Four Ways to Create Effective E-Learning

Saddleback Educational Publishing conducts a Webinar Series to spread information and resources for online learning programs. The following article is an enhanced summary based on our webinar Four Ways To Create Effective E-Learning hosted by Dr. Katherine McKnight on August 13th 2020.

I’m going to share with you four ways to create effective e-learning in grades k-12. This webinar is not about 20 different web tools or apps that you can use in your classroom. This is about good teaching and how do we translate good effective teaching into a virtual learning, e-learning, digital learning or whatever you want to call it.

How do we translate those best practices? That’s what we’re going to focus on today to be effective, because the fact of the matter is this: good instruction always, always, always, always is about us the teachers. If it was about the technology tool, then we would have gone to that years ago. Quite frankly, you know pragmatically it’s less expensive to do than to run school buildings. It really is about teachers and what we do as teachers for our students every day.

So what we’re going to focus on is concepts, content, and skills, and then relationships. We know how critical relationships are.Relationships have come back into fashion recently just like longer skirts and skinny ties. We keep talking about relationships with our students and of us who are teachers and have been teachers for an extended amount of time know that all great teaching begins and ends with those relationships. We have a significant body of research that supports that as well, but how do you do that? A lot of educators are particularly squirrely about that right now because, at least in March, we knew our students and now we don’t. We’re going in and we may have not met our students, so how do we develop that in an e-learning or digital learning or virtual learning kind of classroom?

#1: Curriculum and Instruction Will Differ in an E-Learning Context

The first thing is curriculum and instruction will differ in an e-learning context. It just does. This the year of the sabbatical that I didn’t ask for. What am I doing to be productive and sharing my work and being supportive of my teacher colleagues? We’ve been asked, not by choice but because of the context.

There’s a crisis and it’s educators who rise to the occasion. In my perspective, and what I keep saying over and over again, the district leaders, the principals, instructional coaches, teachers have been nothing but heroic during this pandemic. I’ve worked in school districts where there’s been a hurricane, or wildfires or something else, and it’s the teachers who really are the glue to hold together to communities.

Our curriculum and instruction are going to differ in an e-learning context. I want everybody to breathe about that. The way that you thought of things in a traditional setting is going to differ. So I’m going back to old school. I’m going to go old school with you right now and let’s look at bloom’s taxonomy. Whether you’re an AVID teacher, or if you use Marzano’s taxonomy or you use D.O.K., it doesn’t matter. It’s really about this triangle. I like to use Bloom’s because I guess I’m a traditionalist in some ways or I like to be retro. I love the simplicity of what he has and with the continuum. We need to keep thinking about this, too. We want our kids on that Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, Creation kinds of levels. Then again how do we translate that into that e-learning context. I’m going to show you how.

Building an instructional plan on an e-learning platform: Identifying Learning Outcomes

We are going to identify learning outcomes and targets. We’re teachers. We know how to do that. On the right-hand side is what we’re going to do in an e-learning platform. We’re going to identify what national and state standards are going to be addressed in that particular lesson, what is most important, and those are things that we do anyway as teachers. We look at those objectives, those learning targets, and we identify the skills and information that the students will learn and how they’re relevant. That’s where that student teacher interaction comes in. That student teacher interaction is going to be different in an e-learning environment just by the nature of the context. One of the things that’s been very difficult for me as a teacher is when I’m doing webinars like this, I can’t see you. I’m not reading body language. It’s very, very challenging. I always depend a lot on the chat for what folks are saying to make sure that I’m in tune with what’s going on. I also watch people coming in and if they are staying or leaving the webinar, because that’s going to give me a cue as well. so those kinds of body language or those cues are going to be different.

One of the things that I think is brilliant and I’ve started doing with my online meetings is to give the kids as part of a course packet is cutouts. If they have a question or they have a comment, we can see each other right on the screen. They can raise that card like, I have a question, or I have a comment. I’ve started doing that in my virtual meetings that I have rather than folks trying to interrupt or interject because it’s very challenging to do in this kind of setting.

Sharing Information

Demonstrate relevant information, right? Of course we want that, but this is what it looks like in e-learning. We have the advantage of using multimedia like videos, documents, images, and websites. I have some of the most awesome resources for this. Go to Smithsonian Learning Lab. They have done an absolutely epic job on creating curriculum during the COVID-19 pandemic, to the point where it just lays it out week one, week two, week three for all grade levels. I think they even go down to pre-k all the way through 12thgrade. They have STEM, social studies, ELA, everything that you would want and all of these like multimedia videos, documents, and images have been vetted. That’s number one. Number two is that they’re all bundled together so that is an awesome resource.

