Underlying Messages and Myths about Online Learning

Barbara Brown and Michele Jacobsen

There are many underlying messages about online learning that we have been noting in the communications and decisions related to school re-entry plans. We thought it might be helpful to provide some trustworthy information and research citations to help counter some of these myths:


  • Myth#1: Online learning is less effective than in-person learning
  • Myth #2: Online learning implies less interaction than in-person
  • Myth #3: More time should be spent on synchronous activities in online learning


Myth#1: Online learning is less effective than in-person learning

Online learning designs have been proven to be effective for learning. In fact, research occurring during the pandemic demonstrated that even during a crisis-response and rapid transition to remote teaching, this mode of learning online can be effective for a diverse range of learners. The promise and possibilities for robust online learning designs increase when instructors have ample lead time to collaborate and design digital learning plans and strategies for their students.


  • According to Donovan et al. (2019), blended and hybrid learning have been proven to be an important part of Canadian post-secondary education prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Online learning is accepted (e.g., online credentials are as respected as face-to-face credentials)
    • Demonstrated Student Satisfaction (e.g., Students are as satisfied with online courses as they are with face-to-face course)
    • Online learning designs often promote innovations in teaching
  • Barbour et al. (2019) indicated that approximately 300,000 K-12 students in Canada were engaged in distance and/or online learning in 2018-19. In March 2020, educators and students across Canada pivoted from in-person classrooms to educating over 5 million students remotely in less than two weeks.
  • During the pandemic, researchers shared many examples of effective teaching, technology and teacher education during the pandemic (Ferding et al., 2020). Some key findings that help support the notion that even a rapid transition to online can be effective:
    • 50 – research shows eLearning presents challenges for parents, teachers and administrators, argues for field placements online, professional development for teachers, and additional research is needed for a thoughtful digital learning plan
    • 67 – a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities, collaborative tools, can be supportive for students with diverse learning need and can provide equitable access when approaches are grounded in patience and flexibility
    • 78 – classes that were using technologies pre-COVID found it a seamless transition to fully online and using the same technologies
    • 94 – social interactions are important and this can be achieved online
    • 132 – relationships and professional collaboration can be achieved online


Myth #2: Online learning implies less interaction than in-person

Some presume there is less interaction in online courses when compared to in-class, face-to-face teaching and learning (Watts, 2016). However, it has been proven that interactivity, engagement and strong social and community presence can be fostered in online courses for students and instructors (Garrison, 2017; Young & Bruce, 2011). Contemporary learning technologies enable teachers and learners to connect, collaborate and communicate effectively in diverse ways using an intentional blend of “live” (synchronous) and teacher or self-directed (asynchronous) learning designs (Jacobsen, et al., 2013; Tucker, 2020). For example, a teacher can collect, curate and assign relevant podcasts, videos, and textual resources to be accessed and viewed by learners prior to a real-time or live modelling session the teacher leads with the entire class. Known as flipped instruction, this approach to blending asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences and opportunities is an effective pedagogical approach teachers are using to design online learning experiences that are highly interactive (Mazur, et al., 2015).


Myth #3: More time should be spent on synchronous activities in online classes

  • Both self-directed asynchronous learning tasks and activities, and scheduled synchronous activities and interactions, are important for learning in online courses.
  • Asynchronous activities provide students with time to reflect and think before interacting with their peers in discussion groups. Students can view multi-media educational resources at their own pace with accessibility options. These are important elements of active and engaged learning in online courses (Lee & Brett, 2015; Watts, 2016)
  • Synchronous activities, such seminars, webinars and conversations with instructors, peers and expert guest speakers, are also important for learning in online courses (Martin et al., 2017; Watts, 2016).
  • Live interaction matters but relying on too many synchronous activities can promote inequities for those unable to connect/attend scheduled events (Banna et al., 2015)
  • An appropriate range and blend of asynchronous and synchronous activities using communication applications for collaborative knowledge building (Brown et al., 2013; Brown & Eaton, 2020; Watts, 2016) are ideal with flexibility for individual student needs, circumstances, and access to reliable technology.




Banna, J., Grace Lin, M., Stewart, M., & Fialkowski, M. (2015). Interaction matters: Strategies to promote engaged learning in online introductory nutrition course. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11(2), 249-261.


Barbour, M., & LaBonte, R. (2019). State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada.



Brown, B. & Eaton, S. E. (2020). Using a community of inquiry lens to examine synchronous online discussions in graduate courses (Chapter 10). In L. Wilton, & Brett C. (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Online Discussion-Based Teaching Methods (pp. 229-262), IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-7998-3292-8


Brown, B., Eaton, S. E., Jacobsen, M., & Roy, S. (2013). Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(3). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no3/brown_0913.htm


Donovan, T., Bates, T., Seaman, J., Mayer, D., Martel, E., Paul, R., . . . Poulin, R. (2019). Tracking online and distance education in Canadian universities and colleges: 2018. Canadian National Survey of Online and Distance Education, Public Report. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. https://onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca/


Ferding, R. E., Baumgartner, E., Hartshorne, R., Kaplan-Rakowski, R., & Mouza, C. (2020), Teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Stories from the field. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). https://www.learntechlib.org/p/216903/


Garrison, D. R. (2017). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice (3rd ed.). Routledge.


