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!

Want more support? Check out my self-paced online courses Getting Started with Blended & Online Learning and Advancing with Blended & Online Learning.

46 Responses

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. It is a good possibility that part of our year students will be distance learning. This post gives me some great ideas on how to start the conversation with teachers. We are struggling to get past the barriers listed below. Do you have any resources or can you point me in the right direction?
    – Cheating is rampant, how do we change the question?
    – Students don’t join in for video conferences. If the do, they are not engaged.
    – How do we turn the station rotation we love into an online station rotation?
    – We are missing interaction between students and with students. How do you use groups in an online situation? We don’t want to make students turn on their mic or video because so many don’t have ideal living situations.
    – How do we support our SPED and EL population? Many stopped engaging
    Thanks for any ideas or resources you can send our way. We teach at the high school level, students all have devices and Canvas. Thanks so much.

    • Hi Jodi,

      Below are responses to your questions, but if you or your teachers are looking for more support preparing for a blended/online fall, I am just finishing a self-paced course that will be available by mid-July.

      1. Cheating is a big concern online. I encourage teachers to design “performance tasks” to assess learning instead of using traditional exams and quizzes. If teachers ask questions students can Google, there is the potential for cheating. Performance tasks require students apply their learning in new or novel situations and tend to be complex and multifaceted. Those qualities make it more challenging for students to take someone else’s ideas or work and pass that work off as their own.

      2. Teachers may want to think about how they articulate their expectations for behavior and participation on a video conferencing call. I realize many schools were hesitant to require participation online in spring; however, I expect that to change going into fall. Here is a blog I wrote where I describe 7 things teachers can do to improve participation in video conferencing sessions. https://catlintucker.com/2020/05/7-strategies-to-engage-students-in-synchronous-online-discussions/

      3. If there is concern about asking students to turn on cameras and mics, then teachers need to find other ways to connect students online so they feel part of a learning community. Online discussions and collaborative assignments using the Google Suite can be nice ways to encourage students to interact asynchronously.

      4. SPED and EL students will benefit from additional scaffolding and support (e.g., videos and small group video conferencing sessions) to help them continue to make progress. Regular check-ins are important with these populations as well. I would definitely encourage teachers to consider hosting small group sessions as opposed to whole group sessions online.

      I also wrote this blog describing how the station rotation model can be adapted for a socially distanced classroom OR an online lesson. https://catlintucker.com/2020/06/station-rotation-in-an-era-of-social-distancing/

      I hope that helps!

      Take care.

  8. 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!

  9. “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 Deskle.com 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. Catlin,
    Thanks for your work. As a specialist (Physical Education) I found your format adaptable and useful for planning a lesson. Which of your books would be most beneficial to a Physical educator at the elementary level?

    • Hi Eddie,

      Blended Learning in Action would probably be best. It is not written for specific grade levels and will be a good introduction to blended learning and the various models.

      Take care.

  13. I actually loved used Google Classroom during remote learning. I made a document in Google Slides where my students had their work for the week with hyperlinks for each assignment. They just had to access one document for all of their work.

  14. Hi Catlin! Raymond Rose responded to this article first and requested some help with modifications and accommodations. Rewordify.com is a site where students can copy online text and paste it into the online tool. Students then get a modified version of the text with simplified words. If they want to learn the difficult words in the text, an audible pronunciation guide is available. Also, teachers can check the readability of a text to see if it is an appropriate level for their students. Britannica for Kids has many of the same articles written at different reading levels as well. For writing, teachers can provide graphic organizers and sentence stems to help students make sense of texts. I hope this helps!

  15. Hi Caitlin,

    I enjoyed reading your article as and as referencing “Building Blocks of and Online Lesson” as I begin reimagining my strategies for the fall. One tool that I am giving serious consideration to using is Formative (goformative.com). It would fit in a few blocks on the grid: “Instruction & Modeling”, “Practice and Review”, “Assessment”, and “Reflection and Metacognitive Skill Building”. In addition to that, it can be a platform for holding other tools in a scaffolded linear layout. Topping it all off, it can be embedded into most LMSs.

  16. Hi Catlin,
    I liked the resources you have shared. I teach elemenatary (K-2) students with cognitive delays and multple disabilities. I am open to ideas. I found doing zoom groups with both parents and students were helpful as my students are also nonverbal. I did give everyone access to our ULS curriculum as well as Raz-Kids Reading A-Z program, with visual and auditory presentation and touch feedback. I am curious how others in my position were able to involve their students. I hope to work on teaching basic computer response more this fall.

