Online assignments: Best practices for teachers to use with students

With school buildings closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, many teachers are looking for ways to turn their teaching into digital learning lessons. Live videoconferencing may not be possible for many students because of such factors as lack of access to computers and limits on cell phone data plans. But one thing we can do as educators is be mindful of learning barriers so more students can access the online assignments we’re creating. 

As an educator of online classes at Hunter College, I’ve spent several years designing online learning experiences for future teachers, using the principles of Universal Design for Learning. A primary focus when designing online learning is to make content more accessible for all learners.

As educators, we’re always striving to maximize learning opportunities. To make your online assignments easier for all students to access, follow these tips. 

1. Be consistent in how you post your content and share information.

  • Does your school have a learning management system? If so, use that to post your document.
  • Other easy-to-use distribution platforms: Email (school platform preferred), Google Classroom (school account needed), and Edmodo (free).
  • Consider posting or sharing a Google Doc so you can update it as needed.
  • Be consistent — use the same approach each time you post or share information.

2. Create a regular timeline for providing information and activities.

  • Will you post/share information the same time each day? Or, for older students, maybe every other day or once a week? 
  • Whatever you decide, it should remain unchanged to build comfort and routine.

 3. Use a consistent layout for sharing tasks and activities. 

  • Put learning objectives at the top or bottom. 
  • Number the actions, like a checklist.
  • Keep your structure the same each time you share, with content, reading, actions, etc., each in the same place.
  • Use colors and fonts to make it clear where your directions end and where the reading material begins. 
  • Follow the Goldilocks rule of graphic design. You want enough color and font variation to make the information interesting. But too many competing visuals can overwhelm or distract students. Aim for “just right.”
  • If using icons, search for accessible icons that have embedded descriptions. These make icons accessible to students with low vision and other users of screen readers. 
  • Be consistent about which color, font, and icon you use for different tasks. For example, use purple for highlighting topics and key actions, red for guiding students to use accessibility features, and blue for encouraging families to reach out for teacher support. (See examples of these kinds of online module structures.)

4. Offer multiple means of representation.

  • Just like in a classroom, all students will not learn the same way online. 
  • Plan for this by offering options to access content. Find ways to incorporate images, video, and audio in addition to reading.
  • Example: Add narration to a PowerPoint presentation or to Google Slides using tools like Screencast-O-Matic, Jing, or VoiceThread (limited free use).

 5. Remember to use multiple means of action and expression.

  • Offer different ways for students to show what they know, other than formal writing. Video or audio can be great options.
  • Consider how discussions can take place online, using tools such as Google Docs, Backchannel, or Flipgrid.

6. Introduce new tools in low-stakes ways. 

  • “Low stakes” means a grade is not attached and the content should be light. 
  • Example: Before having students use video on a graded task, have them practice recording a video by using it to introduce themselves to the class.

7. Provide a structured drop-in option for help, questions, and support. 

  • Knowing you’re there can ease your students’ anxiety. Consider chatting via text or video for these interactions. 
  • Decide if you want to offer a sign-up option or hold scheduled “office hour” times each day/week. For younger children, more contact with you may be comforting.

Before you dive into online learning, take a breath and remember that our students are typically far more comfortable with using technology than we are. Don’t worry about being perfect. Always allow for trials, exploration, and mistakes. What your students need most right now is to know that you’re there for them and that you’ll get through this difficult time together.

About the author

About the author

Kristen L. Hodnett, MSEd is a clinical professor in the department of special education at Hunter College in New York City.