The distance class: less is more

The teacher was the physical referent of the class, the permanent facilitator, the moderator.

She divided her time between the school where she taught, participated in meetings with her colleagues, received parents and her home where she prepared his lessons, corrected homework.

And then overnight, all schools closed. Everyone has to teach and learn distance and has to do it now! No magician imagined being able to make the school disappear overnight.

We certainly have the technical means to do so. We can give a distance learning course by videoconference to students staying at home. We can use a virtual class which reproduces the functioning of the class with a shared screen and a chat tool for the pupils.

But none of these solutions has been thought of as a replacement for physical school. In fact, nothing was as ready as we thought. Nothing has ever been thought of on a large scale so that children no longer have to go to school.

The teaching paradigm changed within hours.


The distance class

“Teaching is a two way thing!”This is exactly the challenge we face. In a few days we need to invent the distance class – and this is not about distance learning as we understood it.

The distance class starts with the relationship between a teacher and his class – the only guarantee of the quality of learning -. This relationship should be maintained at a distance with a quality equivalent or close to that which existed in the physical space of the classroom.

How to continue teaching “as before”? How to do it without a physical place common to the teacher and his students but with the same protagonists? How to respond to an exceptional situation with the same quality? With what skills, what training, what goals?

All these questions are raised and a mobilized, competent teaching staff must urgently invent a new concept: distance class.

What has changed?

Physical space has disappeared; Students have become invisible; Heads of schools have become invisible; Parents have become more visible; Time has lengthened: the day no longer has clear boundaries between work and leisure.

What remains as before

The teacher is the only one in charge of his class; Classroom assistance is mandatory; All children have the right to be in class; A class has a schedule; Class hours allow children to acquire knowledge and skills by following a well established curriculum


Distance class? Yes but how?

It is reassuring to hold on to what we do best.

The teacher prepares her lesson with care, following on the one hand the school curriculum and on the other hand adapting her teaching to the characteristics of the class group. The lessons are scheduled during the day depending on their difficulty and the attention required from the students; a class will alternate between “difficult” subjects and more “fun” activities to give a rhythm that suits the greatest number of students in the class.

The teacher follows the work of his students in a way as personalized as possible; the teacher questions the students, answers their questions as individually as possible, getting closer to those who need it.


How long should a distance class last?

Can we keep the 50-minute lessons or should we offer shorter durations … supplemented by home work? Those who experience extreme teleworking these days know the fatigue generated and the concentration required by repetitive videoconferences, more or less organized and with very variable durations.

The distance class cannot be a perfect copy of the physical class. The teacher and student’s ability to concentrate is not the same. They need breaths, moments of escape.


Less is more

Today with digital, you have to learn to do less, better, shorter.

The teacher must be convinced of his ability to easily create lessons for the distance class without duplicating those he had for the traditional class. Simple advice: Do as usual! Prepare your lesson before giving it on a virtual platform! This advice seems trivial. It’s not that much.

Each online lesson should last a maximum of 30 minutes. To the teacher, the motivating and explanatory work to be done in class: “the teacher is the guide”. To the students that want to go deeper, complementary work to be done “at home.”


Our recommendation

4 lessons per day;

4 x 30 minutes;

2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon for example.

Between each lesson, a break to refresh, “disconnect”, review what we have just seen.

So do only during the lesson what you feel you can do in 30 minutes.

Go straight to the point. Choose.

A lesson is “a minimum” but containing the essentials: clearly stated objectives, basic points well summarized, some dynamic activities. The rest, everything else, can be the subject of an additional email or a file shared on the school’s digital workspace.

There are simple guidelines to do the preparatory work: create a simple word document, divide the sheet into 5 blocks; one 10-minute block (reserved for teaching content) and four 5-minute blocks.

- Assign activity to each block of 5 minutes to be done in class;

- Select for each activity an introductory element (image, video, text, sound file).

- Keep the word document and these items in a folder on your computer.

- When you have to create the lesson on a virtual platform, use this folder.

Block 1
5 minutes  – a video
Block 2
10 minutes – the core of the lesson
Block 3
5 minutes – an exercise
Block 4
5 minutes – a quizz
Block 5
5 minutes – an assessment poll and next steps

Interactive and synchronous teaching

We have no other choice than the distance class? So let’s also make it interactive. Let’s address the challenge of synchronous education where everyone – teacher and students – connect at the same time, as in real class.