Another one that I’ve become a fan of is Khan Academy, in particular for mathematics and science but they have all subject areas. Depending on a textbook is not good in a traditional classroom and it’s especially not good in an e-learning environment. We need to use these kinds of resources instead of us trying to curate all of this. So go check that out Smithsonian Learning Lab. I think you’re going to be just thrilled with some of the things that you see.


How do we check for kids’ understanding? Virtual office hours are really great or having a help desk and then asking questions. Pausing—you know Liz and I are going to be doing that at certain points during the webinar. That’s something that I’ve learned in a virtual learning environment is I’ve got to stop and chunk things at certain points, just to give everybody a breather. The delivery and the learning in this kind of format is actually really, really intense. It’s intense to teach this way and it’s intense to learn this way. We’re going to chunk and of course we know from neuroscience that when you chunk instruction, learners are more likely to internalize it.

Giving kids opportunities to share what they know and understand through conferencing. One of my favorite tools for that is Flipgrid. If you don’t know about Flipgrid, I’m going to talk about that a little bit more later on. Every single web tool or app that I recommend in this webinar and other things that I’ve done has two requirements: number one, it’s free or it’s very close to being free; and number two, it’s very quick to get up and running on it and be effective with it, because time is always a challenge for us as educators. It’s very easy for us, especially since we’re working from home to start mushing together those boundaries of work life and home life.


We provide a task and explain it thoroughly no matter if it’s e-learning or it’s a traditional classroom. Provide students with the opportunity to collaborate. I realize that this is kind of tricky depending on what platform you’re using, so we want to make sure that in an e-learning environment we’ve explained the activity, having a video of it is great especially for our English language learners, because then you can close caption it. Our students who have special needs we can replay it over and over again if they need to. We have that explanation of the activity, our direct instruction, and then we want to make a checklist for the students as they engage in that activity. They’re completing the tasks, making sure that it’s really concrete and as detailed as you can possibly make it.


Give kids an opportunity to reflect on their learning. We also call that metacognition. So how do we give those kids that opportunity and provide kids with feedback on their work while they’re working? That, more than anything else, is one of the biggest influences on student performance–on the spot descriptive feedback. Descriptive feedback is not in a letter and it’s not in a number. It is actually here’s what you’ve done well, this is what you need to build.

#2: Tips for Classroom Management

We all saw that Zoom conference calls were getting invaded by outsiders. Those were all things that we had to learn the hard way as we were moving along. So here are some tips for classroom management based on my own experience, what I’m reading about, and then also with teachers, with colleagues, with educators just like you.

Set Expectations and Monitor Submissions

This is true in a traditional classroom. Set expectations and monitor submissions. A lot of our learning management platforms like Schoology or Canvas or Google Classroom, you can have deadlines and you’ll have lists of who sent it and who didn’t. You can automate emails to send out. It’s really easy for kids in an e-learning environment to miss deadlines because it’s out of sight, out of mind. When I turn off my computer, my teacher’s not there. I can just shut the technology down and I don’t have to pay attention. There was one teacher who was telling me that on Zoom, her student figured out how to change his [display name] to Connecting so he would log on and it would seem like he was always trying to connect. It’s those kinds of things that we’re learning about, right? Kids are great at these kinds of things. This is what I found too at the college level. I was a professor for 15 years at the university level and my experience when I started teaching some online classes as long as 20 years ago was that I had to remind folks of deadlines about five times more than I did when it was a traditional classroom. I’m not sure what it is. I just think turn the computer off and it’s just not registering, right? So we want to make sure that we remind the students much more than we would in a traditional classroom.

Create Routines for Assignments and Activities

Again, routines are really critical. We want to have routines for assignments and activities. For example, if an assignment is due on Monday, you can tell the kids to expect feedback on Wednesday in a designated time window. I cannot emphasize this enough. Create boundaries.

