In this Spotlight on Remote Teaching post, Dr Derek Jones, along with his colleagues, Gill Aitken and Dr Tim Fawns, who deliver a highly successful online programme ‘MSc in Clinical Education’, share their top ten tips for teaching online based on their combined years of experience…
The MSc in Clinical Education is one of the longest established and most successful online programmes in the University. Between us, as a programme team, we have extensive experience of teaching online, and we thought we might be able to offer some advice to those moving rapidly and unexpectedly online.
Here are some of our top tips. We’ve tried to avoid giving advice you have probably already seen. Although our experience is (mainly) based on teaching health professionals on a postgraduate taught programme, we think the lessons are transferable to other courses and programmes:
- Keep it simple. Don’t try to do the same thing online as you do face-to-face. Instead, think about what you are trying to achieve, what tools and resources are available, and how you can get students to engage with them as simply as possible. If a task was difficult for you to set up, there is probably a good chance it will be difficult for students to complete.
- Go low-tech to be more inclusive. Go low-tech where possible, and allow alternative ways of working when not connected. Don’t assume all students will have stable connectivity, access to good quality or large screen devices, or even a quiet environment in which to work. Many of our students in low income countries (and parts of Scotland!) have unreliable wi-fi. We find short workbooks, which support the completion of an assignment and that can be downloaded and printed, are highly valued (and reduce screen time).
- Remain flexible. Be flexible because students will struggle for various reasons that may not be predictable. Think about how you will sensitively manage responses to student queries even when they arrive out-of-hours. Remember pastoral needs, but also your own health and well-being. Our team is used to working flexibly as our students span time zones: our working day can be their evening or weekend (or vice versa). Whatever your normal work pattern, make sure students know what this is in the online space. Online teaching can take place anywhere, anytime – but it doesn’t have to.
- Learn how to navigate the technology with the students. Some tutors new to teaching online worry their competence may be called into question if they appear unable to work the technology. Our experience is that if you promote a culture of working together and problem solving with students (rather than ‘this is the way it is going to work, and you will comply’), learners are generally very forgiving. You are an expert in your subject matter; not the technology.
- Non-engagement is not a disciplinary issue. Think about non-engagement as a pastoral issue and approach it in that way rather than a disciplinary issue. Students can turn up to a classroom and not engage or be online and not engage. We never see some of our students, but they still get good grades and meet learning outcomes. Of course, they would have had a richer experience, but you can’t force meaningful participation.
- Build relationships. Good teaching involves relationship building. For this reason, at first sight, online teaching might seem to be a barrier to the very thing we enjoy about teaching. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. In one of our papers (Fawns et al., 2019), we cite the musician Bjork, who said that “If electronic music has no soul, it is because nobody put it there.” The same applies to online teaching. The level of engagement that is possible in online teaching came as a surprise to participants in Aitken & Loads’ (2019) paper describing the experiences of educators new to online teaching. As one of our team likes to say, ‘its all about the chat’.
- Think carefully about how to use discussion boards. When using discussion boards, avoid the kind of question where all that can be said has been said after the first half-dozen responses. Asking participants to share some experience pertinent to the topic under discussion gives everyone an opportunity to say something. Moreover, unlike the classroom situation, students have the opportunity to allow their thoughts to percolate before committing to a response. For this reason, we often find that people who may be less active in live discussions (face to face or online) have more to say in asynchronous discussion boards.
- Practice what you preach. Many of the risks associated with email communication apply to written online communication. When crafting discussion board postings, remember you are modelling to your students how you want them to communicate with each other in terms of tone and content. In most cases, you want it to be courteous but informal. If you want to generate a conversation rather than a question and answer interaction, this is not the place to be fussy about grammar and referencing (though it is a great place to share resources). Allow people to go off topic, you never know where it might lead.
- Don’t go over-the-top uploading content. Resist the temptation to overload your VLE with content: a five-page reading list is no more helpful online that it is in face to face teaching. Use content to generate discussion and engagement – less is more.
- Give control to the learner. A big advantage of online learning is that it gives more control to the learner, so focus less on synchronous events (live sessions) and more on asynchronous activities (wikis, discussion boards, etc.).
Our experience and research into online teaching leads us to conclude that it can be an enormously enjoyable and effective strategy for learning and teaching. Despite all its challenges, now is a great time to dive in to online teaching and (dare we say) bend a few rules and taken for granted assumptions.
Aitken, G., and Loads, D. (2019). Experiences of staff new to teaching postgraduate students online: implications for academic staff development. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice 7(1): 37–46.
Fawns, T., Aitken, G., and Jones, D. (2019). Online Learning as Embodied, Socially Meaningful Experience. Postdigital Science and Education 1(2): 293–297. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-019-00048-9.
Note: The IAD will be offering some online sessions to support colleagues as they move to remote teaching. The first of these, Teaching in online environments, is taking place on the 2nd April (further details and to book: https://edin.ac/3bplq2H). Further sessions will be offered, including considering alternative assessment approaches.
- Information Services Teaching Continuity web pages
- New guidance for students on using online learning tools