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Lessons Learned: Online Education in 2020

What is the true potential of online education? And how can we reach it?


For many of us, the 2020 shift to online education was an awakening to the incredible potential this mode of learning possesses, and to the chaos and frustration it can bring. This is especially true for K-12 educators, students, and parents who were asked to do the impossible: tackle online learning without the necessary training or resources.

My daughter is a first grader, and I think it’s fair to say our eLearning experience fell on the ‘chaos and frustration’ side of things: her teacher retired on the first day of school and the replacement teacher was pulled out of an in-person classroom and away from a teaching assignment that she had worked for years to land. Needless to say, I, too, experience cold sweats and nausea at the thought of eLearning days, despite the fact that online education is the foundation of my business!


So I understand the desire to say good riddance to eLearning as the world heals and returns to some level of normalcy. But current trends indicate that this mode of learning is not going away. Many schools are already replacing snow days with eLearning days, and smart districts are working to expand and improve eLearning options for non-traditional students who are unable to attend in-person classes on a regular basis. This experience fueled colleges and universities who were already working to put more courses online prior to the pandemic. And many institutions who previously turned away from eLearning now see the potential benefits of offering online options. By not embracing the eLearning platform 2020 gifted us (perhaps one of its few, if not only, gifts) we miss out on a rare opportunity to reflect on what we've learned while it's still painfully fresh, which would allow us to make improvements so we are better prepared to offer quality online education in this new and inevitable eLearning era.

In short, online education was already at your door before the pandemic, and now it’s inside your house! So let’s get to know our new house guest by reflecting on lessons learned and unlocking the true potential of online education.

What are the Potential Benefits of Online Education?

I could go on for days about this topic, but the short and sweet answer is that online education has the potential to close achievement gaps by making learning more equitable and accessible.

It’s important to note that this potential can only be met through the creation and proper execution of well-designed, high-quality eLearning experiences. Poorly designed and/or executed eLearning methods have been shown to cause achievement gaps instead of close them, and these gaps are not evenly dispersed across all populations. Results from the U.S. Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey helps quantify the vast socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps that exist in our society, revealing the lack of access to internet and devices in low-income households, the majority of which identify as Black.

Overall, online education can be classified as either ineffective (widens achievement gaps) or effective (closes achievement gaps). Let's take a look at the characteristics associated with both.

What is Ineffective Online Education?

Ineffective online education is that which tries to imitate its face-to-face counterpart.

Assumption: It works in my in-person course, so it will work in my online course! Reality: Nope.

Learning is impeded by online course designs that attempt to mirror their face-to-face counterparts. The interactivity and engagement found in traditional classroom-based teaching and learning tools does not carry over into the online classroom. Attempting to use these traditional tools without adapting them to the non-traditional environment can lead to achievement gaps for all students, but especially those who are underprepared and at-risk (Bettinger & Loeb, 2017).

Instructional methods should account for the constraints of the learning environment, and take advantage of opportunities allowed by the environment. The constraints and opportunities found in face-to-face and online learning environments vary drastically, so the instructional methods and tools should follow suit.

The number of variations between the two modes of learning can be a bit overwhelming, so I’ve condensed and organized them for you in the graphic below. You’ll find the course components in the far left column, followed by guiding questions you can ask yourself as you consider the differences between your face-to-face course and your online course. The last two columns provide brief answers to each question, thus highlighting the difference that will have the greatest impact on how your online course should be built. Enjoy!

What is Effective Online Education?

Where Ineffective eLearning tries to imitate its face-to-face counterpart, Effective eLearning uses it as a launching pad for the creation of a new learning experience, tailored to the unique characteristics of online education.

As outlined above, face-to-face and online learning methods are quite different. Recognizing those differences helps us identify the ways we need to adapt the content to overcome constraints and take full advantage of the many opportunities found in a virtual classroom. The result is an online learning experience that closes achievement gaps by providing an accessible and equitable learning experience.

Let’s hone in on each of the 7 course components from the handout above, and outline specific examples of how you can create an effective online course.

