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Getting through getting your learning online

18 Mar 2020 | Prof Simon Usherwood With coronavirus forcing universities into rapid, wholesale moves to online platforms, lots of academics are about to face a difficult period for their teaching. Simon Usherwood offers some suggestions about how to manage your way through.

Ask anyone who has done a significant amount of online instruction and they will tell you is a rather different place to the physical classroom.

Sure, there are still students, and materials, and assessments, but the way each of these work and interrelate is not the same as in a face-to-face environment. It takes time and effort to optimise this new space, which is a bit of problem if you’re currently on a crash programme to move out of the classroom and onto your laptop.

Coronavirus is possibly about to achieve what hundreds of deputy Vice-Chancellors for Education, Associate Deans for Learning & Teaching and Centres for Education have failed to do in the past decade: get everyone doing much more online.

The severity of the situation brooks no dissent, plus you might soon be told that even you yourself aren’t allowed on campus, even as teaching must continue.

So how to get through this?

The first key message is to listen. Lots of people can help (and probably have been trying to help you for a long time).

As well as all those emails you’ve been receiving, with links to all the support you might need, your institution has also been producing lots of materials in recent years that helps you to know what options and opportunities there are. Your study association probably has a Learning & Teaching section who can help too.

If any of that is too much, then a quick search of the internet will pull up many excellent tutorials and how-to guides, often by avuncular American types. And remember that even PowerPoint has a ‘record presentation’ function, if a new system is too much.

Your time is at an absolute premium right now, so make the most of that work as you work out how to make the move.

The second message is to practise.

Even with all those guides, until you’ve actually had a go in (metaphorical) anger, you’ll not feel properly prepared. So try stuff out. The easiest thing to do is to set up test sessions and invite colleagues to join them. That way you get to make sure your system works (check your updates are all updated), you can see what students see and what functionality there is.

Practising matters because it will highlight what you can (and can’t) do on the platform. That might mean dropping some stuff for now, but equally snooping around might offer a new possibility for you to try. Remember that this is currently a stop-gap proposition: you’re not trying to achieve that optimisation I mentioned at the top. Students will accommodate you being rough at the edges, but you’ll need to be able to deliver the core of it all.

And that mention of students takes us to the final message: talk.

Just as it’s a new thing for you, so it’s a new thing for students. So take them along with you. Explain what you’re planning to do, and how you’re planning to do it. Get feedback ahead of the Easter break on how it’s going (lots of polling options online too), in case you’re going to be doing this for the rest of the seminar (spoiler: you almost certainly are).

The big danger of online learning is disconnection. You’re not there, and they’re not there, so all the soft stuff that happens around your classes – the checking-in, the responsiveness – drops away. Basically, it’s really easy to lose touch. That means you will have to work harder to keep your students on course and on programme. It’s not going to be enough just to record a lecture, post it and then leave it. Consider how you can keep them engaged and participating.

If you can keep those three messages – listen, practise, talk – in mind, then life is going to be that much simpler on this change to your teaching. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to work, and only you can really make that happen.

Good luck!


Simon Usherwood is Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey, and a National Teaching Fellow. When he’s not researching that other great planning challenge – Brexit – he’s working on active learning and the use of simulations in the class.


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