Jacobsen, M., Brown, B., & Lambert, D. (2013). Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature. Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. November, 80 pages. URL:  http://hdl.handle.net/1880/52244


Lee, K. & Brett, C. (2015). Dialogic understanding of teachers’ online transformative learning: A qualitative case study of teacher discussions in a graduate-level online course. Teaching and Teacher Education, 46, 72-83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2014.11.001


Martin, F., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., & Budhrani, K. (2017). Systematic review of two decades (1995 to 2014) of research on synchronous online learning. American Journal of Distance Education, 31(1), 3-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2017.1264807


Mazur, A. D., Brown, B., & Jacobsen, M. (2015). Learning designs using flipped classroom instruction. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 41(2), 1-26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.21432/T2PG7P


Tucker, C. (2020). Asynchronous vs. Synchronous: How to Design for Each Type of Learning. https://catlintucker.com/2020/08/asynchronous-vs-synchronous/


Watts, L. (2016). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in distance learning: a review of the literature. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 23–32. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1142962


Young, S., & Bruce, M. A. (2011). Classroom community and student engagement in online courses. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(2). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no2/young_0611.htm



This co-authored blog post has been cross published by both authors; please access Dr. Michele Jacobsen’s post here:


Back to School: In-Person or Online?

Today I was interviewed by Angela Kokott on 770 CHQR Global News Radio and discussed back to school for Fall 2020. Here’s my reflections about today’s discussion and some suggestions to help parents  prepare for a new school.

Going back to school will not look like it did last year or the year before. Many families are faced with making a difficult decision about the mode of schooling to select for Fall 2020. Making a decision is difficult with limited information and so many unknowns.

  • What will school look like if we choose to go back to school in-person and in the building?
  • What will school like if we select online learning?

Each option will be different from any past experiences. Learning in the classroom will have many health restrictions and this will change the ways students will be grouped and will move and interact throughout their day. Parents will need to consider back-up plans for days when a child has an elevated temperature or sniffles. There will need to be plans for when a child or adult has a positive COVID-19 test result. A typical day at school will look and feel different.

Online learning in the Spring 2020 was a crisis response and was not a model of what quality online learning can be when it is planned and intentional. Families might wonder if online learning is a good option for their family. Families will need to consider if they have supports in place to accommodate online learning? Some of these supports might include, a workspace for the child, adequate technology, adult supervision as well as other specialized supports to accommodate individual learning needs. Parents might wonder if online learning might involve excessive screen time and live webinar style sessions with the teacher and the class. How might this impact Internet access at home if sharing connections or technology with siblings or parents also working from home? How will students interact with peers? Will the teacher assign group work or will all the work be independent and self-directed? How will online teachers accommodate students and families when they are not feeling well? Will the school provide curb-side pick-up service for text books and other school-issued resources or will they deliver to the home? Can parents volunteer and help in online classes? There are so many questions.

Parents could use more information about what to expect with each option. It would be great to have an orientation or video-tour to help parents learn more about what a typical day might look like if choosing in-person classes and how families might prepare for periods of school closure.

It would also be great to have a video tour of a typical day in the online environment to reassure parents that class sizes will remain manageable in online, screen time will not be excessive, that there will be a balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning, and that students will be working closely with peers and developing relationships with their teachers and classmates.

From a research perspective, I can reassure parents that online can be just as effective as in-person learning. Online credentials are as respected as face-to-face credentials (Donovan et al., 2019). Online learning can be highly interactive and you can develop strong relationships online (Garrison, 2017; Young & Bruce, 2011). Online learning is best with a range of activities that are whole group and all together as well as activities that can be done independently or collaboratively in small groups (Brown et al., 2013; Brown & Eaton, 2020).


Brown, B. & Eaton, S. E. (2020). Using a community of inquiry lens to examine synchronous online discussions in graduate courses (Chapter 10). In L. Wilton, & Brett C. (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Online Discussion-Based Teaching Methods (pp. 229-262), IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-7998-3292-8

Brown, B., Eaton, S. E., Jacobsen, M., & Roy, S. (2013). Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(3). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no3/brown_0913.htm

Donovan, T., Bates, T., Seaman, J., Mayer, D., Martel, E., Paul, R., . . . Poulin, R. (2019). Tracking online and distance education in Canadian universities and colleges: 2018. Canadian National Survey of Online and Distance Education, Public Report. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. https://onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca/

Garrison, D. R. (2017). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Young, S., & Bruce, M. A. (2011). Classroom community and student engagement in online courses. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(2). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no2/young_0611.htm

Using Zoom to Create a Weekly Video Message for Students

I like to send out messages to my students at the start of the week to describe the assignments for the week and provide any other important messages and reminders.

