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Online teaching: what have we learned and how to move forward

From academic educator to designer/presenter/sound engineer/tech specialist in a few short weeks: the sudden transition to online teaching precipitated by the pandemic has been stretching – and dizzying for many. Almost overnight, teaching staff were cut off from so much that was familiar, such as the ability to read social cues, see students’ confusion or spot their sudden light-bulb moments of understanding. But while much has been lost, there have also been significant gains, including greater accessibility, flexibility, and independence.

As it becomes increasingly clear that the shift to online or blended teaching is here to stay, now may be a good time to review how the move from emergency to successful, sustainable provision is going. You may well have spent the last few months keenly focused on your output: developing and delivering your materials, finding and testing new tools and techniques. But let’s switch the spotlight now to the context in which your students are receiving your teaching.

The number of pressures and losses your students may be experiencing is achingly high – from acute loneliness to financial strain caused by job loss (their own or a family member’s), grief for lost friendships or opportunities, and fear for an unknown, potentially frightening  future. This leaves many at heightened risk of disconnecting and dropping out. It may seem trivial against the backdrop of so much need, but the power of simple human kindness, empathy, and reassurance should not be underestimated.   

There are many ways to do this, but here are five suggestions:

  • Welcoming students individually as they join a virtual classroom
  • Using humour and sharing personal anecdotes
  • Filming yourself as you speak rather than recording only audio
  • Intentionally expressing your understanding that life is tough at the moment (assuming this goes without saying can unfortunately leave it resoundingly unsaid)
  • Encouraging students through personalised verbal or written feedback.

Fostering an interactive online learning community is another way to help your students feel a vital sense of engagement and belonging. The resulting positive interactions can not only boost student satisfaction rates but also the effectiveness of learning itself by stimulating prefrontal activity associated with cognitive flexibility and information processing. Why not try:

  • Icebreaker activities
  • Breakout rooms (recommending but not insisting that people keep their camera on)
  • Chat functions
  • Online polling
  • Virtual idea-sharing via sites like padlet.com.

Another way to improve the impact of your teaching in this season may be to simplify wherever possible. Given the everyday confusion and uncertainty your students are living with, there’s no need for anything to be more complicated than is necessary. Early release of a streamlined schedule of sessions and submission dates will help students turn up at the right time and hit the right deadlines. Clarity around when you are available for queries is reassuring for your students and helpful in preserving your own boundaries. Regular, straightforward, consistent communications are key, as is timely and tailored feedback on submissions. As University of Houston research professor Brené Brown says, ‘Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.’

Attentiveness to the needs of your students must also, of course, be balanced by care for yourself. Realism is vital. Try out new tools or approaches on a small scale, taking time to grapple with them before rolling out more widely. Spend time upstream on design and planning rather than finding yourself trapped in urgent troubleshooting mode. Give some thought to how you handle feedback. Committing so much time and energy to your teaching only to receive criticism can sting. One approach may be to seek feedback informally and early on so you can use it to review and recalibrate where necessary.

Lastly, now may also be the time – if you haven’t already – to further develop your digital skills and online teaching through formal training. In addition to what you are taught, the experience of being an online learner yourself is likely to highlight ways you could change or improve your own practice. With this kind of investment in your professional development and transferable skills, one good development to come out of this intensely challenging period could be a new academic job.


Further reading

Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online

Building Self-Efficacy: How to Feel Confident in Your Online Teaching by Jill Lassiter, associate professor, Bridgewater College

Raising the Learning and Teaching Bar Post-Covid by Just O’Brien, Executive Director of Postgraduate Taught Programmes, Surrey Business School

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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