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Four Ways to Facilitate Virtual Learning if Schools Close

Four Ways to Facilitate Virtual Learning if Schools Close

Crisis Management  |  Virtual Learning

As the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak spreads, more school districts have been asking us about virtual learning. This is an important topic to consider as schools have begun closing their brick and mortar doors and turned to virtual learning. This is the second in a series of articles related to virtual learning that we will publish in the upcoming weeks.

Virtual learning is an educational experience or activity that is delivered through an online platform and can be accessed outside of the classroom. There are schools and organizations that have intentionally used virtual learning for years. This article will focus on virtual learning when it must be utilized in the face of an unplanned and extended school closure.

There are several ways that schools may consider using virtual learning to deliver lessons to students. The most important consideration for a school is existing capacity: What is the current level of technology use that teachers and students are familiar with? This is an especially important question when virtual learning must be implemented for the first time on a large scale as an unplanned replacement for normal school. Regardless of how virtual learning already exists for a school, there are three priorities schools should consider:

  • Professional development: Any mode of virtual learning will require ongoing support. District or school teams should prepare virtual professional development sessions that help teachers utilize different forms of virtual learning.
  • Communication: Schools and teachers should actively communicate when lessons are posted, assignments are graded, and additional opportunities for support are available, such as virtual office hours. Consider preparing a virtual master schedule that shows when lessons are posted, held, due, and when virtual office hours are held.
  • Exemplars and tools: Create templates for virtual lessons and share exemplars that other teachers can reference. School and district teams should frequently share best practices and examples of virtual learning amongst teacher teams.

There are four common ways schools manage virtual learning.

Lessons are on a Learning Management System (LMS)

Students access all lesson materials through an LMS and teachers post, monitor, and grade those lessons on the same LMS.

Ideal for...

  • Experience with an LMS: Teachers and students actively use a Learning Management System (LMS), like Canvas or Google Classroom, on a regular basis (at least once a week).
  • One-stop-shop: The school wants all lessons, materials, and assignments housed in a single location.
  • Rostering: Student accounts and class rosters have already been uploaded to the LMS.
  • District Support: A district team has experience supporting teachers and teams to use the LMS (e.g. previously held trainings, ready-to-share resources, etc.).

Avoid if...

  • New to LMS: Teachers and students have never used this LMS. There will be significant technical challenges if teachers and students try to access an LMS for the first time at home, without in-person support.
  • Access: A sizeable portion of students do not have reliable access to high-speed internet, preferably from a computer or laptop.
  • Teacher Capacity: A sizeable number of teachers do not have a basic level of computer proficiency or reliable access to high-speed internet.


  • Expectation-setting: If a school wants all teachers using one LMS, set the expectation as early as possible. Students and families might become confused if they have to log into different LMSs for different classes.
  • Uniformity: Encourage teachers to use the same formatting for every assignment to make them as easy to find and access for students as possible. For example, if the title of a problem-set is “Math Practice - 03.13.20” that should be the formatting every time there is a problem-set.
  • Keep it Simple: Lessons should be simple, consistent in format, and with clear directions that are easy to design for teachers, easy for students to successfully complete, and easy for families to support.


Lessons are on a digital document or slides

An entire lesson is on a document or slides that students access online. The document or slides include directions, resources, and links to any online materials students need to complete the lesson.

Ideal for...

  • Experience with digital tools: Teachers and students have accessed online lessons, activities, and/or instructional materials (e.g. instructional video, like Khan Academy; digital program, like Achieve 3000, etc.) at least once a month, ideally more.
  • Flexibility: Teachers can deliver lessons on a document, slide deck, or even as a website page. Every teacher can choose to publish a lesson in a way that best suits their strengths and their students’ needs.
  • Simplicity: Lessons can be structured as easy to follow directions, with all resources and online materials linked directly in those directions.
  • Existing resources: Resources that are already in digital format, such as texts that have been scanned as PDFs, can be easily linked to a lesson.

Avoid if...

  • New to digital tools: A significant number of teachers and students have never accessed online activities and/or instructional materials. 
  • Monitoring: There is no way to monitor which students access or download a lesson, which makes it harder for teachers to follow-up with students who fall behind.
  • Access: A sizable portion of students do not have reliable access to the internet on a WiFi capable device.
  • Teacher Capacity: A sizeable number of teachers do not have a basic level of computer proficiency or reliable access to the internet.


  • School- or district-maintained website: It would help if a single individual or team was in charge of the website from which students accessed lessons. This will streamline troubleshooting.
  • Uniformity: Encourage teachers to use the same formatting for every assignment to make them as easy to find and access for students as possible. For example, if the title of a lesson is “Dougherty-ELA-03.13.20”” that should be the formatting every time there is a problem-set.
  • Keep it Simple: Lessons should be simple, consistent in format, and with clear directions that are easy to design for teachers, easy for students to successfully complete, and easy for families to support.