Here’s a summary of my steps:

  1. First, I create a script and decide what I plan to discuss.
  2. Next, I select visuals that can support my points. If I’m discussing a reading, then I open website in a new tab in web browser. Likewise, if I’m using my own visuals or slides, then I have those ready and open on my desktop.
  3. Once I have all the text and visuals ready and open on my desktop, I start Zoom. I open a new meeting, but I don’t invite anyone else. I’m the only participant in the meeting.
  4. I turn on my video and start recording. I usually start my video for the first part of my video message so I can wave to my students as part of the introduction. After saying hello, I generally turn off my video. This keeps the file size a bit smaller.
  5. I pause the recording at any point when I need a break to move between visuals. Once I have the visual in place, I resume recording and continue with the video. I repeat this process as many times as needed. I also find it helpful to pause the recording when I need to slow down and take a breath.
  6. Once I’m finished the message, I stop the recording and end the meeting.
  7. Ending the Zoom meeting will then render the video. The output will be in audio (audio_only.m4a) and video format (zoom.mp4). Another format is also offered (playback.m3u) – for single entry playlists. If my presentation incorporated visuals, then I select the video output (mp4) to share with students as a screencast. If my presentation did not have visuals, then I select the audio output (m4a) and share with my students as a podcast.
  8. I use the learning management system provided by my school to share the file with my students. I can post a news item for students and add my video message. I can also send out a note via email and provide the link to the message as well as a copy of my script. Some students may prefer to review the script and the video. The script also allows students to check over any words they may not have understood. The video can be watched more than one time if needed and provides a personalized way of communicating with students regularly.
  9. My final tips for creating a weekly video message for students is to aim for “one-take production.” I wrote about how I use one-take productions to provide students with video feedback. Similarly, I advocate for one-take productions when creating weekly video messages. This means, I usually record the video one time and I don’t worry about stumbling over words or any background noises, or other interruptions. It shouldn’t take hours to create a video message. Be yourself, don’t worry about creating a polished or theatre ready production, and most importantly have fun!

Neutral Chair for Online Oral Defense

I served as a neutral chair for an online doctoral defense recently and thought it might be helpful to share my experience. This may be helpful to others who serve as neutral chairs or for graduate students or examiners who are wondering about the process for an online oral defense. I also want to note that this may not be the process for all examining committees, but this may provide some ideas.


I connected to the meeting room (using Zoom) about 15 minutes prior to the start of the exam. When I arrived, the student and their supervisor were already in the virtual room and having a conversation. There was also a graduate program administrator who was there to make sure everyone could connect properly, and the student could share a slide presentation. Next, we discussed what would happen during the deliberation part of the exam and decided the student would go into a breakout room and then return to the main room after the deliberations. We tested this out to make sure the student could easily move to and from the breakout room. By this time all the examiners were present, and we were ready to begin the exam. The graduate program administrator logged out of the session and provided me with a contact number for any issues during the exam. I also provided my contact number to everyone in the event of any connectivity issues.


Example of an Oral Exam Sequence:

  1. Description of Process for Exam – I described the sequence of events that would take place during the exam (e.g., introductions, student presentation, two rounds of questioning, followed by a third optional round and then our deliberations).
  2. Introductions – I called on each person, one-at-a-time to provide an introduction. Each of the examiners, the student, and myself (neutral chair) provided a brief introduction with name and role. This was a good opportunity to make sure all examiners and students were turning their microphones on/ off properly. I also intentionally made sure the student was not the last one to provide an introduction as I wanted to give the student a break between providing the introduction and then moving the presentation.
  3. Student Presentation – The student started by providing a presentation up to 15 min. in length. The student shared the presentation screen so we could all see the slides. I asked the examiners to mute their mic during the presentation and with the option to turn off their video as well.
  4. First Round of Questioning – Following the presentation, we started the first round of questioning. Each examiner, starting with the most external first, asked a question. The students had up to 10 min. to respond to the question and during that time frame the examiner could also ask follow-up questions. During the questioning I asked the examiner asking the question and student to leave their video ON. However, during the questioning, I suggested the other examiners could turn OFF their video. This way, the student could focus on looking at one person on the screen instead of a gallery when answering the questions. I also indicated that I would turn my camera back ON closer to the 10 min. point as a visual cue, so the examiner would know it’s time to wrap up their questioning for this round and reserve additional questions for the next round. This visual cue seemed to work quite well and kept the exam timeline on track.
  5. Break – after the first round of questioning, we took a five-minute break. I asked all the examiners and student to mute their microphone and turn off their video. We agreed on the return time. I asked everyone to turn ON their camera to indicate they were ready to start the second round.
  6. Second Round of Questioning – We repeated the same process as the first round of questioning. Once this round was complete, I offered the examiners an opportunity to ask any additional questions. I asked the examiners to let me know if they had any further questions so I could allocate the remaining time appropriately for the third round.
  7. Deliberation – After the rounds of question were complete, I explained that I would open the breakout room for the student. I explained to everyone that we would have deliberations and when we finish, there would be a message in the breakout room indicating the room would be closing. I set the breakout room to provide a 15 second time for transition back to the main room.  When the student was ready and understood what would be happening, I opened the breakout room. The student then moved into the room. Visually, I could see the student was now in the room and only the examiners and myself (neutral chair) remained in the main room. During the deliberations, the examiners turned ON their videos and microphone. I explained the voting process and how the examiners could privately send me their examination results. At the conclusion and when all the examiners were ready, I explained the student would be returning in about 15 seconds.
  8. Closing – The student returned back to the main room and all the examiners turned on their Videos/microphones and provided commentary and feedback. Once this was complete, I thanked everyone and closed the meeting room.



