Building Better Digital Education Experiences in a Post-COVID World

Illustration of a woman in glasses working on a computer remotely

E-learning content and curriculum designer Kelly Cooke shares her advice for teachers of all stripes on how to create engaging and effective educational content online.

We want to help you stay connected to the content industry, even while we all have to stay apart during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, to help replace all the meetups and conferences you’ll be missing, we’re launching a series of virtual conversations between Setka’s CEO and leading content experts.

The world needs great content now more than ever, and we hope these insights inspire you to keep creating it!

Katya Bazilevskaya,
Co-founder and CEO at Setka


Outside of medical professionals and restaurant workers, teachers were perhaps hit hardest by the professional changes caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Many had a matter of days to shift their entire classroom and curriculum online, and plenty are faced with having to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. Many companies and brands have also been scrambling to figure out how they can provide enriching educational content to serve customers and users while we’ve all been stuck at home. It’s not that e-learning is completely new—it’s just that we’ve suddenly had to accelerate its prevalence in our lives.

Kelly Cooke

Kelly Cooke is an expert in designing content and curricula that support learning in the digital age. After working as a general education classroom teacher for 10+ years, she saw the exciting future that technology was creating for the education field, and shifted to specializing in e-learning content and curriculum design.

Her online education and content design work since then has been extensive. She spent time working with Elevate K-12 on developing their online content for reading intervention and more. She’s taught plenty of her own online courses through organizations like VIPKid and Outschool.

She’s even started her own company, Life Long Learners, where she sells digital materials she’s created using her expert knowledge, consults with companies that need help improving their e-learning efforts, and works directly with educators who are struggling to figure out how to transition their content online.

As the whole world quickly pivots to doing a lot more e-learning than we were just a few months ago, we thought it might help teachers (or anyone creating educational online content) to have a little digital conversation with Kelly. Read on to learn why good content design is critical for effective learning, how teachers can adapt their content to appeal to digital natives and distracted learners, tons of Kelly’s favorite tools and tricks for engaging e-learning, and so much more.

— At a high level, how does content design affect learning processes?

It affects it one hundred percent. I mean without good content design you’re not reaching your goals, your students aren’t going to engage the way you want them to. If we don’t think about content design, we’re not succeeding.

I think of content design as two things. I’m thinking of, number one, the graphic design aspect of it—simple things like font size, text to visual ratio, lessening learner frustration, the colors of your fonts, all of those things. They’re important, especially in the younger grades, to not overwhelm younger students.

But I’m also thinking of making sure that you’re meeting different learner needs within your content design, using different modalities and differentiation and all of those things.

Illustration of a dark-haired girl on a live remote conference

Without good content design you’re not reaching your goals, your students aren’t going to engage the way you want them to



Modalities are the different ways that students are learning and accessing the content. Like, rather than just reading, they’re also learning through collaboration within groups, they’re learning through video, etc.


Differentiation is making sure that your different levels of students are getting what they need. So, making sure that you’re creating content that your lower level students are able to complete without frustration, but that your higher level students have a lot of extra stuff that they can do and explore if they finish the basic material early.

— What are some of the biggest educational principles or theories you always turn to when thinking about designing better educational content, particularly for the web?

TPACK is one of my main ones, which stands for technological pedagogical content knowledge. What that means is that, instead of going, “I have a tool, I want to use it,” we go, “I have content, what tool use works best for this content?”

There’s so many times—and I’m guilty of this myself—when we get a new tool that we want to use and we say, “Okay, it doesn’t matter what my content is I’m going to use it.” Too many teachers are going, “Oh I love Nearpod” or, “Oh I love Flipgrid” and say, “I’m going to use it no matter whether it works for what I want my students to do.” And we often fail at reaching the goals that we need and the students don’t really engage because of that. The right tool depends on what you’re asking your students to do: do you want them to synthesize, do you want them to analyze, are they collaborating with others? Make sure you’re looking at that first and then choosing the right tool.

Want to learn more about picking the right tool for the job?

Check out one of Kelly’s favorite resources on thoughtful technology integration.


— It sounds like teachers really need to equip themselves with multiple tools then, so they can choose the right one for the job.

