5 Course Considerations for Structuring Distance Learning

Contributed By

Kellie Ady

Director of Instructional Strategy, Schoology

5 Course Considerations for Structuring Distance Learning

Posted in Pro Tips | April 24, 2020

Temporary interruptions to the school day, school week, and even school calendar are  hardly a new occurrence for many K-12 school districts in the US.  Typically related to weather events, some K-12 districts have turned “snow days” into digital learning or e-learning days, and as of December 2019, twelve states (including Indiana, Illinois, and Colorado) have even adjusted attendance policies to account for learning remotely when learning at school isn’t an option.  

But in this new reality, where we are now faced with extended closures with both teaching and learning happening at home, we have educators and students  all over the globe who are faced with moving into digital platforms, some for the first time.    

What if you’re new to distance learning?  What if you haven’t had some of the extensive PD and training that virtual instructors and teachers already have?  Here are 5 quick -- and easy -- considerations for structuring your learning environment for a distance learning scenario. 

Content Organization (think folders!) for Online Learning Environments

Organization is key to any learning approach, but it’s especially critical when students are learning at home.  It can be tempting when first starting out to just post items without organizing them.  However, using course folders to collect items together will greatly help your students not feel overwhelmed and lost.   

While teachers might initially want to put content into units, many virtual classes are structured with folders based on weeks.  That helps students know what happened -- and when -- and helps them pace the learning.  If structuring course content into units, it might be a good idea to include a date or time range to help learners know when that content was posted or “covered.”


For other content that is generic or timeless (like how-to videos or online textbook resources), a different name that isn’t time-based will help it stand out as a place for ongoing resources.  Because we have many parents who will be supporting learning at home more than ever, consider creating a “Parent Resources” folder so that you can share things that would help them as well. 

Many schools are facing closure for at least a month, if not the rest of the school year, and being thoughtful about your use of folders will help keep content organized and let students know “where” they are in the school year. 

Consistent and Clear Naming Conventions 

In the same way that course content should be organized into folders, it’s also important to keep a level of consistency with the items or activities placed into those folders.  When naming files or links or assignments, try including a consistent indicator of what is expected for the item. 


Virtual course design often includes a “coding” system to help students know what they are expected to do, but you can also just use the first word in the title as your indicator.  If posting an item for students to read and then respond (like in a Discussion board), include that in the title (e.g. “Read and Respond: 7 Surprising Facts about St. Patrick’s Day ”) or indicate  if they are expected to watch, listen, or submit an assignment.   You could also name items based on what they are (Lesson, Quiz, etc.).  Even though course icons for different items are a visual indicator in most LMS’s, it doesn’t hurt to also clarify with a naming convention. 

No matter what you choose, just make sure you use it throughout the course. The more consistency you use with naming conventions, the more comfortable students will be as they access different types of items in the course. 

Content Visibility and Placement in Online Learning Environments

Once you start adding more and more content into your course, it can get overwhelming for students, even if you’re thoughtfully organizing items into folders. And if you’re organizing by week, you’ll want to think about where past “week” items should go. 

It’s a good idea to put whatever is currently being worked on at the top of the course. That way, students know that the top folder is always the one being worked on now. In self-paced virtual courses, that isn’t necessarily the best structure as students could be in any module at any time; but if you’re in a situation where you are teaching students from home and pacing the learning as if you were learning at school, keep the active material at the top. 


In addition, consider hiding items that students no longer need or aren’t accessing yet. That helps them focus on the content they should be paying attention to. You can typically “hide” or “unpublish” items and folders, which works well if students won’t need to access it at all. If they still need access but you want to keep the focus on current topics or items, you can use a folder for “Past Work” and move any folders or items into it for continued access without cluttering the course. 

Color, Images, and Media

Making a learning environment inviting and appealing for learners is another thing to consider for students learning at home. Course folders can be color-coded, images can be added, and other multimedia items can be embedded to make the course look like a fun place to learn. 


That being said, don’t overdo it -- and think about what makes the most sense. Adding images and graphics is easy to do, but you don’t want to have so many images that the eye is scattered all over the page. Use images on folders, for example, or use a specific font or color for something you want to stand out. But remember that some students might be color-blind or might be using a screen reader. Even if you are leveraging color and images, have text as well to support all students who are accessing the course. 

Connecting through Communication Tools and Audio/Video

This is probably the biggest consideration we should have right now. Students and teachers are used to seeing each other every day, and teachers rely heavily on non-verbal cues to gauge understanding. Try to structure the course to allow for times that you can “meet” together and find ways to have voices and faces included in the course whenever possible. 

For assignments and other items that you expect students to complete, record yourself giving the directions, either with your webcam (best option) or just with audio (good option). Not only will students likely better understand what you want as they can hear your explanation, see your face, and read any directions, but having your face and voice in as many places possible will help students feel connected to you (in addition to providing audio support to those who need it). 


For students, build in opportunities for them to connect with you and each other. If using Discussion Boards, encourage students to use their webcams to respond so that students can hear and see each other. For assignments, provide audio or video feedback so that students hear your voice -- and respond back to you. And try to find times to meet together virtually.  There are many options for this that can be accessed right inside courses, like Conferences/Big Blue Button, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts. 

Want to see how a Distance Learning Course might look in Schoology? Kristie Burk, Coordinator of Online Learning and Schoology Ambassador, shared these suggestions during our Distance Learning Meet-up on March 27. 

Final Thoughts

Regardless of how long schools might be closed, being thoughtful about how you structure course content is something that you can (and should) use forever, even when we are back to learning together at school. Chances are good that even when we are “back in school,” you will have found new ways to engage with students and technology.

Need more ideas about how to leverage Schoology tools for virtual learning? See our video on “5 Simple Ways to Move Face-to-Face Instruction Online.” Need more ideas about remote learning in general? Check out our Distance Learning Readiness Toolkit.

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