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The shift toward virtual and hybrid learning can be challenging; especially around student engagement. However, sometimes the real challenge isn’t one of student engagement so much as student empowerment. In this article, we explore how teachers can design distance learning with student self-direction at the forefront. This is a modified excerpt from my upcoming book Empowered at a Distance: How to Build Student Self-Direction into Remote and Hybrid Learning. It is also part of the series on virtual and hybrid learning.

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Students Are Disengaging in Distance Learning

Student engagement can be a challenge in any classroom environment. You’re constantly reading the room to see if students are committed and focused. You adjust the pace with attention to those slower moments when a lesson seems to drag on a bit. It’s why you create moments for peer processing, use frequent transitions, and incorporate movement. You ask critical-thinking questions and seek out relevant resources. You use specific teaching strategies that increase buy-in and get students excited about the subject.

However, these student engagement strategies tend to be tied to the physical environment. As you shift toward hybrid and remote learning, peer engagement becomes more challenging and cumbersome. The use of asynchronous methods means you can’t predict the pace of a lesson anymore. The lack of physicality makes movement more challenging. Meanwhile, your natural excitement and energy for your subject is harder to convey when students aren’t physically present.

Teaching is an inherently physical job. But without an actual room, it’s nearly impossible to “read the room.” It’s also challenging to get a sense of engagement in virtual meetings when everyone is in a different location with muted microphones.

Consider the role of distractions. In a physical classroom, you can use space proximity and body language to get a student’s attention when they are distracted. But when students work from home, you can’t redirect misbehavior. For students, it can feel as though class isn’t actually in session. It becomes easier to miss a virtual meeting here and ignore an assignment there.

This is amplified by the sheer number of distractions in a remote environment. Often, the very tablets and computers they use for work are also their entertainment devices, so they can all too easily get sucked into binge-watching their favorite YouTuber or going through an entire season on streaming services. Even when they focus on their work, their smartphones buzz and ping with alerts for various games, messaging apps, and social media platforms. Many students have game systems designed to make gaming habitual, which means they can get lost for hours playing a game. Other students are on social media, which uses gamification elements to keep people on the app as long as possible.

Student engagement is a huge challenge in a culture of distraction, especially when those distractions occur at home. I recently created a student engagement survey of educators ranging from kindergarten to graduate school. It was fascinating to see that the biggest challenges were universal. Students were failing to turn in assignments on time. They weren’t reading all of the directions. They attended virtual meetings, but they kept turning their microphones and video cameras off the whole time. Second-grade teachers and college professors alike made statements such as, “I feel like I am speaking to a wall,” and “I just can’t tell who is engaged.”

In many cases, students aren’t logging into the LMS, or they’re logging in but not actually finishing the required assignments. The specific issues vary from class to class. It might be a matter of low attendance, low completion rates, or simply lower work quality than what students had done in person. However, the larger challenge is something many teachers are experiencing — a decrease in student engagement compared to their former face-to-face instruction. This trend has been true everywhere. We’ve seen this in urban, suburban, and rural environments. These challenges exist in affluent and low-income schools, and they occur at every grade level in every subject area.

Keeping Equity at the Forefront in Distance Learning

A lack of engagement can feel frustrating. However, we need to start from a place of empathy and take on a lens of equity. Not every student has the same access to a quiet workspace at home. Not every student has the same access to physical materials. Some middle-school students are babysitting siblings because their parents are essential workers, and others are living in a state of uncertainty with parents who have been recently laid off. At the university level, students might be working multiple jobs while managing a family in crises and dealing with the loss of a loved one.

In these moments, students at every level are likely to be experiencing varying degrees of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These catastrophic situations can exacerbate mental health issues. As educators, we need to take the time to discover the whole story. It’s easy to view disengagement as apathy or laziness, but a student might miss an assignment because the internet is spotty or they are facing increased stress at home. A student might fail to log in and check assignments because they are experiencing severe depression and anxiety. I love the fact that so many teachers are providing flexible deadlines for students and allowing resubmissions for assignments. They’re taking the time to get to know their students and they’re showing grace to students during the pandemic.

As educators, we need to focus first on access and equity. This begins by ensuring every student has equitable access to technology. Not every student has the same device or the same internet connection. This is why it’s critical to work with all stakeholders to provide increased access to technology. At a schoolwide level, you might provide a laptop checkout system and additional Wi-Fi hot spots. In some cases, students are disengaged because they lack specific technology skills. This is why it helps to provide a curation of tech tutorials online for students at all levels. If you’re a school leader, you might recruit a student tech team to help problem-solve technology challenges as they arise. But access to technology and technology skills will not guarantee access to remote learning. Students also need access to additional academic supports.

