Online Instruction: Teaching Live vs. Learning On-Demand

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction
Young boy wearing headphones and writing while looking at a tablet.

Technology has been a growing instructional tool for the past two decades, but 2020 has, at times, made it our only access point to instruction. Through this massive adjustment, best practices for online learning, and specifically synchronous versus asynchronous instruction, have risen to the top. While it will vary by age level, general themes have emerged as masterful ways to implement online teaching and learning.

What Should I Save for Live Instruction Lessons?

When students are live on the computer with their teacher, this is the best time for purposeful discourse to take place. First and foremost, introducing new concepts with direct instruction is always best done live. Leaving students to make sense of content without your initial delivery and processing can lead to disaster, so aim to initiate new learning together when you are “synchronous” with students.

Utilize tools like Nearpod,, and Kahoot! as engaging supports to enhance your live instruction. Nearpod sends your powerpoint slidedeck right to the user and has interactive tools along the way; provides a virtual whiteboard for you to model instructional components; and Kahoot! provides live interactive games that can be prepared ahead of time to align with learning targets.

A thoughtful progression of asynchronous assignments either preceding or following live instruction will help maximize your time live with students. Discussing an assigned reading or math assignment can help students process their learning, ask questions, and reach clarity with understanding. Questioning is an important strategy to engage learners during live discussions. Prepare leveled questions and plan both who and when you will ask so that all learners have accessible entry points into participation.

One of the most successful strategies in online participation is giving students a reason to contribute orally within the first five minutes. If students establish comfort with verbal contributions in the onset of the live lesson, continued participation increases dramatically as compared to when they are not required to do so.

Live instruction is also an important time to capture formative assessment opportunities. While students are submitting asynchronous assignments to you over the course of their online school day, you can’t be sure what level of support students are receiving to complete them. When you have learners live, you are able to assess what skills they own independent of home/resource support. One strategy is to equip students with learning tools for their home-school environment, like personal white boards and dry erase markers. Asking a math question that they solve independently and then hold up at the same time enhances both accountability for each individual learner and also your ability to see what they can do on their own.

At the primary grades especially, engagement can certainly be a challenge so starting with more social-emotional lessons during live instruction will build safety and comfort with the online dynamic, and allow you to shift to more academic instruction when those connections and expectations exist.

What Should I Save for Asynchronous Instruction?

There are myriad types of asynchronous work to be posted, and the range varies depending on grade level and subject area. Selecting content-based platforms that can be utilized over time to track content-area progress (i.e. math programs like Freckle Math or Dreambox Learning) are a starting point.

The more meaningful tasks are truly the assignments from teacher to student that link closely with direct live instruction and the individual learner’s needs. The more you can embed into your classroom online platform (Google Classroom, Class Dojo, Seesaw), the more accessible and interactive student work can be. Posting learning tasks as Google Docs that can be edited and submitted, utilizing voice recording or drawing tools to have students explain their thinking, and of course things like Google Forms and other quiz options provide assessments options as students work through new material.

You can enhance your platform further with tools like Flipgrid or Padlet, offering tasks where students post videos (Flipgrid) or sticky note postings (Padlet) to shared online boards. For example, having students post a video of themselves explaining how they solved a complex word problem or completed a science experiment will allow for them to both verbalize their learning and also hear from others how they achieved the learning goals.

Don’t forget the value of adding resource materials as asynchronous components to your online instruction. Tutorial videos, modeling examples, and other resources (optimally with your voice/image) provide in-the-moment support when you are not available to answer questions of students completing asynchronous work. They can be a major help for the grown-ups at home trying to support the learning process, too!

When Should I Mix Formats?

Like any live lesson, students will reflect on classroom discussions long after they occur and will be looking for opportunities to share their thinking if they did not have enough “air time” during the live discussion. Blending live and asynchronous learning opportunities can extend learning and ensure that students continue thinking and growing long after the lesson.

For example, having a class discussion around a text passage or current event with questions that hit on different depths of knowledge can stimulate student interest. Carrying the discussion into the online classroom platform by providing additional discussion threads for students to post and comment afford students continued learning and increase peer-to-peer communication.

Another strategy is having the asynchronous work completed first and then engaging in a “gallery walk” where students share the work they completed with their classmates during live sessions to explain their thinking and pose meaningful questions to one another about their thinking.

Don’t Forget!

An online classroom can be even more of a silo than an in-person one. Carving out time to collaborate with other online teachers and sharing strategies that are working will continue to enhance your effectiveness with students online. Getting connected with the tech leader of your online school is an important step of staying on top of new tricks and tools, as well as easily troubleshooting the natural challenges that will come with online learning.

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