Provide Timely Communication with Students

Providing that timely communication with students, that descriptive on the spot feedback, is most effective

We want to keep an online environment where we’re providing that feedback to students within one school day, during school hours. I’m going to say it again: during school hours! Most of us, not only are we doing work from home but we’re also parenting our children from home, so during school hours is when you provide feedback. A teacher that I know told me that she was really surprised at how much her middle school students actually are doing assignments and doing work at one o’clock in the morning. They would email and almost expect her to respond to them right away, so make sure that you’re responding during school hours. Even if you see that email outside of school hours, respond during school hours and set those limits. Make sure that you communicate that to your kids and also the parents too. You might want to include parents in that conversation. If you’re doing like office hours or having descriptive feedback, why not invite the parents to come if they want to come in? I would ask them to let me know ahead of time if they are, because those dynamics always change, and we want to make sure that during office hours we’re respecting privacy.

There are other considerations, too. Let me say this to those of you teaching in a hybrid model. I think that’s the hardest model, quite frankly. If we’re talking about schedules and routines, like let’s say Monday/Tuesday you’re in person, Thursday/Friday the kids are on their own, most schools are usually doing either a Wednesday or Friday for teacher preparation and conferencing with students. It’s not going to change all that much. When your kids are with you, that is going to be really about the gradual release of responsibility. That’s going to be a lot of the I Do-We Do-You Do. When I’m giving them novel skills and novel content that I know that they’re going to need support, I really need to do that with in-person instruction. Then when the kids are doing distance learning, virtual learning, e-learning, that’s when they’re doing the practice. So I think that is going to be most effective in in those kinds of circumstances.

#3: High Leverage Instructional Tools and Practices


I want to talk about some high leverage instructional tools and practices. I’m going to talk a little bit about some of the things that are out there that I have found, and other colleagues have recommended to me. A lot of it is about sharing platforms for the littles. I really like Seesaw a lot. I think you can get up and running on that pretty quickly. It’s a platform for student engagement, letting kids create, relax, reflect, share and collaborate. Remember that third slide on Bloom’s Taxonomy, we know where that is on the pyramid, right? That’s up higher so we want to give kids those opportunities to share and collaborate. Teachers that I know who use seesaw really like it. There’s kind of a following, a bunch of groupies on it, and on that website, kids are able to show what they know using photos, videos, drawings, pdfs, links, all kinds of things.

The advantage of Seesaw is that all the student work is in one place, so it makes it easier for us to share with families and then also share it with the teacher. It also provides an easy way for teachers to create and share for students to explore and complete assignments. It’s just a great kind of management software. I know many of you are in schools where maybe they use Google Classroom, Schoology, or Canvas. Some are using Seesaw. I know other districts where they don’t have those resources and they don’t have a platform that’s used across the whole district, so Seesaw would be a good one to use. It does have free access so that’s the good thing. During COVID-19, a lot of these companies have just opened things up as well and are offering a lot that used to be behind the paywall. So a big shout out to their community for that.


I also like Nearpod. I think Nearpod is better for older kids, probably fifth grade and up. It’s used to engage kids through interactive kinds of activities. We know how important collaborative learning is, so it gives those opportunities for collaborative discussions and formative assessment, so we’re not relying on quizzes and tests all the time. We can start including those formative assessments and then as a teacher, I can share an interactive lesson with the students and I can involve videos, drawing games, virtual field trips, and more. For those virtual field trips, again that Smithsonian site rocks. Also National Geographic is really good for that as well. Most major museums in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, all over the United States and all over the world have great educational resources and virtual field trips as well.

Then ongoing assessment on Nearpod is usually gathered as students work through the lessons and the activities. You can make it systematic and that’s something else that I really like about Nearpod.

My thing is can I get up and running on this quickly. There are some web tools or apps that are very popular and I won’t mention those. I started tinkering with them and I just found them to be really cumbersome. My measure is once I tinker with it for an hour, I look back to see what I was able to produce or create.

#4: Best Practices For Grading and Assessment

I think one of the positive things that can come out of this crisis is re-examining some of our habitual practices and thinking of better ways that we can do them. So let’s remember that the goal of grading is to evaluate individual student learning and performance. That’s what grading is defined as. Then with assessment, the goal is to improve student learning, hence formative assessment. So formative assessment is never, ever formative assessment unless you’re adjusting instruction based on your data and your feedback. I’ll see benchmark assessments and then nobody actually does anything with it. That’s really not assessment or formative assessment if you’re not changing practices, okay? So to clarify, grading can play a role in assessment but remember when we assess kids, it’s not to put labels on things. It really is designed to respond and adjust instruction in order to meet student need.