Lessons include live or recorded video

Teachers facilitate part of a lesson through a live or recorded video. Students may join a video conference while the teacher leads a portion of the lesson. The video may also be pre-recorded and available to students asynchronously.

Ideal for...

  • Introduce or reinforce a skill: There is a skill that teachers want to introduce, reinforce, or model for students. This could be a new skill students have never practiced before or a skill teachers want to model. Live video conferencing provides students with the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Misconception: Students have a major misconception that the teacher wants to directly address and possibly take student questions.
  • Experience using the internet in class: Teachers already post lessons on an LMS or can link online instructional materials directly into a document or slides.
  • Access: Students and teachers have access to internet-capable devices to record and/or watch videos.

Avoid if...

  • At-home logistics: Live video conferences require students to have access to reliable internet, phone or computer access, and the ability to video chat at the same time. This can be a challenge for households that have more students than devices.
  • Existing online presence: If there is not a consistent location from which students access virtual learning lessons, there may be confusion about where and how to access live video conferences or recordings. 
  • Software and hardware: Teachers must be able to access the video conferencing platform (e.g. Zoom, Skype or Google Hangout) they intend on using. This requires a device capable of supporting this software that has a working camera and microphone. 


  • Post recordings: Any live video conference should be recorded so that teachers may use the video as a resource in the future and share it with students who were unable to attend the conference.
  • Record for family support: Live videos or recordings can provide guidance to both students and family members. A teacher may give directions to students and advice to families who can help students with a lesson. For example, a kindergarten teacher may record a video introducing a letter and ask family members to take specific actions to support their child in learning that letter.
  • Reference: Recordings of past videos can be used to support students who may be struggling with a previously taught concept. These videos can create an on-demand library of resources the teacher can use after the live recording.
  • Share: Encourage teachers to share videos with peers who teach the same subject. If one teacher records a lesson where they introduce algebraic equations, other teachers can use that same video with their students.


Lessons include online discussion groups and virtual office hours  

Teachers provide an online discussion group and/or virtual office hours as an additional support tool for students and possibly families.

Ideal for...

  • Virtual collaboration: Teachers looking for an opportunity to facilitate virtual collaboration can turn to online discussion groups and/or small group video conferences.
  • Students with additional needs: Students who may be below grade-level or need additional academic support will benefit from any additional form of academic support. Virtual learning creates a challenge for all students but particularly for those students who may already rely on additional teacher support.
  • Families: Discussion groups and virtual office hours do not need to be just for students. Families may be eager to support virtual learning from home, especially if an adult is also working remotely. Educators can provide tips, guidance, and answer questions through discussion groups, family-specific office hours, and even social media.
  • Peer collaboration: Moderated online discussion groups can facilitate peer support for virtual learning. Students are used to asking one another for help in person; online discussion groups can facilitate that practice virtually.

Avoid if...

  • Minimal student collaboration: If teachers do not regularly utilize collaboration in class and students are not used to working in small groups, virtual collaboration will likely be a challenge. The school can post lessons on a website or an LMS.
  • Unestablished norms: Students should be accustomed to in-class discussion and collaboration norms and expectations. Norms could include follow-up questions, stems, rubrics, or protocols. If these have not been used in the past, a virtual discussion could be challenging. 


  • Platform flexibility for office hours: Office hours can be held over video conferences, a messaging platform (e.g. Skype, text messaging), or even on the phone.
  • Moderation of discussion groups: Teachers monitor collaboration between students in class and should do the same in online discussion groups. Teachers should be active participants in online discussions to provide insight, advice, and remind students that they are monitoring these forums.
  • Communication: Discussion groups and office hours are only useful if students, and possibly families, know they exist. Consider creating a schedule of office hours so that students know when they can reach out to their teacher for support.


While a lot of the processes and supports necessary in a virtual learning environment mirror those of an in-person classroom, there are certainly needs which arise - or are exacerbated by - virtual learning. These best practices should help everyone, from school staff to students to families, more successfully navigate continued learning, should schools need to close.

If you are planning to begin virtual learning in the upcoming weeks - or would like to improve your existing virtual learning processes - join our upcoming free webinar on March 23, where we will share best practices and models for virtual learning.

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Do you already use virtual learning in your school, or are planning to incorporate virtual learning going forward? What are some best practices that you have implemented or are excited to try? Share with me on Twitter @noahdougherty.

About Noah Dougherty - Guest Author

Noah Dougherty is the CEO and Co-Founder of Relevant Learner. He taught secondary ELA and social studies for eight years before becoming an instructional coach and school leader. Noah has written curriculum for public districts, charter organizations, and for-profit companies. He also worked as a consultant, partnering with districts across the country on personalized learning; strategic planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.

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