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Online Instruction that Works: The environment is different, but the strategies still deliver

By August 23, 2011June 14th, 201626 Comments

Learning with computers isn’t what it used to be. Most of us knew them as a classroom tool; now, they are the classroom. A total of 1,500,000 K−12 students enrolled in online courses in 2009, almost double the number in 2006, according to the International Association for K−12 Online Learning. Alabama, Michigan, and Florida require online learning for students to graduate, and others, like Idaho and Utah, are considering similar changes. Students, parents, and teachers alike appear to be embracing online learning. In a fall 2011 EducationNext article, students report better engagement when learning is differentiated and accessible through multiple venues, and teachers often report better relationships with students and the ability to provide one-on-one guidance that face-to-face classrooms cannot afford (“The Highs and Lows of Virtual School: One Teacher’s View”).

But knowing how to instruct online effectively is not automatic. The first time I delivered professional development virtually, in spite of knowing better, I lectured more, used fewer multimedia resources, and did not provide ample time for participants to interact with one another. It seemed that all the lessons I had mastered in face-to-face instruction suddenly had to be relearned in an online environment. I didn’t have the physical cues (e.g., eye contact, facial expressions, off-task conversations) to help me adjust my lessons accordingly.

So I went back to the nine research-based strategies of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) that I know so well and realized that, tweaked for virtual application, they still provide the framework I need for effective instruction. They reminded me to do the following in an online classroom:

  • State explicit objectives for each session and make them accessible to all.
  • Provide feedback to each participant and allow them opportunities to give their peers feedback and self-reflect.
  • Offer multiple avenues to help participants develop understanding of new concepts.
  • Provide ample opportunities for participants to interact in groups.
  • Provide opportunities for participants to apply what they learned in real-world situations.

6a010536aec25c970b015437bd01db970cTime and again, we have received feedback from readers and workshop participants that the CITW strategies provide clarity and purpose for how to create an environment conducive to learning and how to scaffold student learning from initial understanding to deep knowledge (see figure below)—whether they’re teaching science or social studies, in an urban or rural setting, or in an ELL or mainstream classroom. Though the delivery method of online learning is different, we have every reason to believe the CITW strategies will deliver for teachers in virtual classrooms like they do for teachers everywhere who want to be the most effective they can be.

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is an educational technology consultant at McREL

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Roberson says:

    I have been very interested in online instruction, however, I am not completely sold on the idea. Many of my concerns are the same as the missing physical cues mentioned. I believe these are very important cues for teachers to know how to guide their instruction. Maybe my interest lies in how my teachers can provide extra help to students via online instruction. But how can I implement this in an elementary school, especially when 1/2 of the teachers aren’t “fluent” with technology and/or don’t believe in doing anything “extra” if they don’t get paid for it?

  • Evelyn J. Louis says:

    Utilizing strategies will help to keep students highly engaged with content assigned.

  • Stacy Price says:

    Online learning is definitely different. I have gotten two masters on line. One needs to train themselves in how it is formatted and that learning is taking place even though one is not making personal contact.

  • theresa kallstrom says:

    When the leader of a school makes new learning exciting, teachers who usually aren’t interested in doing anything extra will get hooked into looking into new possibilities. It has been my experience that teachers who are curious will take professional development without being paid when they feel that the training is worthwhile. The school leader needs to find a way to motivate, encourage, and appreciate staff who go the extra mile. It is catching and soon everyone will want to be on board.

  • Brett says:

    This is absolutely the future of education. Also, it allows multiple opportunities for students to learn at their own pace and ensure a mastery of the objective. Keep in mind, it is the teachers who are holding back technology in the classroom, whether it is fear or laziness. Students have grown up with this technology and they embrace it. Not only do they expect this technology, they expect it to be individualized for their needs while also demonstrating the use of this knowledge through application. It is indeed a very exciting time to be a part of education.

  • Claudia Stanko-Bedell says:

    Individualized on-line instruction is definitely the wave of the future. I have begun to use it with Compass Learning where every student in special education is working individually on different objectives based upon a pre-test that they take in a specific area of instruction. I found it difficult to monitor each child’s progress. Some special education students were simply guessing and not really participating fully. Some enjoyed the graphics and didn’t understand the instruction.

  • i think i find working online more productive because it lessens everybody stress and people are more concerned with results.

  • Rehana Kazi says:

    Online instructions brings many issues to mind. The hands on experience is not there. Also, the social interaction between people is not experienced. I feel students learn better my interacting, talking, sharing and discussing.

  • I think that online instruction has its place. I don’t think that it should replace traditional instruction. It can be used to enhance traditional instruction. Because we live in a high tech world , this method of teaching and learning would be relevant and engaging for the students.

  • Gabriela says:

    I agree that students have grown up with technology. However, delivering an online class is totatlly different than face to face. As a math teacher, I have access to different math programs where students practice at their own pace toward a master level, but I need to be able to reach all of my students depending their learning styles. Some of them are not good enough by sitting in front of a computer; they need hands-on-activities to reinforce their knowledge.
    Keeping them motivated is essential for their success.

