Study Tips

5 Ways Learners & Educators Can Work Together to Enhance the Distance Learning Environment

Savita Potarazu
Published on Sep 1, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

With our recent transition to distance learning from primary to professional education, there have been emerging and evolving challenges for both learners and educators. As a first-year medical student, I can attest to these challenges and have proposed some suggestions we can pass on to those who are willing to enhance virtual classrooms and the learning that happens within them. 

One thing I have discussed with my family and friends recently is how impressed I am with our technological capabilities that have allowed many to continue being productive members of society. Despite how hard it may be to stay focused amidst the tumult and turmoil of our world, our educators are making valiant efforts to ensure our education is minimally compromised during these uncertain times. To support their efforts, we must support them! Let’s find out how...

In January, my class and I embarked on our journey through the Cardiovascular, Pulmonary, and Renal (CPR) block. We were initially briefed on a variety of academic policies in place to ensure the maintenance of our learning in the event of inclement weather and other unforeseen curricular disturbances (aka a pandemic…) By mid-March, our deans officially transitioned the preclinical curriculum to be online for the remainder of the semester. 

As a dedicated class-goer, I experienced my own share of personal difficulties adapting to an unfamiliar learning style and quickly identified areas of practical improvement for virtual learning. Though my insight is drawn from applications in medical education, I believe these suggestions can be embraced at all levels of distance learning. 

Osmosis illustration of a medical student who adapted to distance learning.

1. Set ground rules (learners)

For some classes, this may go without saying but setting ground rules may be an important first step in promoting an effective distance learning environment. What would these rules consist of? Ideally, each class develops their own depending on its tendencies, but here are some suggestions:

Be professional in interactions with each other and instructors

If you use the chat feature, type your words out fully as if you were sending them an email—including periods! Allow everyone space to contribute their thoughts and ideas. 

Minimize background disturbances as much as possible 

I know we are all at home (hopefully) and this can be hard to do if you live with roommates or your family. If necessary, many popular video conferencing tools let you set a customized background. If you live in a busy environment, just do your best! That brings me to my next point…

Mute your microphone when you’re not speaking

Even if your video conferencing space is quiet, ambient sounds can be distracting. If you need to interject, express yourself in the chat, or respond with an emoji if that feature is available to you. 

Minimize interference with instructor presentations 

This one’s an interesting one. Different platforms have various features for engaging with a presentation being given online. Some of them have the ability to annotate the slides while the presenter is speaking and sometimes EVERYONE can see these. Trust me, this happened in our class, and it was really disappointing. 

As a general rule, it’s best not to interfere with someone else’s work: just listen and learn! 

Osmosis illustration showing how important it is to mute your microphone during a conference call.

2. Host online office hours (educators) 

With the hustle and bustle of back-to-back lectures and meetings throughout the day, our weeks can start to feel endless and exhausting. With complicated material, however, it may be helpful for educators to set aside 30 minutes to an hour of time each week for students who may be struggling with distance learning, or who have questions that are best answered over a call rather than email. 

Normally, professors in college hold office hours in person, so why not set aside the same time virtually? Or in cases when educators normally don’t, perhaps they can now!

3. Designate question breaks (educators)

From experience, online learning can feel relentless. Taking intentional breaks to dedicate to questions (and even a quick refresh) may be more productive in the long-run for both learners and educators. 

After talking to some of my peers, I have found we more or less agree that asking questions during class using the chat feature can be distracting or daunting, depending on the frequency of questions asked or size of the class, respectively. Think of this suggestion as applying the Pomodoro Technique to virtual learning! This gives everyone a chance to digest the material and refresh after sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time. Of course, this can be tailored to the duration of the class. 

4. Promote active learning (learners & educators)

Our last unit for the CPR block was Renal and during our Acid-Base Workshop last week we were randomly assigned to breakout sessions using BlackBoard Collaborate and were tasked to complete a group quiz. After having not worked with peers in a while, this was quite nice. It was great to have some semblance of socialization with my peers and also be productive. I would like to see more of this in the coming months and highly recommend doing something similar in larger lecture settings. 

It also may be worth exploring various avenues to deliver educational content (Osmosis, online whiteboard apps, etc.) In one of my seminars, the instructor formerly taught us by drawing diagrams and maps on the whiteboard and now expresses difficulty delivering the content over our WebEx calls. As a visual learner, I definitely struggle to pay attention to someone lecturing without any visual aids and I firmly believed there must be a way around this using technology and screen-sharing capabilities. 

5. Prepare for technological interruptions (learners & educators)

Lastly, we all know our bandwidth and technological capacity is not ideal… but it is still highly advanced. Connections will be lost. Microphones will stop working. PowerPoint slides will freeze. These unexpected interruptions are inevitable. 

Instead of getting frustrated, impatient, or distracted, use these moments as opportunities to still be productive learners! Here are some suggestions, and I challenge you all to get creative with other alternatives as well! 

Implement poll questions

Before distance learning, professors promoted active learning in the classroom by interspersing poll questions throughout their presentations. Many of my peers and I often found them helpful and some instructors continue to use them online. As a way to combat the lost time due to technological issues, I propose that instructors compile all of their poll questions into a document to send to the class beforehand, and in the event of a technological complication, students can continue to answer the questions to their best ability. 

Introduce assessment items

Another idea is for educators to pose some thought questions or small exercises (also in a document given beforehand) relevant to the material that students can use to check their understanding. Ultimately, time is used productively and students will have some study tools they can refer to in preparing for future assessments. Sounds like a win-win to me! 

Osmosis illustration of a PowerPoint error.

All right, as a quick recap...

Online learning is tough in many ways for everyone involved. However, this seems to be the “new normal”, and if we want to make the most of our education online, we’re going to have to get creative. Learners, educators, and course directors should be clear about expectations. Setting ground rules is a great way to do that. 

Learners, be grateful, be patient, and be adaptable. Everyone is trying to recalibrate to a new normal right now and we owe it to our educators to be as flexible as possible. Give and receive feedback graciously. This is new to many of us and we have a lot to learn from online learning to make it more effective for us! 

About Savita

Savita Potarazu is a second-year medical student at George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences in Washington, D.C. In her free-time she loves taking hikes, playing with her dog Brady, doing yoga, and playing the piano. Currently, she is interested in pursuing a career in Pediatrics but is open to exploring other specialties in the next couple of years. Fun fact: Savita met the President of Rwanda in 2017. 

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