Starting Distance Learning? Tips to Reach Students Virtually

Tips for running live classes in a distance learning online classroom.

Laptop and signboard saying

With many educators transitioning to distance learning for the rest of the school year, some might feel overwhelmed or uncertain while navigating new tools, processes, and online pedagogy. The big question for many educators is: How can we continue to spark meaningful learning for students who are now outside of a traditional, brick-and-mortar classroom?

Whether you are an expert in delivering digital instruction, or embarking on this journey for the first time, there are many resources to help. Know that you are not alone — there is a global online community of educators rising to the same challenge.

What is distance learning?

Distance learning allows educators to reach their students from anywhere through online instruction, interaction, and correspondence. While this method reaches learners directly, there are new components to consider outside of an in-person classroom. As we kick off our series on distance learning this week, we’re starting with the basics of engaging video conferencing and other forms of live interaction between you and your students.

As part of the series, we’re speaking with expert educators to hear their proven and accessible strategies for success. Dr. Shannon Pufahl (Jones lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University), for instance, emphasizes that “as teachers, we should take care to diversify our pedagogical tactics. Using both synchronous and asynchronous elements, as well as preparing students to use technology effectively, are essential to a well-run virtual classroom”.

From running online lectures to managing student discussion and engagement, see the tips and resources below to make your digital classes a success.

Cultivating digital class participation

Now that students aren’t in the same physical space, educators need to find alternative ways to deliver instruction and foster live communication. Keep in mind, a lot of the core pedagogical principles of your instruction can still apply, with adaptations to suit this new environment.

Dr. Pufahl notes, “We often think that moving a class online means we must minimize or overhaul our approach. But the virtual classroom is only one point of contact between students and instructors, and many of our most reliable strategies will work just as well online as in-person.”

If you plan to run live video discussions with your students, take some time to discover available free tools. This may include Google Hangouts, Adobe Connect, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom. Many providers have created best practices for educators, such as this resource from Zoom.

Here are a few of our top tips for online classroom management based on recommendations from Dr. Pufahl:

1. Get everyone comfortable with the conference tool. Dr. Pufahl suggests, “Before you begin an online discussion, consider preparing students in two ways. First, give students the opportunity to learn the basics of your online conferencing tools. Set up an open-ended trial time in which students will learn how to log on, how to use functions such as mute or break-out groups, and how to ‘raise their hands’ or signal other kinds of participation.”

It’s important to remember that time management and pacing may have to be altered in a distance learning situation. Let students have dedicated time to be silly and “play around” with technology tools, so that they become more comfortable using them. In the process, students may discover new features, and can help share ideas or troubleshoot problems they encounter later.

2. Make use of the mute button. In many conferencing platforms, you can automatically mute your students’ microphones when they join the call to avoid background noise. During discussion periods, you can then unmute students, or ask students to unmute themselves. Built-in chat boxes can be a great way for students to chime in or ask questions while you or someone else is speaking. For the first few weeks, you may want to start every class with a quick reminder of where the chat box, mute button, video buttons, or other important tools are.

3. Set digital conferencing norms. Unlike an in-person classroom, where rules are more implied, a digital environment requires teachers to set very clear expectations about behavior basics (how to signal a speaking turn, etc). Dr. Pufahl suggests. “Before you run your first class, or as a first-class activity, make sure you have your own protocols in place and can communicate them to students.”

4. Be even more explicit about prep work and class agendas. “Make students aware of what will be accomplished in the online class meeting and what the expectations are for their participation,” recommends Dr. Pufahl. At the beginning of class, you may want to screen-share your agenda to remind students what will be accomplished. Prior to the live meeting, you can also email students prompts, exercises, or small group assignments. “In my experience,” Dr. Pufahl shares, “keeping an online discussion focused can be a difficult task — using prompts and other kinds of content prep can help a lot.”

5. Is live video not the right fit for you and your students? Live interaction can still happen. You can have students join a conference phone call, or communicate via tools like Google Classroom, Slack , or the chat option in your school’s LMS (Learning Management System). Students can even use Google Docs or Google Slides to collaborate on visual projects, writing, and discussion topics.

Keep in mind, this is probably new to your students (and maybe to you as well!) Try different tools, and take one step at a time. Each classroom is unique, and you can find the best system that works well for you. Ultimately, you will be able to use technology as a means to facilitate discussion from anywhere, rather than focusing on the technology itself.

Resources to support you

As you navigate the new online distance learning environment, take a look at these additional resources to support you:

Upcoming webinars and live events

To bring you additional support, Adobe Education is hosting a series of upcoming webinars that will share and learn distance learning strategies in real-time. You can see a list of our live and recorded webinars by visiting our Distance Learning Resources page. Please also join us for the live virtual events below:


Every Thursday, we are hosting a livestream on our Adobe for Education Facebook and Twitter channels featuring educators from around the globe. Join us for our second livestream on Thursday, March 26th from 12:30pm – 1:00pm PT with Dr. Ai Addyson Zhang! To join, simply visit our Facebook or Twitter page Thursday at 12:30pm, or catch the recording of the livestream on our pages later at any time.

Join the Adobe online community

To connect with other educators around the globe, join our Adobe Creative Educator program launching soon. In this program, you’ll receive curated professional development materials focused on creativity and digital literacy, and access to an online community of like-minded K12 and HED educators.

We also encourage you to participate in our monthly #AdobeEduCreative conversations on Twitter to participate in challenges, share best practices, and win prizes. Together, we are better in reaching students everywhere!