Students Provide Teachers with Valuable Feedback

There is generally a formal process for gathering student ratings of instruction at the end of a course. However, as an instructor I do not receive this feedback until months after the course is complete and it is too late to make any changes. Student feedback is valuable while the course is underway, so I ask students for their feedback at the mid-point of the course. I have used various methods to gather feedback, such as:


Invitation for Mid-Point Feedback

  1. Email request – invite students to send me an email with suggestions for improvement that can be implemented for the prior to the end of the course.


  1. Anonymous Online Form/Questionnaire – invite students to rate different aspects of their course work (e.g., access to relevant resources, timely formative feedback, opportunities for asking questions, peer feedback loops, synchronous activities, asynchronous activities, etc.); and respond to open-ended questions with their suggestions for improvement.


This is an example of an invitation to provide mid-course feedback:

“I would like to invite you to provide me with mid-course feedback to help me make improvements during the remainder of the course.  I created a brief questionnaire that is anonymous.  I welcome constructive and anonymous feedback on achieving my instructional goals in this course. Let me know if there are areas that I can improve before the end of the course. Also add any comments about areas of strength, so I know what to make sure I continue to do to support your learning.”


  1. Drop-in Session – invite students to attend an informal synchronous session to provide verbal feedback about the course individually or with small groups.


Synthesize the Feedback

The important part about asking for feedback is to synthesize and use the feedback. Provide students with a few days or week to provide you with feedback, so you can consolidate the responses and generate a synthesis. Then, share the synthesis with all of the students. Here’s some examples of ways you can share a synthesis of the responses received:


  1. Word cloud – this is a great way to capture the most frequent words used for responses. Example of word cloud representing challenges with technology enhanced learning:

(This visual was also provided for the chapter –  “Designing Group Work in Blended Learning Environments” Brown & Vaughan, 2018 – http://www.drbarbbrown.com/2018/07/06/designing-group-work-in-blended-learning-environments/).


  1. Summary with Themes and quotes – capture common themes and offer some sample quotes to help illustrate the feedback provided.


This is an example of summary posted for students to review (could also be sent via email):

Thank you to those students who provided mid-course feedback!  I put the feedback together and thought I would share the aggregate responses and my action items. 

My action plan (top 3) based on your feedback:

  • I tried to extend the class time for working on units and minimized other activities over this past week. This will continue over the next couple of weeks.
  • I’m also planning to implement more formal group check-in events. 
  • As I work with the instructor team over the next year, we will continue to review and refine the readings selected for this course and support materials.

Sample of positive comments I appreciated:

  • The time and effort you have given to this class in order to maintain a safe and caring classroom environment is very much appreciated!
  • I have loved this course so far. It has brought light some very important issues that I love exploring as a group. Overall, Thank you for your care and dedication to our learning
  • The support for our group projects has been great and instructional time has felt meaningful and relevant towards our final projects, which is great as there is a lot of work to be done in such a short amount of time.

Thank you again for taking time to provide your feedback and to help make improvements!


Another example of synthesis:

I would like to thank you for providing me with mid-course feedback and would like to share my synthesis of the feedback with you.  The comments provided me with ideas about things I should continue to do and also ideas for improvement.  I appreciate all of your input!  I will start with the positive aspects:

  1. Feedback is valued.  Responses indicated the feedback and weekly messages provide guidance. This is something I will continue to provide and plan to provide each group with feedback about the cases analysis to help as you move forward with LT#2.
  2. Organization and pace is just right.  Responses indicated the course is well organized including the structure, content and pacing.

Areas for improvement:

  1. Discussion threads could be more organized. I added a discussion thread to each of your studio groups to help with weeks 8, 9 and 10.  If your group would like additional threads, please do not hesitate to contact me and I can add as needed. 
  2. Weekly check-in via online sessions suggested.  If your group would like to meet more often, let me know and I can set up a virtual space for your group.  You may notice that two groups already requested this and have a virtual room set-up for their use at any time during the course.  Also, if you wish to meet with me or feel a weekly check-in with me would be helpful, I can also meet with you in my virtual office at a time convenient for you.  Instead of keeping office hours, I find it easier for students to arrange a specific time with me.  Often, I can also meet in the evening or weekend when students are also available.  

How are you gathering feedback from your students?

School-at-Home…Two weeks later

Over the past couple of weeks dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, we have experienced both high and low points and a range of energy levels and emotions in our home.  Some of the low points included clearing out desks and lockers at school and realizing this may go on for longer than we originally expected. Discussing the new reality that we are at home now and there will be no playdates or inviting friends over during this time. Cancelling extracurricular activities, lessons, sport events, family events all at once has certainly been difficult.  Some of the high points included receiving messages from teachers and surprise messages from friends, gifts left at the doorstep and planning a virtual birthday party. Getting into somewhat of a rhythm for accomplishing schoolwork and engaging in activities such as dance lessons or piano lessons online has been positive. Connecting with family and friends online has also been an important part of the day for everyone but I also noticed the kids seek off-screen family time.  We look forward to cooking and eating dinner together.  This simple pleasure seemed like such a luxury only two weeks ago and is now part of our daily routine.  After dinner we play some games and I was even surprised to hear the kids preferred playing a board game instead of a video game since they already spent so much time online.


