Thursday, March 12, 2020

On suddenly switching to online teaching

Edited on 17/03/20, with a new update at the end

The coronavirus is wreaking havoc across all of our existence at the moment. Events are being cancelled, travel banned, people told to stay at home. Many US universities have already shut down, and it is widely rumoured that UK universities will close down after Easter, leaving students to be taught through online/distance/remote/digital learning.

On Twitter, I wrote a thread with my own thoughts for people preparing to convert at short notice over to online/distance/remote/digital learning, based on eighteen years at the Open University, delivering, and occasionally writing materials, and sometimes being a student, as well as having taken several MOOCs. I thought I'd write it up here, in slightly expanded form.

First of all, it won't work anywhere like as well as it could or should. Doing this properly take a lot of work, and needs time. If there was any slack in the university system, then there might be some scope for people to pull together, go an extra mile and do it a bit better. But there's no slack, no space to absorb the extra workload to do this.* Instead, most academic staff are under intolerable workloads, and getting anywhere close to best practice may well prove impossible. That's not the fault of anyone other than university managers. What universities need right now is more people, and it's too late to take them on.

Secondly, anyone thinking this is a great opportunity to see how digital learning can work is an idiot - the circumstances are not remotely normal. I personally do not believe that online/remote/distance/digital learning will or should replace the traditional face-to-face university, but should be used to support it. Properly-supported distance learning certainly has its place in reaching students who otherwise would have no access to higher education. MOOCs, however, whilst again having their place, cannot replace university teaching, as most of them are simply a more structured way of reading a book - online Teach Yourselfs, in effect.

But let's talk about best practice. You may not be able to achieve it, but it might help if you know what (I think) best practice looks like. Obviously, as in all pedagogy, Your Mileage May Vary, but I hope these suggestions will be of some use.

Your course/module should have a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) - it's been a while since I've taught a module that didn't. You're probably going to be making more use of that than before, for more than just putting up your classroom slides (and if you're not doing that already, why not?). But one small benefit will be that all this material will be there for future teaching.

One of the reasons the OU was, and still is, so successful at distance learning is the quality of their materials, both written and audio-visual. As I say, a lot of work goes into those, but you can at least prepare more written work to distribute to students in advance. (This may actually turn out to be a valuable exercise in actually thinking about what you are trying to get across.) And I hope that there will be sharing of materials across from people teaching similar modules, which may ease the burden.
If you are going to do a lecture via an online medium, I suggest not trying to broadcast it live - rather produce it at your own time and convenience, which will allow students to work with it at their own convenience. (This has the advantage of cutting out unwanted contributions from family or pets - not that those can't sometimes be icebreakers.) You can do this as a written text, or a video, or an audio recording. Audio has the advantage over video that students can listen while doing something that doesn't otherwise engage higher functions, such as housework, or just soaking in the bath. If doing video, find ways if you can of including plenty of visual imagery - I realise not everyone has the skills for this, someone talking about something from behind a desk with nothing to see but their face soon becomes deathly dull. Break your lecture up into smaller units - about 10-15 minutes is the limit before boredom sets in. (This also has advantages if you have to start again - there's nothing like having to redo 55 minutes of recording.)

If you want students to read anything in advance, make sure that they can access it, and if necessary, precirculate and put stuff on the VLE (though unis are getting stricter about doing this with copyright material). Ask some questions about the material that you want the students to consider, and have some answers ready.

Another thought (and this is new material, not on Twitter!) is that you could organise some online audio sessions with some people who are teaching a similar course to you, and have 45 minutes or so talking about a particular issue. This is the sort of thing you'd rarely get to do normally.

You will need to have some live online seminars. In the two years I used online conferencing sessions for the OU I always found these a bit of nightmare - they were frustrating for me, and I suspect for my students. I tended to turn mine into Q&A sessions, as that was the only thing that seemed to work. It's possible others actually manage to make them work better, though one of my former students says not in their experience, and Q&A sessions are the only thing that's effective through that medium. 

Above all, in an online session, TURN YOUR WEBCAM OFF AND GET YOUR STUDENTS TO DO THE SAME. I repeat, DO NOT ATTEMPT VIDEO-CONFERENCING. There are two reasons: (a) No-one looks good over a webcam, and more importantly (b) video uses huge amounts of bandwidth, and potentially will crash whatever app you're using. Videoconferencing is fine if you have industrial-level facilities, but over someone's home broadband, it tends to break up at more than three or four participants. And make sure mics are turned off when not speaking, as the background noise can be terribly distracting.