    • Hi Katherine,

      I am hoping that other teachers can chime in and provide support. I have coached elementary teachers, but your population of students has unique needs especially in the current situation.

      Take care.

  17. Hi,
    Wondering what suggestions you have for doing a flipped classroom with a full remote 3rd grade class.

    • Hi Betsy! This is a great question. Let me work on a simple elementary facing resource. I’ll prioritize that as a blog in the next couple of weeks. I believe there is a workflow that may make that more manageable.


      • Thanks Catlin. Can’t wait to hear what you come up with. Our district has given families a choice to be in person or remote this year, and i will be one of the remote teachers. So I am looking for a lot of help to get through it!

  18. I love the way you break this down. What do you do for a summative assessment? I feel like that’s the one element that’s missing. Thank you!

    • Hi Naomi,

      I encourage teachers to use performance tasks for online assessment. If we ask questions students can Google, there is an opportunity to cheat or submit work that is not their own. If we ask them to apply what they learned to complete a project or create an artifact to demonstrate their learning, then I think we have a better chance of identifying what students actually know or can do.

      Jay McTighe does amazing work around performance tasks if you want to explore that idea further.

      Take care.

  19. Hi Catlin,

    Thank you for the work you do! I am currently going through one of your videos.

    I was wondering if you might have any materials for planning mini-units? My coach mention this as something you have included in a webinar. My school will be virtual starting next week, and I wanted to try this approach.

    Thanks for your help!

  20. This is great. I will definitely be sharing this information with my colleagues. The resources you share are so useful. I could add a few more, but with some teachers, the more simple the better. This was very straightforward and helpful. Thanks so much.

  21. Hi Catlin,

    I appreciate this post! It makes a ton of sense. One question: what suggestions do you have for teachers who are doing both at once? So some students are attending in-person 5 days a week and some students have opted into online instruction 5 days a week?
    To add to the mix, they are all on the same roster (high school level) and could choose to make a change to either option on a quarter by quarter basis.

    I am a tech integration coach trying to help my teachers navigate some way of managing both groups. My gut is telling me to keep the “class” whole – not separate. But the teachers are wanting to separate them. There is no separate digital curriculum being used for the online learners, which pedagogiaclly speaking, I agree with. I’ve shared the lesson template above, but it’s still a struggle.

    I’ve relied quite a bit on your work in preparing teachers this summer. We created a BL committe and studied BL in Action . . .

    Any thoughts?!?

    • Hi Teresa,

      That is the most challenging position I can imagine teachers being in this year. There isn’t research or best practices that I have come across to support an “answer” to how to do this well. I agree that I would prefer to keep kids “together” in the sense that they are working on the same tasks and both groups have access to the teacher, but doing that well is going to be tricky. I’d be tempted to use a station rotation (in class and a virtual mirror experience) to organize this time. That way, each group (in-class and online) has time with the teacher at the “teacher-led” station. When they are not at the teacher-led station, they can self-pace through a series of online/offline learning activities.

      I have toyed around with the idea of pairing offline and online students as a way to help the online students feel connected to the in-class community. Essentially, they would have an in-class learning partner if they were online so they could ask questions and work collaboratively with someone in the classroom. That might be a lot for teachers to juggle, though.

      I wish I had a better “tried and true” response for you on this one as I know a lot of teachers are in this situation.


      • Thank you! Your response definitely gives me some things to consider and more importantly, some talking points I can use with teachers. It’s been a challenge for everyone!!

  22. Hi Catlin, Hope all is well. This was very informative and engaging. I will be reaching back out. Once I process it. Appreciate the work being done to enhance not just the students, but the adults as well.
    Be Well
    Steve B.

  23. Hello! I just wanted to drop by and say that I’ve truly enjoyed reading your blog articles, especially this because it’s about online lessons. Truly timely as to what we’re going through now. Kudos to you, Catlin!

  24. Thank you for the Building Blocks of a Lesson visual, along with the details of each building block, the objective of that activity, and the technology tools teachers can use to engage students. They are very useful. I read through each comment and received more resources to use, thank you to everybody who had posted a comment. I appreciate your willingness to share your questions and expertise.

  25. When I stepped onto this page, I had my thoughts and ideas tied up together. An unorganized room full of materials and ideas. These two tables make life much easier for me as a teacher! Now I have everything in front of me!

    Now I know what questions should I ask!
    What tools best match what objectives.
    And I believe these Online Building Blocks save my students from many trial-and-error.

    Thank you, Dr. Catlin Tucker.

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