5 key tips from a distance learning coach

A people-centered approach improves learning outcomes. Here are five important recommendations from an expert.
By: | November 30, 2020
Photo by Bram Naus via Unsplash.

Aaron Ferguson is the distance learning design coach at Oxnard Union High School District in California.

As a former educator and current distance learning coach, I am constantly thinking about what makes a great course. Too often, we see programs that try to mirror classroom experiences and fail. The result: students tune out, learning objectives are missed, and teachers live in frustration. The pandemic has exacerbated these issues as millions of K-12 learners have shifted to virtual learning.

In our district in California, wildfires forced us to develop a distance learning model. The fires’ impact meant that students would miss class anywhere from one to two weeks during fire season. We had to find a way to ensure every student had access to equitable support and opportunities for success.

We saw that schools worldwide relied on learning management systems (LMS) to keep students connected and supplement missed class time. Many teachers were already familiar with the LMS approach to virtual learning and they wanted to ensure the technology would amplify their classroom teaching style.


Related: 5 ways to give students virtual work-based experiences


Our research and experience taught us that an LMS alone is not enough. We needed to provide our teachers with a catalog of customizable courses. Our district partnered with an online program enablement provider, Construct, to create courses that put teachers in the driver’s seat. We created personalized, engaging content, with checking systems to ensure students were mastering concepts.

Matching technology and teachers, our district effectively created a credit recovery model, replaced subscription services, and provided more customized content to better suit our students. Little did we know that this would prepare us for what was to come with COVID-19.


Related: Remote challenge: How Santa Fe is delivering in pandemic


When the global pandemic struck, our disaster response took on greater scope, requiring teachers and district leaders to come together to evolve our approach to meet the needs of a 100% virtual learning environment. We saw how years of emergency preparedness combined with insights from students and teachers would help us respond quickly to a global pandemic. Because we had that runway, our student engagement rates remained high, and that is thanks to our amazing teachers, technology partners, and engaging virtual learning environments.

When it comes to virtual learning, there are five recommendations any district can do to create the best possible learning scenarios.

  • Take a people-first approach
    • Teachers, Students, Content. When designing a course, start with two questions: “Who is the student taking this course?” and “Who is the teacher offering this course?” Then, design every element with them as the focal point. Students who see themselves in the content will be more invested and connected with the course overall.
  • Identify your key stakeholders and work with them to find the right approach
    • Every project starts with getting the right people together. Roles and responsibilities will evolve with the project but people will always be the most valuable resource. The right people will produce a product that reflects their teachers and students.
  • Solve for the issue at hand and look for other solutions along the way
    • Build Starter Courses. Too many times we try to build something perfect but that stops progress. Teachers will have vastly different perspectives on how to teach any concept. The goal is to give them a full functioning and customizable starting place.
  • Communicate regularly and often
    • People don’t mind bad news, but they hate surprises. Our team had our share of learning opportunities and setbacks. Constant and quick communication helps make sure teachers, students, parents, and the team are informed and involved in the process.
  • Test, verify, and test again
    • Technology and change require an adventurous mindset. Teams will spend a considerable amount more time building the first course in a series because that allows them to develop scalable systems and structures.

Until we can all be in the classroom again, it’s heartening to see the many different approaches taken by student-centric educators and administrators. As more people focus on building virtual learning environments, we must learn together and identify more ways to optimize online learning.

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Aaron Ferguson was awarded Milken National Educator recognition in 2017. He currently serves as the distance learning coach in charge of Oxnard Online, the Oxnard Union High School District’s online learning platform. He is an experienced educator with a demonstrated history of working in high school (Chemistry/Social Entrepreneurship) and higher education (Geology) industries.


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