Learning Environment

A common misconception is that teachers are not a critical part of online learning, or that their role in the classroom ends when course development is complete. In reality, teachers shape the online learning environment by crafting the entire course prior to the start date, facilitating all elements when the course begins, and then making improvements to better meet student needs the next time around!

The online learning environment allows educators to flip the classroom. Students direct their own learning while the teacher serves as a facilitator, providing support as needed, monitoring progress, and encouraging them to think critically and problem solve.

My favorite characteristic about online education is students can move through the content at their own pace within the parameters you set for them. We’ve all been there: rushing through content to beat the bell, knowing some students were left behind; slowing down to support struggling students, knowing the more advanced students are bored out of their minds. Effective online courses make these scenarios a thing of the past thanks to the flexible schedule and the multiple delivery methods you can use to convey content. More on that to come!

Classroom Management

Many classroom management tools and practices can be reused in the online learning environment with some slight adjustments.

Start by communicating your expectations clearly in a well-structured introduction ‘Getting Started’ module, which can be based on your syllabi if you have one. You’ll want to break the key elements down into smaller chunks, each with their own course page. Here’s a sample outline of what your Getting Started module might look like, including a brief summary of what could be included in each section.



Welcome message or video that - you guessed it - makes them feel welcome!

Instructor Bio

A picture of yourself and a brief overview about you.

Introduce Yourself

A discussion forum where they can introduce themselves and chat with one another.

Course Overview

A text page with learning objectives, a course outline, and important course information.

Course Rules

A text page that details the student conduct, academic integrity standards, online etiquette rules!

Navigating the Course

A video or text page that focuses on navigating the course in the LMS.

Having students learn about your expectations early on is key, but making sure they meet these expectations is equally important. Here are a few ways you can keep track of behavior virtually:

  • Actively moderate and participate in all chats and discussion forums.

  • Provide options for students to report inappropriate behavior.

  • Make it easy for students to reach you when they need help.

Course Schedule

The access and flexibility allowed by online learning environments is arguably the biggest advantage this mode of learning has over its face-to-face counterpart. There’s not an educator I know who doesn’t want to give students the time they need to digest information and demonstrate what they’ve learned. And this flexibility is an even greater asset to adult learners who are juggling work, family, and their education. This flexibility can also be the nail in the coffin for students who are not intrinsically motivated, struggle with self-directed learning, and/or are unfamiliar with or do not have access to the necessary technology. Effective online learning gets out in front of these potential threats using research-based strategies. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:

Tips for Motivating Students

  • Set and communicate specific goals and offer clear pathways for meeting these goals.

  • Tie rewards to the achievement of goals.

  • Offer praise after every win.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communicate with students. Get students to communicate with one another. Connection yields motivation!

  • Deliver content in a variety of engaging ways.

Tips for Teaching Students to Teach Themselves

  • Get students motivated (all the steps above!).

  • Use one of the many quizzes out there to help students discover their learning style.

  • Make LMS navigation as intuitive and user-friendly as possible (ex. clearly defined menus, specific instructions, ever-present progress tracking tools).

  • Provide ample opportunity for practice and self-assessment (that doesn’t hurt their grade!).

  • Treat failure as a stepping stone to success.

Tackling technology-related issues is more complex. If students are unfamiliar with the LMS or their device, you can create and offer training tools that walk them through everything they need to know. Providing access to the internet and a device is more difficult, especially if you’re catering to a K-12 audience. During the recent/current eLearning extravaganza, districts provided laptops to students, but even this didn’t solve the issue completely because there wasn’t a good plan for addressing the inevitable tech issues with these devices. Districts also provided internet through hotspots and discounted plan, but these efforts didn’t reach all populations. This is definitely an area that needs more attention and better solutions.


It’s worth saying again: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Communicate with students. Get students to communicate with one another.

A common complaint from online students is that they feel lonely and disconnected from the social aspect of learning. You could develop the most instructionally-sound online course possible, but if you don’t communicate clearly and often, your students will still fail. Luckily, there are many ways to stay connected with your students and help them stay connected with one another. The following outlines three key methods of communication in online learning as well as some tips associated with each.

