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Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


5 easy tricks for successful online teaching

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 17 June 2020

Eileen Kennedy.

Research on MOOCs can tell us what works for online learners.

Since we launched IOE’s first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) five years ago, we have been learning a lot about how to scale up online learning. I have been interviewing MOOC students and conducting Design Based Research into ways we can make online learning a social and collaborative experience for the thousands of participants who enrol on these courses.

Now that UCL and other universities are embarking on a mission to widen the reach of online teaching for students who would otherwise miss out because of COVID-19, what can research on MOOCs tell us about how to make it work for both teachers and students? Here are 5 easy tricks I have learnt to make it work for everyone:

    1. Ditch the Zoom room

You don’t need to abandon video conferencing completely – but use its power wisely and infrequently. Live video conferencing can be stressful for educators and inconvenient for learners. MOOCs work well because they are flexible – they are designed so that learners can access them when it suits them. MOOCs take learners on a journey through a series of ‘steps’ that combine short pre-recorded videos, exercises, discussions, quizzes and opportunities for peer review. Instead of trying to transfer your presence as a teacher to Zoom, express it in the way you write the narrative to help your students move through the learning path you have designed.

    1. Make it social

Getting students to discuss ideas is essential if they are going to make the learning their own. In MOOCs, if there is an opportunity for learners to make a comment they will – but for a meaningful discussion, you have to provide a clear discussion prompt. Spell out what you want them to do (e.g. share an example from your experience and reply to other posts where you can see further connections with the theory). Every MOOC learner I have interviewed has said they appreciate the educators’ presence in the discussion. But in a MOOC, there are so many comments that it is impossible to reply to each one. So instead, we often summarise the discussion at the end of the week – and if you use your webcam to video yourself – maybe in conversation with another tutor – discussing the best comments, you don’t even need to write it down. Your students will love it!

    1. Remove the fear barrier

Posting a comment online can be scary for some learners, so ease them into it with low-risk activities like word clouds and polls, so they get to see what others are thinking first. If you have used tools like Mentimeter in your blended classroom, you will find you can transfer those directly online by sharing (or embedding) links on Moodle for students to add answers and see the results. The online pinboard Padlet is an essential addition to a MOOC to help learners feel they are not alone. Use it for activities where learners share a link to a website, video or image – embedded in Moodle it will be a visual treat. For educators, it can give us a chance to see if learners have been able to apply an idea by sharing something they have made.

    1. Make video count

Video is a powerful tool – but you don’t have to do everything live. You can record your voice over Powerpoint slides and export it as a video or use a tool like Spark Video. Or you can record your screen to show how to read a text critically, or use a piece of software. Don’t try to edit too much – it adds precious time and being too slick can alienate the students. Then you can make the most of live video conferencing – for example, for short interactive sessions using tools like polls and breakout rooms where you can give space for students to discuss or present what they have learnt – and that’s great because it takes the pressure off you as an educator. Watch some students expressing how much they prefer this.

    1. Embrace Learning Design

In many of our MOOCs for teachers, we feature a learning design tool we created to help educators combine the six learning types that are necessary for successful online learning. These are acquisition, inquiry, discussion, practice, collaboration and production. You can watch a video of how to use the tool to design the online part of a lesson and then see how to create this design in Moodle. You don’t have to start from scratch either – you can adapt designs already made like the one featured in the video. You can even share the learning design with your students so they understand what you have planned.

Eileen Kennedy is a Senior Research Associate based at UCL Knowledge Lab. She researches ways of scaling up digital and online learning with two ESRC funded Research Centres: the Centre for Global Higher Education and the RELIEF Centre.


2 Responses to “5 easy tricks for successful online teaching”

  • 1
    Mariangela Lundgren-Resenterra wrote on 18 June 2020:

    Hi Eileen,
    Thanks for these precious tips on how to make online teaching more interesting and relevant for both students and teachers.
    Will definitely try them out.
    Warm regards.

  • 2
    Eileen Kennedy wrote on 18 June 2020:

    Hi Mariangela – yes, you are right to emphasise the importance of making online teaching and learning work for both teachers and students. Otherwise it is unsustainable. But as you know, Learning and teaching online can be highly rewarding – and you can even get to know your students better than you would in face-to-face classrooms!

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