Here’s some further thoughts about learning-at-home and parent suggestions:

What’s a realistic home learning routine? Should we try to duplicate the school routine, or is the home routine a different thing?

Routines may look different and not the same for all families. Consider what might work best for your child and family.  For example, your teen may benefit from sleeping in and rising a bit later. I’m certain mine has grown in height over the past couple of weeks with some extra sleep.  I don’t think it’s necessary to duplicate the school routine at home and parents do not need to feel they are replacing the teacher at home.  Schools have been working hard to put together resources and supports for students at home.  Use the resources that work best you and your family. Also, take the time needed to rest and come to terms with what is happening.  Last week was also spring break for many students in Calgary and they are now starting to receive messages and instructions from their teachers and schools.


For some students, home learning is going to demand a higher than normal level of self-discipline. How do parents support their kids in getting their work done without falling into a pattern of nagging?


Have a conversation with children and make a plan together for what works best for you and your family.  Find a rhythm for balancing learning and family time.  We all need to adjust to a different working pattern then what we had before.  The reality is that children are not going to be able to sit and do work all day long.  Similarly, adults may not be able to work full 8-hour days from home.  There needs to be some flexibility and understanding from employers for parents working at home and likewise there needs to be some flexibility for children and learning time at home.  I also think it’s important parents remain as advocates for their children and if the work is too much for your child, then communicate with the teacher and together find ways to best support your child.


The Alberta mandated assignment time will work out to only an hour or 2 hours per weekday for elementary and junior high kids and three hours per week per course for high schoolers. How can parents support students doing their own self-directed learning to occupy the rest of the day?


Parents can support their children by helping to prioritize learning.  For example, working with your child to set up a work space. Let the child set up the work space.  Maybe it will be the same place they normally do homework or maybe it’s a different space.  Maybe it’s a shared space or moving space.  Have your child create a schedule.  Some children prefer to work on one task and for an extended time, while others may prefer to work on tasks for shorter periods of time.  Even young children can help make a schedule and can let you know what they would like their day to look like. Discuss how your child would like you to check-in.  For some this might be regular check-ins throughout the day or maybe one check in later on in the day.  This is also dependent on the age of your child.  Staying home and taking care of a young child is a full-time job.  Be kind to yourself and don’t expect to continue working at your normal pace for your full-time job while at home and also taking care of a toddler.  In regards to learning, a goal I learned from one of my child’s teachers was to be sure children are happy and learning.  Learning can be informal and can be connected to activities you are already doing around the house.


How important is it to draw a line between school time and play time?

I think families need to determine a routine and schedule that works best in their home. I don’t think there’s one single right way to do this.  The important part is to make sure there is play time and lots of time for breaks. Learning will go on through informal learning opportunities provided at home and formal learning suggestions provided by the teacher and the school.  This is an unprecedented time and will be forever remembered by our children.  Inspired by a twitter post I saw recently, we had a conversation with the kids imagining what our future selves would remember about this time period in future.  For my children, I want them to remember how much closer we became as a family, how we had family meals together and played board games in the evening, how we went for walks together, built puzzles, baked cookies, invented new smoothie flavors and even planned a virtual birthday party together. What will your future self and your child’s future self say about this time period?


A big part of school is the social part– how can students feel connected to their teachers and classmates when everyone is at home? 


I have been teaching online classes for the past 8 years and at first I was skeptical about developing relationships and connecting with students in an online environment as I had previously done in a classroom.  What I soon realized is that connections are possible in both physical and online spaces. Teachers may send out a quick video clip to students to provide a personal message.  Younger and older students appreciate seeing and hearing their teacher even briefly.  My child’s teacher sent a video clip the other day from inside her car.  She said it was the only quiet spot she could record a message.  My daughter loved the video.  Another teacher I know posted a Tik Tok video he created where he was lip syncing a song and doing some dance moves.  Teachers may send messages to students using tech systems they have in place for communications and sharing information.  I know some schools are phoning kids to make connections.


Student-to-student connections were already happening outside of school.  For example, in a recent study with 9-to-11 year olds, students reported using social media regularly outside of school to keep connected with their friends.  Have a conversation with your child to find out how they are keeping connected with friends.  It is important to keep connected and let your friends know you are thinking about them. Even though we need to be physically distant, it’s important to keep connected socially with friends and family.

School Closure – Tips for Parents

Schools are closing world-wide affecting millions of students due to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. You may be wondering how to help your child continue their learning at home and also prioritize health and well-being as a family during this difficult time.

Teachers are experts in designing learning on a daily basis while keeping the individual needs of your child at the forefront for teaching and learning. Keep in mind that teachers may not have expertise in online learning, so it is not realistic to expect an immediate transition to a perfect online learning environment. Teaching online requires intentional instructional design that takes extensive time and expertise. Online learning also requires the readiness of the learner. So, let’s be kind and generous to all those working hard behind the scenes to make it all happen, including the teachers and technical folks that I know are working around the clock to make sure the systems can support increased online activity. Let’s be kind to ourselves and our children and be realistic and flexible about learning during this chaotic time.

Take time to stay tuned to changing conditions and events in your community.  Review the communications provided by the teacher, school, and district for directions on how to best support your child with their learning. Talk to other parents and find out how you can support and be supported by your community and networks. Take time to rest.  Kids may need time to talk about what is happening and may need some down time. Don’t feel pressured to turn your home into a home-school overnight.

