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Problems of Practice

What are the design factors that drive quality in K-12 remote learning?

Key Takeaways

In order to design remote instruction that drives quality, educators and leaders alike should:

  • Understand how different features of technology, pedagogy, and relationships can drive the quality of learning in remote environments
  • Plan and improve on instruction that synchronously and asynchronously leverages key quality factors in each design area
  • Be iterative by reflecting on and assessing current implementation to look for additional opportunities to engage students using these factors
Student sits on couch, writing in notebook as he looks at laptop screen

What is the problem?

Educators need to understand and plan for the ways introducing both technology and distance can affect students’ remote learning experience. On one hand, by building instruction that interweaves various instructional approaches and modalities (asynchronous, synchronous, digital, and analog), teachers can take advantage of new opportunities created by tools. One the other hand, they need to actively mitigate key risks, such as feelings of disengagement or isolation, that students often report in these environments. Specifically, teachers need to focus on three key areas of planning – technology, pedagogy, and relationships – to ensure students are able to access content in a multitude of ways while also building connections with each other. Educators must work to consider:

  • Technology that blends different modalities of instruction to support students’ engagement with tasks and achievement of objectives for instruction;
  • Pedagogy that supports active engagement with rigorous content in support of mastery; and,
  • Relationships (to others as well as to task) that strengthen commitment to and motivation for learning.

Why is it important?

Benefits of remote instruction include the ability to use tools that allow students to work through materials at their own speed, assess progress more dynamically, explore differentiated and rich learning materials and tasks, and co-create across different media and formats with others. At the same time, students must exert greater self-direction and learn to navigate and use new tools, which may lead to reporting greater feelings of isolation and challenges in persevering. Teachers therefore need to design approaches that leverage potential benefits while mitigating risks, rather than simply replicating in-person approaches.

TLA’s review of the available research suggests that while learning remotely can be as effective as learning in person, teachers must implement their practice in different ways to keep students engaged, connected to the learning experience, and focused on content.

  • “One thing we do know is that the effectiveness of distance education appears to have more to do with who is teaching, who is learning, and how that learning is accomplished, and less to do with the medium.” (Rice, 2006)
  • In “studies in which online learning and face-to-face instruction were described as identical or nearly so [...] effects were larger [...] when the curricular materials and instruction varied between the online and face-to-face conditions.” (Means et al, 2013)
  • The research findings confirmed that a high degree of student-teacher interaction, including feedback and summaries provided to the students, is a necessity in the virtual classroom. Otherwise, students felt ignored, lonely, and lost in their courses. (Weiner, 2003)

How: Solution

Quality remote learning must leverage different tools and modalities, building upon and modifying effective traditional instructional approaches to more deeply engage and meet the needs of all learners.

The framework shown below outlines three core design areas and specifies nine key quality factors that are especially critical for driving quality in remote learning. As you begin to plan any instructional experience, it is important to first clearly articulate your objective for any lesson or activity. Then, take the time to reflect on each factor. Areas and factors are not mutually exclusive (indeed, many are reinforcing!); however, as you assess your plan, consider how effectively they are addressed. Explore the research behind this framework here.

The sections below dive more deeply into each area and offer reflection questions and concrete suggestions to help address critical factors and translate these ideas into your planning and practice.



In remote environments, technology (be it in the form of a digital platform or analog tool like a printed worksheet or book) serves as the bridge between the learner, content, teacher, and peers. As such, it is the basis upon which any remote learning experience is enabled.

The research indicates that there is no one “right” universal technology or modality; rather, it is critical that choices in modality and format (digital versus analog, asynchronous versus synchronous) are:

  • Accessible, allowing students to engage equitably in the experience
  • Easy to navigate and engage with via adequate training and ongoing support
  • Matched to objectives and context for instruction
  • Clear and consistently organized, enabling students to use their energy and focus on mastering content, rather than mastering the technology itself

Questions for Reflection

  • Do all of your students have universal access to tools, materials, and supports (physical and cognitive)?
  • Are the resources and tasks easy to navigate?
  • Do the technology tools you are planning to use offer the features and functions needed to support your objectives?
  • Do you have common norms for organizing content and features across classrooms? How much time are students spending navigating tools versus learning?
  • Are you providing adequate training for students on various tools?
  • Do students know where and how to get support?