For actual discussions of topics, you may find asynchronous online forums are better. Online forums are something universities get terribly keen on, and sometimes they can work - but sometimes they can be utterly toxic, so beware. The toxicity tends to be much lower in smaller groups, where there's less chance for some arrogant individual to throw their weight around. But even when non-toxic, it's not always easy for everyone to get involved, and it's harder to notice when someone is being quiet. 

Be prepared to deal with a lot more student emails than you would normally get, and I would say, be prepared to do 1-2-1 sessions through Skype. You probably do need office hours, when students know you'll be available on a first-come-first served basis. But you may not be able to deal with them all in that period, so be flexible about dealing with students outside office hours. In the OU we used to give out phone numbers, though occasionally that got abused. There's probably no need for that now.

Anyway, I hope this has been useful.

There's another good thread from Jess Perriam of the OU here:

Helen King, who knows of which she speaks, has a thread here:, and a blogpost on how OU course materials are prepared here:

Thanks to Becca Sarna-Alexander and Juliette Harrisson, from whom I stole a couple of points here. 

ETA I forgot to talk about assignments! These should be one of the easiest aspects - most universities already have online electronic marking, so this should be business as usual, though you may have to give more feedback.

* This, incidentally, is also why railways in the UK cope so badly with anything out of the ordinary - no spare trains, no spare drivers, no spare routes.

17/03/20 Update:

Here are some new thoughts I've had, and some new links I've found. First of all, I point you to Alison Yang's 'Online Teaching @ KIS' chart, which I'm now using to illustrate the post. It's very, very good advice.

I think the three things I'd really emphasise are:

(1) Do not attempt videoconferencing. The extra data video uses will slow everything down very badly.

(2) My inclination, particularly if you're inexperienced in online teaching, is to do as much as possible in asynchronous format. Asynchronous is much easier for everyone. If things get a bit chaotic with asynchronous materials, it's fairly easy to bring things back on track. It's a lot harder for everyone with synchronous sessions; even in the best of times it can descend into chaos, and it’s not easy to pull it back when this happens. Plus I'm already seeing reports that the servers for synchronous tools are breaking down under the extra traffic.

(3) Do not attempt anything in a synchronous session other than Q & A on pre-circulated materials - despite what proponents tell you, my experience, and that of colleagues and students, is that any attempt at a seminar-style discussion will fail. Asynchronous online forums are much better than live conferencing for discussions. And don't do a full hour's synchronous session - and certainly not the two hours the OU used to advise. No-one's concentration can cope.

(4) Break everything up into smaller chunks - 10-15 minutes seems to work best. Students are much more likely to engage with smaller chunks.

For those considering using ordinary chat platforms, the problem with them is that you end up with the issue that everyone has where you’re typing and the person you're speaking to is typing, only multiplied. You can end up with a multiplicity of threads, and it can get very confusing. For synchronous sessions, I actually prefer some form of audio conferencing tool where students can indicate that they want to ask a question, and you can then address them one at a time.

I didn't talk much about specific tools and platforms. This is because I'm not sure that specific tools matter that much. Go with whatever your local IT dept can advise on and support. I used Blackboard conferencing for the OU, did online supervisions through Skype, and my current institution has Teams in the Office package. I wouldn't say that Blackboard necessarily 'worked'. It was pretty clunky, and the OU was moving away from it when I left. In any case, I think methodological approach is more important than choice of platforms, which tend to be much of a muchness.

Remember that it's all online teaching, and you are under no obligation to do big online sessions because you think that's closest to your normal method of working.

Virtual whiteboards are good, if you have them.

It is all very time-consuming. Don't try to replicate the full classroom effect. (a) You can't, & (b) even if you could, you can't in the time available. Rather, approach it from the direction of what you can achieve in the time you've got. It's going to be awful, whatever you do - you just don't have enough time to prepare properly. Don't beat yourself up about that.

Students, you'll have fewer resources with which to write your assignments, but your markers will understand the conditions under which you're preparing the work, and make allowances accordingly.

New links: -
- from a Classics perspective, but valuable for other disciplines. Includes lots of links, and will be updated.

An excellent thread on helping students prepare:

This is a good idea for keeping student morale up:

This is a brilliant idea:
(And I'll add, if any one wants to have a multi-teacher online chat for their students about a subject on which I have expertise (classical reception, ancient history, film, science fiction, comics, The Beatles, WWII military aircraft), I'm available. DM me.)