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What to do if you suddenly find yourself teaching at a distance

Many academics could suddenly find themselves teaching online. Doug Clow sets out how they can do this, effectively, and what support they need
This article is more than 4 years old

Doug Clow is a freelance consultant and trainer. He spent 20 years as an academic at the Open University, including leading a course on healthcare informatics,

Many US universities have already shifted to online teaching because of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

In the UK, we’ve seen similar announcements from Durham University, Manchester Metropolitan University, and the LSE. And the Guildhall School of Music & Drama closed for a short period as a precaution after a member of staff tested positive. More will follow.

It’s easy for those of us who’ve been doing and researching online teaching and learning for decades to say, “Oh, now you’re all interested in distance learning?” It’s helpful to continue, “Great! Here’s a few tips to get you started.”

It needs time and support

This article is aimed at people actually doing the teaching, but if you’re a manager, this one is for you: give time and support for this to your teaching staff.

Learning a new skill takes time and benefits greatly from good support. This includes teaching entirely online, rather than just using the VLE as an extra.

Some things still apply

Some of what you already know about teaching still applies. Your understanding of how to help people learn your subject remains central. Chemistry students will have the same conceptual struggles with the mole, English students will continue to oversimplify Foucault.

But some of what you know doesn’t apply. You’ve developed skills and expertise in teaching your subject based on face-to-face methods, building on decades or more of expertise in your discipline in how to teach at university level. Doing it all online is different.


One of the most useful concepts for new online teachers is the idea that different tools and technologies have different affordances for learning. Any particular tool will be better for some things than for others. If you try to use a tool for something it’s not suited to, it’s likely to go badly. Attempting to teach exactly the same way online as you do face to face probably won’t go well.

Use what you know

You already know some technological tools that can help. Use those for the things that they are good for. Don’t try to use instant messaging for considered, in-depth discussion.

Your VLE probably has a whole bunch of features you never use. Now’s the time to try them out. It might be clunky, but your students are already signed up to it, and it’s compliant with all your university’s policies.

Use other people’s stuff

Another really useful concept is that when you’re teaching online, you don’t have to do it all yourself. You can re-use and re-purpose good resources that already exist. For instance, making high-quality videos is difficult, slow, and expensive. But if someone else has already done the work, you can re-use it in your course. If it’s an Open Educational Resource (OER), you don’t even have to ask anyone for permission. Check out MOOCs and OER for inspiration and things you can just lift wholesale.

A classic piece of online learning sets out the background to a topic, linking to what’s gone before, then sends the students off to study an external resource, before bringing them back to do something with what they’ve learned.

Get them active

It’s very easy when teaching online to set the students nothing but passive tasks: read this text, watch this video. Some passive, assimilative activity is great; doing nothing but that is not great. So also set students more active tasks: analyse this text using this framework, solve this problem, construct an argument, etc.

You’ll probably need to give them more structure and support than they would need face to face. Breaking into small discussion groups is easy(ish) in a lecture theatre but takes a lot more organisation and structuring to work well online. Scribbling equations is easy on paper, but harder in a forum.

Accessibility for all

Online learning presents a different set of access challenges to in-person learning. It can be extremely helpful – there’s a reason more than half the students with disabilities in the UK study at the Open University. But only if you don’t add fresh barriers, which is all too easy to do online.

Happily, making online learning accessible to people with particular disabilities can make things better for other learners. So, for example, a student who lipreads your lectures will struggle if you only record a voiceover for your PowerPoint slides. If you include full captions in the video, you also help a hearing student who can’t have the volume turned up because they’re looking after kids whose school is closed.

Remember that this isn’t optional: universities have a legal obligation to make learning accessible – and this duty is anticipatory, meaning you must plan in advance rather than trying to mop up problems after you are told about them.

Be prepared

If you think you might have to teach online later, get the students to get to know each other now – assuming there’s no local advice on avoiding any extra gatherings. There’s research going back to the 1990s showing that this can substantially enhance the quality of online learning and the sense of community. You’ve probably encountered this effect already: a videocall with someone you’ve met, even once, is much smoother than one with a stranger.

It’s also a good time to make sure the communications with your students are all working well, and to bring forward topics that are best learned in person. And, of course, to learn more about how to teach online.

7 responses to “What to do if you suddenly find yourself teaching at a distance

  1. Might be advisable to update the article in the “Using other peoples stuff” section to clarify the use of OER.

    It currently reads:
    “ If it’s an Open Educational Resource (OER), you don’t even have to ask anyone for permission. Check out MOOCs and OER for inspiration and things you can just lift wholesale.”

    But it’s important to note that whilst you don’t need permission most openly licensed materials do require users to provide attribution.

  2. Whilst you can use OER without permission it is very often a requirement that you provide attribution to the original creator. It would be worth adding into the article that users should check the licensing requirements before using the resources or lifting them wholesale!

  3. Yes, that’s an important point, thanks: You do need to provide attribution for almost all OER, and almost always for other resources you are licensed to use. By “lift wholesale” I didn’t mean without proper credit and/or licensing! I’d hope any academic would be very much aware of the need to do that, but it is useful to remind people in this context. I meant you may find things you can use directly without needing to do any more work to adapt them to your course.

  4. Thanks for replying. (And sorry fo the double comment posting – I had an error message so though the first hadn’t gone through).

    Just to say in my experience there are many academic colleagues who still don’t realise that using openly licensed materials often requires them to attribute the original author.

  5. And please also be aware that although you may be able to use OERs under a creative commons licence, the permission does not apply to those using these under commercial arrangements – they may be available freely but this does not allow someone else to charge for their use. Check the copyright

  6. Doug and colleagues,
    Some fine advice here – thank you.
    One more big one:
    Keep it simple!
    We know that learning happens when:
    1 A clear structure, framework, scaffolding surrounds, supports and informs learning.
    2 High standards are expected of learners, and are made explicit.
    3 Learners acknowledge and use their prior learning and their approaches to learning.
    4 Learning is an active process.
    5 Learners spend lots of time on task, that is, doing relevant things and practising.
    6 Learning is at least in part a collaborative activity, among students and between students and staff.
    7 Learners receive and use feedback on their work.
    Some of these are already in our practice.
    We can do most of these things, online, today. And most of the rest by the end of this week.
    This is a joint venture. Our students will join in if we share our thinking with them.
    Good luck.
    And – just aim for ‘good enough’!

    Source – Baume, D. and Scanlon, E., 2018. What the research says about how and why learning happens. In: R. Luckin, ed., Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology – What the Research Says, 1st ed. London: UCL IoE Press, pp.2-13.

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