Sample Strategies that Support Quality Technology in Remote Learning

Digital and Synchronous (Online, At the Same Time)

  • Ensure students have adequate WiFi for synchronous video lessons
  • Provide students with an online calendar that provides all necessary call-in information and materials
  • Offer students options to dial in and use offline materials if necessary
  • Organize class time and needed materials in a consistent way
  • Establish clear norms for help-seeking during lessons
  • Blend modalities and offer multiple means of representation when introducing new content

Digital and Asynchronous (Online, At the Learner’s Pace/Time)

  • Organize all independent learning materials in one online place (such as a website or learning management system [LMS]) in a consistent format across content areas and with single sign-on
  • Rather than organizing students’ materials by course or classroom, align all tasks and resources into one daily playlist, reducing the navigating and sourcing burden on students
  • Set up a student “helpdesk”
  • Allow students to submit help requests via text, audio, or video messages
  • Ensure all materials meet accessibility requirements
  • Offer multiple means of access if a student lacks adequate home WiFi (e.g., downloads rather than streaming, mobile access)
  • Record all lessons or offer multiple time-of-day options for students who might have trouble joining synchronous experiences at specific points in their schedule

Analog and Asynchronous (Offline, At the Learner’s Pace/Time)

  • Send students printed materials to work on at home (e.g. books, workbooks, manipulatives, writing paper)
  • Provide students with an at-home learning guide that clearly outlines their schedule, contact information for getting help, and any links of materials they might need to access instruction

Resources to Consider and Explore



Effective online learning must engage students in the development of new skills and knowledge in ways that support transfer of this learning to long-term memory and application. When building these experiences in remote classrooms, the instructional experience should focus on:

  • Rigorous, high-quality content that matches instructional objectives and fits students’ needs and context
  • Active learning, with intentional design and strategies that push students to participate at a deep level with the lesson
  • Mastery-based learning that spirals content to ensure multiple opportunities to engage with and show mastery of learning objectives

Questions for Reflection

  • If you are planning to use them, do your current materials work well in digital formats?
  • Are existing and new materials (core and supplementary) aligned to standards?
  • Are materials interoperable with each other (i.e., are they aligned to each other and/or produce data that are complementary)?
  • Does the lesson encourage students to engage in activities like activating prior knowledge, retrieval, reflection, connection-making, and discourse with core academic ideas?
  • How are you assessing mastery and offering opportunities for deliberate practice with feedback?
  • How are you delivering targeted interventions and opportunities for acceleration?

Sample Strategies that Support Quality Pedagogy in Remote Learning

Digital and Synchronous (Online, At the Same Time)

  • Polling students throughout a lesson to ensure engagement, check for understanding, and activate prior knowledge
  • Embedding specific reflection or retrieval points throughout a synchronous lesson
  • Breaking students into small groups to “pair and share,” discuss a presented idea or topic, or receive small-group instruction
  • Engaging students in one-on-one or small-group tutoring while others work independently
  • Setting students up with “warm calls” (i.e., ask a student to prepare a response that you will call on them for in a few minutes)
  • Having students use an online document together to answer prompts or create a presentation
  • Having students present to each other on materials
  • Asking students to reflect or ask questions in a video chat
  • Offering differentiated small-group lessons in partnership with another teacher
  • Being clear about what “mastery” of a given lesson or task looks like (rather than focusing on student engagement alone) during a lesson

Digital and Asynchronous (Online, At the Learner’s Pace/Time)

