To say this is a critical time for online learning is an understatement. No one predicted the pandemic—let alone the enormous impact it has had on how our children are taught and how they interact with their teachers and one another. Although online learning has been used for decades as a full-time learning alternative and a supplement to face-to-face education, its adoption rates went through the roof in March 2020. Schools sprang into action to deliver meaningful, engaging, off-campus teaching to their K–12 students, and students adapted to a new learning environment.

As it became clear that the situation we found ourselves in was not temporary, we discovered that out-of-school learning delivery would be needed by schools for months—if not years. VHS Learning, a nonprofit organization providing supplemental online classes and blended learning opportunities to middle level and high school students, provided assistance to schools of all types, helping them to establish online learning systems that best suited their school’s unique needs. However, one size does not fit all, and we help schools answer questions such as: “How can we train our teachers to be able to handle online learning?”, “How can we make the transition to online learning?”, and “How can we create great online learning experiences for our students?”

Consider these five strategies to engage teachers as they develop and implement online classrooms:

1. Design an online classroom experience. Even though almost everyone has experience working online these days, quality online classroom experiences do not design themselves. Much like a physical classroom, you need self-contained, immersive experiences where students can learn, engage, and interact. Lessons should be designed from the start to take advantage of all that online platforms have to offer—ideally, they should not be traditional lessons with online components used as an afterthought to simulate face-to-face instruction. In an effective online classroom, teachers do what they do best: provide support and guidance to students and help deepen student understanding. It’s important to design the online experience from the ground up, and then put a highly trained teacher at the center to keep students engaged and on track.

2. Don’t skimp on teacher training. The words “highly trained” cannot be overstated in online education. Teaching online differs greatly from teaching face to face. Teachers need comprehensive training in different online learning methods including asynchronous learning, which doesn’t include the same instantaneous feedback that students receive in person. There are advantages to both synchronous (real-time feedback) learning and asynchronous (flexible, with pauses for thoughtful reflection) learning. Teachers should train online in the same environment in which they will be teaching, helping them to better understand the online classroom from a student’s perspective. This commitment to teacher training in best practices is important for schools transitioning to the online space—so teachers have the tools they need to be successful.

3. Use a variety of assessment tools. Online learning allows for numerous assessment possibilities and enables teachers to tailor those assessments to individual students and student groups. Teachers are not relegated to using only traditional assessments such as quizzes and tests to determine where students stand and what level of progress they have made. Students can write essays and conduct peer reviews, virtually collaborate on group projects both synchronously and asynchronously, or create online presentations for the class to demonstrate understanding. Offering a variety of assessments keeps things interesting and engaging for both students and their instructors.

4. Offer enrichment courses for continued learning. Last summer, many parents and families expressed concerns about their children’s progress and the disruption in learning due to events in the spring. They wanted to ensure students retained the knowledge acquired at the start of last year and were adequately prepared for the next school year. By offering students online enrichment courses during summer or after school in interesting subjects such as photography, cryptography, and video game design, schools can keep their students focused, excited, and engaged about learning in a structured yet less formal way.

5. Help bridge the equity gap. Not all students have access to computer science courses, AP options, or a variety of unique electives that prepare them for college and careers. VHS Learning was created through a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 1996 to help all students have access to courses that stimulate their interests and prepare them for the future. Fast-forward to 2021, and despite our best efforts, schools are still dealing with equity issues. Students need access to a solid technology infrastructure, as well as standards-based curriculum and certified teachers, regardless of where they live.

As schools come to terms with this new and unexpected education environment, online learning will continue to bridge the gap in ways never seen before. At VHS Learning, we are excited about the possibilities and mindful of the challenges. We look forward to sharing our 25 years of experience in online teaching and learning best practices to help schools meet students where they are, and better understand where they can be.

Carol DeFuria is president and CEO of Maynard, MA-based VHS Learning, a nonprofit organization providing supplemental online classes and blended learning opportunities to middle level and high school students.