Take your teaching online, part 1

Take your teaching online, part 1

2020, May 14    

Take your teaching online is a free, self-paced, online Open University course that runs for a nominal 8 weeks, 3 hours per week, and is designed to help teachers move from face-to-face teaching to more blended, flipped or online methods. I will be publishing a series of posts containing my own notes, reflections and links from the course.

Week Topic
1 Teaching online is different
2 Discovering the connections: principles and theories for understanding digital tools
3 Selecting technologies: what to look for and how to choose
4 The benefits of support networks and how to develop them
5 Finding, using, and sharing educational materials online
6 Supporting learners with different needs – accessibility in online teaching
7 Making a change in your teaching
8 Evaluating changes and enhancing practice

Week 1: Teaching online is different

1 Synchronous and asynchronous modes of teaching

The TL;DR is that teachers moving online should use a blend of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, and focus on the pedagogy at least as much as the technology.


The first concept considered is the contrast between synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Synchronous sessions seem to be good for drop-ins, seminars, or scheduled interactive opportunities for students to resolve issues. Teaching more formally online requires the development of new skills. Asynchronous teaching gives control and responsibility to the students to access materials and communicate together without the teacher’s specific instruction. Variation of media is important in this mode, but the benefits to the learner in greater flexibility, for example, are significant. In both modes, collaboration is a powerful pedagogy and needs to be facilitated, required and supported. A study1 of Canadian high school distance learners reported modes and benefits of synchronous and asynchronous online teaching. This paper is worth reading because it identifies some key elements of effective online teaching such as microphone control, the provision of social spaces, the use of collaborative tools like wikis, and so on.

Activity 1 Thinking about synchronous and asynchronous online teaching

… come up with three short examples that fit the following situations. These could be based on your own experiences of teaching or learning, or a situation that you can imagine:

  1. A situation where synchronous learning is appropriate and beneficial in supporting learning.

    The introduction of a new topic or course segment requiring the explanation or demonstration of an overview or concept. Interaction is the important part of this, and especially assessment of the student reaction and engagement with the new topic.

  2. A situation where asynchronous learning is appropriate and beneficial in supporting learning.

    Working through exercises or readings which either prepare for further study or rehearse and develop new skills, once they have been introduced. In this situation, students are working at their own pace, or perhaps in small groups together and need to be able to do this free of the pressure of keeping up with the class, or frustration of running ahead.

  3. A situation that combines synchronous and asynchronous learning to support learning.

    Students working independently or in groups on a project task, with regular check-in points to report on progress or discuss challenges or questions. These points can be optional for students, such that they become part of their support environment.

Interaction and student voice

In the discussion, gathering the student preferences is suggested. I am finding that listening to the student voice and responding to their needs and preferences is crucial when teaching remotely. Keeping opportunities always open for them during synchronous sessions to seek a break, a break-out, or to raise questions or diversions is important in sustaining engagement and making your teaching effective. Similarly, the input of the students is significant in engaging students in asynchronous contexts - this might be making sure that they can access resources and back-channels (such as a forum) whenever they need to.

Interaction is something to think about. I had been thinking that the synchronous sessions were important because of the facility for interaction, and then been disappointed in the interactivity of the students, who seemed to prefer to just listen: even when I polled them, they said they were happy with it. However, they seem to “light up” when I introduce break-out groups in which they can, perhaps in groups of 3 or 4, all switch the camera and microphones on and interact more freely in the same way they would in the teaching lab. I think this has been because I have taken more of a direct teaching approach with some of the sessions I have been running. The Murphy paper suggests a reason why:

“… it is not the media but the pedagogy that determines the interaction.” (Murphy, et. al, 2011, 589).

This may be true to some extent but the media are both the means of, and the barrier to, interaction. With online media platforms, synchronous interaction of the kind you’re used to in the classroom can come when the numbers are small group-sized.


Giving students feedback on their work is no less important in the online setting, even if it can be harder to do in the natural way teachers are used to. This is why on online teaching, greater use is often made of peer feedback, related to collaboration. The cited paper, Gikandi and Morrow (2016)2 is particularly pertinent as it relates to teacher education. It provides a really nice discussion on how to provide really effective peer feedback opportunities in the online space. Their findings are no less applicable in the real-world teaching spaces, too.


The OU Rita character

The course has an online animated character, Rita, a cutesy co-delegate who is following the course alongside everyone else. She models a sort of generic, middle-of-the-road UK teacher, in a way that tries to make us all feel less isolated. I found it quite patronising at first encounter, but let’s see if I warm to the idea as the course develops. I think it’s fair to say that the OU are trying very hard to dodge any accusations that their courses are not for everyone, even if the animation seems tokenistic.

Notes and references

  1. Murphy, E., Rodríguez-Manzanares, M., & Barbour, M. K. (2011). “Asynchronous and Synchronous Teaching and Learning in High- School Distance Education: Perspectives of Canadian High School Distance Education Teachers.” British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(4), 583-591. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01112.x 

  2. J.W. Gikandi & D. Morrow (2016) Designing and implementing peer formative feedback within online learning environments, Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 25:2, 153-170, DOI: 10.1080/1475939X.2015.1058853