  • Having students explore custom playlists offering various pathways and modalities for learning around specific objectives
  • Creating student-driven data trackers to monitor mastery and determine next steps
  • Assigning independent practice on a standards/objectives-aligned application
  • Using adaptive software
  • Allowing students opportunities to take multiple “tries” at mastering content through online assessments
  • Flipping the classroom by having students watch pre-recorded lessons or content-based videos
  • Asking students to participate in a discussion board or cloud-based document collaboration

Analog and Asynchronous (Offline, At the Learner’s Pace/Time)

  • Assigning a book (class-wide, group-wide, or based on personal choice) and asking students to journal a written response
  • Use an aligned curriculum workbook independent work
  • Asking students to complete a project-based learning activity at home, such as a “kitchen science lab” task
  • Using printed pacing guides with “must-do” and “may-do” tasks aligned to various standards that include offline options
  • Having students create offline work products (e.g., 3D models, handwritten stories, illustrations) to demonstrate mastery
  • Offering families “table topics” to discuss together at mealtimes

Resources to Consider and Explore



Educators need to find ways to “shrink” the distance experienced by learners operating outside of school, increasing their commitment and motivation by offering deep connections and relevance. This has become doubly important within the context of the pandemic, given the range of academic and non-academic disruptions experienced by students and school communities. Educators need to build the relationships (between people as well as learning tasks) needed to effectively understand, tailor, and re-engage learners as they return to school, regardless of format.

Educators have two powerful levers for doing this:

  • Building a student’s sense of connection during remote instruction by emphasizing connections with teachers and peers; and,
  • Creating opportunities for students to deepen the relationship between learning tasks and their own goals and needs via personalization.

Questions for Reflection

  • How are you going to build a strong, ongoing teaching presence with learners?
  • How are you building a sense of community and purpose among learners and other instructional personnel?
  • Are you encouraging peer engagement in ways that connect to learning objectives?
  • How are you helping students see relevance of tasks to their goals?
  • How are you students to play an active role in setting and monitoring goals?
  • Can your students make (scaffolded, appropriate) choices to build agency?

Sample Strategies that Support Relationship Building in Remote Learning

Digital and Synchronous (Online, At the Same Time)

  • Building “check-in” times before, at the start of, or after class that allow students to share how they are feeling or to develop relationships with and understanding of others
  • Setting up small-group or dyad “learning buddies” to connect during key points of a class
  • Engaging in goal-setting conversations (via video, phone) between and/or across learners with educators and peers
  • Modeling appropriate use of video chat and discussion board features to be used during class
  • Building in opportunities for students to make direct connections between the content and their own identities or cultures

Digital and Asynchronous (Online, At the Learner’s Pace/Time)

  • Recording a daily audio message for students
  • Having students develop and share digital “self-profiles”
  • Encouraging (and modeling appropriate norms for) student communications via email to you or peers
  • Assigning videos focused on specific areas of interest within given topics
  • Asking students to create audio recordings of how they would like others to address them (e.g., name pronunciation)
  • Embedding non-text-based feedback, such as audio or video, into comments
  • Having students collaborate and offer feedback in online documents
  • Using and moderating an online discussion board
  • Integrating age- and culture-appropriate “paralanguage,” such as memes and emoticons
  • Offering opportunities for individual or group-based online projects that leverage interests and cultural connections
  • Allowing students to pick different means (e.g., pace, focus topic) for completing a task or demonstrating mastery via an online choice board

Analog and Asynchronous (Offline, At the Learner’s Pace/Time)

  • Providing students with materials to send postcards or notes to peer penpals
  • Offering parents conversation guides and tools for daily check-ins or mealtime talks about learning
  • Having students journal to set and reflect upon goals
  • Having students complete self-paced passion projects
  • Offering students greater choice-making around how and where to work

Resources to Consider and Explore

Take it further

To learn more about the framework and cited research, explore the full paper: Driving Quality in Remote Learning: A framework for research-informed remote experiences for K-12 learners.

Additional remote learning guidance and frameworks:

All of these resources are free and open to use so feel free to share and adapt, with attribution to TLA! For questions, comments, and/or additional information, please email us at info@learningaccelerator.org.