  • The future of learning is the digital learning. It is flexible, economical and students can have some control over time for learning.
    Right now it has got some barriers such as not enough well trained instructors and technology to replace the physical feel of the classroom, but soon it will be available.

  • nia lovell says:

    This article helped me think about how to “teach” in a tech environment and that you don’t have those external cues that we are so used to determine delivery of the lesson

  • glenda says:

    I am interested in online learning, however, how do we address the fact that the online aspect takes away the social interaction that is also a component of learning? Is there a formula for the amount of time spent in face-to-face learning vs. online learning?

  • Michelle Gross says:

    I love this segment: “Internet filters are essential, but they should not inhibit real-time learning. Trust the teachers to block/unblock resources under the oversight of the school/district technical staff/leadership. Sanction misbehaving individuals rather than taking access away from the masses.” SO TRUE!!!! I would appreciate not having to find a tech administrator to put in a password in order for me to view sites or upgrade my computer. I will be passing this on.

  • Marci Boatwright says:

    As we consider next year’s move to a block schedule, our teachers need to rethink their teaching. Reviewing the 9 strategies is very important as we do staff development around 90 periods as opposed to 45 minute periods

  • Pauline Kossis says:

    I have used technology quite extensively as a tool in teaching. My first attempts to incorporate technology outside of the classroom as an instructional tool was with the use of wikis. This was met with mixed reactions from the students. Nonetheless, I still continued using it. I have also tried, podcasts, and the the traditional email after school hours for problems that student encountered as a tool similar to using a chat line. I would like to take it another level. I would like to utilise other strategies ‘to get’ the students into using technology more often.

  • Charm says:

    I think that online learning has great potential and possibilities for students to progress at their individual pace, but how to set it up so that every student is able to start at their level and remain engaged – the mind boggles

  • Magdi Ghobrial says:

    Online instructions give learners control on what they learn and when they learn. It offers learners anytime/anywhere access to instructions and is very flexible.

  • David Copping says:

    As a media teacher – I am constantly using new media technology in the practical aspects of my teaching and am always exploring new software and new ways of using them. But I tend to change somewhat, (subconsiously?? – I don’t know) when we get to theory material. All of a sudden,technology seems to dissappear – and its back to “old school” teaching. I am getting better at it but it’s interesting to see how we(me included) go back to the way our own teachers taught us. – as discussed in Jane Pollck’s “Imrpoving student learning one teacher at a time”
    I must admit that I do find it hard to rethink my teaching to incorporate ICT in non practical aspects of teaching.
    I think that primarliy it’s because of time and practice. I learnt my use of Media based software through a Masters program over 4 years – and so 10 years on from that – I find it really easy and automatic to use. However, my expose to ICT in terms of teaching in the classroom is more recent and I tend to try to fit in my learning of this where I can. With the daily demands of being a teacher – it is difficult to both learn and then try new ways of teaching with ICT.
    We’ve started a Classroom Instruction that Works study group at our school and this has been helpful in being able to sit with 10 other staff members for an hour a fortnight – but the process is so slow. I’m sure we all want more time to learn – if only teaching (as in our Department of education) allowed us more time to actually improve our pedagogy

  • Tyler says:

    Are there specific statics that show the effectiveness of online learning over a traditional classroom. I think it is really hard to replace collaboration and working together for students in the classroom with an online environment. I know there is some technology out there such as google plus or something else, but many of these technologies are not available to schools just yet. Technology is driving our society right now and it is important for students to become fluent in it, but until schools have the infrastructure/technology to allow it, it makes online learning a lot harder. Are there specific technologies out there that would allow this online classroom?

  • Anderson says:

    I can see the main advantage of online education is that it utilizes 21st century skills. However, I do see some challenges as well such as motivating the students who can only be motivated by the teacher directly engaging them via personal communication. At our district we have also had many technology problems which deters teachers from trying to use them more. I think a variety of teaching tools including technology and using technology are important to have in a teaching repertoire but none should be used exclusively.

  • The online instructions give learners control on what and when they learn. It is flexible offering students access to instruction anywhere and anytime. But it requests a great will and discipline from the student.

  • Sherri Clemens says:

    Online learning is the perfect environment for personalized learning, but as you stated, it is important to “tweak” how we deliver our instruction online. Setting clear objections is essential to a successful online environment. When I have worked on facilitating online environments, I have found that it is very important to build relationships between participants early on in the process, which then helps to support rich discussions throughout the course. In an environment where you don’t see each other face to face, this can be difficult, but will help build comfort levels so that conversations can happen more naturally.

  • Richard Jones says:

    I think the use of technology can enhance and enrich learning and the learning environment…I don’t see technology replacing classrooms…rather technology to facilitate collaboration, engage learning and be a regular part of our classrooms.

  • Kathleen says:

    I have just commenced professional development on online instruction. The area that is of particular interest is the issue of feedback. How can peer feedback be undertaken using the instructional model.

  • Ray Croft says:

    Being new to online teaching processes I am interested in the area of gaining feedback through group discussion.I see this as an advantage when as a group we can be face to face with the information on screen at the same time.

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