Going Digital: Tips on How-To Make Online Learning as Effective as An In-Classroom Experience | D2L Middle East & Africa
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Going Digital: Tips on How-To Make Online Learning as Effective as An In-Classroom Experience

  • 4 Min Read

When I first started teaching online, I was shocked at how much work was involved. The course I was to transition was titled “Designing Technology Rich Curricula.” (How meta!) We used Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design model as a starting point, then examined and experimented with different curriculum development models so that students could better determine which of those best meshed with their teaching philosophy and context. It was a course that invited a lot of back-and-forth discussion, working in teams, presentations, and a lot of Q&A.

Moving from a physical classroom to a learning management system wasn’t the hard part. No, the hard part was reimagining what my course would look and feel like. More importantly, how would I be “present” in my course? How would students be present? How would we engage with one another the way we engaged one another in the physical classroom?

I wasn’t worried about my lecturing into a camera. I was worried about not truly seeing my students, not seeing their reaction to what’s being presented, not being able to field questions as they arise, not being able to experience that intellectual level of intimacy that’s an important part of the learning experience. Could we still achieve all of that online?

Over time and through trial and error, I learned I could “be there” for students using technology. I like to compare the process of “going digital” or transitioning to teaching fully online to taking your favorite book and making it into a movie. It can have the same characters, the same plot, the same point of view, the same pace, but the style, the organization, the dialogue, may need to change to be more effective.

Here are a few ways I was able to establish presence in my online courses that were equal to, and in some ways, better than my in my physical classroom.


One of the first ways I learned how to be more present with students was using digital polls. I found I could pose a series of questions to better understand where students were in their learning process, find out what was working, and what was giving them problems. I set ups weekly poll as a way to stay checked in and in-tune similar to what I would do more informally in my physical classroom.


While many of my colleagues never asked students to engage one another much, my physical courses did. I found group activities work spectacularly well when I made sure each group member had a specific role, with specific expectations, and detailed deliverables. This doesn’t matter whether you’re physically together in a classroom or working remotely online. It was a big step the first time I tried group projects online–How could I be sure students understood the instructions and were progressing effectively? To avoid confusion, I created specific time slots for the teams to check in with me during the week to monitor progress and make sure their project elements/deliverables were clear.


One of the biggest challenges I had to going digital was building too many activities and assignments thinking I needed to compensate for not being together face-to-face. For me how to effectively use a discussion forum was one of those hard-learned lessons. Discussion forums can be an outstanding way to open up conversation about specific topics, issues, and problems of practice, and to probe students to see what they are learning.

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Unfortunately, when I first started using them, I turned discussion opportunities into deep writing assignments that required peer feedback and overly thoughtful commentary with awkward deadlines and due dates. As you might guess, that never seemed to work out the way I wanted it to. When I kept the discussion forum focused on specific prompts and gave students explicit instructions and feedback on how they could respond using video clips, YouTube examples, links to news articles, I found participation increased four-fold with students taking the conversation deeper without any pressure or prompting. Students would report how much they enjoyed the tangents our discussions would take and that in some cases, they enjoyed the tangents more because they tended to focus more concretely on real-world, practical concerns and practices.

There are no quick fixes, no one-right-way to do discussion forums. The secret is experimenting with different ideas and finding what works best for you and your students. I found if I focused on strategies that allowed students to bring something to the conversation, then we could all keep learning together.

Today, for many schools and educators, going digital is no longer an option. Being there with students is something I will always cherish. Making it work online is not always easy, it’s not always seamless, and it’s not an exact substitute for a physical classroom experience. But with a little practice, a little imagination, a little patience, and a little help from your friends, you can create a truly meaningful learning experience that’s on par with your physical classroom experience. You might even be able to make it better. All you need to do is try.

Sometimes I like to think old Sisyphus actually enjoyed pushing that giant boulder up the hill only to have it coming tumbling back down the hill. I like to think it kept him fit, kept him humble, that it’s really a story about continuous improvement.

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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.