Unexpected Lessons from Viruses or Lessons about Virtual Learning

Mar 24, 2020

Because of today’s crisis, schools and universities who are not virtual are now moving to virtual, online instruction. Making the transition to teaching beyond the classroom takes a bit of thought and planning. I won’t claim to be the font of all knowledge, but I am willing to share the lessons I have learned that might help those readers who are suddenly faced with a screen instead of smiling faces. I hope that this is just the start of the conversation as there are many teachers who have made the transition from classroom to online and the further transition from online instruction to online learning.

I’ve been teaching virtually (as in distance learning) for more than 20 years. The students were Masters level graduate students of the IKNS program at Columbia University, Ph.D. candidates of Walden University, a fully virtual, accredited university, and professionals in their fields from different organizations and businesses. The students came from such distant locations as the Emirates, Ghana, London, and more. My largest class was 55 students, my smallest class was made up of one. Moreover, I have been a virtual student myself, obtaining my Ph.D. from Tilburg University in The Netherlands while living in the US.

My thoughts are made with four assumptions in mind:

  1. You already have clear learning objectives with content and exercises to support them in hand. The question becomes how to convey the content and rejig the presentation and exercises so they will work at a distance.
  2. You are interested in the development of your students. This is a really big one when it comes to distance.
  3.  You are willing to take the time to make virtual teaching a true learning experience for your students.
  4. If your institution has some virtual platforms (BlackBoard, Canvas, AdobeConnect, Webex, Zoom, etc.) to use, you know how to use them.

With this in mind --

Rejigging your class
Done well, designing how you present your content and how students will learn it from a distance will take more time. If all you do is lecture, then you are set to just sit in front of the camera and talk. This, as we all know, is not offering a learning opportunity. But that’s another blog on philosophy and money.

Create materials that students can use in their learning activities. For example, if they are writing a report that must cover certain points, offer a template that will guide them. If this is too directive for your students, offer a sample that will show the form you want them to use, or direct them to an article that models the form of the report.

Include video as much as possible during presentations and especially during meetings. Don’t let students hide during a session if the platform offers the possibility of sharing their image. Seeing others is part of what makes the classroom dynamic. Try to emulate this dynamism online – including your visage. Don’t hide behind PowerPoint slides for long periods of time. A rule of thumb is break up the PowerPoint presentation at least every 15 minutes (better at 7-minute intervals) with an exercise, a question that students are to respond to, or just you being on camera talking with them.

Deal especially with the student who cannot attend the live session. For example, finding a time when someone from Qatar can make it during normal business hours is hard if not impossible. The easy and obvious thing is to make your presentation slides and notes available online. However, to assure they are engaged, there should be an assignment given to them that forces them to, at the least, read your materials and report on something you ask about. I like to assign them to write about something that surprised them from the content and why it did so. Trivial reasons are not acceptable. Their reasons need to relate to the course objectives.

Keep the instructions for teams as clear as possible. Keep in mind that a sufficient structure actually supports creativity and real thinking. Too little structure can have students worrying about how they should do the work instead of doing the work. When working remotely, answers to questions and advice are delayed along with progress on the task.

Teams should be three to 6 in size. This is important and depends on the length of time the teams must work together. Shorter time means smaller teams so that getting to know each other and how they work together can be accomplished in time to do the exercise itself. Longer times allow teams to work out how to work together as well as do the work. This does not mean that exercises in pairs is ruled out. Paired exercises are usually very brief, just sufficient to achieve relevant knowledge sharing and report out of insights.

If the teams are doing major pieces of work over the course of the term, weekly meetings really help. These meetings can be as short as 10 minutes and should never be longer than an hour. My best teams insisted on weekly meetings with me and often took only 10 minutes to report progress and ask for whatever advice they needed.

Relating to students
Be accessible to your students as a mindset. Because you are at home does not mean that you should be invisible.

Find ways to get to know your students. It should be more than photos. (See my first idea under Tactical Ideas below.)

Clarify how they can reach you including times and vehicles. I always share my mobile number and indicate that if students want my quick attention, they can text me any time between 7am and 9pm (time zone noted) on any day of the week. I give them my email address and promise to respond within 48 hours to any email. I offer times when they can join a Zoom conversation by using my personal Zoom ID, i.e., office hours online.

