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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.


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10 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!

  • 3
    Rowaida Jaber wrote on 4 August 2020:

    Hi Eileen,
    Thanks for a useful set of tips. I agree it is important for online learning designers to abandon the idea of replicating each face-to-face activity through online technologies. To “ditch the Zoom room” sums it all. The second tip, to make learning a social process, is really where online learning designers should devote more effort!

    Kind regards

  • 4
    Garima Sharma wrote on 21 August 2020:

    Thank you so much for sharing such a relevant information. The demand of e-learning increased after this pandemic of covid-19. This reminds of a website name as study24x7 which is an online teaching platform. The content share on their website is also good and relevant same as this site.

  • 5
    Diana wrote on 17 January 2021:

    Hi Eileen,
    I teach FS Maths to ESOL students, mainly looked after children with refugee background. Their IT abilities are very limited, and most of them are starting using a laptop just now during the pandemic, but have never used one before. Most of them after a while gives up and goes back to the use of their mobile to join the lesson.
    What would you recommend in this scenario? They all hate online learning and keep begging me to go back to the college (and this is something I am investigating in the MA dissertation I am working on). And I am day after day more desperate…

  • 6
    Eileen Kennedy wrote on 21 January 2021:

    Hi Diana – it is very difficult to self-motivate particularly for younger learners and coping with technology too can be too much. You could consciously keep everything as low tech as possible. In refugee camps where power and internet are in short supply, teachers can often send tasks via ,WhatsApp and get students to either work digitally if they can, or off line – working out a problem using pen and paper or objects, and then taking a photo and sending it back. The most important use for the technology is communication – between you and the students, and also between the students and their peers. Maybe something like a padlet to show photos of solutions to maths problems, or an interactive whiteboard like Miro to work on problems together, could make the learning experience more social and fun. I have found that it is easy to make fun quizzes and games in Zoom by getting students to circle or point to words or pictures on a PowerPoint slide using the annotation tools. So those could be some solutions. Is there a way you can find out more about what they are struggling with and find the best solution together? Can you make the phone connection work by designing engagement to be simpler? You only need to know if they are learning after all, and if they can send you the work they produce then you do. I hope some of this is helpful- it would be great to hear your eventual solution when it comes. I am sure it will help others so do share it here.

  • 7
    Sue Newberry wrote on 7 February 2021:

    I am really valuing the practical hints and tips being shared. I work alone designing training for voluntary sector – it is so useful for a small business to learn from other experts and gain so much valuable experience.

    We’ve successfully used Zoom but ensured lots of interactivity using things like Mentimeter, Jamboard and Miro – we’ve found it invaluable to use the break out rooms and to focus on particular tasks. Very important to encourage on task behaviour and helps to overcome any ‘tech’ nerves/barriers!

    Thanks for the expert knowledge and for sharing


  • 8
    Ruby wrote on 28 July 2021:

    Hi Diana – Its too much to absorb in terms of technology. I use different platforms like google classroom, zoom to annotate, share whiteboard, class dojo. mentimeter but at times its really challenging incorporating conventional teaching and online things. So how to keep a balance between the two.

  • 9
  • 10
    Walid Sharara wrote on 27 September 2021:

    Thank you, Eileen, for these valuable tips.
    What I particularly like about your article is that it considers the demanding nature of a teacher’s role, as teachers continuously work under the pressure of creating a meaningful experience and of accommodating the requests by their line managers, parents, and students.
    Your advice is practical and can be adapted to a variety of topics.
    Thank you again.