Rising to the challenge of the online pivot

In face of an unprecedented challenge to the health and wellbeing of our faculty, support services and students, increasing numbers of Universities across the sector have announced immediate moves to online teaching and assessment as a matter of necessity rather than choice.

Many of us have never taught online and rely on traditional modes of assessment. Collectively and individually we have been challenged to think creatively about our content, delivery and assessment. The goals are to maintain the integrity of the educational experience and ensure that our students meet their learning outcomes. This is not likely to be easy and we will need to be flexible in our approaches to effectively adapt.

I’ve outlined some of the considerations involved below:

Will it be synchronous (or live)?

This can help to replicate the personal connection we have and help reduce student isolation. Live teaching reduces the scope for misunderstanding and allows a more responsive approach.

Barriers can include access and availability to high speed broadband and scheduling of teaching across different time zones. For live sessions, it is recommended to keep to the current timetabled slots.

Most of us routinely record live face to face sessions for students to review and are also familiar with adding a transcript or captioning to increase accessibility. We may wish to take advantage of existing live streaming facilities within our learning management systems e.g. Panopto.

For live teaching sessions, Zoom and Canvas conferences may offer a means of students attending virtually whilst the session is also being recorded. This type of technology normally allows participants to share screens so can be interactive enabling students to share their work. It may be worth setting some ground rules regarding muting microphones, time for questions etc.

Online office hours are also often a feature on learning management systems e.g. Canvas, Moodle and can add some interactivity.

Will it be asynchronous?

Asynchronous activities enable an increased level of flexibility and accessibility with students able to access on demand at a time when they are prepared to study and at their own pace e.g. using a pre-recorded lecture.

However, asynchronous learning can lead to lower engagement with the instructor and peers and increased potential to misinterpret information posted online.

What options are there to foster asynchronous interaction?

The most frequently used tool is the discussion board. Faculty actively monitor and comment on student contributions to encourage interaction and keep students on track. Discussions are often more interactive where there is a clear purpose or task. If you have a large cohort it is less overwhelming for students and faculty if you split the discussion into groups which correspond to the seminar or workshop groupings.

Setting expectations

It is likely that most faculty will opt to record lectures at their desks or provide detailed lecture notes to students and mix this with interaction through discussion boards, live sessions and office hours.

The main thing is to set student expectations so students know what is required of them and to reduce anxiety around the transition online. Some considerations include:

  • How you will communicate with students on the module e.g. via Canvas announcements, individual emails etc.
  • When content will be available and what content they should now expect
  • What is expected of them i.e. tasks, communication
  • Why changes may be required and what they will be e.g. assessed presentations will now be recorded via Powerpoint audio and submitted online by XX.
  • When and how you will be available to the students e.g. online office hours

Assessing online

Some modes of assessment, which typically require a physical presence, have a more obvious adaptation to online assessment e.g. presentations, whilst others can require more creativity to meet the learning outcomes e.g. unseen exams.

What are the considerations?

  • Meeting learning outcomes should be paramount
  • Whether a switch on an accredited course or module carrying professional exemptions will be accepted by the professional body (positive confirmation should be sought)
  • Communication to students should be clear and transparent regarding the assessment and the rubric or marking scheme that you intend to use. Can students practice the assessment mode if they have not come across it previously so that they understand what is required and how you will apply the rubric or marking guide?
  • The alternative assessment should require an equivalent amount of effort from the student. Your institution may have some guidelines regarding assessment equivalences.
  • Design of the assessment to mitigate the risks e.g. a take away paper with a very limited window may replicate near exam conditions but may require reasonable adjustments to be applied for students and pose challenges across time zones. This might be weighed against redesigning the nature of the tasks to focus on application.
  • Moderation of revised assessments will be required.
  • Some students may have challenges engaging with online assessment. Provision to identify those students and put in place appropriate arrangements is required.


Overview of various modes of assessment https://www.slideshare.net/SusanSmith180/assessment-modes-explained-higher-education-230282495

A useful document to help evaluate the various alternatives to in-person assessment has been created by Sally Brown and Kay Sambell and is available as a download from Sally’s website https://sally-brown.net/

#lthechat on Twitter is an excellent source of topical discussions on Higher Education

Please add you own challenges and experiences to the discussion.

  • Great advice and ideas, Susan.  I think we also need to consider accessibility issues as well as students who might not have access to multiple devices and/or fast broadband, so providing non-video materials as well as recordings is important.  The research on cognitive load suggests that 7-10 mins maximum is optimal for video content, so if colleagues are thinking of recording video content, I would suggest 'chunking' content into smaller parts.  Some further asynchronous options for interactivity are VLE quizzes, Padlet and some polling tools which allow questions to be assigned as homework outside class.

  • Online teaching has been part of the way of life at The Open University for very many years. My problem is that my considerable experience teaching at the OU was a few years ago and the resources and capabilities available have moved on hugely, even in that short space of time. Some challenges will always be the same online and face to face - how do you engage the online equivalent to the student sitting at the back of the class? Any answers please? On the other hand sometimes moving events online can have unexpected benefits. My students loved the fact they could revisit the revision tutorial I did as often as they wanted - rather than it being a one-off experience that they might not even have been able to attend. I'd be really interested in any other unexpected benefits? Very best wishes to any of you faced with making such a big change so quickly. And thank you so much to Susan for setting the ball rolling on this really vital topic.