The Building Blocks of an Online Lesson

Even though teaching online may feel like a different animal than teaching face-to-face, there are many similarities in terms of the building blocks of a lesson. The tools teachers use to engage students online are indeed different. It is also true that engaging students in learning activities online will require (at least initially) that teachers onboard students to those technology tools and support them in learning how to navigate online tasks. However, the activities and tasks teachers use to create their lessons offline can be transferred to the online environment if teachers know what tools to use.

Building Blocks of a Lesson

My suggestion when coaching teachers is to think about their online lessons through the lens of these building blocks.

  • Is there instruction or modeling students need to navigate a task or assignment? Would it be better to record a video and allow students to self-pace through the information or engage the group in a real-time video conferencing session?
  • Do students need to engage with texts or podcasts? Can teachers pair those resources with an online discussion prompt to encourage conversation and collaborative meaning-making?
  • Will you collect formative assessment data to assess prior knowledge or check for understanding?
  • Do you want students to reflect on their learning and stretch their metacognitive muscles?

All of these things are possible in an online course! It is just a matter of knowing what tools you can lean on to facilitate these different types of activities online. Below is a document that details each building block, the objective of that activity, and the technology tools teachers can use to engage students in that type of learning activity online.

Once teachers decide which building blocks they want to use to design their online lessons for the week, I encourage teachers to organize the tasks and resources in a single document. The incredible folks at the Nebraska Department of Education put together a template that I loved! I have included a modified version below for teachers who are looking for a structure to help them organize the building blocks of their online lessons. This template also encourages teachers to think about pairing online and offline options to give students a degree of choice. There may not be an “offline option” for every activity, but questioning whether or not students can complete a task offline is a habit worth cultivating in this time of distance learning.

As a parent, it is challenging to keep track of all of the individual assignments my two children receive each week on Google Classroom. It would be much easier to support them if I had a document like the one pictured above with all of the information, links, and resources for the week.

One of the biggest challenges that teachers face in this transition to online teaching is setting realistic expectations for their students. I caution teachers to embrace a “less is more” mentality to ensure that the volume of work they are assigning is manageable. Many tasks that we have done traditionally offline in the classroom take significantly longer online. We must set students up for success online and avoid overwhelming them with too much work.

If you have favorite tools or lesson planning strategies, please take a moment to post a comment and share them!

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13 Responses to The Building Blocks of an Online Lesson

  1. Raymond Rose says:

    Things missing: no mention of consideration for those students with a disability and what technology/instructional approach might be appropriate. No mention of students who may not have the technology or internet access at home.

    As written, it feels like there’s the assumption every student has full internet and technology access. Schools could be using this time to help ensure that’s the case, but that may not be possible, and failure to put a light on that can mean some students will be denied full opportunity to receive an education.

    • Hi Raymond,

      I appreciate you sharing your concern. I agree that access and accommodations for students who have disabilities are important issues in this moment of online learning. Unfortunately, those are not my areas of expertise. I try to speak from a place of experience and expertise, but I hope other educators who have expertise in these areas can offer advice.

      Take care.

  2. Tan K Huynh says:

    This is a great article, Catlin. In truth, these blocks are the same things we need to build our in-person instruction on! The graphics were super helpful in scaffolding my understanding of online learning.

  3. Steven says:

    This is very useful information. I am glad you mentioned meta cognition and reflection because those are very essential parts of the learning process.

  4. Simple words, easily explained and doable. Thanks Caitlin!
    In my humble experiences in classrooms and outside training teachers between Canada and Pakistan, I would like to share my thought as a Montessori guide that all students have some unique learning habit, ability or impediment which encourages a teacher to transform or combine pedagogy or modify tools and techniques regardless of being a no-tech classroom ( as in Montessori classrooms from ages 2 to 6 and minimal in PY and more pronounced but integrated as in Middle school.and HS)

  5. Kerrie Calabro says:

    I like your format.. It is quick, simple and to the point. As a school counselor, this could be a great way to help parents in guiding them with how to approach and look at online work!

  6. martha anne soderlund says:

    Thank you Caitlin! This will be very helpful and useful online and also in a classroom. Our school system provided every student with a Chromebook and even hotspots to make sure all students were given the same opportunity to learn. During this time of distance learning , I plan on using many of these tools to enhance my students learning experience.

  7. Ellen Hughes says:

    I really liked your perspective to think of online learning like building blocks. I am a visual learner so this made more sense to me. It honestly made me feel better about the last 8 weeks of online learning. I was doing a lot of these these, I just need to get more tools and understanding of being an effective online instructor!

  8. WorkWithoutWalls says:

    “It is just a matter of knowing what tools you can lean on to facilitate these different types of activities online.” Totally agree. I have found to be a great virtual whiteboard for online teaching for a couple of reasons. First, it works on all browsers and doesn’t use much memory. This helps students with older computer systems and slow internet connections. Second, you can work together in real-time making all kinds of visual aids. You can also import multiple file types and edit them together. And third, you can sign up for free and create a team/class of up to 50 members.

  9. Martin Majchszak says:

    Thank you for the simplicity and resources. Your article and the links below have helped reinforce what has been done and how I can help EVERYONE in the future.

  10. Anna Sanders says:

    Moving forward into uncharted territory is definitely daunting after 15 years of teaching. Thank you for the visuals. The article gave me solace in what we are doing and provided
    the extra resources to accomplish more.
    Thank you.

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