Choosing Your Distance-Learning Classroom

Choosing Your Distance-Learning Classroom

By the OER Project Team

This blog series, crafted by online learning specialist Ian Usher, began in March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted the shut-down of in-person learning across the United States. This is the first blog in an eight-part series. You can find the rest of the blogs in the series in our Teaching at a Distance Center.

For those of us that haven’t taught at a distance before, the prospect can be a little daunting.

We know it isn’t as simple as setting up a Google Hangout with our classes and settling into an otherwise familiar routine. Many well-intentioned programs and thought leaders are flooding our inboxes with lists of resources—so many, in fact, that it’s pretty hard to figure out how to get started!

I'm going to try to make it easy. Let's dig into two useful tools, and then think a little bit about some initial considerations for online teaching more generally.

Get the tools

1. In their own time and yours – Google Classroom

Google Classroom is an asynchronous learning tool – meaning that you set or share a piece of work at a particular time, and your students engage with it at a time and in a place to suit them. In a class in Classroom you can post digital resources for your students (web links, documents, videos), set self-marking quizzes for students and collect their work.

  • Check out this video introduction to Google Classroom.
  • Prefer written instructions? You can also view similar information in a PDF file here.

2. “Face-to-face” – Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is a version of video chat software. If you know your students are going to be online at the same time –synchronously- then Google’s Hangouts Meet is a great way for you to check-in on them – and for them to check-in with one another. While it’s not yet completely woven-in to Google Classroom, there are plenty of guides on how you can easily add a Hangouts Meet into a class you’re running with Classroom.

  • Get started with Hangouts Meet here
  • Here’s a simple document to get you started
  • Here’s a brief summary of some teaching ideas

Online Teaching more Generally

At this point, you may have started to figure out how these tools work. Now what? Here are some general things to consider as you start to actually plan lessons, and not just what you are going to use to try to deliver them. Also, keep in mind - this stuff is NOT easy. It can take years just to hone your teaching craft, and you’re probably trying to get a class going online in a mere fraction of that time. Be patient with yourself, and for now, celebrate small successes.


So you’ve gone from the classroom to the home room. Literally, you are at home, and so are your students.

Before you get too far into things, the first thing you may have to contend with is where everyone is. What is their access like? Is their wifi signal strong? Are some students in well-resourced and serene homes while others struggle for a quiet place to work? Is their setting supported by a generous and engaged community of parents and caregivers, while others are flying solo? Considering this, you might have your first meeting be just that - a meeting. No agenda, just a test of equipment, a sort of getting reacquainted in our news spaces. In many ways, you are establishing a new classroom culture. 


Many lauded online teachers combine a passion for their subject or grade with an equal passion for applying technology in that setting. The support they get might be more focused, their school could be well-resourced, their spouse might give them time and space to experiment with technology at home - that doesn’t have to be you. In fact, if you’re in a different setting, it can’t be you. When you read transformative accounts of how online learning changed everything in a school, look for the clues as to why it happened and learn from them - don’t just be distracted by the sparkling outcomes.

One of the best ways to deliver a useful and rich online learning experience is to keep things simple, and in many ways, get back to the basics. Here are some questions that will help you focus on your objectives, so that you can create online learning that is suited to the needs of your students. Make a note of your answers somewhere - in a note-taking app on your phone or tablet, a Google Doc, or a physical notebook - whatever works for you. Your answers can help you focus any further planning and actions - which of course these might change as your thinking develops, or as you find out more about how your students are responding to moving from the classroom to the home room.

  1. If you could give your students a single piece of knowledge or insight, what would it be?
  2. How would you communicate this to them in your normal classroom setting?
  3. How would you expect them to respond - in spoken, written or other creative formats?
  4. How would you assess their responses, either to understand what they have learned or further develop their thinking?

You don’t have to know what your first online activity will look like yet. As mentioned in the video, think about the outcomes - for your students, your class, your school, and you. If it seems intimidating - don’t worry, lots of teachers across the world are looking at this wondering how to get started - but we’re going to clear a path through this jungle of choices for online learning. Next time, we’ll take a look at how to really get started in Google Classroom - introducing some activities and tools which will form a good foundation, whether you’re just dipping your toe in online teaching or considering jumping in fully-clothed.

In the meantime, wash your hands, look out for those around you and look after yourself.

Ready for more? Check out the second post in this series now.

About the author: Ian Usher is Head of Learning Innovation at Herts for Learning, the UK’s largest school-owned company, and a school governor in his home county of West Sussex. He advises schools on implementing learning technology appropriate to their circumstances and has been named an Adobe Education Leader for his work in school-focused e-learning. He plays the guitar badly and remains convinced that stand-up paddleboarding on the ocean is one of the most rewarding ways to socially isolate.