Emergency teaching online: 7 steps to get started

This post is part 2 on emergency learning online during the coronavirus pandemic. The first post focused on platforms and content, while this one focuses on preparing teachers and learners, instruction, and assessment.

April 15, 2020 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
7 minutes read
4th grade student Thandiwe, 10, using a computer at school, Zimbabwe.
4th grade student Thandiwe, 10, using a computer at school, Zimbabwe.
GPE/Carine Durand

In the giant life plot twist that is the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers and teacher educators have found themselves teaching online. This post focuses offers some key suggestions and tools to help.

1 - Design for online

The exhortation to “put your class online” sounds simple enough, but of course makes no sense. How can you take the rich array of complex cognitive, affective and behavioral interactions that is face-to-face teaching and learning and suddenly transform it into an online course? You can't.

What you can do, though, is design your course for this new online medium to provide learners with continued education under these extraordinary circumstances. Some activities won't be possible, and some will thrive in an online medium (for example, students are often more reflective online and more willing to communicate). Taking a week or two to plan your new online class will result in fewer revisions later during the course.

As you do “offline,” design learning outcomes and communicate them clearly to your online learners. Map out detailed instructional activities and assessment tasks that help learners attain these outcomes. As much as possible, design “universally”—activities that can be done offline or on, alone or with someone else, and with low bandwidth.

Create activities that integrate content, that are as learner-centered as possible, that are feasible, and that have clear directions and due dates. Figure out what students will learn from you, from content, from activities and from each other.

2 - Treat your course like a pilot

One silver lining of the black cloud of COVID-19 is that everything is low stakes right now so you can feel free to experiment, fail and revise your course (You should do this anyway). Ask your students for their feedback and suggestions—this invests them in the course and lowers the stakes for them and you (Read here how to pilot an online course).

3 - Prepare instructors

Teaching online is not easier than teaching face-to-face. In many ways, it is far more time-consuming and complex, as I wrote here a few years ago. Online instructors need to learn how to navigate the technology and foster communication, collaboration and interaction among learners at a distance. They need to learn online facilitation skills and how to use telecommunication tools in support of instructional methodologies and assessment.

There are a number of options for learning how to teach online. Both the Global Online Academy and EDC's EdTech Leaders Online provide online professional development in teaching online and designing online courses (for a fee). The Organization of American States is offering an online course on teaching in virtual classrooms with financial aid for educators in its Spanish-speaking member countries. If you can't afford any of these options, take a free online course, and study what the instructor does and doesn't do.

4 - Prepare learners

As many are discovering the hard way, our students need preparation and guidance to successfully learn online. If you haven't yet started online instruction (or even if you have), make sure to provide learners with an orientation to online learning generally, the course specifically, and their roles as an online learner.

Orient them on navigating the learning management system (LMS) or web-conferencing system, uploading and downloading assignments, file management, participating in a discussion forum, and how to reach out for help. Above all, online learners, especially novices, will need structured support developing self-regulation strategies, time management skills, and understanding conventions of appropriate online communication.

5 - Focus on good instruction

There are numerous issues around online learning that impact instruction: whether the course is taught in real time or not, what technology is used—for example, teaching via videoconferencing only is very different from teaching through an LMS—and the educational outcomes of the online learning program.

However, remember that it is all about good teaching. Your role is exactly as it is in a face-to-face classroom—guiding, informing, directing, facilitating, coaching, counseling and empathizing. The challenge now is doing it through technology and with minimal planning.

In online courses, just as you do in class, you will focus on:

  • Management/organization: Setting expectations and ground rules; developing specific and attainable learning outcomes for each online unit of study; managing the flow and pace of learning; differentiating instruction—letting more advanced learners move on while tutoring those who are falling behind.
  • Community building: Learning has a strong social-emotional component. Learners will need each other, and you, especially now, so it's important to get to know them and help them get to know each other. Taking 5 minutes at the beginning of each online session so students can have fun and get to know each other through icebreakers can do much to build camaraderie. At the beginning of the course, have pairs of learners interview each other via phone and present their classmates in an online videoconference. If using an LMS, create a forum for non-academic topics. Organize the class into smaller learning teams of 4 students. In every module, design an activity where students must collaborate in order to complete the task. This camaraderie, collegiality and sense of community will increase learner engagement in and persistence with the course.
  • Communication: Ongoing communication is the lubricant for a meaningful online experience. As often as you can, given teaching workload, communicate frequently with the whole class, with online learning teams and with individuals, and design activities such that learners must communicate with each other. Hold online office hours and chats at various days and times during the week; foster rich online discussions where students interact with each other's ideas and points of view; and identify a backup communication channel outside the course itself so we can reach our students and they can reach each other (WhatsApp, SMS, phone numbers).
  • Instructional strategies: Though it may not be nearly as rich and natural, most of the instruction we do face-to-face, we can also do online. Essentially, in teaching online, focus on two areas:
    1. Instructional variety. As in a face-to-face class, vary your online instruction depending on the particular learning outcomes of an activity. Balance synchronous and asynchronous activities; group vs. solo activities; and the amount of different types of instruction, such as:
      • Direct instruction: Transmitting knowledge about concepts, skills, and procedures via demonstrations, lectures, screencasts, or online presentation
      • Cognitive models of learning where students learn by engaging in a structured manner with content, a topic, a problem. Examples include inductive reasoning, open-ended questioning, teaching via analogy, concept mapping techniques, problem solving.
      • Social models of learning: Collaborative instructional methods—jigsaw approaches; reciprocal teaching; discussions and debates; peer tutoring. It can be as simple as having learners collaborate on a Google Doc or partner together to complete a Choice Board (see below for an example).
At home learning choice board
  1. Focus on “high yield” instructional approaches (for more information, see John Hattie’s work here). Such approaches—such as direct instruction, teaching note taking and study skills, spaced practice, and teaching metacognitive skills—demonstrably lead to improved learning outcomes. The figure below lists Marzano et al’s instruction “that works.”
Classroom instruction that works

