Six Lessons Learned in a Year of Remote Instruction

March 22, 2021

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With vaccinations increasing, school districts across the country are reopening—and it couldn’t come soon enough for many of my teacher friends, who have been eagerly awaiting the chance to put away their wired headsets and get back into the classroom for months! They are so eager, in fact, that I haven’t had the heart to share with them the news I’ve seen about school districts across the country discovering unexpected benefits of remote education, and making the decision to embrace a hybrid model of in-person and remote teaching indefinitely. 

Teachers valiantly rose to the challenges of remote teaching, adopting new technology and going boldly on camera for the first time in their lives. But even the most tech-savvy and enthusiastic complained: Students didn’t show up for class, or they logged in and faded away. Homework assignments were perceived as optional – so much so that their superintendents encouraged them to make them optional. Grades slipped, so grading did as well.  

With the one-year anniversary of remote teaching, they are still asking, are we doing what’s best for our students? As a parent who, more than once, found my daughter stretched out on her bed instead of attending class, I wonder the same thing. 

But whether we like it or hate it, remote teaching in some form or another is likely here to stay. So how do we, the geography/GIS teaching community, inspire engagement in this brave new world? How do we ensure that the students actually want to show up and do the work? What lessons can we learn from this year to prepare for the next? 

  1. First, don’t let feedback, assessment or deadlines slip. Make it clear to the students, in writing, that you expect them to complete assignments on time and that they will be graded. Share your expectations with their parents, as well. Studies show that remote students with clear performance expectations were more likely to stay engaged than those who knew they would be forgiven for checking out.  

Once the expectation is set, hold up your end of the bargain. Give students thorough feedback on their performance and return their grades as quickly as possible.  

2. Use asynchronous and synchronous teaching for the right things. Studies show that synchronous time, when you are online with your students, should be spent engaging in group activities, discussion, and informal assessment. Lecture, explanation, and instructions should be given in asynchronous time. In other words, you should be recording your lectures and how-to instructions and then posting them where students can watch them on their own time, as often as they need to.  

 To improve engagement with your video lessons:  

  • Keep them short—no more than 10 minutes each; five minutes is best.  
  • Speak more quickly than you normally do. Research indicates that students listen more attentively when your tempo increases, and they can replay anything they miss. 
  • Insert humor and visual aids as much as possible. 

 3. Assess the student’s engagement and understanding in every synchronous interaction, by asking questions directly to individuals or by using short real-time surveys. 

 4. Plan for peer interaction during asynchronous time. With the permission of their parents, assign work to groups of 3-4 students, and encourage them to call each other, participate in video calls, or collaborate via chat and text as much as possible. The isolation of remote learning can be detrimental to a child’s mental health, so creating an environment in which they still interact with each other is as important as the material they are learning. This practice will go a long way to building a sense of community, as well. See below!  

 5. Work on building a community, not just having a class. When students feel like they are part of a community, they are much more likely to engage whenever the group is together, including showing up for class! You can build community by encouraging students to participate on discussion boards or forums where they can discuss things beyond the realm of their classwork—school and community events and announcements for example—or create a class Facebook page for social interactions. Just remember that you must stay actively involved as the mediator and use this media as an opportunity to teach students proper social media etiquette.  

 6. Finally, make group activities more fun!  That could mean playing topographic bingo, tracking the weather, or brainstorming a local or school problem that a map could solve, and then creating it. I found these suggestions in this terrific blog post by Barbaree Duke, “42 ideas to include GIS in Education.” Other teachers across the country have posted lesson plans for GIS activities on the Teach with GIS site, where you will also find a library of activities designed for students of various ages created by Esri.  

Esri Canada has a great site of K-12 Education Resources organized by subject, including economics, physical education and mathematics! Choose your subject and then “activity,” “lesson,” “tutorial” or “video” to find what you need. 

America on the World Stage offers a collection of GIS lessons to use in American History

If you aren’t using StoryMaps or GeoInquiries yet, it’s time to add them to your lesson plans! Watch “GIS for Classrooms: World Geography GeoInquiries and Surveys to Story Maps” for an overview of the World Geography GeoInquiries collection for middle school, and GIS Tools for Back to School for an introduction to free mapping tools, entry-level, standards-based classroom activities, and tips and tricks for flexible instruction with GIS.  

DirectionsMag has a playlist devoted to using GIS in K12 education that will be helpful. Check back periodically, too; Directions runs several webinars for educators every year. Subscribe to the weekly webinar newsletter to see all the latest. 

Reposted from The DirectionsMag Geospatial Community Blog, an extension of Directions Magazine. Visit us for daily geospatial news, exclusive articles, geospatial webinars, and podcasts. If you are interested in contributing, please email


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