Guiding Practices

Creating a Story

While some aspects of digital learning are based on traditional teaching methods, the use of technology opens up many new possibilities in a student centered-environment. It is the story created by students using digital tools that creates excitement and enthusiasm.

You may recall from previous lessons that the constructivist theory supports digital learning when the teacher acts as a facilitator by monitoring, guiding and nurturing student interactions. Even when using traditional activities found in the classroom such as role playing, jigsaw activities, debates, and fishbowl discussions, the teacher can guide students to explore the topics more fully using the Internet.

When the teacher rethinks the structure of a course to reflect the online learning environment, the importance of conversations and the need for a story about the subject become clearer. Activities designed to get students to explore the subject matter independently and create their own stories about what they are learning are motivational and increase engagement (Pallof & Pratt, 2005). For example, students can take key course concepts and write a speech script, posting it online for other students and the teacher to read. This type of activity injects active learning into the course (Salmon, 2003). Another example would be to have students apply their knowledge of a specific topic in making decisions about what else to explore within the subject. This can lead to shared decision-making in an online forum, taking into consideration a variety of new topics that appeal to students within the group. Student feedback gives the teacher a clearer view of each student’s background knowledge and personal goals for learning. The teacher can then make adjustments to the course to meet the students’ needs more fully.

At this stage of the process you will likely be engaged in lesson planning, often with input from colleagues. You may be part of a lesson-planning team. If you are provided with resources from which to create your lesson plan, you will still want to be mindful of the concepts introduced in this course. If you need to create your own lesson plan, you can use this lesson plan template for planning your delivery of online learning. It provides a basic template that can be used for a single subject and includes the considerations you would address in a traditional lesson plan. The only real differences for an online course will be the entries you create within the objectives, resources, outline, activities, and assessment fields. While the delivery of digital learning requires careful planning within these categories, the categories themselves remain the same.

Peer Involvement

Although students may need to wait for answers from the teacher to some of the questions they post online, discussion areas provide opportunities for other students to provide input. Peer tutoring can be used to have students work together on problem solving. Questions about course structure and assignments can be managed by the teacher, while questions about course content can be addressed in the pairs or groups of students designated by the teacher.

Opportunities for peer tutoring will depend on the age or grade level of the students, as social maturity is important when tasking students to work together online. Younger students are more likely to need help from parents, while older students will want to meet online outside the course or forums set up by the teacher to explore common interests.

Prior to assigning students to groups, the teacher may use icebreakers to build community among students who are new to digital learning. Activities such as “twenty questions” or “two truths and a lie” can start to build a more structured community online, engaging students and promoting participation. In continuous entry courses, in which new students join the group on an ongoing basis, a discussion area devoted to introductions can help to connect students in similar locales or with similar interests.

Discussion forums are an excellent tool for creating conversations about likes and dislikes, hobbies, and personal experiences related to the subjects being studied. It is important to avoid social discourse related to feelings about peers, and distractions that take time and focus away from the course. This is a delicate balance because you want to encourage students to explore and share, while at the same time avoiding commentary that can be discouraging or even hurtful among students. Thinking about what is productive and unproductive in what is commonly posted on social media is one way of approaching this issue. There is no classroom management tool to avoid bad behavior online other than the instruction of the teacher and the relationships that both previously existed and are built online among students.

Managing the Environment

In the digital learning environment, a number of issues related to productivity, engagement, and social norms arise and must be addressed. Unlike the traditional classroom setting in which teachers can employ strategies that rely on face-to-face interaction or even discipline such as visits to the school office, in a digital environment the management strategies require a greater level of student and parental involvement. Click on or tap each of the titles below to read more about each issue and how to deal with it.

Noisy and quiet learners

In a face-to-face classroom there are students the teacher hears from on a regular basis. They always have their hands up or shout out answers. Just like the face-to-face classroom, some students will be very loud in online discussions while others will be very quiet. The “noisy” learners may post a plethora of messages that aren’t necessarily related to course content and may dominate discussions just by the sheer number of posts they contribute. Quieter learners may be annoyed by these “noisy” individuals and the lack of quality content they present to the group. The quieter learners may post sporadically and sparsely. However, upon inspection, the quality of their contributions may prove to be “meatier” than all of the “noisy” learners’ posts combined. It is important that teachers watch for quality, and that they interact with all students, not just the “noisy” ones. The teacher can set expectations for the types of posts that are acceptable and those that are just cyberspace fillers.

Reading others

Many students making the transition from a face-to-face classroom to the online environment struggle with being able to “read” others in a text-only environment like a discussion forum. The teacher should demonstrate to students how emotions can be presented online. Starting the course with introductions that allow students to share their expectations, fears, and personal qualities will allow them to participate in the group-building process. Integrating small group projects and paired activities will also help students realize they can comfortably work with peers in a digital learning environment. Palloff and Pratt point out, “…virtual communication is human… Textual communication is a great equalizer and can prompt us to be more thoughtful about what we say online.” (1999, p. 35)


Sometimes a group of students will put pressure on others to conform to a certain thought or action in discussions. This pressure can cause students who do not want to join in due to this pressure to experience feelings of isolation and detachment from the group. It is important the teacher recognizes when members in a group may be bullying or putting down views that other students would like to share.


Discussion forums can be like transcripts of personal phone calls. Sometimes students will forget that their conversations with a select few are open to all to read. They might suddenly realize they have shared too much, leading to feelings of embarrassment and invasion of privacy. It is important that the teacher set parameters around online conversations at the start of the course. It is very important that students understand how visible they are in the online environment. It should be made clear to everyone that just because only a few people are a part of a conversation, that doesn’t necessarily mean others are not silently present as well.


Students can disappear quickly and quietly online. It is very important that the teacher monitors each course carefully and quickly makes contact with students who seem disconnected or are absent for an unacceptable period of time. The teacher should set parameters around how many and how often posts should be made during a course. Teachers quickly find that if they just post assignments and don’t check back, students will not see the activities as valuable and will not participate at a high level. To keep momentum going, teachers should promote active participation from all students in online discussions and present guiding questions which prompt students to respond and participate more fully.

Time management

Students and teachers can become frustrated with how many messages there are to read, or time spent trying to navigate to the content or activities they are seeking. Students need specific instruction on how much to post and how often, not only to prompt participation, but also to limit extraneous conversation and reduce the amount of time spent on what can be viewed as negative and discouraging activity. Simple and consistent navigation tools should be used to guide students to the things that engage and excite them. Rather than complain about the time spent trying to find what they need, they will most likely just log off.


Students often feel less constrained in an online environment when it comes to sharing their opinions, thoughts, and feelings. This can be a good thing when they are involved in controlled discussions and debates. However, it can also lead to “flaming” incidents in which students can end up in heated conflicts with one another. The teacher needs to be vigilant and intervene if necessary, to facilitate a resolution. This helps to avoid having other students withdraw their participation in the conversation because they feel uncomfortable, and also avoids other students furthering the conflict by taking a side and inflaming the situation.

As presented in the previous lesson on roles and responsibilities, parental involvement plays a significant role in student participation. Instruction to parents about how to support their children’s learning should include expectations about appropriate behavior and participation. Separate communication with parents should invite them to be monitors of their children’s participation not only in ensuring they do the work, but in how they participate and communicate.