June 16th, 2017

Creating Rich Learning Experiences Even When Class is Canceled



In my corner of the country, we experienced an unusually harsh winter which resulted in many class sessions being canceled due to school closures. Our faculty, and likely other groups of faculty in our region, received an email message that stated:

If you cancel your face-to-face session, I expect a comparable experience will be online for your students.

This is easier said than done. For faculty who don’t regularly deliver coursework online, the expectation to “just move your teaching session online” can be an overwhelming task. It’s not as simple as putting that day’s lesson online. Teaching effectively online requires a skill set that can only be acquired with knowledge and experience. It doesn’t happen automatically.

Stepping into a chance to grow in this area, however, can be a wonderful learning experience, and it can better equip you for times when your face-to-face class session might be interrupted. A potential bonus for accepting this new challenge is that it will enhance your pedagogical knowledge and perhaps offer you the opportunity to imagine more possibilities for class session design. In this piece, I’d like to describe my pedagogical thinking and practical application when bad weather forced me to move my face-to-face session to a fully online session.

My class of adult students, who are studying to become K–12 teachers, was scheduled to meet face-to-face for a session devoted to learning about the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that K–12 teachers must possess to work effectively with families. Their preparation for class was to interview two families with pre-K–Grade 3 students and to bring the data to class. My plan involved students analyzing the data in small groups and debriefing as a class. Then I would deliver a short interactive lecture on research in this area, introduce students to a tool that they would explore individually, and create an opportunity for them to reflect and connect their learning to their work as future teachers.

As I considered how to convert my face-to-face plans into an online format, I first reviewed the pedagogical elements that were part of my original plan and thought deeply about how my planned in-class activity could be transformed for the online setting. Student engagement, delivery of a critical “chunk” of content, and metacognitive activity were the elements that I built into my online session.

Student engagement with content and with one another was a strong part of my design. To quote the late Herbert Simon of Carnegie Mellon University, “Learning occurs from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” For my students, engagement began by working independently to contribute their interview data to a shared Google document online. I expanded the engagement by putting my students in pairs and assigning them to review the data associated with a designated question and look for themes. This collaboration could happen via Google chat, a phone call, email, text messaging, or any other tool of their choice. The pair would soon share their results via a Zoom online meeting with the entire class. As the whole class gathered in a synchronous format online, I continued student engagement by having the pairs share their findings with the group.

The second pedagogical element I moved online was a mini-lecture around a chunk of content approximately 12 minutes in length. Using a screencast, I shared the research regarding the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed by teachers when working with families. What we know about how students construct new knowledge tells us that students need to acquire new content in digestible chunks. I asked students to think about how what they learned in the interviews aligned with the information I shared and then to spend four minutes writing about the alignment they discovered.

I ended our synchronous session by introducing students to a tool that would facilitate metacognition. They were to use the rubric, associated with the needed knowledge, skills, and dispositions, to score their preparedness in each category. This metacognitive activity continued in the final section of the class that was conducted offline and independently. Students were asked to craft a two-page “reflect and connect” writing assignment in which they would reflect on their learning through the class session and connect it with their readiness to apply what they learned in the classroom. They completed the writing assignment by sharing their personal strengths that apply to this work as well as their areas for growth.

Student feedback on the online session was extremely positive. Students recognized the value of engagement with the content and engagement with each other. They were amazed that they could do this kind of collaborative work in an online environment, and they appreciated the opportunity to reflect on how their current knowledge and skills support and illuminate areas for growth.

There are many reasons that you might need to cancel classes at some point during a school year. Being able to skillfully move face-to-face coursework to an online session can continue the rich learning experience of the class and honor the tuition money that students invest to prepare them for the future.

Karen Buchanan, EdD is a professor and the Chair of the Doctor of Educational Leadership program at George Fox University.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Buchanan, K. (2016). Goldilocks and the ‘just right’ strategy for helping students acquire new content. Faculty Focus, January 15, 2016.

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Stylus Publishing, LLC.,

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation. Retrieved 1/15/17 https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/principles/index.html.