This is a blog about pivoting face to face university teaching to online – in case that turns out to be useful in the forseeable future.

Some of this may be Edinburgh specific. Its mostly based on my experience, and is meant to be about designing your teaching activities and managing your teaching environment.

Take home messages:

  • Online environments are different ‘spaces’. You will need to make a few adjustments to how you teach
  • You must set expectations at the start about how you expect students (and yourself!) to behave in this space
  • Remember that this will be an agitating experience for many, and you/your students may not be comfortable. A little leeway helps.

There are three broad types of teaching online

Asynchronous discussion

Examples: Learn discussion boards, email chains, Twitter(ish)

Characteristics: Discussion moves at broken pace. Sub-threads/topics can appear easily and the ‘point’ can get lost. Can be difficulty for students to articulate what their ‘question’ is if they don’t understand where they’re going wrong

My experiences: This form of teaching often has issues with clarity, and its probably where I make the most ‘mistakes’.

Consider what ‘tone’ you want to set. I like emojis and GIFs because in person I am quite jokey. Others like to maintain distance. Neither is wrong, but try to aim for consistency. Remember that if you’re pivoting online things will feel unfamiliar, exciting and scary. You need to manage your class. I would encourage you to make full use of the medium to communicate clearly. If GIFs aren’t your thing don’t be afraid to literally type out “I was making a joke there”. Written communication has a myriad of ways of expressing what Face to Face communication would rely on body language for. Make use of them.

To that end – I often make the mistake of responding too quickly in this context because I’m desperate to help. Take the time to think about your response, and accept that your students working from home may be struggling with kids, ill housemates, distractions, and the point of an asynchronous board is that you can take your time. Consider setting a ‘class hour’ where you’ll respond to all comments so students are aware when they might get a response and don’t need to repeatedly check back.

Looks like:

Synchronous discussion

Examples: Instant messaging apps (Slack, Skype chat, WhatsApp), webinars, Zoom, Skype Screen Sharing, Blackboard Collaborate

Characteristics: Often involves (but does not require) a live presentation of slides or screencast of activity. Participants can chat by voice which is often noisy and challenging. Participants can chat in a text box which can be challenging for slow typers.

My experiences: While this feels the most familiar, this is my least favourite way to teach at distance. Moderation is vitally important. You should mute all participants unless you have a small group you know well and you want collaborative working (if so – consider giving them separate asynchronous discussion boards). Not all participants will have the IT literacy/attention span/hearing ability needed to distinguish lots of speakers on a bad connection and interruptions will be distracting

Further, some participants, like me, are chatty by nature. Do not let me bulldoze discussion because I’m loud and clear enough to be heard with a crackly mic and I never learned to think if others wanted to talk. As always, set up the environment that you want to teach in.

It’s tempting to use the text chat function. Again, fast typers like myself thrive here, whereas others will be left behind. Consider your choices carefully here. I like to encourage discussion in the chat when I’m presenting and then keep a note of what questions to come back to, but this takes a huge mental load and is not for everyone. Its easier to do with a moderator.

If you’re uncomfortable moderating (you don’t know the tech, you find it too hard to multitask) ask colleagues to step in. Learning techs might be keen (although overloaded) your academic colleagues might welcome a chance to observe your style. Finally, possibly the best option is to ask students to nominate one of their own as moderator so they are all taking responsibility for the learning environment.

A very quick word on live chats/ back channels in these contexts …  I have only seen students use these respectfully. Staff seem to see text chat as an opportunity to be mean, and staff on live chats have made me cry as a presenter. Again set your expectations at the start.

If you really want a live discussion – I’m a big fan of Google Hangout style pieces and they could be a good drop-in/tutorial replacement. You could run something similar with most e-collaboration resources.

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Pre-Recorded Content

Examples: Previous years’ lecture recordings, YouTube videos, Articulate lectures, MediaHopper lectures

Characteristics: Broad range of presentation styles. Can be a bit experimental. Can be very simple. Students don’t have facility to ask questions so needs to be paired with discussion of some type or activity.

My experiences: Paired with asynchronous discussion boards, this is absolutely my favourite way to teach at distance. It gives the learners a lot of control, and you can actually experiment quite a lot with format and message.

Pre-recorded lectures can be super short – want to demonstrate something that you keep getting asked about? Do a short video! They can also be as long as a regular lecture (or longer!) because students can decide how to parcel their time. Although don’t go overboard! Record yourself with a phone camera if you’re trying to demo something more practical, or screencast a program.

If you are screencasting or recording a presentation, do some PC hygiene before recording, especially if you’re going to be demoing anything online. Don’t run unnecessary programmes in the background it will make your laptop chug. Invest in a good usb mic that is YOURS and can sit in your home, especially in these times! Use incognito browsers so people don’t see how much toilet paper the cookies are advertising to you.

Looks like:


There are loads of activities you can build online in your virtual learning environments from quizzes to Jupyter notebooks and polls, etc. I think if you’re pivoting to online learning for Coronavirus you should stay away from this, especially if you’re unfamiliar. Thinking about building interactive activity sessions online is something I would spend a lot of time on in the course design process. Can you really do this quickly halfway through?

Key Advice

Pivoting to online teaching is not the same as designing an online course. This is an exceptional circumstance and we should Keep It Simple (Seriously). You may even wish to consider what your top 3 learning outcomes are and focus on those[1].

Make pre-recorded content available to students wherever possible. If you have pre-recorded lectures from last year, you can upload these to your university’s media manager, virtual learning environment, or YouTube. You can record lectures using PowerPoint’s recording ability. These videos can be edited if necessary prior to upload.

Link to these on your VLE and create (or ask your resident learning technologist) discussion boards for questions.

Consider setting ‘office hours’ for questions – but be aware students may return to non GMT timezones. Try not to disadvantage students who are not in GMT locations.

Advice from JISC

You can view JISCs guidance here:

Some mental health tips

Respect the situation. We are not all suddenly thinking about this because its fun or an opportunity to prove our innovative teaching styles. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and its about minimising the risk of spreading infection to vulnerable folks. Vulnerable folks are therefore most likely to need your support as an educator.

Try to build yourself a good work space. How you work at home may well have changed over the years. I find for some reason I now need a more dedicated work space, as opposed to my PhD years where I was fine working on the sofa.

Finally – let the cat scream for attention, acknowledge the toddler sitting on your lap, forgive the little stressy mistakes people will be making. We’re all in this together.


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