I do think that, but I also don’t want teachers to do too much, right away. I watched a great teacher I know do just that—I felt like she gave herself way too much anxiety trying to do everything at all at once. I feel like so many people are saying, “It didn’t work, it didn’t work!” Well of course it didn’t work yet! How do you expect teachers to go from their job that they’re doing to all of a sudden teaching in a completely different format?

So many of them were trying to do too much, so start small, start with one thing that connects your students to you, start with one tool that you want them to learn how to use, and probably another one where they’re chatting with their peers. I think those are three main things that you should start with.


The Three Types of Tools to Start With

A tool for connecting your students to you would be your learning management system, whichever you or your school is using: Google Classroom, Schoology, Blackboard, Moodle, Edmodo.

A tool for connecting your students to each other could be the same learning management system, maybe with a video communication like Flipgrid integrated.

A new tool that you want your students to use should change periodically, every other week or so. This means you could feasibly be learning and teaching your students a new technology at least 1-2X a month. For example, if the content you are learning is Earth’s processes and you want students to show you how they understand the order in which the events take place, have them create something with Storyboard That, which allows them to make their own digital comics. Then they have that tool in their tool belt.

Because my big thing is, it’s all about connecting. It’s all about the students being able to connect with their teachers, with others, with the content, and with the tools that they are using. That’s my theory when I’m designing all my content. I call it “connectedness theory” and it’s what I use for my Lifelong Learners, the idea of education through connection.

It really bring the three main educational theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism together in the idea that students learn best when they are connected to the materials, when they are connected with their educators and they feel respected, when they’re connected with their peers, and when they’re connected with other professionals in the field they’re learning about—authors and things like that—that helps it bring their education to their lives. And then making sure the content is connected to them and connecting them to the tools. It’s all about connection for me.



Behaviorism is the theory that people learn in response to external stimuli, and therefore students can be taught best through things like repetition of tasks and positive or negative reinforcement depending on how they do.


Cognitivism is the theory that people learn by acquiring and storing information, and therefore students can be taught best through activities that require higher-level thinking, such as essays that require them to link multiple concepts together or creating visual tools to help memorize information.


Constructivism is the theory that people learn through their personal experience in the world, and therefore students can be taught best through hands-on activities like research projects, apprenticeships, and collaborative learning.

— As educators scramble to create more teaching materials for online instruction, what are some of the things they should be thinking about from a content design standpoint?

So I have a couple of things that I’ve seen. I think that teachers are really frustrated because they don’t know how to use the tools, and then they’re asking their students to use them. And we’re just creating a lot of frustration so I always remind teachers: Don’t frustrate your students. Make sure that you are comfortable with the material and tools before you’re giving it to them.

I also think it’s really important that students are learning how to use these tools, there’s so many of them who have no idea how to really effectively use even something as simple as Google Slides, Canva for creating infographics, or any number of multimedia tools for presenting information. They need to learn these things. So what I do is create small screencast tutorials that go with my lessons. So, say they had an assignment to create something that shows what they know about Ellis Island—they can watch that video tutorial on how to make something using Canva. That helps ensure they aren’t frustrated.

And don’t do it alone. Collaborate with other teachers, reach out to us. Educators need to reach out to the people who know how to use these tools. There’s so much stuff out there online, and we want to help. Reach out to educators, join professional communities like EdTech Magazine, ISTE, EdSurge, Elearning Industry, and the Online Learning Consortium.

— How can teachers make their materials engaging for students who have so many other distractions at their fingertips when they’re learning online?

I mean, it’s a hard thing to do in the classroom, let alone try to figure out how to do it when you’re not there. But I do have a couple of things that I think will give you a better chance of reaching all of your students.