Synchronous teaching requires tools. That’s a good news! There are plenty!

Learning does not consist in seeing your students in full screen. Imagine a teacher 50 centimeters away from each of his students, feeling their breath, blowing in their face!

Learning is first and foremost the art of distance, the art of knowing how to use pedagogical supports wisely and to animate the discussion on subjects that require a specific approach and address challenging issues!

In a visioconference, the teacher scrolls through a powerpoint presentation – prepared in advance – by moving from one slide to another according to the time allotted for the lesson. It is therefore an imported pedagogy.

The particularity of a lesson on the contrary is that it is part of a dynamic process. Students need to know more at the end than at the beginning. They all go from point a to point b. We must therefore ensure that this progression takes place.



Both individual and collective assessment is essential. The online class cannot afford to lose students on the way, to leave out those who do not understand quickly enough.

A simple online survey with a single question allows us to move forward in a coordinated way: “Did we understand what we have just learned? Yes or no?”

Depending on the answer, the teacher will decide whether to go back on what he thought he had acquired and whether he should do it during this lesson or the next.

For online assessment, there are tools – questionnaires – of all kinds that allow you to test remotely with more or less simple questions if the lesson meets the objectives set for learning.


Some tips

- Avoid reinventing content

- Do not confuse your learners with an overambitious use of third party tools and services

- Use a regular pattern of communication to help establish a sense of community

- Maintain student attention during content delivery

- Extend the life of a lesson beyond its final assessment

- Set clear and measurable learning outcomes

- Use carefully positioned quizzes to pause your learners and prompt reflection

- Use additional platforms to support your teaching where the central plaform’s functionality falls short

- Encourage learners to engage in authentic tasks

- Direct social dynamics by highlighting selected contributions

- Develop your students as autonomous learners by asking them to continue the work at home

-Use a provocative question to wake up the class and extend a live debate after class in a discussion forum

(adapted from MOOC Design Patterns Project, Warburton and Mor, 2015)


How do you get students involved online?

For those who practice videoconferencing, you have noticed the difficulty in speaking and the difficulty in enforcing a speaking order. Priority is given to whoever speaks, it is he or she that we see on the screen.

What happen if we “leave the microphone open” for each student to raise questions aloud at any time? Kind of like letting everyone in a class speak when they want to. How many times have teachers complained about these talkative classes!

The big question that we all ask ourselves then becomes: can we participate without necessarily (speaking)? This is the gamble of the educational moment that we are going through: not to fall into the ease of speaking to say nothing but to insist on “doing and sharing it”.

Shouldn’t we in the course of the class favor “soft” interaction modes – one by one in private exchange – or deferred modes – meet again after class for a telephone exchange of a few minutes.

The important thing during the online class is for the teacher to be able to “map” his class: who follows, who does not follow, who does, who does not.

Two solutions open:

- being able to “see” the students’ screens live and intervene immediately if necessary for those of them who need it, even if it means contacting them personally by telephone, for example;

- being able to include participation in activities to be carried out in class: instead of carrying out a powerpoint, the teacher focuses on the student’s ability to bring documents, find a video, express an idea. Then the teacher has to have the means to share the student’s production with the whole class.


Another innovative possibility, group work!

Cooperative or collaborative work – group work – is all about shared tasks, accomplishing something together, solving problems using collective intelligence.

These goals are as difficult or as easy to achieve from a distance as in the classroom. There are simple applications that allow you to bring students together, assign them tasks, track their work. In short, there are tools that make us work together.

It all seems strange, singular or provocative; but in an online course, you have to create a new pact of confidence with students who no longer rely on visual or sound control.


Does this work?

We are used to blaming technology for all the problems of the classroom at a distance. The famous bugs multiply, the screen suddenly blackens, the page loses its configuration on the screen, what works on a computer does not work on a tablet, the connection is interrupted …

So what? Who said technology replaces teachers?

All problems related to technology have solutions. The distance class is first and foremost a lesson of humility both for teachers and for those who have seen themselves too quickly as digital magicians.


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