Variety is the Spice of Remote Learning

Designing On-Screen and Off-Screen Activities for Students

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
9 min readAug 24, 2020


By Robert W. Maloy, Torrey Trust, and Sharon A. Edwards — University of Massachusetts Amherst

Earlier this summer, educational blogger Maha Bali urged teachers and families to flip the conversation from “screens and time” to “what kinds of meaningful activities are our kids doing throughout the day” (2020, para. 1).

With increasingly more schools and classes shifting to remote teaching during the global pandemic, we propose that remote learning does not mean that all activities and assignments from school must be done solely on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

With creativity and planning, it is possible for teachers and families to design remote learning that includes engaging and inspiring on-screen and off-screen educational experiences for students.

In this article, we present a framework for organizing and facilitating on-screen and off-screen activities for students during remote learning. This framework is built around three key building blocks for successful learning in face-to-face, online, and blended educational settings:

  1. Multiple Modes of Learning,
  2. Montessori Principles, and
  3. Bloom’s Taxonomy

Each building block can be used to generate low-tech (no screens) and high-tech (with screens) learning experiences for students across the grade levels.

Each gives teachers and families flexibility and choice in how they organize learning and each offers students multiple opportunities to engage in exciting and meaningful academic activities.

Building Block 1: Multiple Modes of Learning

In a now-famous framework, Psychologist Howard Gardner proposed that every learner has a group of intelligences that can be activated by teachers in school classrooms: Logical-Mathematical, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, Verbal-Linguistic, Visual-Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, and Interpersonal. Many scholars and educators now dispute the idea that individual learners possess specific intelligences and that teaching to student-specific intelligences improves learning.

However, it is possible to reframe Gardner’s framework by shifting it from intelligences possessed by learners to types, or modes, of educational experiences provided by teachers. In creating remote instruction plans, teachers can organize learning experiences where students are reading, writing, speaking, analyzing, building, inventing, moving, singing, dancing, and interacting with others. In this way, students can experience each of the modes of learning found in Gardner’s framework.

Virtual and remote lessons that feature multiple modes of learning have a greater chance of engaging students in memorable learning compared to repeated iterations of reading, writing, and calculating.

Utilizing multiple modes of learning further makes it possible for students to experience not just on-screen, but off-screen learning experiences as well. Table 1 offers examples of ways to integrate low-tech (no screens) and high-tech (with screens) modes of learning in remote/online settings.



  • Low-tech: Build an artifact or sculpture with objects around the house that reflects an idea important to you
  • High-tech: Design a 3D digital model on Tinkercad that reflects an idea important to you


  • Low-tech: Take a haiku hike around the neighborhood or a park and write a short poem about nature or you in nature
  • High-tech: Write a #twihaiku or #sciku




  • Low-tech: Build something you want to make — a mini golf course, robot, or something else — using hands-on “junk” or recycled bin materials and art supplies
  • High-tech: Design a dance for a music video about something you built


  • Low-tech: Write and perform a song, make puppets to create a musical production, join family members to create a talent show
  • High-tech: Code a song on Pencil Code, use Audacity to record and remix a song, or film a video of stuffed animals dancing and acting


  • Low-tech: Design a game that asks players to work together to do or solve something and play it with family members or neighborhood friends
  • High-tech: Design an educational game on Scratch and share with peers and the Scratch Community to try

Building Block 2: Bloom’s Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, first proposed in 1956, is a second key element for designing engaging virtual and remote lessons for students. Bloom’s Taxonomy is often displayed as a pyramid with lower-order thinking skills (i.e., remember, understand, apply) occupying the bottom three levels and higher-order thinking skills (i.e., analyze, evaluate, create) at the top. Learn more about Bloom’s Taxonomy in the open access ebook chapter Teaching with Digital Tools and Apps.

Successful remote learning lessons offer students multiple opportunities to utilize the skills found at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy by creating, evaluating, and analyzing information, objects, and ideas. Since the levels are hierarchical, as students engage in top-level cognitive processes, they must also use the lower-order thinking skills. For example, in order to create a robot, students need to be able to remember, understand, and apply scientific principles and facts, while analyzing and evaluating relevant information to make decisions about their design process.

To help students to remember and understand basic information, remote learning can include time spent completing worksheets and related practice activities. But to sustain engagement with academic materials and to ensure higher-order thinking, students need learning experiences where they are creating products, presentations, ideas, knowledge, and performances as part of their remote activities.

The idea that deeper learning happens when students construct knowledge for themselves is one of the enduring legacies of the computer pioneer Seymour Papert. In Papert’s view, it was essential that students envision and create (that is, construct knowledge and understanding) as part of every learning experience. Papert’s constructionist approach means using technology not only as a vehicle for delivering remote education, but for providing empowering student-centered, higher-order thinking learning experiences for students. Table 2 offers examples of ways to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy in low-tech and high-tech remote/online settings.


