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Designing High-Quality Teaching and Learning Online: The Big Ideas

This Foundational Concept addresses the design of high-quality online instruction. Of course, technology problems can ruin an online session, and it’s important to get the details right. But the technical details should not obscure the big ideas. So, the logical approach is to keep the big ideas clear and then make sure the details work (Darling-Hammond, 2020). What are the big ideas for online instruction? This foundational concept addresses that question.

The enduring—and evolving—challenge is how to make online learning work well. Six big ideas for designing high-quality learning experiences can help. Whatever the adaptation of instruction to an online environment might entail, these ideas ought strongly to influence online instructional design (International Society for Educational Technology, 2017). Before turning to the six big ideas, the Foundational Concept briefly considers the historical context and future prospects.

Past and Future

Educators have taught remotely for decades:

  • in correspondence courses (well-established by 1900),
  • in the mid-20th century, in televised lectures,
  • later using satellite-based systems that offered real-time interaction, and
  • now in online courses including “massive” open online courses (MOOCs), some of which enroll a million or more people worldwide (Heydenrych & Prinsloo, 2010).

Remote teaching and learning have a much longer history than most educators realize. But all across this time span, public schooling in the United States remained very largely a brick-and-mortar enterprise: students and teachers in school buildings (Picciano & Seaman, 2009).

Nevertheless, PK-12 online schooling became common almost overnight with the onset of the pandemic of 2020-2021. The lesson is this: Given its long history and widespread contemporary use, online instruction is very likely to evolve further and become a more routine practice in PK-12 schools (Picciano & Seaman, 2009).

Six Big Ideas for Designing High-Quality Learning Experiences

The six ideas capture in brief form the standards for online teaching and learning adopted by the International Society for Educational Technology (e.g., ISTE, 2017). The underlying concepts, however, will be familiar to all educators: equity, active learning, curiosity, community engagement, collaboration, and standards.

Accommodate learners’ differences online.


  • Apply the principles of UDL (Universal Design for Learning).
  • Structure collaborative online student groups.
  • Provide for family and community engagement in learning activities.

Design deep and inviting online learning activities.


  • Use projects that build on students’ interests.
  • Take virtual field trips.
  • Provide time for student interaction.

Scaffold independent learning as part of online teaching.


  • Fully exploit the so-called “flipped” model (schoolwork at home and homework at school).
  • Build out online activities keyed to students’ interests.
  • Execute online teaching in ways that provoke and support curiosity.
  • Build in authentic products (e.g., student work shared with a diverse online audience).

Involve students with assessment of online learning.


  • Play up students’ interest in using formative assessment to improve their performance; but downplay grading.
  • Check on learning with quick formative online assignments (e.g., one question or problem).
  • Routinely check the web for new information about online tools and apps that can help with formative assessment.

Apply relevant standards to online teaching and learning.


  • Pay attention to the key concepts embedded in the academic content (but also know the specifics as a way to enrich learning experiences).
  • Refer to the ISTE standards for using technology to teach and for helping teachers improve their use of technology-based instruction.
  • Advocate for accessible platforms and resources.

Collaborate with fellow educators to improve online delivery.


  • Learn new online tools and techniques together.
  • Problem-solve logistical and practical issues together.
  • Collaboratively design online activities, lessons, and units.
  • Co-teach online.

Sweating the Small Stuff

At first, PK-12 virtual teaching may seem taxing, overwhelming, worrisome, and frustrating—especially for teachers with little experience teaching online. There is much to learn and, more importantly, much for educators to invent.

Online teaching was used (and perhaps overused) during the pandemic because it was a clear alternative to face-to-face instruction. The pandemic experience suggested, however, that online teaching offers some benefits. So, it may be used more in PK-12 schooling in the future. It’s still very much a work in progress, and sweating the small stuff comes with the territory.

What are some of the small things that help make online instruction successful? Here’s a partial list (Moore-Adams et al., 2016):

  • Practicing with an app before using it with students.
  • Choosing an online platform that facilitates interaction between students and teachers and among students.
  • Limiting screen time especially for younger children.
  • Choosing assessment apps that provide focused feedback.
  • Giving students activity breaks.
  • Ensuring students aren’t penalized for circumstances (e.g., network functionality) that are beyond their control.

A Time of Invention for Public Schooling

During the pandemic, the capacity and dedication of educators to keep schools going online proved astonishing (Martinez & Broemmel, 2021). There were lots of problems: poor infrastructure, providing devices to so many families, family stress from massive unemployment, unmet professional development needs, and, once things were up and running, the annoying failures of hardware and software. The problems were both unusual (e.g., the rapid decision in many places to close brick-and-mortar schools) and predictable (e.g., the exacerbation of prevalent societal inequities during the pandemic). Educators, though, remained stalwart and remarkably adaptable (Martinez & Broemmel, 2021).

Educators have demonstrated their adaptability and inventiveness in using online formats. This capacity bodes well for expanding the use of locally determined online applications and programs in public schooling (Morgan, 2020). Online instruction is here to stay in some form, including in PK-12 schools. Educators will be inventing and discovering what that will be like…starting yesterday.


Darling Hammond, L. (2020, May 19). A "New Deal" for education: Top 10 policy moves for states in the COVID 2.0 era. Learning Policy Institute.

Heydenrych, J. F., & Prinsloo, P. (2010). Revisiting the five generations of distance education: Quo vadis? Progressio, 32(1).

International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for educators.

Martinez, J. A., & Broemmel, A. D. (2021). Pencils down: Educators respond to the uncertainty amidst COVID-19 school closures. International Studies in Educational Administration (Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration & Management (CCEAM)), 49(1), 109–132.

Moore-Adams, B. L., Jones, W. M., & Cohen, J. (2016). Learning to teach online: A systematic review of the literature on k-12 teacher preparation for teaching online. Distance Education, 37(3), 333–348.

Morgan, H. (2020). Best practices for implementing remote learning during a pandemic. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 93(3), 135–141.

Picciano, A. G., & Seaman, J. (2009). K-12 online learning: A 2008 follow-up of the Survey of U.S. School District Administrators. In Sloan Consortium (NJ1). Sloan Consortium.