Crossing the Bridge From Emergency Remote Teaching to Quality Online Learning

By Christine Voelker, originally published in Equity & Access

You are AMAZING. When asked, you stepped up and made the quick shift to remote learning. Think about your biggest accomplishment during this time. If you cited BASIC SURVIVAL, you are not alone. That accomplishment alone is worth celebrating.


When you first heard about the move to remote teaching, you may have felt a little excitement over the challenge it would bring. Like the beginning of the school year, there was anticipation. However, for many, that feeling quickly dissipated as reality set in. Teaching well, in what to many was a new type of classroom, felt different and unfamiliar. And it wasn’t easy.

Honestly, it was unsettling — going from feeling comfortable one minute to uncomfortable the next. And it was all caused by a situation that was out of your control.

Despite the challenge, you did the best you could with the constraints you had. But for many, the magic wasn’t there. Why? Because online classes are not the same as face-to-face classes. Teaching online also isn’t the same.

What happened this spring, though, wasn’t online learning. It was emergency remote instruction or pandemic pedagogy. But there is good news. You can take what you learned this spring — both the good and the bad — and build on that. You can move forward to success and cross the bridge to quality online learning.

  • Start with Remote Success — develop what worked well and incorporate lessons learned
  • Focus on Foundational Design — improve and ensure alignment
  • Elevate Engagement — design presence, interaction and engagement into your course
  • Incorporate Online Policies and Practices — include unique considerations for online learning


Many of you are familiar with QM’s Emergency Remote Instruction Checklist (ERIC). The checklist — along with the K-12 Companion for IEP & 504 Plans — was designed to aid schools and teachers with moving classroom-based courses to temporary remote instruction.

The checklists provide actionable tips an strategies to address critical issues, including preparing your new learning environment, guiding students in their learning and teaching effectively. But the checklist is just a starting point. More work needs to be done to create quality online learning experiences that encourage engagement and support student success.

With uncertainty hanging over the 2020-21 school year, now is the time to improve on what you did this spring and create an online learning experience that will support you and your students. It’s time to think about the design of your class.

The biggest mistake many teachers make is simply migrating their materials online. It’s an understandable instinct, but we can’t expect this to result in the same type of quality learning experience we have in a face-to-face setting. Besides, working out the class design before the class starts frees you up to focus on teaching once the class begins.


Just like designing a home, you want your class to have a strong base. That means creating actionable, measurable learning objectives that are supported by the course’s assessments, activities, materials, and technology. This concept is known as alignment.

Alignment occurs when all of the critical course elements work together to ensure that learners meet your desired learning outcomes. It’s a primary component of the Backwards Design model.

1. Begin with the end in mind. What are the desired results? Those are your course learning objectives or outcomes.

2. Look at your formative and summative assessments. Each one should have a connection to one or more of your course learning objectives.

3. Move on to your learning activities and instructional materials — what learners will do and use during the course to learn concepts and develop new neural pathways. They’re also the primary way that we engage students through interaction and application.

4. Examine the technology you will use. How does it support the learning objectives?

We know that alignment is not a new idea, but it is a foundational one. And while it is easy to understand, it can be difficult to achieve. But it’s important. Without alignment, students may spend their time doing busy work — interacting with material that we never ask them to apply, or completing an assignment that only allows them to partially show evidence of their learning.


Once alignment is in place and all of your course components are working together to support learner success, you need to think about engagement. Engaged learners feel a sense of belonging and are active participants in the online learning community. Engaging students, though, can be difficult and is really dependent on your course design. The activities, content and technology you choose help elevate engagement in your course.

Interaction is one way to really elevate engagement. At QM, we talk about interaction as happening in three different ways:

• Students interacting with one another

• Students interacting with course materials

• Your interaction as the teacher with students

Online, your plan for interacting with students is something that needs to be considered and incorporated into your design. Consider the following.


Many online learning designers use the Community of Inquiry framework, which provides a framework for how the educational experience happens online through interaction and engagement. It’s the intersection of teaching presence, social presence and cognitive presence. Presence is something that must be purposefully designed into an online course in thoughtful ways. The three types of presence correspond to the three types of interaction:

Teaching Presence begins with design and extends through delivery. Design includes the selection, the organization and the primary presentation of course content, as well as the design and development of learning activities and assessments. So, when your students enter your online course on day one, they already have a very strong sense of who you are as an instructor and what they will learn because you have organized the material into a learning path with logical and efficient navigation. And, since the design is done, you can focus your time during the course on interacting with and guiding students via feedback, check ins, office hours, announcements, and more.

Social Presence is crucial for your students. It’s what allows them to feel like they are a part of a learning community rather than simply a participant in a remote class. Your design choices can really heighten interaction and presence by focusing on quality interaction between peers early on so that they can develop the trust and rapport necessary to develop that sense of community. Your presence is really a catalyst here. Online, you can’t see a class of confused faces that tell you to circle back and provide more explanations or examples for a topic. It’s vital that students have low-stakes opportunities to check their learning progress. These should be appropriately timed and sequenced so that students can use your feedback to improve future performance.

Cognitive Presence focuses on quality cognitive engagement. Consider sparking that intellectual curiosity from day one by introducing learning units with, for example, essential questions (backward design). Model learning behavior. Encourage students to share insights, make connections, analyze concepts, and reflect on their knowledge gains.

This is also a great time to explore new opportunities unique to the online environment.

For example, LMSs have private reflective journals, allowing students to check their knowledge gains, while providing a way for you to connect with your students on a different level. You might also consider using online discussions, synchronous tools for things like upcoming assignment introductions and screencasts to talk through your grading process. But don’t forget to account for the time it will take students to learn a new technology.

Lessen the cognitive load by using common or low-tech options instead. That way students can spend their time applying their new knowledge via activities and assessments instead of learning a new technology and tool.


With a shift to online also comes a shift in thinking about topics such as accessibility, technology access and skills, student privacy, participation and/or attendance. Some policies may need to be changed or even created. For example, do you have to develop guidelines around how students need to be present online and how often students need to log into the course? You can support compliance by designing smaller formative assessments during the week and a more summative assessment due on Monday so your students have the weekend. Your design then encourages your students to log in early and complete that first activity.

You’ve likely also had to consider student data and policy concerns, accessibility needs of students, copyright issues for materials, and technical support. It’s important to include information on these topics so students know what to expect and where to turn for assistance — just another way of creating a quality online learning environment that sets students up for success.


Connect with your supervisors and content specialists in your district. They are there to help you! Quality Matters is here to help as well. Use the “Bridge to Quality: A QM Online Course Design Guide” — a step-by-step approach to completing the hands-on, iterative work that is central to creating a quality course.

Christine Voelker is the K-12 Program Director for Quality Matters. She brings over 20 years of K-12 education experience to the position, including expertise in distance learning, library media, instructional technology, and professional development. She has an advanced certificate in Administration and Supervision and a Master’s in Library and Information Science. Connect with Christine on Twitter: @voelkerc.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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