Create a common place where communication to the class is kept and is open to all students, including their responses to group discussions or exercises. This is best done using a common platform for the institution that can preserve the history of the class on a protected platform.

Establish agreed vehicles for communicating with you (see above). While you may wish to have an agreed vehicle for students to communicate with each other, dismiss that idea from the start. There are many vehicles and platforms they can use. The key is to make it necessary for them to communicate with one another as part of the design if this type of communication is important to learning.

I am open to one on one meetings at mutually agreed times. I usually set these times for 30 minutes unless agreed that the student needs an hour. I never meet for more than an hour at a time. Even for graduate students, this is enough.

Meetings that are scheduled with teams always have an agenda along with a question to ponder beforehand and set start times and end times. After modeling how agendas work, demand they develop an agenda for any call they schedule with you.

You should look at what platforms your institution uses and decide if you wish or need to augment. (I like email, text, and Zoom.) The key is that students need to know exactly how to contact you and that you respond as you say you will. This last point is essential in a virtual environment to maintain quality relationships with students.


Tactical considerations
With a new class, ask students a question about themselves that they must post their response to the class in the common space. My favorite question is to ask students to tell a short story of a time they did something for which they are very proud. The question is generative, and I haven’t met a student yet who hasn’t been able or willing to share their story. The entire class will gain enormous insight into each other about their interests and strengths. I find it valuable to share one of my stories in this conversation as well.

Be consistent with your performance of the ‘rules of engagement’. If you say you will respond to their emails in 48 hours, respond to all emails within that time frame – even if to say that you are sick and will get to it as soon as you are able. Students love to be heard, and in virtual settings, you need to use every opportunity to demonstrate this.

Reread your emails to students. Be sure that the tone you wish to convey is consistent with the language used in the email.

For example, let’s take a student whose participation in the last group meeting was overbearing. The class is about leadership. This is a moment when you want to tell the student in a manner that they can clearly see the impact of their behavior on the class and on themselves consistent with good leadership principles. I might say, “I appreciate your keen interest in the material we discussed at the last meeting, but I also want you to be aware that when you spoke, you often spoke over other students who are as interested in the material as you are. As a result, the class never heard their ideas. I know you are equally keen on becoming a team leader in your field and that you know that that role is about garnering the best from team members. Consider this at our next meeting as you interact with your classmates. I’ll give you feedback on your participation after that meeting, and let’s see if you have built on your objective, namely to garner all the ideas a team has to offer.”


I love watching and being a part of students as they learn. I always introduce myself not as a teacher but as someone who simply offers learning opportunities. It’s a different mindset, and I hope that my suggestions are ones that might help as you move from the delights of working face-to-face in the classroom to the quiet of your home office (or wherever) where the students are remote from you. I’ve worked with distance activities for more than 25 years and have discovered that it is just as rewarding if you are successful in making connections with your students.

  • Rejig your class so that it takes advantage of what can be done remotely.
  • Use team activities recognizing that the students in the teams are also remote from each other.
  • Build connections with your students so they know you as you learn about them.
  • Consider ways in which to show your students that you wish to nurture their development and growth.

 My sincere desire is that others will append their ideas of how to make the very most of this moment in history always maintaining the deeper focus of moving away from online instruction and toward online learning. For many reasons, I hope this obligatory time of remote teaching is brief. At the same time, given the likely future of work, I hope it will also teach us how we can connect and offer learning opportunities to others at a moment’s notice regardless of relative proximity and regardless of time within our careers.



Blair, Madelyn (2010). Riding the Current: How to deal with the daily deluge of data, Pelerei Publishing, Jefferson, MS.

Blair, Madelyn and Denise Lee (2019). The education continuum: a journey of reinvention Remenyi, Dan, Kenneth A. Grant, and Shawren Singh (Eds.), The University of the Future, (pp 15-28) ACPIL, Reading, RG4 9SJ, UK.

Gergen, Kenneth J. (1994). Realities and Relationships: Soundings in social construction, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Hutchens, David (2015). Circle of the 9 Muses: A storytelling field guide for innovators and meaning makers, Wiley, Hoboken, NJ.

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