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Published in Learning Matters and Professional Learning

5 no-brainers for smarter teaching online

5 things-to-do, to reduce teacher workload and, at the same time, increase learner engagement and reduce drop-out rates. Carole and Ian have a chat…

Carole Kane MA (in Online and Distance Education), PGCE

Ian: Carole can you give a bit more of an overview of what you’d like us to talk about

Carole: Upfront, it’s crucial to establish rules; as well as groups ( that the learners will be working in), and the digital spaces they need to go to for support and materials. Learners need this type of information upfront because the problem of online learning is that you can lose them very quickly. They can become frustrated and lose confidence, and so can the teacher — mainly if they are new to teaching online. My biggest tip would be to establish rules and protocols before you begin to teach. These things may seem pretty small, but you will see a negative impact on the flow of the session and the flow of the whole unit you are teaching if they aren’t in place.

Ian: Thank you. So, you’ve given me a list of 5 things for teachers to focus on — and you are saying that these are the top 5 tips if the teacher wants to ensure that their sessions run smoothly so that they work’.

Carole: Absolutely! And if you can agree on these rules and online protocols and behaviours in advance as a whole organisation, online learning becomes much, much easier for the learners and also for the teachers

Ian: OK, let’s go through each of them in turn. First up is Behaviour’. The poster you’ve sketched out for me points to the idea that good online behaviour — etiquette is the word you used — needs to be agreed in advance and known to the learners.

Yes, the etiquette needs to be in place to ensure that the learners feel safe and that they know the dos and don’ts before they come online. It’s about respect. For example, if a learner posts an idea, the feedback and comments to this idea should be constructive in terms of intention and execution. No-one should take down anyone else’s ideas. Showing concrete examples of what is, and is not, acceptable as part of the organisation-wide etiquette can be helpful. Concrete examples make instruction clearer and also act as a point of reference to any rules when broken.

So, we have an organisation-wide set of rules made available. Where typically would an organisation put these?

On their VLE or, if they’ve not got a VLE, on their intranet. Any central area accessible to learners is where the etiquette guidelines or rules should go. It could even go onto page savers. It should be a constant so posters in classrooms too. It’s not just done once at the beginning of the year or the beginning of a new unit. 

OK, I’ve got that. The second thing on your list relates to materials and logistics. Making sure they are available and the links to them are working. I’m guessing that the accessibility of them to students with additional needs has to be adhered to as well? Again, where typically would these materials and logistical information be? Do subject area-specific spaces tend to be used?

Yes, it tends to be subject-specific space, but how they do this may vary from subject to subject. It may be Facebook or e‑portfolio where they can add comments. So it’s essential to establish where the learners are going to go to get materials or find out who they are working with” — so that they don’t have to keep going back to the teacher. If not addressed, this will make the teacher too busy and also frustrate the learners. Learners need to know where to go without asking. 

On the poster that we’ve mapped out to support this, you’ve listed deadline’ alongside materials and logistics so presumably you are suggesting that all of these things are in one place?

Yes. So learners know what deadlines they are working towards, who they are working with, the success criteria they are working to. In fact, I’d have the success criteria and deadlines at the very top of the materials being uploaded so it’s the first thing they see, so they know exactly where they are.

This seems like it fits in with something we are going to look at later about learners knowing where they can go to get support during activity. This means that the default go-to’ is not the teacher who won’t get inundated with requests from the learners because the learners know there is a place where they can get the success criteria and other things. I know we’ll look at this shortly…

Yes. And the other positive of this is that it encourages independent learning and even the development of employability skills.

A term I used when I was doing live Initial Teacher Training comes to mind — weaning. The teacher is looking to wean the learners off of being dependent on them so that learners don’t see them as the provider of the answer and support and they look to each other and to other places.