You might be wondering, what remote learning techniques might be used by schools? Teachers, schools and districts are working tirelessly to plan and will likely use the communication tools they already have in place.  It could be as simple as sending out a weekly email to a class and providing direction on some key items students can focus on for the week. Some teachers may provide learning packets for students or assign readings or questions from texts.  Teachers might create brief video clips so the children can see and hear their voice. An emerging approach is flipped learning where teachers assign out-of-class activities, such as digitally-prepared lectures, videos or resources for students. Teachers who are familiar with and may already use a flipped classroom approach, may provide links to videos or other digital resources for students to help students continue learning while at home.

Communications from school-to-home will likely include applications the school already has in place (email, blogs, school website, etc.). Many schools are using applications such as Google Classroom, Desire2Learn Brightspace, Moodle and other programs to post assignments, grades and communicate with students.  They will likely continue to use the tools that students have access to and login information. For example, many schools have software applications, often referred to as learning management systems.  They may continue to use these.  In these systems, teachers can post messages and instructions for all students.  Documents can be posted to provide reading or activities for students to accompany instructions. The students may already be accustomed to these systems to check assignments and instructions from the teacher when away from school due to illness, vacation, sports, etc.  Parents may already be familiar with using these learning systems to check children’s grades and review teacher updates.  Many of these systems have capabilities such as discussion forums where the students and teacher can keep connected and have a text-based discussion in a secure-space.  Students can hand in assignments using a dropbox and teachers can grade and return assignments to students fully online. It is important to consider how screen time will be balanced with other types of activities.

Here’s some tips:

Set goals with children.

Perhaps, we can learn from international schools that have plans in place and guidelines for parents for transitioning from classroom to distance learning. I am working with many graduate students who have already transitioned to K-12 distance learning and have been sharing and leading the way for schools across the globe over the past few months.  For instance, the International school of Brussels recommends students read, communicate and engage in authentic experiences while continuing to be physically active. This sounds like a reasonable goal. As a parent, you can help by setting daily goals and discussing the daily routine. In Twitter, I noticed many educators posting sample schedules that could be followed at home. Consistently, all of the schedules have ample time for play, creativity and breaks.


Try to maintain a routine.

Discuss the routine with your child. Try to maintain other week-day routines (bed-time, reading, etc.), take breaks, physical activity is important.  Think of it similar to project management – set age-appropriate and realistic goals with your child (daily, weekly, plan check-ins with children). School hours might normally be from 8:30-3:30 or somewhere in that time frame. At school, different types of activities are planned through the day, so at home you may not follow the exact hours. Maybe your teen would benefit from sleeping in and starting a bit later. Designing a personal schedule may be of interest to some children.


Create a learning space with your child.

Set-up a work space for your child.  This might be the same place children already use for homework or may need to be different. Ask yourself – is this space in an open area and Internet-accessible that can be monitored and is it comfortable for doing work for longer durations. It also needs to be a quiet space. It’s important to set-up a routine and learning space that works best for your family. When I’m teaching online, my family knows that the door closed means I’m online teaching or meeting with students and should not be disturbed. My family has become accustomed to keeping down the volume during these times and limiting other intensive use of Internet.  This has taken some time to get into a good routine that works for our family, so may take some time for you to figure out a plan for your family especially if you have multiple school-aged children.


Discuss the communication plan with your child.

Find out what the communication plan is for communicating with teachers and peers. It’s possible teachers could be overwhelmed in responding to parent and students questions.  You might recommend your child assembles a list of questions and reach out to peers for help, then review the list of questions with you or older sibling first before sending the questions to the teacher.


Discuss responsible online activity.

It may be tempting for children to immerse themselves in games, social media or other activities they typically engage in at home during the weekend or evenings. With more time at home, it may be tempting to dedicate too much time to screen time. Plan for time to allow children to connect with friends (online, keep social distance) and enjoy game-time or other activities they normally engage in outside of school hours at-a-distance. Discuss how much screen time might be too much screen time. A good question to consider might be – How will your child self-monitor their online activity and balance leisure online activity with online learning work and physical activity?


When working on school assignments, it is likely your child may be accessing online resources for assignments, so remind children about the importance of writing ideas in their own words and avoid simple copy/paste.  When using other sources, it’s important to note the source and provide proper attribution. Remind children to focus on cyber kindness and if sending out messages it’s a good idea to have it checked by someone else in the family to make sure the message will be received as intended. Ask children to consider how their messages and actions may be promoting or limiting health and well-being for others in your family or their friend group, and school.


Balance screen time with physical activity.

Balance both learning activities and activities of interest. It’s okay to build a snow fort (since there’s still snow in Calgary!), it’s okay to paint, and it’s okay to take time to sing and dance. Take breaks, drink water, eat healthy snacks, balance your schedule, and avoid excess screen time. Children may also need time for solitude – sitting alone in the quiet.


Check-in with your child. 

Whether you are at home with your child or on the job, it is important to check-in regularly and monitor how they are doing. I also encourage you to be kind to yourself and your family. You might be worried that your child will fall behind or may not learn sufficiently to keep progressing when they return to school. All students are out of school and may need some review when they return to school. I can assure you that your child will keep growing and will keep learning. Check in each day by having your child journal, set goals for 3 things they will accomplish each day, and at the end of the day reflect on their learning and remember to make time for gratitude.


