Work Culture

What online learning can teach us about remote work


Published on March 01, 2023

When education, like so many other industries, went remote in 2020, instructors and teachers alike felt the pinch. Jess Nicol, an educational developer at a post-secondary learning institute, was one of them, jumping into reactive mode along with her colleagues. “There was a certain formula everyone was following: check-in emails, discussion boards, content layout,” she says about the early days of virtual work life. 

The formula was a clunky translation of the in-person experience and often resulted in stale lessons and a disengaged audience. But these temporary fixes were thought to be just that—a quick solution to a problem with an expiration date. Cut to today where even as campuses have opened back up and in-person education becomes more available, remote learning doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In fact, a trend report published in 2022 showed that 95% of online program alums recommend online learning and 43% of school administrators plan to continue offering remote and online options even after pandemic-related campus closures. 

After enough time trying to copy and paste the same exact features of in-person learning, educators came to the same realization Nicol did: “Online teaching can be so much more than that formula we were following in 2020.” The same can be said across industries where remote collaboration has become more robust. Leveraging the increasing sophistication of digital tools and platforms, remote workers of any profession can take a page out of the online educators’ playbook to not just replicate the feeling of being in-person, but create a brand new experience along the way. 

Let the objective determine the method 

Today, there are more options for virtual class formats and online teaching methods available to educators than ever before. But as Nicol warns, that doesn’t mean teachers should throw every potential option at the wall to see what sticks. “You don’t want to overwhelm a class by using every tool and method you can think of,” she adds. Instead, educators have learned to consider their objectives first (How should the students engage? Is this best learned through collaboration or individual focus?) and then decipher which tool or platform could best bring those lessons to life. 

“Online teaching can be so much more than that formula we were following in 2020.” 

For Nicol, this can look like asking students to asynchronously watch a pre-recorded video, then host a discussion in real-time with both verbal and live chat options. It can look like digital polls and group tasks, and then following up with a written summary or article leading into the next class. By getting creative and strategic with these tools, online educators can create an experience that feels varied, engaging, and relevant to each subject.

For distributed teams, this could mean taking a step back and asking whether that brainstorm or feedback session should be a Zoom meeting, Slack huddle, or discussed asynchronously over Dropbox Capture. In the same way online educators have taken a strategic approach to methods of teaching, remote teams across industries can adjust their ways of working based on the nuances of each project or task.

Think outside the box to make connections

For Alex Dawson, who teaches English as a second language for the Toronto District School Board, fostering an engaging learning environment is crucial to her subject of expertise. Learning a new language requires fast-paced interaction and adaptive scenarios—just the sort of thing that can be tricky to replicate virtually. 

So when all her classes moved online, Dawson got creative. She realized that while face-to-face conversations were the best way for students to make connections in person, there were other ways to spark those synapses virtually. She found that grocery and clothing store websites were incredibly interactive and ultimately more effective in simulating real-life scenarios than the typical role-playing scenes she would conduct in person. She was also able to create virtual, vocabulary-based scavenger hunts with the savvy use of street view on Google Maps. According to Dawson, these activities allowed students to be transported to very real situations which made her lessons much more engaging and immediate. 

Even as most of her classes are back in-person, she still depends on some of her out-of-the-box, virtual solutions she first adopted during the pandemic. For Dawson, her experience in online teaching simply reinforced the importance of keeping remote environments—be they virtual classrooms or offices—dynamic and interactive. 

Adjust for different learning—and working—styles

When transitioning to remote teaching, educators quickly realized that online environments can democratize communication in ways that in-person learning can’t. Things like interactive polls, surveys, and asynchronous tools let people engage on their own time and can act as a bolster for those who typically struggle in a live, participation-based setting. 

In this way, explains Nicol, online learning tools can provide the accessibility and inclusivity that in-person learning has historically lacked. She describes the opportunity online teachers have in the ability to provide information in a variety of ways, whether that’s using captions in live meetings or offering recordings of content. Nicol calls this a learner-centered approach, one that aims to prioritize everyone’s voice and give all students the opportunity to connect with the material. 

However, some aspects of remote environments can limit communication if left unchecked. Dawson noticed that while teaching online, many students chose to keep their cameras off for privacy reasons. This made it much more difficult to engage with each student. Rather than accept the situation as less-than-ideal, however, Dawson once again got creative. “I overcame this by keeping the class dynamic, eliciting responses constantly via the chat function, and doing a lot of interactive reading, writing, and speaking activities to ensure constant participation.” This way, even if a student was off-camera, they were still being engaged in other ways that required their attention and focus. 

...virtual environments give a voice to those who aren’t necessarily the first to raise their hand.

If the loudest in the room is most likely to be heard in an in-person setting, virtual environments give a voice to those who aren’t necessarily the first to raise their hand. The learner-centered approach Nicole described or the smart uses of chat functions Dawson implemented are just a few examples of a more thoughtful and inclusive culture for all kinds of remote settings. 

What’s next?

For most educators, the digital culture of online tools, dynamic lesson plans, and more accessible methods of communication are features they can’t see themselves reversing, even as some classes are taking on a hybrid approach or going back in-person full-time. “As a teacher, I would never go back to an environment that was devoid of technology use. And as a learner, I would not be satisfied with a bare-bones learning experience of content and discussion boards,” says Nicol. 

As most knowledge work continues to be done remotely in some way or the other, this no-going-back mentality online educators have adopted naturally raises the question of what’s next. New platforms for virtual lesson plans and digital communication have changed online learning in such a short span of time, how could emerging innovations like AI—which is already showing signs of influence in this space—alter and improve the ways we learn and work remotely in the future? 

If remote workers across all industries can learn anything from the the online learning space it’s that leaning into these technologies can enable our best work without stripping us of our real, human connections. “We spend a lot of our time online or interacting with the online world,” admits Nicol. “[But] I want people to see that the education space affords a lot of social, fun, playful options, too.”