Advice for embracing modern and online learning | D2L
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Advice for embracing modern and online learning

  • 5 Min Read

For years, online learning has held a lot of promise for educators and training departments. As we’ve seen over the past 20 years, some of what passes as online learning can be classified as thoughtful and engaging, while other online experiences lack the care and attention needed to enable all learners to succeed. The quality of a learning experience is not dependent on the medium of the experience, whether it’s online, or face-to-face, or uses video or short-wave radio. The quality is dependent on how well the experience is designed. As an instructor responsible for that design, you may ask yourself, what should be my main considerations when I look to upgrade to a more modern teaching and learning approach?

Educate yourself

First, it’s important to remember, teaching and learning comes in a variety of forms, some more engaging and higher in quality than others. What makes a learning experience of higher quality has been studied and debated for many years now. If you’re new to these considerations, Congratulations! A lot of work has been done to make the transition easier. There are plenty of books, articles in pedagogical periodicals, newsletters, conferences, and online resources available. This is also a great opportunity to take advantage of your institution’s center for instruction or other professional development resources. Educating yourself on what works and what doesn’t is one of the best places to start. (including reading this article!)

Meet learners where they are

Another important quality principle to consider when moving your course online is to meet learners where they are. Not all students who enter our door are as prepared to be as successful as we would like. This requires us to rethink how we teach if we intend to meet their needs. Ungraded pre-tests and quizzes can be used to see what learners already know about the content you’re covering or about to cover next.

It’s important to remember that all students need your help in learning how to learn new material. Remember the first time you were introduced in class to a concept that blew your mind as a student? Remember thinking, how am I ever going to manage to learn this? What’s the trick? While you may not have signed up to teach a vocabulary lesson in your subject, it may be critical for students to get one for them to be better at understanding the information you’re presenting. This is why it’s important to meet students where they are, so you can help them get to where you want them to be.


It cannot be emphasized enough, the importance of keeping communication channels open with your learners. Since you’re at a physical distance, students need to know how and where to ask questions. Posting clear instructions or an FAQ in your course or syllabus on how to direct questions and inquiries will go a long way in bridging the transactional distance. Online office hours can be useful as a means for providing a clear communication point with learners as well as a specific thread in a discussion forum dedicated to learner questions and concerns.

Plan ahead

Course management is a task that’s incredibly important and easily overlooked. College students, no matter if they’re online or face to face, need to know where they are and what’s happening in their courses. Clearly communicating the syllabus, and expectations associated with readings, activities, assignments, discussions, and so on, needs to be a top priority when developing an online learning experience. My father was a Navy captain’s son, and he instilled in me a saying that I always use: proper, prior planning prevents p!@# poor performance. The seven P’s as they say. And it works. Planning your moves and engagements ahead of time helps facilitate the learning process for you and your students.

Adopt different instructional methods

There is a tremendous amount of good literature online about active learning, learner-centered teaching, and supporting high levels of quality interaction and engagement. Over the years I’ve learned to use what works best for me and my learners’ needs. When moving online be sure and take advantage of its highly visual nature. I use a lot of slides to tell my stories and convey content, followed by specific activities that have students analyzing, comparing, assessing, and applying the knowledge they are in the process of acquiring. Remember, as the instructor, you are modeling the skills, knowledge, and behaviors you want your students to adopt.

Use assessments proactively

Most students today are used to checking their grades online. It is important to make sure your grading policies and procedures are super clear. Take the time to explain how your system works and provide examples to be as clear as you can. Remind students how grades are used as a means to uncover what learners know and to inform the instructor how well they are teaching the content.

Be passionate

It is understandable to feel overwhelmed when adopting new strategies, techniques, and media. However, it is important to remember what drew us to this profession in the first place. For most of us, it was a passion that we held for our subject area, a desire to know everything about it, to study every angle, every corner, every detail. We are so moved by our subject matter, we even sport the desire to teach others about it.

In higher education, we have a chance to teach, learn, research, and influence our discipline, which in turn shapes our larger world. When it comes to teaching and learning, we have the research and we know what works best. Today’s successful college instructor has never been better positioned to meet the needs of every learner. Embracing the challenge and taking steps like those mentioned above can empower you and your learners for generations to come.