Be mindful of children’s worries.

It might be exciting for the first few days when school closes, but it might also cause worry for children. Take time to discuss any worries.  Talk to your child about the virus. If your child is really interested in current events and wants to learn more, then build this into their schedule and take time to have a discussion with your child. It may not be a good idea to have the TV on and news channel continually reporting on COVID-19 updates playing in the background while your child is trying to do their school work. This would be distracting and also may increase tensions around the uncertainties of this pandemic. Dependent on the age of your child, you might sit down and watch the news together at a set time and have a conversation about the events and talk about continuing to practice good personal health habits.


Reach out to family and community for support.

Help each other.  I always say we are better together and we are stronger together.  Reach out to others, there might be a neighbour that might be able to help out.  Some help with check-ins could also come from phone calls or face-time with grandparents or other relatives throughout the day. Find what works for you and your family. You don’t have to do this by yourself, reach out, and ask other parents for suggestions.


Other questions you might have:

 What do I do if my child runs out of school work?

Brainstorm ideas about their passions and have them design their own project.  This could be a time to explore an area of interest or passion. If they are interested in learning more about another country, maybe they would like to create a travel brochure.  Perhaps, they are interested in learning more about dinosaurs, cars, trains, etc.  They could create an infographic to summarize key ideas that everyone should know about their passion topic. They could create a survey and gather data by asking a few questions to their friends. They could prepare a graph or chart summarizing their analysis. Facetime with a grandparent and practice another language. Go on a virtual field trip and tour museums and other places around the world. Mix-it up with off-line activities too. Encourage your child to maintain a reflective journal, do some cooking, recreate cupcake wars, be creative, gather materials around the house, assemble a 1000-piece puzzle together, build lego, play board games, sew, read a novel or poetry out loud). There are many open educational resources, read, write, color, have fun!  For example, Scholastic Canadahttps://classroommagazines.scholastic.com/support/learnathome.html?linkId=84326309


How do I help my child with anxiety about being at home and the uncertainties around us?

Reach out to your community supports.  This might be a good question for the teacher, school counsellor, they will provide you with supports that can be accessed through the school and district or other services. This may also be a good question for health providers in your area.  I know we want to be cautious with the types of questions we ask our family doctors or other health providers at this time.  However, if needed, please seek support from health professionals.


Will I need to oversee the “homework”?

Don’t treat any work assigned by the teacher or school as work that you need to oversee, correct or do for your child.  I know parents feel pressured to help children with their homework but it’s not intended to be parent-work. Be supportive and help children find ways to seek support from their peers, their teachers or online resources when having difficulties. Communicate with your child and help them express what they need help.


With more time online, I’m worried my child will not be responsible and may get into trouble other engage in activity that I can normally monitor outside of school time (cyberbullying, unauthorized app download/purchases, sexting, etc.)?

Keep communications open with your child. Ask lots of questions about what they are doing.  You may also refer to some great sites with tips about communications, such as:

Media Smartshttps://mediasmarts.ca/

Common Sense Mediahttps://www.commonsensemedia.org/


How will I support my child with special needs?

Reach out to your school and community for supports and advice. The school may be able to share strategies they use as part of your child’s individual education plan.  Perhaps, some of the same strategies could be helpful at home to help set up an environment conducive to learning.  For example, at school they may have noticed that your child needs to switch to a new activity every 20 minutes or maybe your child has difficulty with transitions and would be more successful in spending longer durations and fully completing a task before moving on to another task. Also, consider how might you incorporate some of the same successful strategies you already use at home to help your child. These same strategies will likely help with their “remote” school work as well.


How do I support my child without access to the technologies needed for learning-at-a-distance?

Reach out to family, friends or a neighbour to see if there’s options to borrow a device.  The school may also suggest alternate resources or low-tech options to help support learning if you are without access to technologies.


What other questions do you have?

Moving to Online Classes

In light of the recent requests for resources and help with moving to online classes, I thought I would share some freely accessible videos and links to publications.

Article about providing audio/video feedback to students:

Brown, B. (2019). One-take productions for student feedback. Education Canada, 59(2), p. 10. Retrieved from https://www.edcan.ca/articles/student-feedback/

Article about instructional design in online courses:

Brown, B., Eaton, S. E., Jacobsen, M., & Roy, S. (2013). Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(3). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no3/brown_0913.htm

Article about using a flipped model that can also be useful for designing online coursework:

Mazur, A., Brown, B., & Jacobsen, M. (2015). Learning designs using flipped classroom instruction. Canadian Journal of Learning Technology, 41(2), 1-26. https://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/26977

Chapter in eBook offers suggestions for designing group work that can also be applied to fully online environments:

Brown, B. & Vaughan, N. (2018). Designing group work in blended learning environments. In R. J. Harnish, K. R. Bridges, D. N. Sattler, M. L. Signorella, & M. Munson (Eds.). The Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning (pp. 82-97). Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/useoftech

Resource prepared to help support a themed conversation about designing active learning in online environments:

