Ed-Tech · pedagogy

5 key steps to online teaching in uncertain times

5 steps to teaching online in times of crisis

I won’t beat about the bush: we are now in the midst of very uncertain times. Schools are only partially open and many teachers are working from home and being asked to deliver online. Although most will have some experience of online content, many will find transferring classroom practice to the virtual world daunting. Myself and my colleague, Laura Milne, have put together some tips that might help.

Establishing a new norm

Firstly, establish a routine. It establishes the new norm and helps learners to engage with learning content, but as importantly, creates a learning community. Establish times you will be reading and responding to forum posts/chat messages so students know when they will be getting an answer. Consider everything from uploading videos and content as potential opportunities to establish regular communication patterns.

Daily or weekly video conferencing brings the whole group together, helping everyone to feel connected and part of the learning process.

Community and communication

Re-building the learning community is key in times of crisis. Sharing concerns on discussion forums allows students to think and further reflect on their personal situations and re-establishes group relations, which is important for morale and engagement.

Communication is vital when transferring classroom communities online. Text-based communications such as forums, chats, and email are particularly useful because they allow the whole group to work together and benefit from each other’s contributions. Forums leverage the broadcast effect, reducing duplicate work (answering the same question repeatedly via email).

Video or conferencing varies the mode of communication and allows the whole group to emulate a classroom social experience.


The most important aspect of learning online is the content; you won’t have the visual clues from students you would in a classroom, therefore address common questions. You know your students, so consider what aspects of learning cause them to struggle and address those elements.

Adding a voice to narrate the content adds an extra dimension to the text, but avoid overloading the video with headshots, videos, text and animated gifs.  Worked examples and step by step scaffolded instruction are helpful. Scaffold onto existing knowledge and don’t forget to summarise sections of learning with additional questions.

Most teachers have a horde of reading resources they can share with their students. It is better to use summary sections to link to additional specific learning, rather than simply creating lists of ad hoc materials.


Classroom practitioners may ask “how will I know how the students are learning?” It’s an important question. Learning at distance requires a different sort of engagement than traditional face-to-face classroom teaching. In a classroom, you can clearly see who isn’t there, but this becomes more of a challenge when they’re not sitting in front of you. Fortunately, most Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) or Learning Management Systems (LMSs) have attendance analytics, which can help to identify those that are not engaging.

Formative assessments and quizzes help you gauge how (or if) your students are engaging with the learning content; this could be multiple-choice quizzes (MCQ) or worked examples. MCQs reduce marking and give quick feedback on engagement and learning.

Setting up quizzes is pretty straight-forward, and reflective pieces can be completed using a journal or blog. If you want to include group-based work, get students to collaborate with a course-based wiki, which can mimic the classroom experience.


VLEs usually have assessment functionality built-in. Some types of assessment can be graded automatically, such as MCQs. Short-form questions such as MCQs can be loaded into a quiz bank and drawn randomly for each person taking the test. This prevents students from sharing answers within a timed setting like an exam.

Other formats, such as longer-form questions, essays or lengthy problems, will need to be graded by teaching practitioners. Using questions that require students to show their working reduces the chance of students sharing answers, especially if questions are timed.

Consider if the exam you are setting requires digital invigilation or proctoring. If so, companies such as ProctorExam and ProctorU can provide support to check students’ academic honesty, from screen recording to identity checking and authentication of exam candidates. This may be required for certain high-stakes examinations and may have cost implications.

Finally, best of luck in these challenging times we hope this helped.

Platforms that may be useful

You are likely on the lookout for tools that you can use for your new adventure of teaching online. Here are several options to consider:

Learning Management Systems

Your institution will likely already have a Learning Management System it uses. Find out who your instructional designers, learning technologists and EdTech specialists are for help with:

  • Moodle
  • Blackboard Learn
  • Canvas
  • Google Classroom
  • and so on.


Chat apps can be useful for synchronous or even asynchronous contact with students. All of these chat apps also offer call functions, which could be useful for ‘office hours’ or contact time. Some of these platforms also allow screen sharing, so could be particularly useful if you have students that want to deliver presentations.

  • Google hangouts
  • Discord
  • Teams
  • WhatsApp
  • WeChat

Collaborative/video conferencing options

For more specific video-conferencing focused solutions, consider the following platforms:

  • Blackboard Collaborate
  • Moodle: Big Blue Button plugin
  • Zoom
  • Room.sh
  • Appear.in
  • Adobe Connect

Screen recording

Some tools that you may find useful to create screencasts of your lectures include:

  • PowerPoint (recording on either Apple IOS or Windows systems)
  • QuickTime Player (recording on Apple IOS)
  • Windows Game Mode (recording on Windows systems)
  • TechSmith Snagit (a proprietary tool, offered for free until the end of June to cope with COVID-19, despite being a premium product)

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