Best practice in delivering online learning

The full implications of Covid-19 are still unknown, but it seems that it will be with us for a long while yet. Therefore, many university lecturers will be moving to online learning, some for the first time. I thought that it might be useful to compile some resources and best-practice suggestions to help us. Here are some of my thoughts on online delivery of courses.

A temporary pivot

Nordmann et al. (2020) highlight that the move to online teaching is likely to be a temporary pivot. It is different from emergency remote teaching or the development of a specialised, long-term, online course. In this time period, student and course evaluations should be treated cautiously.

Programmes with a large practical or field component may never have voluntarily chosen to be taught online, and now must consider practical implications. Courses may need to consider if they can still meet accreditation standards.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

One of the first considerations is, will your course use synchronous or asynchronous learning, or a combination? “Synchronous” refers to live delivery of teaching; this could include a lecturer giving a Zoom or MS Teams live lecture. “Asynchronous” means pre-recording material for students to watch later.

There are pros and cons to each. Synchronous delivery means more interaction, and you can anchor to a timetable, giving a rhythm to the week. However, it relies on students having access to computer facilities, a quiet place to work at that time, a good internet connection, and to be in the same time zone. It may exacerbate inequalities between students and not all students will be able to join in.

Synchronous events must be scheduled well in advance, and students should be made aware in advance which events will be recorded and shared, so that they can make informed decisions about their interactions.

Asynchronous delivery has advantages because students can download and watch the material when they’re able to, but it loses that element of interconnectivity and direct engagement, and is not anchroed to a familiar timetable. Students may fall behind in watching the material, which can be challenging.

Asynchronous delivery means that students can also pause the video for note-taking, rewatch parts, and work at their own pace. It allows students to engage with their studies flexibly, particularly disadvantaged students who are likely to be hardest hit by the pivot to online learning (Nordmann et al., 2020).

Students in their first year of study at university may be the least well-equipped for independent online study, as they have not yet transitioned into university life. Mature students, students with caring responsibilities, and students in different time zones, all require asynchronous content to allow them to flexibly arrange their studies.

Flipped Learning

A combination of synchronous and asynchronous methods could be best; this could take the form of ‘flipped learning‘, where students watch materials and read or complete set work in their own time, before a live discussion or Q&A session perhaps. There are issues with recording sessions with students discussion material that should be considered.

Live sessions could include text-based chat, small group chat, discussion forums, and drop-in sessions as well as video chat.

“Teachback” is a scheme where the teacher explains something to the student, and the student then tries to teach their new understanding to the teacher. This principle could be used in a flipped learning environment, and include students teaching each other in groups, or teaching the lecturer. Teachback allows the lecturer to check understanding, and to either move on or to go over and review material again.

Personally, I’m doubtful that the standard 2-hour lecture slot that we deliver in-person works well with a class wholly online, and if I end up delivering classes entirely online in the future, will probably try to deliver a series of short lectures and combine these with some suggested reading or practical work, followed by a online synchronous chat session of some kind.

Learning materials

Learning materials submitted to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) should be more than just a reading list; they could include 15-minute mini lectures with the powerpoint slides and the lecturer’s voice captured, demonstrations of practical material using screen capture, or talking-heads videos.

These mini-lectures can be supported with student-paced reading, formative or summative assessments or practicals, forums, and interactive Q & A sessions.

Using a combination of mini-lectures, synchronous sessions, low-stakes assessments and practical work along with student reading can help ensure the students remain engaged and involved, and prevent them slipping into a passive learning environment.

Student engagement

How can we encourage and support student engagement? Nordmann et al. (2020) have a number of useful recommendations. Lecturers should set and communicate clear expectations about student engagement. These could include deadlines for students to have watched or read through materials, frequency with which they should participate in synchronous events, and which monitoring and checks are in place.

Students should receive clarity about staff availability and presence, including how long to wait for an email response and alternative sources of support such as peer-led discussion forums or chat groups (Nordmann et al. 2020).

Student engagement with the course should be regular and sustained. Their attendance should be monitored; this could be through features such as Moodle checklists for viewing of mini lectures, for example.

Accessibility

Just like in a lecture theatre, there may be challenges faced by students including issues with sight, hearing, dyslexia or dyspraxia, or physical access needs (e.g. typing, using a mouse), in addition to the accessiblity challenges mentioned above (access to broadband, IT facilities and laptops, quiet spaces in which to work, etc). They may have caring responsibilities, be in a different time zone, be neurodivergent, or have other requirements for their need to work flexibly.

The principle of making online courses accessible to all should be an overriding goal and lecturers should consider this carefully when designing their courses.

Lecturers should work with their library colleagues to ensure that course content is available, accessible and signposted (Nordmann et al., 2020); it should not currently require physical visits to the library. Lecture slides should be made available to students.

If you have experience and guidance for best practice, then please do add some suggestions in the comment box below! Perhaps we can build a compendium of ideas and resources.

References

Nordmann, E., Horlin, C., Hutchison, J., Murray, J., Robson, L., Seery, M., & MacKay, J. R. D., Dr. (2020, April 27). 10 simple rules for supporting a temporary online pivot in higher education. Retrieved from psyarxiv.com/qdh25

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