Brown, B. & Ayala, J. (2018, February). Active Learning in Online Environments. Teaching Academy Themed Conversation, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. https://prism.ucalgary.ca/handle/1880/106409

Videos about teaching online created in Adobe Connect transferrable to other programs used for synchronous sessions:

  • Schroeder, M., & Brown, B. (Producers). (2016). Adobe Connect in Action, Part I: Teaching in an Online Classroom, in collaboration with Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. https://vimeo.com/151657311
  • Schroeder, M., & Brown, B. (Producers). (2016). Adobe Connect in Action, Part II: Teaching in an Online Classroom, in collaboration with Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. https://vimeo.com/151659058



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Through four interconnected fully online courses, students will: (i) examine the implications for designing and leading interdisciplinary and technology-rich learning; (ii) strengthen competencies in technological literacies; (iii) explore ethics in technology-enhanced learning environments; and (iv) lead and empower citizenry in a participatory and digital age.

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Online Assessment of Research Projects

I was interviewed about my assessment practices in online environments. You can read the blog post based on the interview.

Here’s some additional reflections regarding my assessment practices in online environments:

What are your main ways of communicating with students when teaching online? How do you ensure that your communication of assessment expectations are clear?

I try to use a variety of ways to communicate and ensure assessment expectations are clarified.  I prepare a detailed syllabus with information about the learning tasks and assessment.  I also use our learning management system (LMS) to communicate with students and share information about assessment.  For example, I organize course materials prior to the commencement of the course and open the course so it’s accessible to students one or two weeks prior to the start date.  In the content area, I provide a section for each of the learning tasks with a detailed rubric clarifying the learning intentions. In addition, I prepare a video where I discuss each of the learning tasks and expectations so the students can review the video prior to or during the first week of class.  I send weekly and sometimes bi-weekly email messages to the students to help clarify expectations.  I also use the News items on the landing page for the course in the LMS to communicate with the whole class.

When providing students with individual feedback, I use email and send direct messages to the students. I try to do this early on and provide students with formative feedback so they know if they are on-track or need to make improvements to their work.  I also post messages to groups of students in the discussion forum to offer commentary and advice when students are working on learning tasks as a group.

Offering drop-in sessions for students is another strategy that I have found useful to help with specific parts of an assignment.  For example, when I noticed students were not accessing current resources and recognized they were not making full use of accessing the databases accessible to them as graduate students, I offered two drop-in sessions at different times.  During the drop-in session I used our web conferencing system to share my desktop and talk through the steps for finding and assessing quality of resources.  I record the drop-in sessions and make them accessible in the LMS for students who were unable to join us.  I also have a few videos pre-recorded and accessible on my YouTube playlist for students and also make these available in the LMS (Dr. Brown’s Playlist).

Another strategy I use to help clarify learning intentions is part of my instructional design.  I organize peer-feedback loops.  This provides students with an opportunity to share draft work with myself as instructor and their peers.  During synchronous sessions, I use breakout rooms and I circulate through the rooms to offer my feedback.  Asynchronously, I organize spaces in the discussion forum for students to share their work and offer feedback to each other.  I also respond to the threads and provide my feedback as well.  We all use the criteria in the rubric to offer feedback and idea improvement.  I find the use of the rubric helps everyone give meaningful feedback that helps move work forward for all.

In the following article, I discuss a strategy I use for offering feedback to students using different mediums:

Brown, B. (2019). One-take productions for student feedback. Education Canada, 59(2), p. 10. Retrieved from https://www.edcan.ca/articles/student-feedback/

What are the biggest challenges associated with giving students a research paper assessment online? How do you manage these challenges? 

In online courses, I also find time is a challenge. Time to create additional resources or use multimedia as part of the assessment process.  For example, I would like to dedicate more time to creating, revising and curating resources to support students when working on their assignments. Resources quickly become outdated as software and other systems are updated. One of the ways I manage this challenge is to lower my expectations in the quality of the video produced. As noted, in my article, One-take productions for student feedback, it is not necessary to spend excess time in editing and polishing videos. Students appreciate conversational style and do not expect professional videos. Similarly, when I offer drop-in sessions.  At first, I thought it was challenging to find time to organize and plan the drop-in sessions.  However, once I started to do this and noted that a less structured approach and with a conversational style was effective, I no longer viewed time as a barrier.  I found drop-in sessions can be 30 minutes in duration and can help students with their specific questions.

Are there any differences in how you design/plan for online assessments compared to face-to-face assessments?  What additional factors do you have to consider?

I design/plan for assessments in a similar way in my face-to-face classes.  Many of the strategies I use online, I have now incorporated in my face-to-face classes. One additional factor in online classes is that I do not see the individual students on a regular basis as I do in a face-to-face class. In online classes, I find myself communicating using written text more than I do in a face-to-face class.  It is important to check-in and make sure students are not mis-interpreting feedback when relying on written text. This is one of the key reasons I started using more multimedia to communicate.

What other advice/tips/insights do you want to share with instructors who are new to teaching and assessing students online?

In addition to the tips I offer in the One-Take Productions article  I suggest dedicating time to instructional design. Prepare the syllabus as well as the online space in the LMS prior to the commencement of the course.  Students appreciate accessing a well-organized online learning space to help clarify course expectations and criteria for assessment.