Okay, the third thing is interesting. Before we started talking, I thought it might be the first thing on the list, but now I understand why you need to have the behaviour and materials and logistics sorted first. The third thing you list is The Welcome’. There’s a couple of things about that for me. First of all, on the example we’ve given on the poster, if learners are coming onto a webinar there will be an initial period of time where the welcome takes place. That welcome could look to simultaneously embed instructions and also to set a positive mood and reinforce positive behaviours. But what if, and I’m putting you on the spot here Carole, what if the teacher is NOT using the webinar. I’m wondering about this because a lot of the HOW2s we are creating on teaching online is about promoting independent learning so that the learners can access meaningful activities AWAY from the teacher. They encourage the learner to, for example, assess each other and engage in self-assessment using criteria provided by the teacher. So, how does a teacher welcome learners positively if they aren’t on a webinar? Is it just about the wording they use on the instructions posted to the learners?

Yes, again it’s about planning and making sure that when learners arrive online, there is something written up that is a positive, welcoming message that gets them into the learning — just as you would do face-to-face, only in this instance it’s in the text instead.

I guess that part of the planning would be to make sure that every learner is positively referred to, maybe something positive about their work mentioned in the welcome written text. I don’t mean every learner, every session, but I know we used to keep a little tick list to make sure that over the course of a week or so every learner was mentioned at least once. They knew we couldn’t mention everyone every time, but it definitely helped create a positive mood. They would arrive wondering if they would be mentioned or if the instructions were written down wondering if it was their turn…

Yes, and another reason why it’s crucial to include all learners in these types of comments is that, if you don’t, some learners — the ones not being mentioned if you like — will drop off and you’ll start to see the same learners that keep the discussions going. When activities are going on between the learners, the teacher becomes the facilitator and threads in and out of the different talks that are going on, asking questions of specific learners and probing them to get them to join in. It’s about picking up on the quiet ones, getting them involved and it’s also about controlling the dominant ones. Another essential tip would be that there is nothing more off-putting when you come online to be greeted by loads and loads of text. So there may be learners that post loads of writing which can be off-putting to others, and you need to control that. Part of the etiquette might be to limit a certain number of words per answer or part of the discussion.

Let me see if I’ve got this. On the poster, we’ve shown how learners may be greeted when they join a webinar, but what I’ve just got out of what you’ve just said is that even if you are greeting learners on a webinar, it still makes sense to post those welcome comments online. The other thing I got was the need to keep an eye on which learners we are directly addressing online — to make sure that some don’t attract a disproportionate amount of attention. The final thing that came up for me is the usefulness of using Visual Instruction Plans (VIPs) to point learners in the right direction and to remind them of the core elements to the activity without burdening them with loads of text. Not just because it’s helpful to the learners, but because it will lessen the I’ve forgotten or don’t understand what to do” type questions that the teacher has to deal with. I love VIPs — it was the second on my list of HOW2s to add to the new Online collection.


Let’s move on to number 4 on our list — managing collaboration. We’ve probably touched on this already in our discussion. I’m just looking at the poster, and it’s about making sure learners are aware of how they are going to be working and who with — on their own, in pairs, or in larger groups and the timings for the activity. Again, if we consider this being done by webinar, this involves the learners being there live’ with you. If conventions are in place about where learners go to understand how you are managing collaborations, then this can be done without using a webinar or eating into more teacher time.

Webinars are important. Seeing a human being is important, but I wouldn’t put that at the forefront. I think as they are working together in their discussions online, using texts and going away creating things together online, the great thing there is that they can go back to it at any point. If they’ve missed something, if they’ve misunderstood a particular concept or theory, they can go back to it. So these text discussions, the posts they put up are hugely important and I think that’s where the teacher has to keep a close eye on it. You need to ensure that the information going up is correct to stop the learners going off at a tangent and learning something that’s not relevant or incorrect. That’s where you have to weave in and out of the groups. Set up private groups so that the discussions are particular to that group. Teachers need to be dipping into these to check that the right work is happening. And pull them together in the end. I wanted to stress that online learning is NOT all about webinars. In fact, for me, the best way is to use a combination of technologies and materials, but, of course, you can build on this as you and your learners become more confident with working fully online. 

