e-Learning in a Crisis

Updated: Mar 27

Following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the secondary school (Grade 8-12) where I worked as a Mathematics teacher was closed for seven weeks. We suddenly found ourselves locked out of our classrooms and had to figure out ways to help our students learn without a physical classroom space. Our Moodle platform and other online tools became the school’s primary way of reaching the students as we were faced with the reality of being unable to deliver face to face instruction.

In the middle of a crisis, we had to figure out pretty quickly what worked. I thought it would be helpful to share these learnings with others as schools and universities grapple with closures due to the current COVID-19 outbreak.

What we learned (also backed by research)


Keep it simple, at least to start with!


I've included a Quick Start Guide below.


Blend synchronous and asynchronous activities - "at the same time" and "in your own time". Give them resources to peruse, & activities to do in their own time, mixed with live chat and video conferencing. Mimic the environment of face to face as much as possible.


This US study found that fully-online learning is about as effective as face-to-face learning ("modestly better"), but blended learning (done well) is more effective. Live video chat is a great way to capture some of face-to-face instruction's advantages.


Engage the students personally. Relationship is still the most important thing. This means timely responses to all chat/forum posts and timely feedback to submissions...neither of which I'm very good at myself. Do as I say, not as I do! Preserve the social aspect of a physical classroom by including a social channel in the online environment where students can post off-topic comments to maintain a sense of connection.


Preserve the social aspect of collaborative learning by incorporating tasks that require collaboration. For example: requiring replies on each others' contributions to a chat, assigning roles in an activity, getting students to post a video reflection of their learning or to articulate their understanding of a concept, and then reply to one another using provided reflection prompts.


Quick Start Guide to e-Learning in a Crisis


If your school has a learning management system (MS Teams, Moodle, Google Hangouts + Google Classroom, Canvas etc) use it.


If your school doesn't have a learning management system, look for a tool or a group of tools that has the following features:


  • Chat - preferably including video chat

  • The ability to upload files for students to view and download

  • Collaborative documents - Google docs and Word Online are both free and easy

  • Ensure you have a very clear homepage for your course, with links & expectations. This might be as simple as a shared Google Doc or Word Online doc. This serves as a hub for the online learning space, so students always know where to go. Use bitly to keep the URL short and memorable!


How Do You Get Students On Task Remotely?


Inspire your students to continue learning even if they can't attend school by continuing to build relationships and connect with them. One of the best ways to do this is by posting quick videos of yourself talking about the learning activities coming up, or explaining a concept in your own words. You can also host regular video chats where you talk together as a class about the topics being studied.


Set clear expectations about the minimum work that is required. e.g. the number of posts required in a forum, or the deadline for uploading an assignment.


Follow up students who don't meet the minimum requirements.


Engage the parents in the learning process. Create a regular family newsletter email with the week's work or learning objectives or highlights, or even a quick 30-second video clip addressing parents directly.


In a nutshell, do all the things you already do in your face-to-face teaching, but digitally! Build relationships, set clear expectations.


You've got this. And you're not alone.

We curate the best tools, resources and latest research to help you make smart decisions on digital technologies for the classroom. #notsponsored - just the good stuff!

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