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Fueling up:

Upskilling to grow careers

Name: Zaria
Age: 27

Policy prescriptions: Invest in a Learning-Integrated Life; Transform the learning of today with new partnerships; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Zaria has five years of work experience and is ready to change jobs and enter a field that has high growth potential in her region. The national government has been investing in collecting better skills-based labour market information for years and has developed a public platform to offer individuals specialized tools to assess their skills against current market needs, and to locate employers that are currently hiring.

On the employer side, the human resources team is closely examining a recent internal skills audit done at their organization and determines that the organization needs additional digital marketing specialists. They initiate a search for individuals with the skills they will soon need and spot a strong candidate in Zaria who requires only light training on regulatory issues regarding the sale of electric vehicles, along with some formal skills development courses on social media marketing strategy. After a successful interview, Zaria is offered the job.

Upon joining, Zaria will receive an educational benefits stipend from the company, and access to a company-provided platform of curated programs for skills building from approved providers. Upon completion of a set of courses, Zaria will receive a credential from a company approved program verifying her technical knowledge and marking the end of her probationary period at the company. To ensure she continues to build her skills, she will move into a formal mentor program with one of her colleagues to receive continual peer-to-peer feedback on her demonstration of skills and knowledge. information

This affordable and accessible learning through employer-funded training has enabled Zaria to begin working while also upskilling to ensure her long-term success in the company and growing industry. The employer is investing in its employees, and company leaders are thinking further into the future about the skills the company needs, and the types of job candidates who will succeed. This match, based on skills potential, was made possible because of government investment in high-quality labour market information and a national platform that matches job candidates with career opportunities based on the candidates’ skills and the identified skill needs of a given job.

Taking the road less travelled:

A networked postsecondary education

Name: Sam
Age: 18

Policy prescriptions: Transform the learning of today with new partnerships

Sam is a prospective postsecondary student who has always been interested in pursuing a global and interdisciplinary education. Sam’s siblings have all instilled in her the importance of studying abroad, having spoken fondly of their academic exchange semesters, field research trips, and intensive language immersion programs. She is inspired, but unsure whether this pathway will be available if she chooses not to complete a four-year degree at one institution.

Sam is interested in understanding how emerging technologies can be used to modernize and improve government services—an area in need of talent not only in her home country of Canada but also abroad. She could take on a general political science, public administration, engineering, or computer science degree at the university close to her home, but none of those degrees feels like the right fit to build the skills she needs to pursue this career interest.

While researching options, Sam learns of a new degree completion pathway that allows students to take courses from a network of universities, colleges, and polytechnic institutions throughout Canada and stack them for skills-based  credentials that are recognized by major Canadian employers. A set of four of these credentials grants an individual a degree-equivalent endorsed by each institution. Sam identifies the skills and knowledge she wants to work towards and charts out four credential pathways:

  1. Service delivery design
  2. Change management
  3. Applications of emerging technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence)
  4. Machinery of government

With this customized learning pathway, Sam has full flexibility to decide how she wants to structure her courses, the institutions within the network she will study at, and the format and model of courses she prefers—whether live in-class instruction or online courses.

Cost flexibility is built in as well—students pay a standard fee based on the number of competencies they intend to learn rather than the normal standard of ‘credit hours’. The province in which Sam lives has endorsed this networked model of  postsecondary education and adjusted its financial assistance program to better support students. Grants and other non-repayable assistance take into consideration the number of courses the student is taking across all institutions when assessing financial need. Previously, Sam would have been required to be a full-time student at every institution to receive support.

Sam also has the option of starting with foundational courses or applying for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) information so her existing knowledge and skills can be tested and she can move on to more advanced topics.

Sam completes her first three credentials in three years and uses her certifications to apply for a one-year work-integrated learning experience with the federal government in Germany where she can learn first-hand about the applications of artificial intelligence in government. When she returns home, she applies for PLAR to certify her learning on the machinery of government and is granted a degree acknowledging her four-part customized education.

