Remote learning doesn’t have to be awful. Here’s what actually works

As more and more schools go remote, getting digital learning right is imperative. Teachers and remote learning experts share what they know works and what they’re planning for the coming school year.

Remote learning doesn’t have to be awful. Here’s what actually works
[Source images: Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images; HAKINMHAN/iStock]

This story is part of Fast Company‘s Reinventing Education package. As millions of students begin school during a deadly pandemic and global recession, we’re highlighting the ongoing efforts to keep children safe in the classroom, educate them remotely, and help their parents manage a new second shift. Click here to read the whole series.


In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Gina Ruffcorn spent about an hour wearing a fake mustache in front of her classroom.

Ruffcorn, who teaches 5th grade at West Harrison Community School in Iowa, realized early on that remote learning would have to be a bit more stimulating than typical classroom lessons. Mustache Day was among the many tricks she reached for.

“If you’re needing to engage kids in an online setting, you’re going to really have to go with that extra little piece that you might not have to do if they’re right in front of you,” she says.


That bit of advice applies to more than just visual gimmickry. As schools reluctantly return to remote learning this fall—or implement hybrid models where students spend some of their weekdays at home—they’re scrambling to avoid a repeat of the clumsy Zoom calls, messy curricula, and technological glitches that made the spring so draining. That means they’ll need to learn from teachers like Ruffcorn, who was a strong proponent of technology in the classroom for years before the pandemic began.

While there’s no magic solution that can replace in-person instruction—and no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every student and age group—remote learning overall doesn’t have to be a terrible substitute. Here’s what remote learning experts and grade school teachers say are the best ways to make it more tolerable in the fall.

Keep video calls short (and activities shorter)

If “Zoom fatigue” is a problem for parents, it’s an even bigger one for kids, who have shorter attention spans and plenty of distractions outside of the screen.


Erin Girard, a teacher for the live online class service Outschool who also instructs other teachers on how to use the platform, says schools should avoid the trap of trying to replicate the patterns of a physical classroom. Instead, individual video sessions shouldn’t last more than 30 minutes for children in second grade or younger, or more than an hour for middle schoolers. And within that timeframe, teachers should think about switching up their lessons or activities more frequently than they normally would. (Think three to five minutes per “mini lesson” for young kids, versus 10 to 15 minutes in the real world.)

“Kids aren’t used to sitting on a Zoom call for 30 minutes, and so there needs to be time where they go and do another activity, and maybe meet again,” she says.

Simplify the instructions

In lieu of keeping kids on video calls for hours, schools will have to give students lots of activities to complete on their own. Those might include quizzes in Kahoot, interactive lessons on Nearpod, video recordings through Flipgrid, learning activities on Seesaw, or offline assignments such as handwriting. The problem—as any parent who’s been buried under a list of assignment links knows—is that managing these activities can get overwhelming.


Aimee Copple, a second grade teacher in Edmond, Oklahoma, says her school is trying to make its instructions as simple as possible so that kids can follow them. Using Canvas, the school has created sections for each day of the week, all of which contain buttons that link directly to an activity for every subject. Teachers also provide audio instructions that students can listen to if they get stuck. While some teachers gripe about Canvas, and it crashed for one school in North Carolina minutes into the first day of classes, Copple says she likes the way her school has set it up.

“It’s good to give [students] a lot of information, but there has to be a middle ground between one button—you can only click here and go to this—and here’s 57 buttons that’ll take you to all the different places,” Copple says.

Check in often

When they are giving live instructions, teachers will have to do more than just lecture. Interaction is essential for keeping students engaged, and digital tools like Nearpod and Kahoot can help. By having students visit these websites side-by-side with videoconferencing services like Zoom—usually in a separate browser window or tab—teachers can inject polls, questions, and puzzles into their lessons.


[Screenshot: Nearpod]
“Think about your own experience as a student,” says Jennie Kristofferson, Nearpod’s chief academic officer. “When a teacher talked at you for 15 minutes and never checked in with you, what was that experience like? Tiresome. So what we want to do is make sure we have those intermittent check-in moments.”

While the idea of regular check-ins are hardly unique to online learning, digital tools do have some advantages. If teachers poll their class to see how they’re feeling, they might get responses from students who otherwise might be shy about speaking up in person. And if they quiz the class in the middle of a lesson, they can instantly see all the answers and adjust their teaching in real time.

“[We’re] using a lot of data to do formative assessment on the fly,” says Sean D’Arcy, Kahoot’s senior vice president of marketing. “A teacher can actually go through what the difficult questions were with the class to reteach or reinforce what was correct.”