  • Low-Tech: Build a fantasy world in your house or room using found objects
  • High-Tech: Build a virtual world in Minecraft


  • Low-Tech: Collect data by building and flying different paper airplane models and determine the most effective designs and flight strategies
  • High-Tech: Play online Microsoft Flight Simulator X PaperPlane Game to evaluate and determine the most successful strategies


  • Low-Tech: Assess your community’s disaster preparedness plan for how they might handle extreme weather or other calamities
  • High-Tech: Play Stop Disasters! games from the United Nations and analyze the costs and benefits of different ways to prevent natural disasters


  • Low-Tech: Generate predictions about sports or news based on prior knowledge and print sources (e.g., newspaper)
  • High-Tech: Explore Google Trends and then generate predictions about peoples’ search habits


  • Low-Tech: Illustrate the movements of a character in a story on a map
  • High-Tech: Illustrate the movements of a character in a story on a digital map (see Google Lit Trips)


  • Low-Tech: Complete a math facts worksheet
  • High-Tech:Compete in a digital math facts game such as Math Blaster

Building Block 3: Montessori Principles

In 1907, educational philosopher, scientist, and physician, Maria Montessori opened a revolutionary new school in Rome, Italy, the Casa dei Bambini — Italian for “Children’s House.” In her school, disadvantaged, previously unschooled children experienced educational success few thought possible. From her work, she set forth a formulation for learning organized around three essential elements:

1) A point of interest and engagement for students. Montessori believed that students must be drawn to learning through elements that engage their interest and curiosity. Such points of interest can be based on what students are excited about and find relevant to their lives. The key is that such a point of interest propels a student to act and learn.

2) Self-correcting feedback that enables students to learn from their mistakes by continually formulating new approaches to problems. Montessori recognized that children need feedback about their learning efforts that give them information to improve their performance. In the article Moving From Feedback to Feedforward, Jennifer Gonzalez and Joe Hirsch discussed the importance of providing suggestions and advice that can help learners’ future development (feedforward) rather than criticism or critique focused on previous events (feedback). Montessori’s idea of feedback fits this model for forward-thinking learning and development where learners get ongoing real-time guidance they can employ to make changes in how they are solving a puzzle or approaching a problem.

3) Open-ended learning experiences that can be done again and again without becoming repetitious or boring. Montessori wanted students to be constantly engaged in discovering new ideas and information so learning experiences would not be too limiting or predictable. Unexpected, surprising experiences propel student interest and learning.

Successful online and offline learning activities need these three Montessori elements to engage and sustain student interest. Table 3 presents examples of ways to apply Montessori principles in low-tech and high-tech remote/online settings.

Point of Interest and Engagement

  • Low-Tech: Recreate a work of art using found items around the house
  • High-Tech: Create an interactive digital artwork on any topic of interest

Self-Correcting Feedback

  • Low-Tech: Invent a geography game that features questions (or tasks like moving around a space) and answers
  • High-Tech: Play GeoGuessr, a web-based geography discovery game, and get instant feedback about geographical locations

Open-Ended Learning Experiences

  • Low-Tech: Write a song and perform it using found objects/musical instruments around the house
  • High-Tech:Use Creatability tools to design different types of music


Facing the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems certain that schools across the country will be offering some online or distance learning as part of their educational programs during fall 2020 and beyond. Students will be using technology for learning throughout the day. But, when given opportunities to experience multiple modes of learning, to exercise higher-order thinking skills, and to engage in interest-driven, open-ended activities, students can both enjoy and succeed academically.

Those learning experiences can happen on and off screens as we discussed in this article and as illustrated by Torrey Trust’s new infographic, “Rethinking Teaching 2020.” Indeed, it is by designing many different combinations of on-screen and off-screen experiences that students, teachers, and families will be able to successfully navigate the complexities of schooling during the upcoming academic year.

About the Authors

Robert W. Maloy

is a senior lecturer in the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he coordinates the history teacher education program.

Torrey Trust

Torrey Trust, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Learning Technology in the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is the coordinator of the Learning, Media, and Technology master’s degree program and the Digital Media Design and Making in Education online graduate certificate program.

Sharon A. Edwards, Ed.D, is a clinical faculty member in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Before joining the University, she taught primary grades for 32 years at a public elementary school in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the 1989 recipient of the national Good Neighbor Award for Innovation and Excellence in Education given by the State Farm Insurance Companies and the National Council of Teachers of English.

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