  • Make sure your students have the four connections.Again, the number one thing is connection. Making sure students are connected to the teacher, to each other, to the content, and to the tools—if you’re doing those things, then you’re already set up for some pretty good success.
  • Teach your students how to use the tools. I think if you give them good tutorials on how to use any technology required, they will be more engaged with it. I typically record screencasts using OBS to accompany my lessons that show how to use the technology required, but you can even lead them towards good YouTube tutorials.
  • Give your students checklists and schedules.Adults are really good at managing their time—students have no idea how to do that yet. So that’s something I think that needs to be taught. My son’s second grade teacher did a really great job with this. She set up the whole week—this is what you should do on Monday, this is what you should do on Tuesday—and then she had an all in Google Classroom.
  • Provide formative rather than summative assessments. Regular mini assessments let your students explore the content while giving you a regular sense of where they are. We have something called exit tickets in education where teachers will, for instance, have students hand in an answer to just one question before they can leave the classroom. It gives teachers a good idea of where your students are, and it’s important to do virtually, too.
  • Let your students choose how they want to be assessed. I think too often we want to assess our students and we just make them all take a test. That seems counterintuitive to me when you have students who learn so differently. Why shouldn’t one student be able to create a presentation for you, another one create a video, and another one write a paper? Let them be creative as long as they’re showing you that they understand the material. If they’re connected to it and they want to do it, they will do it.
  • Gamify your lessons. If you’re a tech savvy person, then gamify your lessons the best that you can. Kahoot! is a great program, Quizlet, you can even create stuff in Google Drawings that’s interactive, like maps where they can slide in labels.
  • Curate a lot of extra material.You want to have enough extra material that if students are done early they have more ways to practice and explore. But you don’t have to create all the content yourself! There is so much out there that you can curate for your students to say, “Oh, you finished with this? Go explore this, go play this game.”

Illustration of a red apple


Formative assessments

Check in on how a student is doing throughout the learning process, usually through quick, low-states assessments like single-question quizzes throughout the course of a lesson or asking students to write 1-2 sentences summarizing what they learned.

Summative assessments

Evaluate how much a student has learned at the end of the learning process, usually through in-depth, higher-stakes assessments like a unit test, final exam or paper, or term project.

— Have the principles of educational design changed at all as students become digital natives? If so, how?

I love this question because, while I don’t think that the theories necessarily have changed—you know, the cognitive domains and Bloom’s Taxonomy, all of those things still apply. We’re not going to change the way that we learn, but at the same time, our kids are different, our students are different. They have shorter attention spans. They want instant gratification. I mean, we’re talking about 84% of teenagers in America have cell phones, you know, and almost 100% of them have access to some kind of internet—that changes how we’re reaching them, rather than necessarily the design behind it.

Like the short attention span has changed some things. I’m really into the chunking of text, and chunking of information because students can’t perseverate on information for long periods of time. There’s a great tool out there called Edpuzzle where you can take any video on YouTube or that you’ve created and you can insert short quizzes, your voice, and any extra information that you want into the video, that I think is great for that.


You can also tailor your assignments to how kids like to communicate these days. I have this one lesson that I love, where students are just exploring one vocabulary word but they have to create a meme or a GIF that helps describe it. Kids love to do those kinds of things and they’re showing that they understand the meaning of the word

— So many brands and individuals are creating online courses and workshops for adults these days, especially in light of COVID-19. What do you think more of these people could stand to learn from an experienced educator like yourself?

It’s important to remember that adults come with more, so you don’t want to frustrate your adult learners by holding their hands—no adult wants that, they can do more on their own.

But it’s also important to remember the reason the original online colleges failed—because they were literally taking their regular curriculum and putting it online. We discovered really quickly that does not work. Over the last 10-15 years researchers and experts in these fields have come together and realized that there are completely different ways to get your students to persevere with the material and to stay connected. Oftentimes what happens in online education is you’re given the information then you’re out there in your own little world having no idea what to do. So, give all of your learners 100% support and make sure they know they have somebody that they can reach out to if they’re frustrated and they don’t know what to do. Use the different modalities that I talked about before—having your learners do more than just read, have them also watch videos and do something interactive. I also think that it’s good if you’re asking them to take their time to learn something, then they should have something at the end that they’ve created or that is useful, so that it doesn’t feel like this waste of time.

And think about your specific field. Your online training for engineers is going to be different than one for educators because of how the people in those fields think. It’s important to think about who you’re trying to reach and what will work for them.

Illustration of a blond woman and a dark-haired man sharing a content piece remotely via a conference call

I also think there is no excuse anymore for adult learning and online learning to be boring.

