Further Understanding of Remote Teaching
Parasurfers, Kinghorn
Nick Hood

Further Understanding of Remote Teaching

2020, May 18    

I reflected recently on remote teaching, in particular, thinking about community, cadence, asynchrony, and so on. Here, I am going to share thoughts prompted by feedback and observation from my current online cohort of PGDE students. I have been continuing to host online tutorials, or facilitate student-led microteaching sessions in which they get a chance to develop their skills in online delivery of learning.

Direct teaching overload

In my last post, I suggested that direct approaches aren’t the best experience for learners in the synchronous online space, and this is echoed by my students. Direct methods are hard, too, in these spaces, not least because of the detachment the teacher may feel from the cohort because assessment and feedback are more difficult to access.

keeping pupils engaged when simply talking online is very difficult. Even with a camera on the teachers presence is much diminished online.

Engagement is hard enough with direct methods, even when the teacher in the same room as the learners. That observation that teacher presence is diminished in the virtual classroom offers an explanation why learners feel more remote in such spaces. The disconnect from assessment and feedback might be the reason why teachers also feel more remote.

in a classroom you can’t just open a new tab over the teacher or turn your camera off and know you are free to be distracted with no punishment.

Younger pupils in the online classroom are getting smart.



A way to mitigate the direct teaching overload problem has been identified by my students, which is for the teacher to chunk the online lesson using breakout sessions.

breakaway groups have seen a substantial increase in engagement

Advice from learners on how to make these effective include:

  • breakouts must be seen as purposeful.
  • a clear focus for the breakout session, perhaps a typed question1 as a starting point for discussion.
  • feedback from the breakout session, e.g. one person from each group will bring back a point to give further goal interdependence on others in the class.

Consider these ideas in terms of the intention (for the breakout); the activity; success criteria; and the plenary or resolution. These are the familiar characteristics of all good learning experiences. The inverse rationale underlines the point: arbitrary breaks with our purpose, where no responsibility lies with the learners, and no conclusion or outcome is shared, would all indicate poor experience.

The prep task

Some of the students have followed my modelling of setting a preparatory task for some of the online classes. As with all homework, the teacher must be sensitive to the individual pupil situation (known or imagined) and set such tasks that pupils are encouraged to participate in them if they can, but not to feel that attendance online is impossible for those who haven’t managed to do it. For me, this is one of the broader responsibilities of all good educators, to promote the intrinsic motivation of the life-long learner. The effort is the reward, the participation the privilege. Creativity is the secret, of course: repetitions are useful in building skills and have their place but the preparatory task is for engagement and motivation, and must therefore be inspiring.

Community, again

Students are sensitive to the community message from my last post, not least because they are feeling what perhaps all of us are feeling doing the COVID-19 isolation. That sense of continuity and coherence is therefore demanded in planning your teaching online.

Linking work to sessions connecting it as a fluid holistic whole is important too, link their work to the school community help pupils realise they are not alone and doing this together as a cohort. There is nothing more important in realising that you are not alone just now.

Is anybody there?

it felt very lonely and daunting speaking into the nothingness

When leading the online tutorial, I have from time to time found that there is a feeling of peering out from the stage into the lights, not being able to tell if anyone is there. Unlike the stage situation, in the online classroom you can’t use your sense of smell to know if your audience is still with you. Students have valued my occasional use of the “thumbs up” to check, by immediate straw poll, that they are still there, and still participating, if only passively. That act of positively asserting presence when asked can help the cohort sustain a sense of belonging.

a lot of the pupils were too worried to turn their microphone on and so you’d only get the feedback of them typing in the chat window at the side.

This quote from a teacher trying out online teaching and discovering that effective platforms offer tools that provide feedback channels such as “thumbs up”, a chat window, and the visible, live face of learners.

The responsibility falls on the teacher to decide when to use the synchronous online classroom. Which of your content really needs to be live? Are there real advantages to the recorded video segment, which can be paused, rewound and speed-shifted to suit the needs of the students? If you’re thinking video, should you provide a transcript? Closed captioning?

The grey wall

Different schools and authorities have taken a different stance on whether or not children should have their cameras on when participating in online sessions. I can see that there is a child protection concern in keeping the cameras on, perhaps when the child is participating from a bedroom, but something important to good teaching and community-making is lost when the online class presents as a wall of grey faces when the cameras are off.

Child protection

The online classroom, with its back-channels of text chat or concurrent social channels, is potentially a more dangerous place for victims of cyber-bullying2, and even a place in which child abuse is more possible than in the physical school. What surprises me is that I haven’t yet found an online platform that has built-in, a visible link to anonymous reporting schemes like CEOP. I haven’t much of these on school websites, either, nor video channels like YouTube, which are being used by schools to deliver much of their content. We need to do more than we are at present to protect people from online abuse, me included.

Are you worried about online sexual abuse or the way someone has been communicating with you online? REPORT IT HERE


  1. Other ideas for the breakout task include a calculation or few written lines of work. 

  2. Cyber-bullying seems to be such a dated term now. Shall we just call it bullying?