What is the challenge?
Delivering live online learning presents a unique set of challenges for both staff and students. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet and Adobe Connect all allow tutors to deliver content synchronously to their learners, but what do you need to take into account before delivering live online learning with your students?
There is growing evidence that active and collaborative learning can improve outcomes, and universities and colleges are responding by moving away from traditional lectures to more flexible learning. During the 2019-20 academic year educational institutions saw an exponential increase in online delivery. This increase, largely due to the COVID-19 crisis, has been described as emergency remote teaching measures.
What questions do you need to ask?
There are a number of considerations to reflect on when addressing the challenge of delivering live online learning.
- What digital competencies and support staff need to be in place to capture, create and broadcast appropriate content and teach effectively using online tools?
- Do staff have access to the tools required to deliver online teaching (eg software, hardware)?
- What guidelines are in place for staff to deliver online in order to encourage best practice (eg use of recorded or live video, etc)?
- Have key policies (safeguarding, teaching, learning and assessment, acceptable use policy, etc) covering the steps you have taken to teach online been updated?
- What measures do you need in place to evaluate the effectiveness of online delivery that involve both staff and students?
- How are learner expectations managed? Are learners provided with guidance on online bullying, privacy and online etiquette?
Find out more
If you want to explore these topics in more detail the following guides and blog posts offer further support:
How can digital support the pedagogy?
Before delivering live online learning review your course content to identify which aspects work best in a live session. Much of your course content may work equally well as asynchronous learning objects that learners can access at a time that suits them. This might be background reading prior to the live online session or extension activities following the live session - not everything has to be included in the live session itself.
Live online learning often works best when learners have an opportunity to participate in the session by asking questions, sharing ideas and providing feedback. Timing is key too – checking in with learners at key stages in a course provides them with opportunities to voice any concerns and gives you a valuable temperature check that everyone is on track. Are there any aspects of the course that learners particularly struggle with? Which aspects of the course lend themselves to a live setting where learners can receive instant feedback?
Community of Inquiry model
The Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework is a model intended to offer ways of learning that are adaptable and encourage collaborative learning, which suits live online sessions perfectly. Although the CoI model has its roots in Lipman’s work from the 90s, the central premise of involving learners and providing meaningful engagement opportunities rather than instruction alone still resonates today. The CoI model encourages teaching practice which facilitates guided inquiry, self-reflection and a shared approach to learning.
When developing a live online session for learners there will always be a tension between how much tutor-led information and guidance you need to get across and how much time learners can spend collaborating and participating. If the focus is weighted too much towards tutor-led broadcast learners may become distracted and lose interest, whereas too much participation without sufficient guidance may result in misunderstandings. There is always a balance.
Broadcast versus participation
It’s worth reflecting on these two divergent aspects within the context of a live online session. As you move through the session, some components will be more broadcast-based while others will be more participative.
It may be that your learners need far more support and guidance at key stages, edging you closer to the broadcast end of the continuum. Alternatively, the learning activities might favour a more participative approach that calls for greater learner autonomy.
Ask the question - do I have a good range of activities in my session? Are you over-doing the broadcasting where learners are too passive? Have you included timely interactions with learners so they can participate and feel part of the session? Does the balance between these two aspects work?
Tools and techniques
Understanding how to strike the right balance between broadcast and participation is key, but an awareness of what kinds of participation work best and the kinds of activities available on your platforms of choice will also have a bearing. Does your platform support collaborative activities, such as:
- Open mics and break out rooms for discussion
- Polling and quizzing to check understanding and idea sharing
- Screen sharing and annotation tools to illustrate key concepts
- Recording options to enable learners to re-watch sessions to reinforce understanding
If the platform does, then consider what processes need to be in place for staff to experiment and build confidence with these tools. Providing staff with a critical friend or a safe place to test ideas before they are used with learners can help to reduce anxiety in live online learning sessions.
Many organisations will have an array of supported tools that are available. These can be used safely and securely within the virtual learning environment (VLE) or other organisational platforms. It is a good idea for educators to explore what tools are available from within their organisations first. What elements of the VLE have you not explored? Ask colleagues and learning technologists if there are examples of good practice. Those organisations who have been delivering successful ‘distance learning’ programmes already will have good experiences to share.
If your platform doesn’t have the functionality you need, there are a range of external tools available that can help boost engagement. There should be a sound reason to use any tool - not just because it is digital. Poor planning of introducing tools could be counter-productive to the learning.
The important rule to remember is: what do I want the learner to do? Knowing what you are looking for in a tool can help create a shortlist rather than searching without a proper aim. It is also important to find a tool that is a good fit for the job you are looking to fulfil. Be wary of changing the learning to fit around a tool!
Establishing boundaries online
A move to live online delivery may make many teachers anxious about how to model appropriate online behaviour and protocols with learners. Meeting with students online may cause concerns about breaching boundaries or questions about etiquette. It’s important to ensure that both staff and students are protected and understand how to maintain boundaries online.
