What We Know about Successful Instruction in a Digital Environment

By Frank LaBanca, EdD
April 10, 2020

Earlier this week, I read this post on Facebook, and it got me thinking…

Attention Parents:
As we move closer to embarking on what is being called “remote teaching,” I am asking my Facebook friends to refrain from publicly scrutinizing their children’s teachers for the way they are teaching or the lessons they are assigning. We are about to navigate unchartered waters with little, to no, preparation. Please refrain from comparing what one teacher is doing to what another teacher is doing or what one district is doing to what another district is doing. Everyone is trying their best during this time of uncertainty. Please also remember that teachers do not go to your office and tell you how to do your job. Please refrain from telling teachers how to do theirs. We are all figuring this out as we go. Please be patient, please be kind.


As schools across the nation are plunging into transforming their brick-and-mortar schools into virtual spaces, many teachers might be trying to “invent” digital learning. But the fact is, we know a heck of a lot about how to leverage technology and how to make it meaningful to the teaching and learning process. Recognizing this, I recently, and virtually, presented to the administrative team of my urban school district (and subsequently created a video for the teachers) some of the key features of well-designed digital learning. I ended the conversation with my instructional philosophy statement below which aligns well with the student-centered tenet of personalized learning:

Digital learning leverages high-quality, standards-based teaching and learning, with many opportunities for interaction, using high levels of student engagement and achievement to promote mastery.

Put another way, in order for a distance digital model to work, kids need to feel connected. They need to be connected not only to a trusted educator but also to their peers. That takes purposeful planning. “Worksheets on screens” won’t cut it. When I say connected, that doesn’t mean an educator emailing students first thing in the morning, burdening them with too much work, and leaving students to their own devices (literally and figuratively) throughout the day. That creates the illusion that the teacher is not doing anything — and we all know how much more planning is required to teach digitally. Touchstones are important and they show both students and parents how much educators care about their success as members of a learning community. When I think about personalized learning, especially using technology, I think about both customizing instruction as much as possible to students’ individual needs, skills, and interests; but also, and perhaps more importantly, helping students develop connections to each other and their teachers to support their learning. When working and learning in a digital and sometimes flattened environment, interaction is EVERYTHING. We often learn best when we learn socially, so prioritizing interaction in remote learning can accelerate and invigorate the connections learners need to make when we try something new.

While I fully recognize that all educators are currently not on the same readiness level for technology integration in learning, I think all good educators recognize how providing opportunities to interact benefits learning progressions. Interactions don’t all have to be live and in real time. They can certainly take place over the course of the day or several days. Here are a few different ideas to promote interaction, with varying levels of required expertise for the educator:

  • Send an individual, personal email to a student to see how they are doing and determine what they need.
  • Create a shared document with two columns: in column 1, students can post a question; in column 2, the teacher can provide an answer. This can be a running record.
  • Post a thought-provoking, content-related, open-ended controversial question in a shared format. Tell students that they cannot repeat previous responses, they should justify their response with evidence, and be sure to respectfully disagree with their peers to support their position. They should incorporate at least one other student’s ideas in their response.
  • Create a short screencast or video, teaching a concept or skill. Even a simple “hello” message will be well received. Tools like Quicktime, Flipgrid, and Screencastify make creating these videos easier.
  • Set up a conference call with students to teach a concept or hold office hours. Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Google Meet can all handle this process well and do not require students to have accounts. Teacher provides the link and students join in at a specific time. (Note. It is very important to consider privacy rights of students. Our data department has been working collaboratively with teachers and tirelessly with companies to ensure that privacy contracts are in place before we use a service or site that requires student-identifiable information.)
  • Challenge students to work collaboratively in groups.

School leaders should also consider how their system works. Things that work in traditional classrooms and school buildings don’t always translate to digital. Bounded flexibility is important. We want kids to keep routines, and have accountability measures, but we should also recognize that this doesn’t happen at the same time of the day for students. The whole point of digital is that it works asynchronously, so we should not expect kids to be lock-step on the same schedule throughout the day, or perhaps, even the week. It is important to create milestones for learning, and it is also important to have a degree of flexibility. Here are some of the system strategies we are implementing at my school:

Strategies for teachers:

  • Communication: We created a FAQ-style shared-doc running records for teachers to post questions to administrators as we navigate through these challenges and figure out how to be consistent.
  • Collaboration: We are having faculty meetings every week, so we can touch base to share successes and challenges.
  • Supports: We’ve identified “SuperUsers” to provide peer support and coaching to those who are less confident using technology.

Strategies for students and families:

  • Feedback: We are creating feedback loops, both for students and parents to inform teachers, and for teachers to inform administrators about challenges and successes.
  • Schedule: We’ve abandoned our five-day rotating block schedule in favor of a weekly schedule where teachers distribute their teaching and student work expectations across the week instead of daily.
  • Materials: We are only posting new materials and assignments two times per week per class, also distributed over a specific schedule to not overwhelm kids, but also to give flexibility.
  • Behavior: We are constantly thinking about maintaining and holding students accountable to school-wide and classroom expectations, especially related to digital citizenship.
  • Expectations: Every teacher will host a synchronous session at one scheduled time per week for each class. We’ve created a schedule so students are not choosing between sessions. We are not asking students to be online all day – they have one or two sessions per day.
  • Checking in: Teachers are creating flexible office hours to meet with individual students.
  • Monitoring: We are committed to ensuring that we regularly interact with students in a variety of ways and keep track of who “ghosts” or disappears off of our radar – to find those who need to be re-engaged.
  • Access: We are considering equity issues. We have employed an extensive distribution network to get school devices in kids’ hands. Not everyone has access and we’ve worked with our local Internet providers to provide reduced cost or free access. The city has also established WiFi-enabled hotspots in high-poverty areas so kids and families can get online.

We are confident that we are going to make mistakes. We are open to feedback from all of our constituents. We have the best interest of our students in mind and we know we need to make it personal for each one of them. We can do this!

Frank LaBanca is a teacher, educational researcher and change agent. He is the Founding Principal of the Westside Middle School Academy magnet in Danbury, Connecticut and the Executive Director of the National Center for Inquiry Learning. Formerly he was a Distinguished Fellow with the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative and the Director of the Center for 21st Century Skills (EdAdvance) where he managed National Science Foundation and US Department of Education grants and oversaw the implementation of technology-enhanced STEM learning for 50+ schools and 3000+ students annually.

 You can reach Frank at labanca@inquirylearningcenter.org; @franklabanca



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