Moving to Online Learning

The 2020 Covid 19 pandemic meant that universities needed to quickly move to online learning. Rapid changes were needed so that teaching and assessment which traditionally was carried in in-person could happen at a distance.

Since then the move to online learning has continued. Below we provide some guidance and resources to help educators make this move.


Most universities teach via large-scale lectures, so how can these be replaced online?

  • Consider shorter, more informal ‘lectures’, recorded or delivered live via video-conferencing. Can you use pre-recorded lectures that already exist (from previous presentations of your course? But are lectures even needed? (read on …)
  • Encourage more independent study by your students. There is a wealth of learning resources on the web and many students already use this. YouTube is a huge resource but there are plenty of others. Try finding some suitable resources for your students then …
  • Encourage students to find and share resources. Many of them will already be doing this. They will find the resources, but need a place to share them and recommend them to each other, so …
  • Use forums to support students and help them support each other. Learning Management Systems (Virtual Learning Environments) offer forums, so why not make use of them to bring students together?


Perhaps you normally offer small-group tutorials or seminars? How can you do something similar online?

  • There are many web conferencing and video conferencing systems that can be used. Web conferencing offers useful facilities such as a shared whiteboard. Try to make your sessions interactive, using polls and questions for students. There is normally a text chat facility where students can type their comments or queries. Aim for students to ‘sit forward’, not just sit back passively and listen. But some students will not feel confident at first, so make allowances.
  • You can also use forums for semi-synchronous learning, by structuring interactions over a few days. For example, pose a question, give a deadline for responses, then facilitate further discussion.
  • With all these options, think about the group size: 20-50 is good for forum discussion, smaller for collaboration. Real-time sessions are better with fewer students, if they are to be interactive and use voice (and perhaps video) interaction. But they can also be run as webinars with larger numbers of students, with all student input via chat.


Much of the assessment for courses is normally done via in-person exams, in an exam hall or classroom. What can we do online to replace these?

There are several initiatives to enable ‘proctored’ online exams which students can sit away from a university. But what are some simpler alternatives?

  • You can use your Learning Management System (LMS) facilities to handle submission of essays, answers to short questions, or other course work for marking.
  • You can use LMS facilities for online quizzes, which are automatically marked. These can be used for summative assessment (e.g. replacing multiple choice type written exam papers) and also for formative assessment to support students’ learning.
  • On a smaller, simpler scale, students could simply send in their written assessments as file attachments to a generic email address.
  • You, and/or your university, will need to think about the implications of:
    • not having students physically identifying themselves in-person
    • not having students separated from resources and other people in an exam hall
    • not doing having all the students doing the assessment at the same time.
  • Some subjects, such as maths, design, and science, are dependent on students submitting handwritten work such as equations and diagrams. Perhaps the easiest way to deal with this is for them to use paper, then take a photo or scan and submit that as part of their work.

Student community

The sections above were focused on the pragmatics of getting your teaching and assessment online. But a vital part of education is enabling students to learn as part of an academic and social community. When students are not always on campus, it is vital to maintain a sense of community. You want your students to feel supported by you,  your university and by each other.

  • Provide forum spaces, clearly structured to fulfil different needs. Include a ‘café’ forum for social chat and a technical help forum in case students are struggling with the online aspect. Students will help each other, so it is not all down to you.
  • Students will probably use their own online spaces – there are many of these, and students will know them better than you do. You may want to offer spaces on social media, or join the ones students create – but only if they invite you.

Other hints and tips

Your students may need additional help and support beyond your teaching. Some of this can come from you, but much should come from other parts of your university:

  • You can help by being very clear about what needs to be done and by when. Studying online will be unfamiliar for many students, so it’s easy for misunderstandings to arise.
  • DO your students have access to library resources online? Can your library provide electronic access to required reading?
  • Do your students have adequate access to IT equipment? Good internet connections?
  • Remember that students with specific accessibility needs may need adjustments to allow them to study successfully.