Let students socialize

Remote learning is never going to replace every element of being in the classroom. Gina Ruffcorn, the 5th grade teacher in Iowa, notes that even something as simple as a dispute over shared pencils is the kind of teachable moment that online learning can’t replicate.

Still, there are tools teachers can use to help their students feel more connected. Nearpod, for instance, offers a feature called Collaborate Board that Kristofferson describes as “social media-like,” letting students answer teachers’ questions and “Like” each others’ comments. She also points to Microsoft’s Flipgrid as a way for students to make videos for one another in a moderated environment.

“Can it completely replace that physical interaction? Absolutely not, but I think there are things you can do,” she says.


[Screenshot: Kahoot]
Kahoot, meanwhile, argues that its quiz games are inherently social, as they encourage students to compete with one another. It’s also beta testing “study leagues” in which students can tackle quizzes together, and the company encourages teachers to have students create their own quizzes for one another.

“Being a social learning platform, we feel very strongly that this is as important as math,” Kahoot’s D’Arcy says.

Teach the tech, too

Whether they’re reopening in-person or not, schools would be wise to orient students—and their parents—for remote learning. Ruffcorn says she’ll be taking some time to teach basic computing concepts like copying, pasting, and screenshots to her students even though her district is planning to have all classes in person. Aimee Copple, the 2nd grade teacher in Oklahoma, says she’ll be demonstrating Canvas in the classroom so students know how to use it on the three days per week that they’re at home. The district will also provide parents with tutorials and troubleshooting steps.


You don’t want to shift where everything only works with distance learning.”

Jennie Kristofferson

“Just in case we have to go back to 100% online, I’ll feel better about it if I know that I’ve given my kids a solid basis for how to deal with a situation and what to expect,” Ruffcorn says.

Schools might also want to view digital tools as something they can use even after classrooms reopen. Companies like Kahoot, Nearpod, and Seesaw were pitching themselves to teachers long before the pandemic began and that’s not going to change after it’s over.

“You don’t want to shift where everything only works with distance learning,” Nearpod’s Kristofferson says. “That’s a lot of time, energy, and expense for something that can only be used for one use case.”


Lessons from higher ed

K-12 schools might also be able to draw some lessons from academia, which is also grappling with how to teach students remotely.

2U, a company that designs online education programs for universities, advocates for giving students a “sense of place” even if they’re not on campus, says Nate Greeno, 2U’s senior vice president of university relations. That might involve a cultural studies class that teaches students about the school’s history, or areas outside the classroom—a shared Slack channel, bulletin boards, or student-run Zoom sessions—where students can interact.

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“We’re very active in creating cocurricular learning spaces—so outside of the classroom, but within the ecosystem of the online campus,” he says.

2U is also a proponent of simulating as much of the classroom experience as possible in an asynchronous way. For example, instructors will record lectures for their students, but then break those lectures up with questions that students must answer to progress further, sort of like a taped version of the Socratic method. Instructors can then use the data from those sessions to inform the Zoom calls (or, if possible, in-person lessons) that they eventually give in real time.

“You’re getting this dialog that’s happening in the asynchronous environment, all in service of a very active live session,” Greeno says.


The same sort of transformation has to happen in K-12, otherwise you’ll have a mess there as well.”

Nate Greeno

Within those live classes, Greeno also suggests making extensive use of breakout sessions instead of just holding one big lecture. Teachers can then hop between sessions to see how students are interacting. While teachers might often turn to small groups in-person, they can be “a super-effective paradigm shift in a digital environment,” he says.

While some of these concepts might be harder to pull off in K-12, Greeno believes the same learning principles would apply to any age group. It’s not hard to imagine a taped lesson with interactive questions or frequent small group discussions translating well to grade school instruction.

“Our movement with institutions is really to help them get way beyond remote learning into quality digital learning,” he says. “And I think the same sort of transformation has to happen in K-12, otherwise you’ll have a mess there as well.”


Teachers teach, parents parent

One thing that probably won’t change from last spring: Parents are going to feel a lot of pressure to act like teachers themselves, doling out assignments and keeping their kids on task. Gina Ruffcorn says parents weren’t meant to be teachers, and encourages them not expect too much of themselves in what is clearly a difficult situation for everyone.

“The teachers will teach, I promise, in whatever format we need to. We will do it,” Ruffcorn says. “Just parent your kids, spend time with your kids, and be a little easier on yourself.”