As we engage in (and live) the stories from learning during the pandemic, it is important to distinguish the difference between the pivot to “emergency remote learning” and deliberately designed online, blended, distance, distributed, or mobile learning environments. Many instructors who have previously taught only in face-to-face synchronous learning environments are now exploring an online-only model without in-depth formal training or experience. This is significantly different from courses designed by trained and experienced instructors who plan for multimodal approaches and online learning environments. Many educators are now delivering familiar curriculums using unfamiliar tools and methodologies.

The same considerations must be in place for the learners. No one signed up for an emergency remote learning experience. When one selects an online or distributed course, they usually know what to expect, or at least have a reasonable understanding of how the experience may differ from a face-to-face classroom. Our learners are adjusting their expectations as the educational ground shifts beneath their feet. 

As we learn together right now, we have the opportunity to reflect on our own experiences and opinions about the shifts we’ve encountered in our learning journeys. We can engage in conversations about what is working, what we wish would change, and how we can work and learn within the new, ever-shifting normal. 

Educational systems are under intense scrutiny as they pivot to and from emergency remote learning and in-class instruction. Observing the feedback from learners, families, and colleagues; one consistent complaint has been the lack of interactivity. Analyzing media reports from concerned parents and students suggest three components of interactivity have been lacking in this emergency remote learning model: learning materials, peer contact, and instructor/student connection.

Some learners are struggling with one dimensional task-based assignments that lack context or are provided as “filler”. Others are now being asked to use “interactive” general platforms such as Khan Academy, Prodigy, or IXL as somewhat self-guided learning. The pivot to emergency remote learning highlighted the challenge of remotely recreating the classroom model of lessons facilitated by teachers, transitioning to supported practice gradually moving towards independent application. The complex social, formal, and informal resources offered within the constructs of a face to face learning environment can be difficult to replicate. 

Much of the material distributed for learning at home was meant for independent study purposes, which meant that many learners found remote learning to be “a lonely experience”. (Burns, M. 2020) The required social distancing parameters laid out by the World Health Organization made the traditional way of in-school partnerships impossible and it took some time before educators began facilitating small group discussions and assigning projects requiring collaboration. Now, we have shifted some public schools back to face-to-face instruction while most Higher Ed in British Columbia remains online. 

The initial focus for B. C. K-12 schools was efficient content delivery, focusing on “continuity of learning”. As learners, teachers, and parents identified the need to feel more connected resources both old and new for designing with interaction or community building priorities began surface. Making use of synchronous learning tools became a touchstone used for anchor lessons, “office hours”, remote learning support, or check ins. As instructors navigated between synchronous and asynchronous learning activities Jennifer Casa-Todd (May 2020) posed that “we should be asking ourselves how can we help our kids feel connected and supported; in their learning and with their well being”. This is yet another reminder that many learners were feeling disconnected from the materials, their teachers, and each other. Referring to faculty as Instructional Macgyvers, Hodges et al (2020) explain how this pivot has increased flexibility for learners and provide suggested learning design options as well as moderating variables to consider. This article also clearly states that although it is tempting to compare the face-to-face model some students were forced to leave behind, the “primary objective in these circumstances is … to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis”.

As we plan for educational continuity during this pandemic, Burns (2020) offers the following thoughts:


For many of the students I interviewed, their first foray into online learning raised issues about pacing, structure, and the lack of interactivity and rigor, and the sometimes confusing plethora of communication and instructional channels (Google Classroom, Zoom, YouTube, email, and various apps). Most found the largely asynchronous nature of learning a “lonely” experience.

For the students I interviewed about their experience learning online, well-designed online classes would include several design elements:

“High touch” learning: involving more collaborative activities and synchronous interaction with teachers and classmates.

Greater interactivity: games, web-based simulations, and interactive videos—and fewer worksheets.

Personalized learning: a range of activities that address students’ skills, abilities, interests, and home situations—from choice boards to personalized learning pathways to individual projects.

More challenging activities: projects and activities that address real-world challenges and involve students creating versus simply consuming information.

The pivot to emergency remote learning drew a spotlight to the importance of keeping our learning environments interactive in whatever modality for which we design. Now as we begin to adjust to this new normal, it is still a priority to design for interactivity for learners, regardless of our locations.


(REQUIRED): Chapter 9.6 Interaction: Teaching in a Digital Age

(OPTIONAL): Any of the following media sources will give you a great sense of how emergency remote learning unfolded in North America, but I  the following two very interesting:

Getting Ready to Teach Next Year (Edutopia)

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning (Jennifer Casa-Todd)


Burns, M. (2020, May 26). Getting Ready to Teach Next Year. Retrieved from

Casa-Todd, J. (2020, May 26). Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning. Retrieved from

Ferguson, E. (2020, March 21). Schools, families grapple with enormous challenge of remote learning. Retrieved from

Hobbs, T. D., & Hawkins, L. (2020, June 5). The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work. Retrieved from

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020, March 27). The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning. Retrieved from

Juliani, A. J. (2020, April 15). Sharing more (and judging less) during emergency remote learning. Retrieved from

O’Malley, S. (2017, July 26). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Smith, N. (2020, June 3). The Pandemic Has Shown Us Where Real Learning Happens. Retrieved from