Moving to online teaching

two children learning on laptopsCurrently there are many teachers who have been asked to start teaching their students remotely using online tools.

It is important to understand that the face-to-face teaching environment cannot be replicated like-for-like online.

Teaching online requires a redesign of the teaching activities.

But where do you start?

Below I have used examples that I am familiar with from my years working as a Learning Technologist in schools and universities. However, there are many similar tools out there that will do a similar job.

Staying in touch with your students is important. You’ll need to find ways to:

  • communicate tasks and content to students;
  • enable students to work together;
  • allow students to ask questions for you (or other students) to answer;
  • check student progress.

What tools do you currently use to contact your students?

You may already use email to communicate with students, or you might have a whatsapp group to send messages directly to students’ phones. You could continue to use these tools, and they may have their place within your online teaching strategy, however, there are specialist teaching tools available that contain useful features for teaching groups of students, as we will explore below.

Let’s look at the 4 ways to engage with students mentioned above and how different communication tools can help with each one. This is by no means a definitive list, but can help teachers who are starting to teach online to think about how they might start.

Communicate tasks and content to students

If you have no other tools to hand you could send tasks to students via email, however, there are a number of reasons that emails are not an ideal way to communicate tasks and content to students:

  • Emails are easily lost amongst other emails, so it is a good idea to post important information on a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or Learning Management System (LMS) like Moodle, to allow students (and their parents) to easily access the information.
  • You have no idea if students are actually reading your emails, however, when using a VLE you can check they have accessed the materials.
  • You need to be careful that if you are emailing students, you do not violate their privacy by including personal email addresses in the TO or CC field of the email. Using BCC (blind carbon copy) means other students won’t see the email addresses of the students in the class. If you are using school email addresses though, this may not be an issue. Check your institutional policies to be sure. With BCC, students will only be able to reply to you, not the whole class.
  • If you do allow students to respond to everyone via email (by using TO or CC) then it can be difficult to keep track of conversations once there are several people contributing to the discussion. If students have a question they might reply all, and then all the students receive an email with that question. If this happens a lot, the emails quickly build up and can be difficult to navigate. A discussion forum, or a live text, voice or video chat, may be a better option to enable discussion around any tasks that you set, or questions the students have. These questions then remain within the VLE/LMS and can be browsed or searched later.

It is better to have daily tasks and content available on a website like Google Sites, or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) like Moodle, so your students (perhaps supported by their parents) can see what is expected of them each day. If they miss a class for any reason, or want to go over the work again, they can access the work later.

You can provide links to texts, videos and instructions of what they are expected to do each day.  It is important to communicate the task clearly, what they can expect to learn and how much time they should spend on the task. If there is some work that is more important than others, make it clear what is essential and what is optional.

Stepping through a learning activity by breaking any videos, or text, into short chunks helps students to stay focused. You can then ask a question to check whether students understand the concepts you are trying to teach. This provides you with valuable feedback that you can then use to tailor further teaching in the areas that the students most need help.

If you are teaching content directly using video conferencing tools, like Google Hangouts or Blackboard Collaborate, try to break up the content delivery with tasks for students to complete, to keep them focused on what they are learning and give them a chance to apply the concepts. This might be as simple as asking them a question and discussing the responses, or asking them to complete a problem themselves, before the answer is revealed, so they can compare it to what they have done. You could use an e-polling system, like the Moodle Live Poll plugin to get real-time results from students, as they vote for their favourite answers.

If you have the task description and content available in one place on a webpage somewhere, any supporting tools, like links to live chats and discussion forums, can be placed alongside the tasks, to make it clear to students how they can ask questions about the task.

Enable students to work together

Blackboard Collaborate is a web conferencing tool, that allow you to break students into small groups, so they can work together during a larger class session. When you are ready for everyone to share their discussions you can bring everyone back from their breakout rooms into the main room again. You also have the ability to drop in to each of the breakout groups, so you can keep an eye on the students as they complete their group work.

Students will need a headset (or at least a set of headphones) to avoid feedback – that is when you hear a high pitched noise or audio repeating when the microphone of the computer picks up the sound from the speakers. Sending the sound through the headphones resolves this. In small groups it may be easier to leave microphones enabled so students can speak freely within the group. In a larger group it can be easier to mute the microphone until someone wants to speak.

Allow students to ask questions and receive answers

For older students who are confident writers, you can set up a Question and Answers discussion forum for students to ask questions either as themselves, or anonymously. This might be a general Q&A for the whole class, or might be related to a particular task. Anonymous forums can help students to ask questions they might be embarrassed to ask otherwise. In Moodle, anonymous forums still allow the teacher to see who posted a particular question if there is a need to do so, so any abuse of the question and answer board can be dealt with. However, warning your students that you can find out who posted what in advance is usually enough of a deterrent.

With discussion forums you need to keep an eye on discussions to correct any misinformation. You might find it useful to sign up to receive a daily digest email with a summary of discussion posts, so you don’t miss any. Sometimes it can be useful to leave students some time to answer each others’ questions and encourage they do this, rather than jumping in to answer everything yourself immediately. This can help foster a collaborative learning community. However, do make sure that questions don’t go unanswered, as this is the best way to put someone off posting another question in future. And if someone has posted an answer that is inaccurate, post a follow up that rectifies their understanding. Others can learn from this too.

