Distance Learning Engagement, 13 Tools and Some Thoughts In-between.

Engaging students in a time of distance education is not an easy feat. I am writing my post as a blur between what I envision distance education to be in the perfect world, and what I would currently have access to within my current situation in my school division and through my work as an Instructional Technology consultant.

As our presenters on Distance Education and Online Learning in my last masters class in ECI833 have pointed out that we must separate the difference between Emergency Remote Teaching and Distance Education.

So before we begin… Let’s start here.

Emergency Remote Teaching:

According to the tuition-free, non-profit, University of the People, they define Emergency remote teaching as the following:

“Emergency remote teaching (ERT) is meant to be a temporary shift from the normal modes of teaching. It happens when teaching becomes remote (or distant). This takes what would have otherwise been face-to-face or hybrid teaching and transforms it to become digital education.”

ERT is meant to be temporary. However, it often lacks the resources, support, and may have a lack of faculty support.

Online Learning:

According to EdTech Magazine, Online Learning involves more planning and design.  Often these courses follow a design process. It takes time to develop online courses, as well as better expectations than emergency remote teaching.

“It’s not fair to expect the same outcomes if you don’t lay the same foundation,”

Need to know how to apply these tools to empower and create relevant experiences for students.

Engagement in Distance Learning

On Tuesday night I was introduced to Dr. John Spencer, and have listened to the following podcast that was shared with the class. John highlights some important pieces in distance education. Below are the following reasons for low engagement.

  • Trauma
  • Brain Fog
  • Digital Divide
  • Access to materials
  • Living in uncertainty
  • Students who are accessing the language
  • Students on special programs IEPs.

Some ideas that John provides include the importance of providing tutorials for technology.  Onboard resources for students. Create a student tech team called the  “Geek Squad” to help with some troubleshooting.  John also highlights that we need to allow resubmits, and model empathy and compassion.   Provide linguistic support for EAL learners.  Universal Design for Learning allows scaffolds and supports to be accessed.

John also highlights student agency.  The importance of all three of the following compliance, engagement, and empowerment.  See the visual for more information on the importance of student agency.


Relevant Tools for Online and Blended Learning

There are so many different tools that teachers can implement into their online and blended learning environments.  Below is not an exhaustive list, but a list of tools that I have used, and encourage the teachers I work with to explore.  Many of the tools can be found on the following list created by my classmates, Nancy, Amanda, Cathy, and Kristina. My favourite tools for Distance Learning.

The LMS:

Microsoft Teams

We use Microsoft Teams within our school division for a communication platform but also for a learning management system.  Our Elementary grades in our virtual school are based on Microsoft Teams.  Teachers can upload content, assign assignments, and run synchronous and asynchronous classes.  There are so many pieces within Microsoft Teams that teachers can leverage for engagement. One of my favourite Microsoft go-to playlists are from Mike Tholfsen. If your school is using Microsoft Teams be sure to check it out.


Edsby is our brand new all in one program.  It is our attendance program, gradebook, parent communication program, but also allows teachers to access Edsby for posting and receiving student assignments. It provides a class page that parents and teachers can post on to further the learning of the course.

Video Tools:


Flipgrid is my go-to tool as a teacher for quick videos.  It has a built-in screen recorder and is all around great for instruction videos.  It is also extremely accessible for both teachers and students as you can access it on all devices either through the web or through the app.  It is a great tool to engage your students, it allows students to explain their thinking and learning through video rather than paper and pencil.

Adobe Spark

Adobe Spark is the basic video editor that creates basic videos that are perfect for short videos or overviews of class projects.  This tool again is perfect for distance learning as it is accessible for teachers and students on all devices as it is offered on the web as well as through the app.


Camtasia is a powerful video editor. This video editor is not free. However, it does allow for the creation of videos easily.  It has a built-in screen recorder, which can overlay a webcam on top of it. It is my favourite video editor as it has beautiful transitions and templates to get started quickly.


Microsoft Sway

Microsoft Sway is a recent presentation tool that I became aware of in the past couple of years.  It creates engaging presentations that allow the creator to embed various media.  It also limits the customization options and uses built-in transitions to create a visually appealing virtual newsletter or presentation.  Here is an example of a Microsoft Sway.  It is an easy to use tool that I have had my grade 4s and grade 5 students use.


Yes, Microsoft PowerPoint is still my go-to for presentations.  Microsoft has really stepped up their integrations with accessibility, which allows for UDL to take place in the classroom.  There are options for subtitles and the Immersive Reader within PowerPoint that create inclusivity to all classrooms regardless if they are distance or in person.

Pear Deck

Pear Deck is a neat tool that you can now apply to your Microsoft PowerPoints to get students engaged.  Ask students questions, and see their responses in live time. It is a great formative assessment tool.



