APPlicable Ways to Close the Online Distance

Two people standing with emoji heads that are smiling and laughing

With the onset of COVID-19, new approaches and technologies are being explored and implemented by instructors at all levels, but what is new is not always better. Having been in distance education for 15 years, I can attest to some best research-based practices and applications to use and implement that result in improved retention and learning in online students. Using such apps and practices will improve your reach and connection to students, thereby enhancing the overall learning environment for all.

Maximizing learning through microlearning

Over the past 15 years, I feel one of the greatest disadvantages faced as an online instructor is that my students feel like they are a step removed. Subsequently, my students are behind a screen and facing competing distractions, such as family obligations, jobs, and social media. To address these concerns, I’ve turned to microlearning as a solution. “Microlearning is a relevant and essential learning method and consists of: brief information, task-based video demonstrations, packaged simulation, short ‘gamified’ activities and educational animations” (Buhu and Buhu 2019, 374). In sum, microlearning is the delivery of educational content in bite-sized bursts of information that can be more readily completed as students juggle their many obligations. Other formats conducive to microlearning include online quizzes made through ProProfs, infographics created on Canva, word clouds generated on WordClouds, or podcasts recorded on SoundCloud. By using a technology-based medium, I can engage learners in brief learning episodes best supporting them in completing short-term educational goals.

The formative role of formative feedback

Throughout my years of teaching online, it has also become clear that students are more likely to complete their short-term goals if they receive structured feedback. In fact, students thrive on feedback and instructor contact, especially in the online environment where physical proximity is problematic and nonverbal cues are not present or easily misread. To address such needs, the implementation of formative assessments is crucial because students receive immediate direction and feedback on concepts being studied in a no-stakes or low-stakes fashion. The primary applications I use for embedding assessments in my instructive screencasts or animations are PlayPosit, TED-Ed, or Google Docs.

Kahoot is an additional application easily utilized for formative feedback. Such formative assessments inspire confidence in online students who need higher touch points due to the online format while also enabling greater mastery of concepts. Finally, formative assessments “significantly improve students’ academic performance as well as their lifelong learning” (Nkealah 2019, 259). I’ve found my students readily engage in no-stakes or low-stakes quizzes and developing them saves me time as I use the quizzes as opportunities to proactively clarify challenging or critical concepts. Using formative assessments is definitely a winning learning approach for both me and my students.

Functional and fast feedback

When issuing feedback, not only is formative assessment feedback critical, the speed at which feedback is issued to online students is of paramount importance due to the added barrier of remote learning. Without timely recognition of work submitted or an understanding of areas of opportunity, an online student is more apt to lose motivation. I aim to post all feedback to students within 48 hours of their submission. This feedback includes embedded bubble comments, a written message, and an accompanying rubric. When issuing feedback, I use an application called TypeItIn, an inexpensive button application that allows me to develop differentiated comments to address every outcome of a submission based on a variety of completion levels by students. According to research, online instructor feedback needs to be timely, activity-based, developmental, positive, and supportive (Pan and Shao 2020, 7). When using a program like TypeItIn, I can more readily develop feedback and meet requirements at a variety of levels; the ability to easily tailor individualized feedback enriches the breadth and depth of my feedback while hastening its delivery.

Dual coding connections

While feedback provides crucial connecting points to close the gaps each week for me and my students, more connections are needed. To address this need, I create a weekly overview video and an assignment tips video. I use Screencast-O-Matic to record my screencasts. I don’t script my videos out verbatim, but I do re-record them until I am happy with them while ensuring they’re all under five minutes. Staying under the five-minute length further supports microlearning in avoiding cognitive overload. In addition to screencasts, I have developed many short animations focused on one learning concept at a time using the principles of microlearning to guide these creations. Recommended programs for animation development include Vyond or Doodly. In addition, I often upload these screencasts and animations to programs such as PlayPosit or TED-Ed where I can add embedded quiz-based formative assessments to aid in knowledge mastery. I also post all of my videos to my YouTube channel where I can add closed captioning and have it ready to access to pass on to students. Research indicates that using widely accessible screencasts as supplemental resources improves grades and clarifies expectations; such screencasts should be short and illustrate typical complicated or challenging concepts (Morris and Chikwa 2014, 33). As a final bonus, using screencasts and animations appeal to the audiovisual dual coding needs of many learners.

Accenting approachability and accessibility

While online learners have specific learning needs, they also have social needs, and an awareness of such needs is especially important in the more isolated online environment. Accordingly, too often online classrooms are sterile and impersonal. Correspondingly, research indicates students appreciate instructors who are not afraid to show their personalities, engage in humor when appropriate, and are available through multiple means of contact, such as texting, emailing, and phone (Dunlap and Lowenthal 2020, 85). Just as teachers change the mood of a traditional classroom with their physical designs, so can you with your online designs. There are many steps you can take to ensure your teaching presence reflects approachability and accessibility. Long a beloved program of many, I often use Bitmoji when making announcements, sending out emails, introducing discussion prompts, or issuing assignment directions. The light-hearted cartoon-version of myself and her antics garners appreciation and engagement from students. I also use a Chrome extension called Emoji Keyboard to insert emojis in order to lend tone and emotion to my posts. Finally, to encourage outreach from students, my contact information showcases multiple modes of communication, such as email, voicemail, instant messaging, and text messaging. An app to use for calls, voicemails, and text messages that can connect to your personal cell phone is Google Voice. In promoting a variety of ways I can be reached and by lending personality to my communications with students, I have found that I secure a more personal and trusting bond with students.  

Consider APPlying some of these ideas to your own high-impact practices to better engage and retain your students. While distance may be normal in online teaching, that distance can be quickly closed by utilizing the aforementioned practices and apps to enhance student achievement.

Amy Winger is an online instructor for the University of Phoenix. She holds a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MEd in English education from the University of Minnesota. For over 15 years, she has taught English and general education courses and enjoys pioneering the use of tech tools. Prior to that, she taught English at the secondary level. Her academic research primarily focuses on multimedia, hypermedia, and social media implementation in the online classroom. She also is a freelance fiction writer.


Buhu, Adrian, and Liliana Buhu. 2019. “The Applications of Microlearning in Higher Education in Textiles.” ELearning & Software for Education 3 (July): 373–76. doi:10.12753/2066-026X-19-189.

Dunlap, Joanna C., and Patrick R. Lowenthal. 2018. “Online Educators’ Recommendations for Teaching Online: Crowdsourcing in Action.” Open Praxis 10 (1): 79–89.

Morris, Cecile, and Gladson Chikwa. 2014. “Screencasts: How Effective Are They and How Do Students Engage with Them?” Active Learning in Higher Education 15 (1): 25–37.

Nkealah, N. E. 2019. “Applying Formative Assessment Strategies in the Teaching of Poetry: An Experiment with Third-Year English Studies Students at the University of Limpopo.” South African Journal of Higher Education 33 (1): 242–61. doi:10.20853/33-1-1373.

Pan, Xiaoquan, and Huijuan Shao. 2020. “Teacher Online Feedback and Learning Motivation: Learning Engagement as a Mediator.” Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal 48 (6): 1–10. doi:10.2224/sbp.9118.