You also will need support yourself, and to keep control of your own workload:

  • Do you have adequate access to IT support?
  • It’s wise to set expectations and limits as to when you are online / contactable
  • Maintain contact with your colleagues – by phone, forum, web conference

Extra tips for online web conferencing sessions:

  • Students may be reluctant to speak but will use chat much more readily
  • You may need to use a headset to ensure audio quality
  • Mute your mic when not speaking (especially in larger sessions)
  • In small sessions, encourage webcams, if participants are comfortable with this
  • Turn off video if bandwidth is limited
  • Make sure documents are circulated beforehand; screenshare documents so others can follow where you are
  • Give others a chance to speak (or type).

Resources to help you

Short term: Help! I need to teach online this week

The Open University’s OER portal, OpenLearn, has a resource page on How you can take your teaching online with links to free courses on OpenLearn to help both teachers and students move online.

OpenLearn is a repository of free and reuseable OERs from the Open University, ranging from complete badged courses to smaller resources.

Preparing to learn online at university is a free FutureLearn course preparing students for online learning. 3 weeks, 2 hours per week, started 16th March 2020.

The EdTechie blog from Martin Weller of the UK Open University is well worth following. Here he offers some Open University resources to help with the ‘online pivot’ (i.e. the rapid move to online learning) and some weekly drop-in sessions.

Derek Jones, Design educator at the UK Open University, has a useful blog post and resource page.

Take your teaching online is a 24-hour badged open course from the Open University to help teachers transition to online. It can be studied at any time.

Pivoting to Online Teaching is a 6 weeks, 3-5 hrs per week free EdX course, started on March 16th 2020. One of the educators is George Siemens.

12 tips for your move to online teaching – from University Business magazine. These are quick pointers of advice about how to support your students, both emotionally and practically.

Virginia Tech has some advice on managing coursework with lower-speed connections. This is mainly addressed to students if their bandwidth is a problem.

UK educator Gary Wood has blogged on how to use simple approaches, via Google tools, to connect to students.

Going online in a hurry from the Chronicle of Higher Education considers 6 key aspects to think about.

This video interview has some good points about the need for keeping connected with students and being flexible.

Doing fieldwork in a pandemic has lots of suggestions for (mainly social science) research methods which can be carried out online.

Humanizing online teaching discusses how to make online teaching caring and inclusive.

Jisc Building Digital Capability blogpost contains some useful and relevant resources

How to teach online: providing continuity for students is a free FutureLearn course to help teachers and instructors move to learning online during the pandemic.

Longer term: What should we do next term and next year?

Do you expect a longer-term shift to teaching either fully online or a greater online blend?
There will be issues to be considered, many of them at an institutional level. The European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) E-xcellence manual gives an introduction to the broad range of issues associated with online and blended learning. The EADTU Embed project provides a framework for innovation in blended learning.

E-xcellence from EADTU is one of a number of quality assurance approaches aligned to online and blended learning. An institution making a large-scale move towards online learning must consider how they assure the quality of their online provision and of the student experience; frameworks such as E-xcellence can help to negotiate such a change.

Do explore the features of your institutional LMS / VLE – there may be useful components which you and colleagues don’t yet routinely use. Try to avoid using it simply as a document store; instead promote active learning in your students by stimulating interaction, both between students and material (e.g. quizzes) and between students (e.g. discussion forums, group work).

With more time to prepare, you might think about more innovative ways of teaching and learning afforded by online learning, for example those outlined in The Open University’s Innovating Pedagogy series of reports.

Remember the world of open educational resources (OER). These can range from small assets which you can incorporate in your own teaching to MOOC-style courses that include some form of assessment in larger chunks, typically 4-24 hours of learning. The OU’s OpenLearn platform is one of many places to start looking.

OpenLearn Create is a sister platform to OpenLearn on which you can create and deliver your own open courses for free. How to make an open online course is a 15-hour course that will show you how.

The OpenScience Laboratory supports practical science at a distance through a mixture of remote access to real equipment and virtual experiments with recorded real data. Some activities are open to all, others only to registered students to manage demand.

Some issues assume greater prominence in online learning and need to be considered:

  • Copyright
  • Plagiarism and impersonation
  • Accessibility to all students
  • Equitable access to the internet – can students afford devices and charges?
  • Practical and professional work, access to specialist hardware and software

Best wishes on your journey!