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Equity in Civic Technology, European Policy, Privacy & Data

Considerations for Distance Learning: a 7-Point Strategy

by Kim Ochs, CDT Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Indiana Institute of Technology

* Want to hear more from Kim on the impact of COVID-19 on students and schools? She joined Elizabeth Laird, our Student Privacy Senior Fellow, on a recent podcast episode to discuss what is happening, and what schools, administrators, students, and caretakers can do. You can also find more of our COVID-19 related work at *

For many schools and traditional educational institutions, COVID-19 sparked an unexpected, unplanned, and immediate transformation to online education. Educators and administrators remain focused on instructional continuity. Here are 7 points to consider in an online learning strategy:


Ultimately, the technologies you choose, and the distance learning solution you employ, should meet the needs of the users, starting with the students. Focus initially on two dimensions – digital literacy levels and access:

  • Do they have access to the internet at home? If so, how are they accessing it – mobile phones, computers, or tablets? 
  • Can you assume that all kids in one household will have access to a device to do their schoolwork? There will be situations where there are multiple kids at home sharing access to one device, or where the main device is being used all day by a working parent. 
  • Are there printers at home to print out assignments? 
  • What is the level of digital literacy of the kids? Are they new to online learning or are they already using technologies in school? If so, which ones?

At one end of the spectrum, where access is limited or levels of digital literacy are low, a low-tech solution might actually be better. A school might send out physical worksheets to the homes via the postal service, providing the main materials for kids to work on. Teachers might record a message on their phone or send a text message to the children with specific instructions on how to approach the work. Then, during the normal classroom hours, they could make themselves available for specific questions via text, phone call, or through technologies such as Skype.

At the other end of the spectrum, technology might already be used widely at school, which is the case for those with learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard, Canvas, Schoology) used for assignments and grading. The question for these schools will be: how can they organize access to laptops, tablets and devices for kids? Are there partnerships to develop or programs that could help?

Teachers and Administrators

Teachers and school administrators also need to be considered in the design process. Who will be doing the teaching? In addition to clear guidance about expectations of their jobs, teachers also need to be empowered on how best to use the new technology tools they are given, and how to deliver content in a very different way. As an example, there is now talk of the “hidden curriculum of Zoom,” or any conferencing platform. Teachers need to be given specific guidance on how to teach online, such as how to navigate these unwritten rules of engagement, including asking students to maintain eye contact (so they do not text or chat with friends during the lesson), setting parameters for using the chat feature, or asking students to put a thumbs up to show they understand the material. Teaching online and in real time requires a new rhythm of teaching. A popular recommendation currently is 10 minutes of lecture / teaching followed by interaction or a change. Providing students with very specific and repeated instructions is also important.

Context (at Home)

  • What is the context in which students are learning, and who gets involved while they are learning at home?
  • While everyone is home, what are the expectations of parents or caretakers? How much support can they provide if they are working from home, particularly if there are also multiple children at home?
  • Is the language spoken at home different from the language of instruction? If so, where will students get access to the support they will need?

An emerging concern is the changing role of parent or caretaker, who is now trying to make sense of multiple roles as professional, parent, camp counsellor (organizing fun activities), as well as substitute teacher. Schools need to carefully consider what they are expecting caretakers to do, and what guidance they might need to support them. Parents and caretakers may not know which online educational resources are trusted by the school or district, or how to turn on privacy settings for the web conferencing applications their children need to meet with their teachers and classmates.

The pastoral role of teachers and schools also needs to be acknowledged. Teachers serve as community leaders and coordinators by checking in with families, finding out which students might need assistance with health care, hot meals, and serving as a general resource. The specific technologies they use will be related to any additional support services they provide.


Pedagogies, or methods of teaching, also need to be considered. Fundamentally, online teaching is either synchronous (or real-time, such as a web conference) or asynchronous (such as a pre-recorded webinar). The current crisis is a sneak peek into the future, which includes new creative ways of teaching. What we have now is an incredible global sandbox for experimentation of what teaching online can look like, and how formal and nonformal education are working in parallel. We’re seeing successes and also failures. Schools need to document what works or does not, what they learn, and which technologies are involved, as well as identify partnerships that have emerged out of this crisis and supported the development of new ways of teaching. New stakeholders have emerged, including technology companies, non-profits, and corporations, among others. This information can be used in the future to develop post-crisis plans.

During this crisis, we experienced a shift in conversation, as stressed out parents and reluctant homeschoolers found a new appreciation for teachers. Rather than talking about how we replace teachers with technology, schools might have a more meaningful discussion about how their teachers can be empowered with technology. Effective teaching in the future will require teachers to become stewards of technology, and their training and professional development will need to reflect this.


  • What are the kids learning? What lessons, readings and assignments will be used?
  • Will traditional resources be printed out and mailed, or will there be a general shift towards online learning? If so, do the textbook providers have complementary online materials available for use, or will new online materials need to be identified or created?

For a lot of schools, continuity also means non-traditional approaches, using non-formal and formal learning materials together. We have now seen an explosion of both of these kinds of online learning content, and it is important that schools consider what curricula they will be using and to set expectations around curriculum development with teachers. How much original content do they need to create, or what can they leverage that is already out there? Some teachers are sending out pre-recorded lectures to ensure they deliver the content they need to, as outlined in the syllabus.

With a blended learning approach, the curriculum will have both online and offline activities. Lessons might be accessed online, but activities are also done away from the computer, which can provide opportunities to apply what is learned. Quality is an organization that provides extensive guidance on online curriculum design and delivery, including issues related to creating accessible content.

In the US, large scale initiatives for online K-12 education have existed across the country for years. This includes Florida Virtual Schools,, and Connections Academy (supported by Pearson), which all provide 100% online instruction. All of these organizations have made available online learning resources during the coronavirus health crisis, including basics about online learning, training for educators, and webinars for parents. Check out each of their websites for more details.


  • Consider what hardware, software, and telecommunications infrastructure is needed to deliver distance education. Who will provide the infrastructure and related services?
  • Who needs to be paying attention to the terms and conditions of these providers?
  • What data sharing might be expected in exchange for services provided?

While the focus in the US has been largely focused on internet-based technologies, services, and applications, looking to practices in other countries could offer some inspiring examples.

Some countries are relying on television as one of the key technologies to deliver distance learning. In both Bulgaria and Croatia, there is educational programming offered daily on one station on the national television network. While internet and mobile technologies are being used, the television plays an important role and might be more accessible if reliable internet at home is not available. In the UK, the BBC last week announced its plan, starting April 20th, to deliver daily online lessons for all ages, with videos, quizzes and podcasts through its new offering BBC Bitesize.

In the Netherlands, some teachers and schools rely heavily on email and messaging. As one example, a teacher will send an email or WhatsApp to parents and caretakers on Sunday, containing scans of the daily tasks for the week as well as a calendar. Each morning, the teacher will send out three videos, each about 5 minutes long, to explain the specific tasks to do. The students work alone on the tasks and will meet up with their teachers and classmates on Zoom.

Policies and Procedures

The seventh aspect that will need attention are existing school policies and procedures, as they directly and indirectly relate to technology. The Online Learning Consortium provides extensive resources for educators and administrators moving online. 

In the context of COVID-19, many of these are related to emergency and continuity, but they also relate to online education more generally. As learning and teaching move online, the meaning of policies may also shift accordingly. For example, policies related to harassment will need to be extended to address harassment during online discussions. Policies around privacy and data protection need to be aligned with the selection of infrastructure providers, as well as curricular content and access strategies.

Listen to Kim & Elizabeth on CDT's Tech Talk