7 Essentials to Support Your Distance Instruction

No one is surprised by the increased discussion around planning for the use of distance learning as a continuity plan for most universities and schools. Distance learning is very different: you can’t just digitize yourself/lessons or mail a packet home and expect it to work. If you find yourself suddenly in need of taking your classes to a fully virtual environment or distance learning situation and are not sure where to start, the Friday Institute’s Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative is here to help!

1 | Be proactive and realistic

How will your students connect with you? What if the internet is an issue? No computer in the home? Disrupted schedules? Accomodations and IEPs? Consider collecting information that will help you communicate and confirm contact information. If you already use communication tools with students and/or an LMS, keep using them. Otherwise, consider alternatives with your students that are both equitable and can enhance communication and collaboration.

2 | Consider your needs and the needs of your students

What physical materials would be beneficial to your students while you are apart? What will support learning and teaching? Resources such as textbooks, workbooks, manipulatives, content magazines, and additional reading materials apply. This should be a collaborative experience, so don’t forget to let the students choose some reading for enjoyment too. If you are looking for digital alternatives, now is a good time to start collecting and/or creating resource repositories. 

NOTE: It is important to limit the number of new tools and methods being introduced, distance learning is a big enough lift itself. Be strategic in choosing and using digital tools that you may not have used before, and while tech tools are offering free services for now, it does not mean you have to use them.

3 | Keep fostering relationships and building empathy – even online

We make connections by seeing the faces of those we know, not just hearing their voice!  Video is a powerful way to continue to build relationships and connections with and between your students in a distance learning situation. Research tells us your students want to see and hear you (and each other), not be taught by a clip you found online. Consider making your own videos and asking students to make their own too.  And don’t forget to create office hours for yourself and/or open class hours so synchronous connections and conversations can still be made.

4 | Create communities of inquiry

Using discussion spaces to keep students connected is essential. If you are already using something with your students, such as a Learning Management System from your district – be consistent and keep using it. You also want to create robust discussions and require students to leave critical feedback on at least 2 to 3 peers in order to spark deeper learning and collaboration. Be transparent about your expectations for feedback. Model your expectations as often as possible. Remember, students need to be educated on how to give feedback to one another, especially in a virtual space.

5 | Avoid Isolation

Creating opportunities to connect “reluctant” participants will be difficult in your new distance learning community. When asked about their greatest concerns about learning, some students shared they would be stuck watching videos and reading articles for every class — leaving them bored and isolated.  Be creative in how you are sharing and teaching information to kids and build in synchronous activities as much as possible to increase engagement. Try to utilize the pedagogical strategies that work in your regular classroom in the virtual environment.They will still be impactful. 

6 | Provide timely feedback and encouragement

When learning online, students are more likely to get discouraged when they can’t ask you or a peer for help as easily as in the regular classroom. Set reminders for yourself to send out encouraging messages both to the full group and to individual students. When students submit work or engage in activities, be responsive and supportive. Personalize the feedback as much as is realistic. If they feel you care about their involvement, and see you are involved yourself, they are more likely to continue to engage and absorb what you are sharing and learning.

Studies of effective teaching and learning have shown that learners want to know where they stand in regards to their work. Providing answers to the following questions to help provide quality student feedback. 

  • What can the student do? (Give genuine praise!)
  • What can’t the student do? (focus on one skill that is critiqued versus multiple errors)
  • How can the student do better? (provide a model and example)

And don’t forget to invite the students to give YOU feedback as well.

7 | Check for understanding regularly

Students need to be held accountable more often in a distance learning situation than in the regular classroom, as you can’t see them actively learning as easily. Check for understanding regularly with short, small formative and summative assessments. For more complex tasks and problems, ask students to record or write out their thinking.

Additionally, prepare to schedule one-on-one conferences with your students to check-in and discuss the assessment(s) together to foster continued relationship building and to create goals and expectations collaboratively. 


  • Less is more.
  • Give explicit instructions in both written text and in video.
  • Specify expectations with rubrics/ checklists, etc.
  • Use your teacher gut and teach from a place of empathy – Suddenly learning  from home will be a shock to students too. Some will have limited internet access, significant disruptions from their home environment, and may not have their basic needs met, such as meals. Consider what is realistic and what your students can handle.

This is a lot -and we must remember to be flexible and adaptable. We base these recommendations on the iNACOL standards, in collaboration with blended/online learning strategies and research. 

Let the Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative team at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University would like to be your thought partners as you plan and implement your transition to distance learning. We are here to help.

And due to the outcry for support, we are orchestrating regular check-ins and synchronous support during this trying time: We call it FI Connects – a community of educators supporting one another. 

FI Connects: Learn together. Share together. Be together.

During these virtual discussions, the PLLC team will share best practices and resources, but we will also spend time facilitating role-alike discussions for you to collaborate, share, and ask questions of your colleagues from around our nation in an effort for us to lift the load together.

For more information, go to go.ncsu.edu/ficonnects.

Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative