google Hangouts). “Keep technical complexity to a minimum,” Schedlbauer says, “and avoid having students working with a patchwork of different platforms to do their schoolwork.” When possible, teachers should standardize tools across their departments or institutions to minimize learning friction and ensure that there are adequate support services for students when troubleshooting may be needed. For example, Google Classroom is an open Learning Management System that combines a virtual classroom with ways to distribute work, collect assignments, and post grades. Naturally, FERPA limitations must be considered.

2. Create Your “Virtual Classroom” in Real Life

While remote instruction comes with its own set of challenges, teachers are also grappling with how to work from home effectively with partners, children and pets at home too. If it’s possible, Professor Schedlbauer urges educators to set up a home office or any other kind of dedicated workspace to avoid distractions and focus on lesson planning and instruction. Teachers should also have conversations at home to outline work schedules and explain basic “do not disturb” rules. One option is to use a flag, light or some other signal to visually represent when class is in session. But, Schedlbauer says, “We need to be ready to accept that newborns will need attention, children will wander into the background of a lesson and a cat may scurry across a keyboard. Students don’t expect perfectly polished lessons, and in fact, research shows that they prefer personal and informal classes. Don’t worry about making it perfect; just worry about making it engaging.”

3. Set Clear Expectations & Communicate Consistently

Constant connectivity is a struggle for all workers, but especially so for teachers new to online instruction. When work-days and weekends begin to blend, Professor Schedlbauer reminds teachers that there is no need to be fully online and available 24/7. “My working hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and those hours are listed on every course syllabus I write and in my email signature. The burnout rate among teachers is high, and the best way to avoid that is by setting expectations at the outset about when you will and will not be available.” Especially for K-12 students, consistency is key. A regular morning greeting, dedicated chunks of lesson time (though shorter in duration than typical in-person classroom time) followed by check-ins to outline assignments at regular intervals will help ensure that students stay motivated and accountable for managing their workloads.

4. Setup Office Hours to Address Questions or Concerns

Few teachers were prepared for the abrupt transition to online learning that the coronavirus outbreak necessitated. Unfortunately, that means that many will have to address difficult questions and concerns from students and their families. While it is important to set reasonable boundaries in terms of availability, teachers need to create space in their schedules to address the potential issues that will arise. Parents of K-12 students want to support teachers in educating their children remotely but may not know how. In addition to consistent communication, Schedlbauer encourages teachers to set up standing office hours to have these discussions—either in a group forum or in 15-minute, one-on-one meetings—with scheduling apps like Waitwhile and YouCanBook.Me.

5. Create and Participate in a Community of Your Peers

“Having a community is absolutely critical as a teacher, whether you are used to teaching online or not,” says Professor Schedlbauer. “As educators we must accept that sometimes we are going to fail. In these unprecedented circumstances, teachers need to feel comfortable with failing fast, iterating more quickly and learning from their mistakes.” Schools and school districts can create support networks for sharing resources and best practices. There are also a host of online groups and resources, many of which are free-of-charge, that teachers should utilize for content (e.g., Khan Academy) rather than feeling the need to create all content from scratch. Districts and department heads should designate “online learning” subject matter experts among their faculty and staff to teach their peers, students and others about the various tools and technologies they’ll need to be using for the remainder of the year. Schedlbauer notes that a “virtual teachers’ lounge” can be a positive outlet for educators who can use these forums to get together and share experiences, best practices and details on what works well and what doesn’t.

Most importantly, in this time of uncertainty and upheaval, it’s important that teachers cut themselves—and their students—a little slack. There are students, and even teachers themselves, who may not have access to the tools or connectivity needed to ensure remote learning and instruction is seamless. Beyond these fundamental barriers, we’re living in a truly unprecedented time. Education at every level has never faced such adversity. It’s important, Schedlbauer notes, for teachers, students and parents to remember that they’re all in this together, and everyone has students’ best interests at heart. Teachers will also learn quickly, Schedlbauer says, and will soon become much more adept at using online education, online learning and remote instruction—so much so that they will likely blend them into their regular classrooms once they return to them.