Every student needs to have access to the content, to the knowledge, to the tools, to the strategies, to the teacher, and to the classroom community. We can’t always guarantee that students are going to have an equitable experience. Even when we actively work toward equity, injustices will still remain. However, there are strategic things that we can do to try to level the playing field and provide access to students as much as possible.

Some of your students might not be native English speakers and, as a result, they need access to sentence stems, visuals, front-loaded vocabulary and other accommodations that you provide in person. Furthermore, exceptional learners need accommodations and supports in distance learning. As a teacher, you might want to re-read the individualized education plans (IEPs) and any of the 504 plans to provide necessary accommodations. If you’re in a K-12 environment, lean in to the special education teachers and disability support staff to think through how you will make your instruction universally accessible. If you are at a university, you might also have access to disability support services. But equity goes deeper than merely access to educational opportunities. As educators, we need to promote equitable practices in the systems we design and the materials we use.

It’s easy to step into digital spaces and forget that they are not socially neutral. However, the systems that perpetuate injustice offline exist online as well. Pay close attention to the role of gender and race in your online instruction. There’s a tendency for people to assume a false social neutrality online, but you need to address power dynamics. It helps to find experts in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and ask them for a critique of your online materials so that you can find areas where you need to improve. We must also focus on instructional strategies that promote anti-racism in our teaching practice.

I readily admit that I am on this learning journey of anti-racism. I still have implicit bias and commit microaggressions as an instructor. It continues to be a journey in which I make mistakes. I do not pretend to be an expert on race or equity. However, there are many great resources, including books, courses, social media chats, and conferences that focus on equity and anti-racism.

The Challenge of Self-Direction

Many of these student engagement challenges are actually a lack of student self-direction. When students are self-directed, they are self-starters, meaning they can initiate the learning on their own. They can problem-solve challenges that occur. They can begin the day focused on learning even when a teacher isn’t present. Students who are self-directed are also self-managers. They know how to keep track of learning tasks and manage their time. They develop systems to track their progress on projects and assignments without needing frequent reminders of the deadlines.

When a student fails to log into the LMS or show up to a meeting, that’s often a failure in self-direction. It might relate to executive function issues (which is why equity is critical), but it can also be a failure to self-start. When a student fails to finish projects, it might not be a lack of interest. Instead, it might be a breakdown in self-management.

The students who are the best at navigating distance learning environments are not necessarily the most tech-savvy. Instead, they are the most self-directed. They are the students who have developed the soft skills need to be self-starters and self-managers. These students engage in project management and time management. They problem-solve when tasks get challenging. They find necessary scaffolds when they need help and they engage in meaningful peer collaboration. These students are constantly engaging in peer and self-assessment:

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In other words, these students have a sense of ownership over their learning. Yes, they are engaged, but they are also empowered. This empowerment can help fuel their engagement. By owning the learning, they have increased buy-in and thus better commitment. By self-managing, they are able to improve their focus. As teachers, we cannot guarantee that all of our students will develop into self-directed learners. However, we can design systems that increase student buy-in and ownership.

Building Student Ownership into Virtual and Hybrid Learning

If we want students to be fully self-directed, we need to design systems that empower students to own the learning. So, what does this look like? Here are a few ideas:

  • Teach students to self-select the scaffolds. The idea is to teach students how to find specific learning supports that are universally accessible to your entire class. You might design scaffolds for language, including front-loaded vocabulary or sentence stems. You might also provide tutorials for academic concepts and create graphic organizers that all students can access. You might also curate a set of technology tutorials that students can access at any time. The goal is to empower students to be self-directed when they face challenges, so that they say, “I know where to go for help and I know what to do.”
  • Create opportunities for ownership in virtual meetings. Find specific ways to increase student feedback and interactions in virtual class meetings. Design activities that tap into their curiosity and creativity and even allow students to use items from their physical environment.
  • Provide choice and flexibility in online assignments. A simple choice menu is often one of the best ways to introduce student voice and choice in a structured way.
  • Tap into student interests. When students own the learning, they get an opportunity to pursue their own interests and passions. This varies by subject and grade level, but the goal is to empower students to pursue their interests and passions within the class setting.
  • Empower students to own the inquiry process. Students should have frequent opportunities to ask clarifying questions to make sense out of confusing content. They should ask one another diagnostic questions as they engage in problem-solving. They should ask critical-thinking questions as they engage in deep dialogue. But they also need a chance to do research, gather data, and share their answers with an audience.
  • Empower students to own the creative process. At some point, distance learning should include creative work. This might involve a design sprint or divergent thinking activity. Or, it might be a larger project-based learning (PBL) unit. Regardless of the approach, students should own the entire creative process.
  • Empower students with collaborative learning. Remote learning doesn’t have to mean working alone. Using both synchronous and asynchronous tools, students can own their learning through meaningful peer collaboration. The key is to design distance-learning tasks that use both structure and interdependency and help students self-select their synchronous and asynchronous communication tools.
  • Empower students to own the assessment process. In order to improve, students need meaningful feedback. They need to set goals and reflect on their progress. For this reason, it’s important that we craft self-assessments and peer assessments that can boost metacognition and help students determine where they are and what they will do next. This is especially critical in a distance-learning environment, where teachers won’t always be physically present to provide formative feedback.