If you find yourself inundated with questions via email, in order for everyone to benefit from the answers and to save you valuable time:

  • ask students to post their question in the discussion forum.
  • respond to questions in the discussion forum (you don’t need to mention who the question originated from).

It may take a while, but eventually students should start using the Q&A forum for their questions, once they see this is where they are answered.

You might like to set up a place for students to talk about things that are off topic (a social chat) and you can then moderate and move any questions to this, if they appear in the discussion forums.

You could use something like the Moodle Hot Question plugin, that enables students to ask questions about a particular piece of content – say a short video, a piece of text, or even a longer lecture or paper. Students can then vote for questions they need help on and you can then address the most popular questions during your next live teaching session, or by sourcing follow-up materials (perhaps a video) or developing activities (perhaps a short, interactive quiz) that can help students to better understand the concepts.

For younger students you will probably need to set up an online synchronous discussion using a real time chat client, like Google Hangouts or Blackboard Collaborate, to answer student questions. You should emulate good classroom manners, such as raising a hand if someone has a question. This requires you to use a video conferencing tool where you can see every student at once, so you can easily spot a raised hand. If bandwidth is an issue preventing everyone from using video, or you have more students than you can see on one screen, many online tools (like Blackboard Collaborate) have a way for students to easily raise their hand, that then alerts you that their hand is raised and lets you lower it once their question is addressed.

In most cases, it is best for student microphones to remain muted when you are addressing the entire class and you can unmute a student’s microphones when it’s their turn to speak. If students don’t have a microphone, older students can type their question or comment in the chat.

Check student progress

Online instant chat tools, like Google Hangouts or Blackboard Collaborate, allow you to video conference with your students, so they can see you and you can see them. This can help for you to check they are on task. It also helps students to engage with you and what you are saying, if they can see you. If Internet bandwidth is an issue, you could use video initially to say hello and establish some connection with students and then switch it off to instead to use a static photograph of you instead. If individual students experience Internet connectivity issues, they could try turning off their video stream, however, this prevents you from seeing whether they are on task.

As mentioned above, you can ask students to answer quiz questions, ask their own questions, and vote on questions they want answers to. Additionally, you can ask students to submit work to you for you to check. For hand written or drawn tasks, you can ask students to take a photograph of their work, assuming that many will not have access to a scanner, but most will have a smart phone or tablet, within their household that they can borrow.

In a live video discussion you might ask the student to share their work with you and the class, either by holding it up to the camera, or by sharing their screen (if they are older students).

With digital work for older students, such as writing in a Word file, students can submit files using something like a Moodle Assignment. They might also be asked to post a short piece of writing to a discussion forum and this could be marked by the teacher. This also enables you to ask students to comment on each others work, which enables peer learning, and using something like the Moodle forum, you can also mark these replies. As a teacher you can read through these replies and correct any misunderstandings, or provide support for a particular post or reply.

Once you have started teaching online, you might like to send a survey to students (and/or their parents, where relevant) to check how students are coping with online learning. In particular you can check what is working, what isn’t and any suggestions for improvements. Continually improving your online teaching through regular feedback will help you and your students make the online teaching and learning experience better and give you the opportunity to address student (and/or parent) learning concerns. You could also set up an anonymous feedback box to capture this feedback throughout the term or semester. The Moodle Questionnaire and Feedback plugins can be used for both these purposes. In some places, students are being surveyed centrally by the school or university, so the information can be shared with all the relevant teaching staff. This is a much better idea than independently surveying the students for each subject they take, as this will quickly result in survey fatigue.

It is also important to provide a way for students (and/or parents) to raise any confidential issues with you privately. This might be via email, or you might allow whatsapp messages. It is important for you as a teacher to set boundaries with students and parents early on. Avoid responding to messages outside of your usual teaching hours and communicate when they can expect you to be available and answering emails, forum posts etc.

Setting ground rules

Just like you do when teaching face to face, it is important to outline acceptable online behaviour. In particular, online communication can be easily misinterpreted and there is a greater tendancy for people to write insulting messages (or flame) others when online. When people are made aware of this tendancy, however, they are less likely to engage in such behaviours.

Outlining what is and isn’t appropriate online and making it clear what students can do if they feel someone has broken these rules, is a good idea as soon as you start teaching online. You can also explain up front what will happen if anyone breaks these rules, so this is also clear from the outset.

You can:

  • Explain that the learning environment is a safe space, where students can ask questions freely, without being put down by other students.
  • Provide examples of discussion responses that are appropriate and those that aren’t and explain why, so students better understand that they need to be careful how they communicate online. Ask them to think about how they would feel if they received offensive messages.
  • Quickly address any violations of the rules, to help those students understand what is unacceptable behaviour.
  • After saving what was written for future reference, remove any discussion posts or comments that violate the rules.


There are many options available when teaching online and it’s a daunting change when most of us are used to teaching and studying in a face to face environment. I’ve tried to summarise some of the advice I have provided to school and university teachers over my years as a Learning Technologist.

Above all, I hope that as we move through dealing with the current situation, we see some of the benefits of using technology for teaching and learning start to emerge from the initial chaos. As we listen and learn from each other we will understand more about what works and what doesn’t for each situation and we can modify our practices to suit.

If you have any questions, please contact me.

Follow me on Twitter @jgramp.

Connect on LinkedIn @jessgramp.