Both graded and ungraded artifacts of student learning, like assignments and classroom activities are often used in assessment. Here’s something else, too. Assessments should be triangulated, and they should also be reliable, varied and fair. This is one of my big things, especially when I’m working in school districts and we’re looking at big overall assessment systems. When I say varied, it means we’re not always doing written three-part essays or multiple-choice questions. We have multiple ways for kids to express what they know and understand, and what they’ve mastered so far of the content and the skills. It needs to be varied. It needs to be fair, meaning that we all have our different strengths and weaknesses, so we want to make sure that things are fair. I often argue that there’s no such thing as a fair reading comprehension assessment, and the reason why I say that is that your background knowledge or your schema has a tremendous impact on your comprehension.

Two Types Of Readers

So Dan Willingham, a really important cognitive psychologist who specializes in reading comprehension, conducted a study that he cites in his book The Reading Mind where there’s two groups of readers. One group is identified as lower level struggling readers based on a standardized reading comprehension assessment, yet they’re experts in baseball. Group two are identified with the same standardized assessment as high level readers, but they don’t have much background in baseball. Both of these groups are given a reading comprehension test that is about baseball. You probably know where I’m going with this. The kids with the lower reading ability but extensive background knowledge on baseball significantly outscored the students without the background in baseball and were higher performing readers.

This experiment has been duplicated multiple times. It comes with the same results and they’re not necessarily about baseball. There’s one about the Vietnam war. So here’s my point: a kid from New York who’s doing a reading comprehension assessment and the subject is on the subway system is going to have an advantage over a kid from Texas who lives in ranch country. We have to make sure that our assessments are reliable, varied and fair. I would argue that the best assessor of his or her student’s mastery of skills and content is the teacher. We’re the ones with the kids every single day. I’m not negating the importance of big assessment data. It’s great when I want a big picture and I want trends, but when we’re talking about individual students, the goal of grading is to evaluate student learning and performance. It contributes to that assessment.

Proficiency Scales

One of the things that you might be familiar with are proficiency scales. Marzano has really popularized proficiency scales. You can see that it’s different from a rubric, because a lot of times colleagues will say to me, Hey Katie, how’s a proficiency scale different from a rubric? Well here’s the difference: a rubric ismore like buckets that you haveto feel to fill criteria. I’m not saying don’tuse rubrics. There are times when you do want to use rubrics, but whenwe’re looking at a wholeunit or a chunk of instruction, that’s two to three weeks. We want to look at the overall mastery.

This is an ELA example and the topic is expressive language. Now it’s not intended to be this way, that four means an A and three means a B. You got to get out of that mentality. A lot of schools, a lot of districts that I see use proficiency scales will translate them that way but what it really is about is a progression. So when you look at those simple goals, it’s like following simple directions involving two stems, uses short sentences to share information about people, places, and things, and uses precise descriptive language such as adverbs and adjectives. Well when you think about Bloom’s Taxonomy or DOK or whatever, that’s a very kind of basic level of understanding. But then when you go to complex, you can see that there’s a deeper level that it gets to that application level, that creation level. I’m sharing information. I’m telling a simple personal narrative. The idea is that you have your power standards. Those are usually in your complex goals.

Power Standards

Just a reminder that power standards are the must-haves. Whether you have Texas or Indiana standards or Florida standards, we don’t teach every single standard because you know there’s these power standards. If you look at ELA, there’s basically eight standards out of all of them in the Common Core that are the power standards. For instance, like writing one, which is evidence-based argumentation. There are so many chunks to that. Some of the things about punctuation, conventions, and vocabulary feed into that, so they don’t necessarily need to be separate. So when you look at proficiency scales, we’re looking at the big power standards and then the simple goals show emerging mastery or developing mastery. When I get to the complex goals, I’ve secured mastery. That’s important because when we’re doing virtual learning and traditional classroom learning, what do we want kids to be able to do? What do we want them to know? That’s really the focus rather than how many assignments they’ve completed. Is doing that important? I’m not negating the importance of that, but if a kid already has it mastered, why do I keep needing to do that? Is that about compliance? It’s not necessarily the best use of their time either.

