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What Does Online Learning Mean for Teachers?

Editor's Note:

This is the latest article from Education Consultant Sue Neilson - see more about Sue below.



Creators. Innovators. Collaborators. Communicators. Critical Thinkers. Problem Solvers. Global Thinkers.


Educators have an opportunity to dispense with archaic educational systems and practices and embrace online learning, and in doing so support students in developing the characteristics they need for the 21st century.

Online learning is not synonymous with distance learning. Distance learning, as we experienced this spring, is traditional teaching that happens to occur over the internet. Online learning also is over the internet but is designed such that teaching and learning can be personalized to meet the strengths and interests of the learner.

Individualization vs. Differentiation vs. Personalization

Individualization simply means adjusting the learning pace for individual students, based on readiness. For a classroom, this means that the learning goals are the same, but that some students will be working farther ahead on teacher prepared learning and tasks, while others may remain on a goal or task for awhile until the teacher feels the student is ready to move on.

The term differentiation involves differentiation of content, process, product and environment, based on a student’s learning profile, readiness, and interests. The class shares the same learning goals, and the teacher builds in student choice for how the students learn the ideas, what process they will go through to master the expectation, what the evaluation piece might look or sound like, and where the learning should take place.


Personalization is an extension of differentiation but has an essential shift. The goal of personalization is for students to create their own pathways through the learning, and build personalized curriculum based on the (cross-curricular) expectations. Thus, the teacher’s role moves from being the one who designs and delivers the learning, to being the person who teaches students how to design – and evaluate – their own learning. The teacher recognizes and helps students develop the attributes or characteristics of a student who will be successful in this type of forum.

The Student Online Readiness Tool (SORT)

Online learning requires specific attributes that can identify how well a student will be proficient with online learning. These attributes are perseverance, getting help, communication, planning and organization, time management, independent thinking, and technological proficiency. These attributes are the seven key components of the new

Student Online Readiness Tool (SORT).

The SORT not only helps students to reflect on their ability to be an online learner, but also helps teachers and systems determine where, when, and which students can begin to be more responsible for their own learning. At the outset there will likely not be large numbers of students able to direct their own learning, and many will have to acquire the attributes necessary to be successful. However, in teaching students how to become proficient with these attributes, we truly are educating our students to be life-long learners.

What does this look like for the classroom teacher?

Many students do not need teachers to teach them. In fact, a great deal of learning takes place outside of the classroom…using the internet. Humans are naturally curious – unless we remove that capacity with the rigidity of the factory model of education – and when interested in a topic, we find any vehicle or source for learning that we can get our hands on. This is why one of the first things teachers should do is teach students about basic curriculum design. Let them select cross-curricular expectations, bundle them, figure out their own plan for learning, and a plan for measuring the learning.

Students who already are ‘there’ with the attributes for online personalized learning, require a quick introduction to curriculum design, and monitoring from then on in. They do not need to sit in on Zoom calls for teacher teaching moments, and likely even for class discussion – unless personally they know they learn from classroom discussion. If students need help, they will ask. They might not ask the teacher; they may reach out into the community or across the world to someone who can further their thinking or develop their skills. This gives the teacher flexibility to work with those students who work best with their teacher, or who are working on developing their attributes.

Part of effective classroom management and online learning as well, is the ability to communicate. Online learners should be able to reach out to others who share similar interests or pursuing similar research. Theoretically, this should be not limited to a particular district or school, but worldwide.

Connecting Student Agency with Online Learning

The Covid 19 pandemic is affecting education systems around the world and it would be unfortunate to lose this opportunity for growth by maintaining the status quo. We need our children to be prepared for the new realities of the 21st century, and this cannot happen with an archaic system that only works for a portion of students. Here is one way that students, with help from teachers and other adults, can seize this moment to begin a journey of self-discovery through online learning.


Beginning the Process of Online Learning


Teach Them How to Formulate and Ask Questions


Innovators are people who observe, wonder and ask. We want to make sure students remain curious throughout their entire learning journey, for their entire lives.


  1. Let the students do the wondering. Too often, when we introduce an excellent idea like ‘Genius Hour’ teachers find that the rigidity and passivity of traditional student learning has cancelled the students’ ability to wonder, and students have no idea what they would like to find out more about. They are so used to being told what to do and what to learn about that when asked, they cannot generate a topic of interest.

  2. Avoid the ‘right answer’. Students get so hung up on the right answer that they stop thinking. Problem solving and independent critical thinking requires the ability to brainstorm, hypothesize, test theories, which do not occur if the student is always looking for the answer the teacher wants.


Imagine for a Minute

There exists a misconception that personalization means that the teacher must design a personalized plan for every student. Quite the opposite is true. Students who possess the seven attributes for learning should design their own plan. If educators truly believe in student voice and student agency, then a fundamental shift must occur in classrooms.

Imagine a class that is not in one room. Imagine that the students have the same delight and wonder in learning that they did in kindergarten. Imagine that curiosity drives behaviours rather that blind compliance. Imagine that students understand the need to learn the big ideas in a curriculum document and can talk about expectations and strands. Imagine that students see the links between different documents and can select the expectations that link with the learning pathway they have chosen. Imagine a student using the internet to reach out to students world-wide with similar interests and collaborating together on a project. Imagine that students demonstrate their knowledge, skills and abilities in real-life authentic contexts that mean something to them.


Creators. Innovators. Collaborators. Communicators. Critical Thinkers.

Problem Solvers. Global Thinkers.



Sue Neilson is a former teacher, principal and currently works as an

education consultant and passionate advocate for educational change.


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