I also think there is no excuse anymore for adult learning and online learning to be boring. I used to sit through such boring classes and meetings and it drove me crazy as an educator. We know how to engage people, and we’d have to sit there and be so bored. There’s no reason to bore anybody.

If you’re creating content, like I said before, I think chunking your information is really, really important these days—not putting swathes of information on a page and expecting people to digest that. It’s just not feasible. Even adults are coming with shorter attention spans—we watch clips that are 30 seconds to three minutes and we don’t have time for anything else. So, give people smaller pieces of information.

— You’ve said before that teaching students to read these days is more about teaching them to understand all the different types of media they’ll encounter on the web, sort through the deluge of content that’s out there, and think critically about what they’re reading. How do you go about teaching that to someone? Are there things you think more adults who didn’t grow up with the web could stand to learn on this front?

I’ll tell you this right now, I think it’s something that both adults and students can be learning. I think it’s unbelievably important that we are switching our curriculum from content to skills, and one of those skills is critical thinking.

To me, reading comprehension has become two things: It is thinking critically about all of the information, but it is also digital literacy. It is no longer acceptable to separate digital literacy from reading comprehension.

So, how I teach this is by using higher level questions and depth of knowledge questions. Yeah, we ask who, what, why, when, and where, but I get my students to connect with the authors, I get them to think about perspective. I asked students, “How do you relate with these characters? Why do you think this author wrote this?” We do research on authors to understand their motives behind writing things. I talk about perspective a lot, how to not look from just your perspective, because learning to think from a different perspective allows you to question and allows you to think more critically about the information that you’re taking in. It also helps teach empathy and compassion, something that too many people are lacking today.

It’s also about giving a lot of exposure to these different things and analyzing them. That Edpuzzle that I was talking about is a great tool because it allows you to ask your students some of these higher-level questions while they’re watching a video, and helps them practice this process of critical thinking. I think the reason that kids don’t have this skill is because they don’t practice these things in school, they don’t practice higher level and critical thinking for when they’re listening to podcasts, listening to other people have discussions, and those types of things.

We also teach students about something we call text features: captions, titles, sidebars, maps, graphs. You’d be surprised that when students sit down to read, they only read the body text, they don’t read any of that other stuff. And when we’re looking at content online, we’ve got links, we’ve got sidebars, we’ve got all this stuff that students need to know how to use because it really helps them.

Finally, we talk about how to best find and sort through all the information that is out there—how to avoid certain keywords when you’re doing your search, how to analyze who’s writing the content to make sure they’re not a bot or biased, those types of things. Students have to practice that over and over again, and—although adults don’t have somebody to guide them—that’s what they should be doing. They should be asking themselves questions, not just blindly reading and accepting everything.

Illustration of a red apple

— How do you think COVID-19 is going to change curriculum and educational design moving forward?

I’m pretty sure we just put the pedal to the metal. I’ve been saying this is where we need to go for a while now and I just didn’t know the timeline. And now I feel like we know we can do it, we know the tools are out there, and we just need the time to plan and make it right.

I’ve been encouraging a lot of people to not say this didn’t work, to not give up just because it didn’t it didn’t run as smoothly as you wanted it to or didn’t have the quite the outcomes that you wanted it to. We were not prepared yet—these teachers need time to prepare. But I just read that edtech is now a mandatory part of all teacher education.

I’m hoping that it’s gonna help us recognize that it is not okay any longer for education to be content based. The facts, the information—it’s all out there already, and we need to teach kids how to find it, how to use it, how to think about it. You know, the top skills I think they’re asking for in the workforce today are critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. If we don’t get on board with teaching that, we’re failing our kids.

And to teachers in the older generation who use the excuse that they just don’t want to use the technology, I say: I’m sorry, I don’t care. It’s not about you, it’s about our generation of students that are coming up. If you don’t want to learn it then you need to pass it on to somebody else. I know it sounds callous, but I really feel that if we’re going to reach our students we have to prepare them for the future that we’re already in.

A Few of Kelly’s Favorite Tools


For animated tutorial videos


For recording screencasts


For creating dynamic presentations


For engaging, multimedia live video

IllustratOR: Khadia Ulumbekova

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