6 - Reduce your assessment footprint

Given the very imperfect conditions in which people find themselves teaching and learning online, and the difficulty of developing fair, transparent, reliable and valid assessments even in the best of circumstances, many online courses have radically reduced assessments and eliminated grading altogether (except for pass/fail).

You may still want (or have) to do some assessment, but it’s important to ask questions first: Why am I assessing? Am I assessing to figure out what my learners know before teaching a concept? For accountability—to make sure they’ve done the reading? To assure mastery so they can move on to the next module? Knowing why you are assessing will help you determine whether you should assess, and if so, which form of assessment to use. This table presents options for types of assessment and the questions they answer.

Types of assessments

Here also, technology can help. Most LMSs (like Canvas) come with built-in assessment tools. Closed-response assessments can be automatically scored and results sent to learners. Test items can be added to your LMS so you can adapt testing for learners. If you already use rubrics, and are not using an LMS, you can add a Chrome extension, like Orange Slice, to automate scoring with rubrics and communicate results to students. You can make assessment fun, too, through game-like assessment tools such as, Kahoot and Flippity.

More important than grades right now is feedback to learners. Again, technology can help—peer assessment tools like Peergrade (excellent but fee-based) and Kaizena, a free voice-feedback tool, can make feedback easier for you as an online instructor and more personalized for your learners.

7 - Practice patience, not perfection

I am often accused of this myself, so my colleagues will know that the Apocalypse has arrived when they read this last piece of advice: Do not strive for perfection!

Do the best you can under these extremely stressful circumstances. Yes, the technology can be frustrating; no, your students really aren't the digital natives we thought they were, but be patient with yourself and your students; and have fun with the new technology tools you'll learn. And enjoy the ride.

You'll experience serendipity—talents you never knew you possessed; online connections with students you'd never otherwise have in a crowded classroom; and get glimpses of the goodness and grace of students and their families who are doing their best in a most stressful and unprecedented time.

Welcome to the world of online learning! And wash your hands...


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Thank you Mary for your insightful posts. Although I fully agree that teaching online is essentially the same as teaching in a traditional classroom, but in many instances it`s assumed that transposing the traditional classroom to the online setting will do the trick. It`s completely different actually.

In reply to by Amina Yekhlef

Hi to you both. Two quick clarifications:

1. Amina: Online teaching and F2F teaching are different (Sorry if that was not clear). What is SIMILAR is that both have to be about good teaching. The technology is not the pedagogy.

2. Lisa: I'm sorry to say that I lack experience in working with kids with or teachers of special needs. These populations are being left by the wayside right now. I think you'll find the resources generally useful, but probably not for your specific group of students.

Thank you again for reading and taking the time to comment. Stay well.


Thank you Mary for sharing such a timely article, chock full of great resources as we all navigate this new territory in teaching. I am looking forward to analyzing how this can be used when teaching children with multiple disabilities and visual impairment. Thank you again and stay well!

Test comment to check if Mary receives a notification at her email address. She should. Thanks

Very interesting and Informative. Please share if you also have Online material for orienting Teachers for using Universal Design of Learning for online up to K-12 courses for Children Disability in special and inclusive settings.

In reply to by Sudesh Mukhopadhyay

Hi Sudesh, I do not. Off the top of my head, I would suggest two resources. One is CAST (where David Rose helped develop the concept of UDL): http://castprofessionallearning.org/

The other resource might be International Society for Technology in Education. Here is an immediate resource, but I'm guessing they have more: https://www.iste.org/explore/Toolbox/30%20-tools-for-diverse-learners

All the best,


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