The collaboration between universities, polytechnics, and colleges to create a networked approach to degree completion, and its endorsement by the provincial government, allowed Sam to graduate as an alumnus of multiple postsecondary education institutions. Her exposure to different thought spaces and networks was highly valuable for ensuring she was engaged throughout her education and set up for post-graduation success. In the rapidly evolving field she has chosen, she understands how important it is to continuously upskill, and is prepared to return to formal education for more stackable credentials as she continues throughout her career.

Route guidance:

Personalized professional development

Name: ZheYuan
Age: 33

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

ZheYuan is about to join Marama’s school as a new secondary school teacher. He completed his professional teacher education a decade ago, and teaching looks a bit different today than it did when he was studying. With the incorporation of learning technologies in the classroom, and expectations of teachers delivering competency-based education information, he needs personalized professional development to feel comfortable and supported in this new opportunity.

The school district has been on its own learning journey since shifting to a competency-based education model, and has had some growing pains. Over time, the district has come to recognize that success depends on school administrators working closely with teachers to co-create systems of instruction, and pathways to professional development. The district has its own online learning management system (LMS) for teacher professional development, with a catalogue of content covering a range of subjects including:

  • Strategies for student-centred instruction
  • Design thinking—how to prototype and iterate on solutions to test new approaches
  • Online content—using learning management systems to advance competency-based education
  • Data analysis—interpreting student progress

ZheYuan is excited that he can take on professional learning to suit his needs on his own schedule. He recalls an earlier time when he had to spend nine hours a month in-person taking the same professional development courses as his peers who were teaching very different subjects and had varied skill levels and pedagogical needs than him, which was less than effective.

ZheYuan can also take advantage of his teacher community in the LMS, connecting both in asynchronous chats and in live discussions with other teachers and experts from across his region to ask questions and share his experiences. He sees some upcoming dialogues hosted by his school district to share learnings and signs up for those sessions, knowing he will get a valuable peer perspective from other teachers. ZheYuan is thankful that his school leaders recognize and value professional learning and provide the supports and the time needed for improvement.

D2L Whitepaper Contributors

Lead Authors:
Malika Asthana, Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs
Joe Pickerill, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, International

Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer
Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director, Future of Teaching and Learning
Brendan Desetti, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, United States
Mike Semansky, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, Canada
Nia Brown, Senior Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs

In the driver’s seat:

Owning the personalized learning journey

Name: Marama
Age: 14

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Marama is enrolled in a school with a competency-based education model information. Students are responsible for owning the personalization of their learning pathways, making choices alongside their teachers in how and when they learn.iii Teachers play a central role in guiding and validating all learning, regardless of where it takes place—offering formative assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of skills and knowledge. Teachers use data from these assessments, gathered through an online learning management system (LMS), to differentiate instruction and provide targeted supports so that all students progress toward graduation. As a student diagnosed with a learning disability, Marama is supported in her education by this personalized learning pathway.

All students complete an assessment in ninth grade to identify their natural strengths as a learner. Their teachers use the results as inputs to design tailormade educational pathways with learning materials and activities that suit the individual students’ learning needs. In Marama’s case, this includes:

  1. Supplementing lecture-based teaching with structured but independent reading
  2. Shadowing professionals who work on the concepts she is learning about
  3. Taking the stories and lessons she’s learned and sharing it back with classmates by designing a creative and interactive presentation

Over the course of the school year, Marama spends a third of her time in live lectures (sometimes online) with her teacher alongside other classmates—but the rest of her time is spent learning in the ways that suit her best. She can log into her online LMS from her mobile device to access her school resources and complete on her own schedule before the assigned deadline. When Marama finds a concept that interests her, she can ask her teachers and counsellor for support in finding a working professional to speak to, or work alongside for a couple weeks, from the network her school has curated over time. And when she has learned something, she is encouraged to reinforce her learning by applying her skills and developing content to share back with her classmates.

Marama’s personalized learning journey empowers her to own her education by learning in ways that are effective for her, with the support that allows her to be successful. Her teachers have high-quality data about student strengths and performance they can share with her parents to show them how she is mastering specific skills, and where she may need extra support. Her school experience empowers her to embrace her subject interests very early on, and she advances to deeper topics quickly as she submits evidence of learning that demonstrates her proficiency. She graduates having cultivated a mindset for self-directed learning early in her education.