In addition to revising the key policies discussed previously, staff may also find the following tips useful:
- Clearly communicate your expectations to students when working online. Guidance may be as simple as reminding students to dress as they would in class when using webcams
- Using a webcam can add a personal touch and help to build rapport, but be mindful of your surroundings and, if possible, use a dedicated workspace. When presenting online, consider the impacts of having your webcam on for yourself and your learners as outlined in the table below. Guidance on the pros and cons of each approach is also available in our blog post
|Camera on||Camera off|
|Can help to make learners feel more connected, especially in small groups||Less strain on the bandwidth, which may be an issue for many staff/learners on a poor connection|
|Having the presenter camera on at the start of a session helps to personalise the session||Some learners may feel vulnerable or exposed|
|Can humanise the presenter/learners and help with relationship building||Removes staff and learner privacy issues if they are working from home|
|Easier to convey body language to help with understanding||If presenting and sharing screen or content having cameras on can clutter the screen estate and cause distractions|
- Recording online sessions not only creates a useful reference for students, you will also have a record of exactly what was said. Be mindful that even if you do not record a session, a student might, so do not say anything that you would not be comfortable with becoming public
Colleagues across the FE sector have shared a range of tips via short videos that highlight good practice in the area of remote teaching.
What are the barriers to meeting this challenge?
What are the skills factors?
Can staff meet (are they aware of) accessibility standards?
Making digital content fully accessible can help improve student engagement with learning and improve outcomes.
The Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group has prepared a digital accessibility toolkit that contains sector-sourced guidance.
Baseline staff capability
Do staff have a baseline of digital tools and techniques necessary to deliver active learning?
What are the motivation factors?
Supporting reluctant staff
Delivering live online learning may push digitally-shy staff out of their comfort zone, making them reluctant to take part.
Consider how good practice in live online delivery is shared and celebrated across the institution to help build confidence and participation.
Ensuring staff wellbeing
Teaching staff may struggle to switch off if clear boundaries are not established from the offset around which platforms will be used for which purpose.
Identify which aspects of a course work best as a live online session (such as tutorials, Q&A drop-ins, etc) and which work best as asynchronous activities – not every aspect of a course needs to be replicated live online. It’s important for staff digital wellbeing that they can detach themselves from work and have the downtime they need.
What are the knowledge factors?
Are staff aware of what good live online learning looks like?
Staff need an understanding of what good live online learning looks like and guidance on how to work towards it.
The Open University Learning Design team have created an infographic for staff outlining ten uses for live online learning spaces to inspire and help staff.
Is staff induction carried out using organisational platforms, tools and techniques demonstrating good practice? Do staff know how others are using online sessions?
Another approach would be to incorporate good practice into any induction programme for new staff and build this into CPD channels.
What are the environmental factors?
Access to platforms, equipment and software
Do staff have access to platforms with the appropriate functionality to deliver live online learning?
Once these systems have been identified it is worth checking that all staff have the equipment and software required, such as mics and/or headsets, webcams, and sufficient licences for accessing any specialist software.
Guidance and support processes
Guidance and support processes are in place to enable staff to use them to a base level of effectiveness.
Relevant policies have been revised and communicated to both staff and learners.
What are the myths associated with this challenge?
Coleg y Cymoedd gather feedback from learners (via academic board, learner voice forums, etc) about controversial issues on what their experiences of online learning are like. This dispels some of the misconceptions about what impacts technology has on learning.
A number of apocryphal stories surround live online learning, which can often have an unhelpful impact on staff when approaching the topic. Some of these myths are more common than others, but many of them are likely to surface in your conversations with peers when discussing live online learning.
The following myths are worth reflecting on with colleagues and include strategies that you can adopt to mitigate them.
Myth: delivering online learning involves the latest digital technologies
The allure of shiny new technology is seductive. It’s tempting to think that if we adopt cutting-edge technologies then these things will automatically transform our practice. However, the issue is that using innovative technology doesn’t inevitably make us more innovative. It’s entirely possible to transform practice using the simplest of digital tools.
It’s often better to start with more tried and tested platforms that both staff and students already have a degree of familiarity with. Many staff may feel left behind and lack confidence with technology. It’s important to ensure staff are provided with opportunities to share knowledge, practices and experiences with colleagues.
Myth: everything you do in face to face teaching needs to be mirrored in live digital settings
Rather than trying to duplicate everything you do in face to face teaching, consider the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous activities online. This article by Daniel Stanford’s article Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All outlines the key points to consider.
Myth: online environments are usually “safe spaces”
Where someone who is from a socially privileged background may be able to interact freely, other individuals or groups of individuals may be disadvantaged or more at risk in these spaces. Make sure there are effective mechanisms in place to capture students’ experience of live online learning, so any concerns or barriers from disadvantaged groups can be addressed.
Myth: the students all use social media so it makes sense to use that
Using popular social media tools may well be simple to use with learners, but the risk of your work life bleeding into your personal life is higher. Boundaries between personal and professional can easily blur on social media.
The move to online relationships with staff and students could affect the assessment of risk or the effectiveness of existing measures. Make sure code of conduct and acceptable use policies are revised accordingly, so staff and student expectations are clear.