Wakelet is a great tool for curating resources to send out to students or a tool that will allow students to compile resources.  I like to think of the Wakelet as an interactive bibliography.  For planning purposes it allows teachers to save all sorts of resources to a Wakelet collection, and that whole collection can then be sent out to students with a link.


OneDrive is the storage option that I have available through my school division.  It allows me to have access to my files wherever I have an internet connection.  These files can be shared and collaborated on with other students and teachers.


Planboard is a virtual daybook that I used every day when I was teaching in the classroom.  It has built-in Saskatchewan Curriculum and was a great tool to organize myself as a teacher.  You could embed videos and content into the lessons. Attach the required files for easy access. And print off the lesson if a substitute teacher was needed the lesson.



Think of Kahoot, but without the time restraint.  This is a great tool because it can be used asynchronously. It provides engaging teacher-created quizzes that you can create based on the lessons you are teaching.


Wonderopolis is a great site for elementary students Grades 2-6 where we can engage students on what they are “wondering” about. A new wonder is released daily.  Be sure to look at past daily wonders to add to your classroom lessons.

The Shift from in Person to Online

In my current position, I can support teachers who are teaching either online or in the classroom with plenty of tools and resources.  However, I do believe that the tools should be one of the last things that teachers should worry about when teaching Distance Learning.  Teachers need to work on the development of relationships with students. We need to encourage students to be self-directed.

However, my new learning comes into what I learned last class as UX Design Theory.  We can adjust the systems to the user to benefit our students.  I often think that using an approach like this can be beneficial to all students as it promotes UDL.

Thanks for the read!

Comments (5)

  1. Reply

    As always, very reflective! I was always so appreciative of all the tools you showed me. SECSD teachers are certainly very lucky to have such a dedicated, compassionate educator and learner to support them! Thanks for the great read! I am going to take the “Geek” squad tip in your article as I have 4 boys in my class who would be all over that. They have even formed an online grade 6 study group on discord! So this will only add to their repertoire. You would love them! See ya Tuesday!

  2. Reply

    Thanks for the great post Curtis,

    While I really enjoyed reading John Spencer’s book “Empower”, I hadn’t stumbled across his Podcast yet. I really liked the idea you highlighted in creating a student “Geek Squad”! I think this would have been an awesome tool to have had in our first round of distance learning as I found myself trying to troubleshoot with multiple students each week. If I had a “Geek Squad” of my own, I think some of the simpler issues could have been solved much faster and made the initial experience a little easier for my students. I also think this would be a great project for senior students in an elementary school to undertake. If there were some classrooms having tech difficulties, the Geek Squad could be summoned during recesses to help other students and teachers in the school who are having tech difficulties. I’m thinking this is definitely something I will be looking into once things get back to normal (whenever that is).

    Thanks again for your post,


  3. Reply


    Very thoughtful and informative post! What I love about these classes is being introduced to so many new tools and ideas! I appreciate your summary of the tools you noted in your post. After experiencing Pear Deck and Nearpod, I am wanting to try these out with my students in the future. The concept that you can make PowerPoint slides more interactive with a separate tool is still mind blowing to me!

    Thank you for mentioning the difference between emergency remote teaching (ERT) and distance education. I sometimes forget and use them interchangeably when referring to teaching through the pandemic last spring. Always something new to learn! You highlighted some reasons for low engagement during ERT and I couldn’t agree more. I also think parents/guardians were so overwhelmed between their children trying to learn from home, while also trying to continue working their own jobs from home. Eventually, you have to let something go!

    Like Lisa and Matt, I love the idea of Geek Squad. I can see kids just soaking in that leadership role!

    Thanks for such an engaging post!

  4. Reply

    Curtis, your posts never disappoint! I find myself constantly having to differentiate between ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’ and ‘Online Teaching’ for those outside education. I have a few students who were supposed to be in my class but chose online learning…and I think they assumed it would be the same as what we were doing in the spring. I wonder how it is going? As I was reading through your tools for online learning, I found myself wandering and checking out some of your ideas. I really liked the Microsoft Sway. I have never heard of this before. It looks like a lot of fun. I couldn’t agree more that teachers need to work on the development of relationships with students as being priority one. Just as in the classroom, the students don’t care what you know, until they know you care!
    Thanks again.

  5. Reply

    Great post. Thanks for the list of tools and I really like your summary of each (very useful and can tell you reviewed them personally). I like how you defined the different ‘types’ of ‘virtual’ learning and the definitions of each. One thing that the pandemic has done is put an emphasis on acquiring and becoming skillful with at least some tech tools but more importantly how we teach, engage, and empower students.

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