This can feel daunting, which is why it helps to focus on key areas of student ownership and gradually introduce new layers of self-direction to the learning.

A Gradual Release Approach to Student Ownership

Student ownership is not as simple as merely letting go of control as an educator. To empower students, we need to design our courses with specific structures that help facilitate ownership. This requires intentionality on our part. In the upcoming chapters, we’ll explore specific strategies for building self-direction in key areas of student learning.

Even so, some students may struggle with the freedom they experience when they first own their learning. It can feel overwhelming. This is especially true at the university level, where students have spent years in largely compliant environments following the rules and doing what their teachers ask.

It can help to take a gradual release of responsibility (GRR) approach to student ownership. You might start out with course documents that allow students to self-select scaffolds. But in this phase, you might still need to teach exceptional learners how to use specific accommodations. Over time, they will self-select what they need. You might also begin with a choice menu at first and then move on to a project where students can own the creative process. Slowly, you introduce more student ownership into collaborative work and you pilot some small self-assessments and peer assessments.

Ultimately, student ownership is about more than just increased engagement or deeper learning. Empowered learners develop the soft skills needed to thrive as lifelong learners and to become the makers and problem-solvers we know they can be.

Empowered Teachers Empower Students

Teachers are the guides that encourage and inspire critical thinking. They are the architects designing deeper learning. They are the leaders of a classroom community.  Ultimately, the teachers who thrive in remote learning won’t necessarily be the ones who know the apps inside and out. They will be the ones who know their students, their subjects, and their crafts. This doesn’t mean you should avoid technology or fail to learn about various apps and platforms. Schools need technology expertise. But it goes much deeper than knowing how to use technology.

Right now, things might feel unpredictable. However, teaching has always been unpredictable. Every year means a new group of students with a new set of desires, needs, and skills. Each course has a different climate and culture. We can’t predict what this next semester will hold. However, we can be strategic and proactive by designing systems that will increase student ownership.

There is no instruction manual to make this happen. There are no formulas or step-by-step processes we can follow. However, there are blueprints and frameworks and strategies we can use as we empower our students. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out the free distance learning toolkit. You might also want to check out my new book Empowered at a Distance.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Ravinarayan says:

    It’s very well written. Thought provoking. I like the idea of helping students become makers and problem-solvers. Helping them to direct their learning, making them independent learners, showing ways for self scaffolding are great ideas. So it’s not about using hundreds of Apps in a course, it’s all about being sensitive to students’ needs, designing courses in such a way that students manage their learning, set goals and try their best to achieve the goals set. Your write-up gave me a lot of clarity about online teaching.
    Thanks and regards
    Ravi, Regional Institute of English, Bengaluru

  • Helen Jackson says:

    I loved the content and the idea of empowering students to self-initiate and manage their learning but I am still a bit lost as to how to design these systems on the fly as we are already deeply entrenched in this hybrid and synchronous/asynchronous environment.

  • Rebika Kahssay says:

    we exploer how teachers can destance leaning with student however these student engagment tend to be tied to the physical enviromrnent
    This trend has been true everywhere we’ve seen this in urban suburban however we need to start form a place of empathy and take
    As education we need to focus every student needs to have access to the content to knowledge.

  • Rebika Kahssay says:

    it is a very focus about student and I learning based project instruction traning

  • Rebika Kahssay says:

    What impact to school ,helping childern cope with reciu tramu teaching and learning the pandemic the science of motivation

  • Sreeniasan MK, Vyasa Vidya Niketan, Chalakudy, Kerala says:

    The article is written by considering the need of the hour.
    Thank you so much.
    Actually we have to empower the stuents rather than helping them.

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