With math teachers, we have this conversation all the time. If the student knows how to do the first three problems, why are they doing another 20? If they’ve got it, move them on to something else. What’s good with the proficiency scales is that it allows for that. It allows that progression to happen so we can differentiate for our students as well. The districts in which I’ve worked or the schools where we’ve developed proficiency scales and implemented them, the student performance went off the charts.

As far as descriptive feedback and conferencing with my students online, if we have this proficiency scale in front of us and I say to the student, I want you to show me where you are on this. Kids have those conversations and I’ve done that in classrooms just like yours. We can do that in an e-learning environment, too. Here’s a proficiency scale. This is how we feed into it. We’re going to go more into that next week in the grading and assessment webinar.

If you want to know more about the proficiency scales, I’ve actually have them developed from pre-k all the way through 12th grade for English language arts. Just email me and I’d be happy to extend that conversation.

Descriptive Feedback

Let’s talk about descriptive feedback and what descriptive feedback is going to look like in a hybrid/virtual environment. We do this all the time with our students. We’re always talking to our students so providing that good descriptive feedback and checking for student understanding, which you can use the proficiency scales as a tool for, that is really that key to effective instruction. This more than anything else contributes to our relationships with our students. It is such a definitive factor in our students’ success. So descriptive feedback plus student understanding, that equals effective instruction.

Here are some resources:

It’s a little overwhelming, this list. It’s in your handout too. NWEA has created an impressive list of tools and most of these are for formative assessment and most of them are online.

This is a fantastic list to share with you. It’s e-learning resources for descriptive feedback and how you can give descriptive feedback in an e-learning and hybrid situation. In addition to that, when the pandemic happened I started developing a lot of my more popular professional development into courses that teachers can use and where they can learn more. So if you want to go more in depth as far as creating effective and engaged learning, where I go more into learning management systems like seesaw and canvas, and then also specific tools for descriptive feedback, you can take a look at that course and the link for that too is also in your handout. It’s a 15-hour professional development course that you can do.

The Impact of Reading

Here’s the probably the most important slide of the afternoon. Don’t so much worry about what web tools and what apps you’re using. Reading, more than anything else, is the most critical factor. A kid who reads just 20 minutes a day is going to be exposed to 1.8 million words per year and is more likely to score in the 90th percentile on standardized tests. If the student reads 60 minutes a day, they’re more likely to score in the 98th percentile. How do you get kids to read more? You get kids to read more by giving them texts that they want to read. That’s the secret sauce. One of the reasons why I’m a big fan of saddleback is that they’re really committed to that Hi-Lo and just getting books in the hands of kids who are going to read and make them readers. We’re naturally curious by nature and reading is just such a great avenue for that. I also want to give a shout out to the importance of reading paper books as opposed to electronics.

What the research is indicating in the last three to five years is a couple of things:

Number one, students who take reading comprehension assessments on a screen score lower than if they were given the same assessment in paper based. What we’re finding is that what we tend to do as readers when we read on a screen is, we tend to skim. We skim more and but when we have a paper-based text, we don’t. There is a difference. When you read textbooks and informational texts, there really is a substantial difference between paper-based and electronic reading. We do better with the paper based. When we’re reading narrative text, if I’m reading a novel for fun, there isn’t as much difference between the two. A lot of that stems from the fact that when you’re reading for information, you’re flipping back and forth. You read with a different intensity than you do when you’re reading a narrative text.

So reading is the most critical thing. If you want to, go to I have differentiated book lists that are organized around an essential question and they’re grouped that way. For instance, what are the limits of friendship? I have 10 texts there, so you can be assured that they’ve been vetted. They’re books that I would feel comfortable as a teacher having in my classroom or my children reading. They have the text complexity grade band that I use, and I make sure that I represent as much as I possibly can, gender as well as ethnic diversity, and also regional diversity.

I’m going to go back to where we started. Remember that when we’re talking about effective e-learning, it’s about what concepts I am teaching my students. It’s about the content. It’s about the skills. Most importantly, over all of those, it’s about the relationships. Relationships. The conversations that I have with my students, the descriptive feedback that I give, them the routines that I give them. That’s what sets them up for tremendous success, whether they’re in virtual or e-learning, hybrid learning, or a traditional classroom. That’s the secret sauce. Thank you for all that you do on behalf of students every day. Our profession is a noble one and my heart is just so full with what is expected of us moving forward.