Chat & Discussions

  • Set clear instructions for how the forum should be used (ex. casual chat, brainstorming, formal discussion).

  • Provide opportunities for both group and individual discussion.

  • Monitor all communication for inappropriate online etiquette.

One-On-One Meetings

  • Convey specific office hours with specific instructions for setting up a meeting during those hours.

  • Communicate your preferred method of communication (ex. email, phone) and make that information easy to find in multiple places throughout the LMS.

  • Let students know when to expect a response from you if they send a message outside of your office hours.


  • Offer ample feedback. Even a quick line of text to offer praise, suggest a different point of view, provide support, or correct behavior can be extraordinarily impactful.

  • Take advantage of the auto feedback options in the activities, quizzes, and tests you build. This type of automatic, immediate feedback is a great way to support students as they work to direct their own learning.

Content, Assessment, & Accessibility

Content, assessment, and accessibility are inseparable in an online course, so we’ll chat about them as one unit in this final section. It’s time to translate the characteristics of each element (summarized in the graphic above) into specific strategies for building an effective online course. I’d like to do so by referencing principles from one of the best online course design frameworks on the planet: The Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This framework is based on three main design principles that are tied to three main networks in our brains. If you explore the UDL in full, you’ll find a great deal of fabulous information that can also be a bit overwhelming. So I’ve boiled it down for you with a summary of each principle and a list of guiding questions and specific examples for each.


Principle 1: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Affective Network | The Why of Learning

Providing multiple means of engagement is critical because different people are motivated and engaged by different things. We can’t expect to appeal to everyone’s optimal means of engagement and motivation, but providing more than one method is better than only providing one.


  • Make sure your content is relevant and mapped to student needs by offering real-world examples.

  • Create assessments that allow students to practice concepts in the framework of real-world scenarios and problems.

  • Provide ample opportunity for self-assessment and self-reflection using ungraded reflection questions and practice activities/quizzes (1-3 questions, graded but with unlimited attempts).

  • Be sure to your course elements and LMS design foster an online community with ample opportunity for collaboration and communication.


Principle 2: Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Recognition Network | The What of Learning

As you may have guessed, this means you want to represent, or present, key information in more than one format, like text, video, or key terms linked to definitions. The more interactive, the better! After all, the average adult attention span is down to eight seconds, which is less than that of a goldfish!


  • Organize your content into small chunks so the key concepts are easier to digest, comprehend, review, and retain.

  • Make sure the structure and design of your course content provides students with the opportunity to connect old knowledge to new concepts.

  • Present your key concepts using a variety of delivery methods to appeal to multiple learning styles (ex. text, video, animations, graphics, interactive activities)

  • Align all content with ADA standards (ex. assign proper header levels, select accessible colors, use screen reader friendly text formats).


Principle 3: Provide Multiple Means of Action & Expression

Strategic Network | The How of Learning

This final UDL Guideline is based on another human truth that’s often overlooked in education - we all have a preferred method for navigating our world, performing tasks, and sharing what we know. With that in mind, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to provide one option for navigating a course, or communicating with the teacher and classmates. And it definitely doesn’t make sense to evaluate student learning using a single assessment format.


  • Make sure your LMS structure and design offers multiple options for navigating the course (ex. main menu and navigation buttons on each page).

  • Provide easy access to course progress information (ex. progress bar at the top of the screen, ‘Time to Complete’ posted at the course, module, and lesson level).

  • Create communication strategies that foster a Professional Learning Community with peer-to-peer interactions in a safe environment (ex. monitored chat forums)

  • Offer a variety of ways for students to express what they’ve learned (ex. projects, essays, recorded physical demonstration, presentations, tests/quizzes).


Hopefully this blog has helped you see past the chaos of eLearning in 2020, and recognize the true potential of online education. It’s a lot of work to build an effective eLearning experience, but well worth the effort when you get to watch your work of art come to life. Here’s hoping that future eLearning can help us close some of the achievement gaps we’ve likely opened over the past year, and provide learners with opportunities for a more equitable and accessible education.


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