What I’m getting from tapping into your brain is that the webinar can be the default, but actually it’s creating a lot of work for the teacher and it’s setting up what we might call a dependency culture where the webinar is always there and the learners are expecting a webinar. Whereas actually the webinar is not the default — the webinar is more something you keep up your sleeve to fall back on if and when you need to. It needn’t be the first thing you do — it’s there in the background. Is that what you are saying?

Yes, I mean you could have a webinar to set up a new piece of work, to set the direction, I think that’s nice, but what’s important is that you back everything up with the text, the materials, hyperlinks to information. So you are giving them direction, but you are also developing independent learning skills. You are making sure they have enough knowledge to know where to go for self-discovery.

Good, because one of the things that I and the team are trying to do as we create the new online HOW2s, is to show how the techniques can be carried out both with and, arguably more usefully, without a webinar. But we also want to indicate where and how the webinar is an option if you need to dip in to reinforce something or address some misconceptions or, as you say, pull things together and link to what comes next. It was very tempting at the beginning to have an image of a teacher on a webinar, but we realised this was sending out the wrong message; that this should be about developing independent learning and employability skills, getting learners supporting each other and if you like having the most important resource which IS the teacher’s brain being used most usefully.


Let’s move on to the final point on your list which again in many ways I think we’ve covered but I guess it’s not a bad thing to mention things before we fully focus on them. Let’s talk about managing support. The poster points to learners needing to know where they can access this support. I want to ask you where are the FAQs, where are the support groups? And how do you manage that in terms of, for example, keeping the FAQs up-to-date.

Well, if a teacher is fortunate enough to have been teaching the same curriculum area for a few years, they will know what the FAQs are. But as and when questions come up from learners, and they are not on the FAQs, the teacher can add to it. Alternatively, if you are on a new course, you’ll have to predict what those questions might be. Either way, it’s an organic document that you will need to keep updated. And sometimes a single learner will ask a question, and you’ll find yourself thinking yep — I can see lots of them coming back to me on this”. Time spent updating the FAQs once will repay itself because you won’t need to respond to loads of emails or posts or comments. Manage this, keep it safe, and use it the following year. It could be a college-wide decision, or it could be subject-specific. It’s easier if there is one generally known area for them to go. Remember, learners may be on different types of courses. For example, if they are studying a vocational subject, they may well be also taking a GCSE Maths or English course, and it can be frustrating if different faculties or departments have different ways of doing things. If there can be a universal place to go then that, I think, is the way to go.

A couple of things came up for me as you were talking. One is that whether we are talking about faculty or departments or individual subjects, it’s not up to the teacher to decide where learners should go. It’s not something the teacher should have to be thinking about — ideally it’s something that can be decided at an organisational level. This, it seems to me, is supportive of teachers because if it’s not done at an organisational level then learners may well get frustrated at having to go to different places for different subjects and the teacher is left having to deal with the learners’ questions. To clarify, regardless of what subject the learners are studying, they should be able to recognise for each course where to go, say, on the VLE for support, FAQs etc. The other thing that comes up is the work we are doing on the new online HOW2s around key questions, key content, concrete examples and concepts. The teachers know what these key areas are for their subjects and, as they teach these areas, there will be a strong correlation between these questions that come up and the corresponding key content areas. The other thing that strikes me is how more experienced teachers, those that have been teaching the same subject area for a number of years can use this FAQ space to support their less experienced colleagues by having this space be a shared space.

As teachers start to use the online HOW2s they can use the groups and the notes features on the app to share these emerging FAQs and also how they are adapting these techniques into their particular curriculum area. Sharing in this way will be particularly useful for our college groups because it means they can easily share emerging knowledge across the same faculties in the group. 

Thank you very much for your time and I have to say that despite enjoying our online chat I look forward to a time when we can discuss this face-to-face.


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