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5 simple tricks for creating successful online learning

Eileen Kennedy, Senior Research Associate at UCL Knowledge Lab, shares what research on MOOCs tells us about how to make online learning a social and collaborative experience for students.

Two adults with a laptop open in a meeting. Credit: Headway / Unsplash.com

10 August 2020

Eileen Kennedy is a Senior Research Associate based at UCL Knowledge Lab. She researches ways of scaling up digital and online learning with two ESRC funded Research Centres: the Centre for Global Higher Education and the RELIEF Centre. Here she shares lessons from her research on how create online experiences that work for teaching staff and learners.


Since we launched IOE’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), What Future for Education?, five years ago, we have been learning a lot about how to scale up online learning. I have been interviewing learners and conducting Design Based Research into ways we can make online learning a social and collaborative experience for the thousands of participants that enrol on our courses.

Now that UCL and other universities are embarking on a mission to scale online teaching for students who would otherwise miss out because of COVID-19, what can research on MOOCs tell us about how to make it work for both teachers and students?

Here are 5 easy tricks I have learnt to make it work for everyone:

1. Ditch the Zoom room*

(*well, use it sparingly at least!)

You don’t need to abandon video conferencing completely – but use its power wisely and infrequently.

Live video conferencing can be stressful for educators and inconvenient for learners. One of the strengths of online learning is that it is flexible – course design can help learners access learning when it suits them. Learners can be taken on a journey through a series of ‘steps’ that combine short pre-recorded videos, exercises, discussions, quizzes and opportunities for peer review.

Instead of trying to transfer your presence as a teacher to Zoom, express it in the way you write the narrative to help your students move through the learning path you have designed.

2. Make it social

Getting students to discuss ideas is essential if they are going to make the learning their own. For a meaningful discussion, however, you have to provide a clear discussion prompt. Spell out what you want them to do (e.g. share an example from your experience and reply to other posts where you can see further connections with the theory).

Every learner I have interviewed has said they appreciate the educators’ presence in the discussion. But in a large course, there are so many comments that it is impossible to reply to each one. So instead, we often summarise the discussion at the end of the week – and if you use your webcam to video yourself – maybe in conversation with another tutor – discussing the best comments, you don’t even need to write it down. Your students will love it!

3. Remove the fear barrier

Posting a comment online can be scary for some learners, so ease them into it with low-risk activities like word clouds and polls, so they get to see what others are thinking first.

If you have used tools like Mentimeter in your blended classroom, you will find you can transfer those directly online by sharing (or embedding) links on Moodle for students to add answers and see the results.

The online pinboard Padlet is a nice addition to an online course to help learners feel they are not alone. Use it for activities where learners share a link to a website, video or image – embedded in Moodle it will a visual treat.

For educators, it can give us a chance to see if learners have been able to apply an idea by sharing something they have made.

4. Make video count

Video is a powerful tool – but you don’t have to do everything live. Videos can help where you might want to show how to read a text critically, or use a piece of software.

You can record your screen using Lecturecast Universal Capture which then allows you to upload content directly into your Moodle course, or MediaCentral, or record your voice over PowerPoint slides and export it as a video.

Don’t try to edit too much – it adds precious time and being too slick can alienate the students. Then you can make the most of live video conferencing (using Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom) – for example, for short interactive sessions using tools like polls and breakout rooms where you can give space for students to discuss or present what they have learnt – and that’s great because it takes the pressure off you as an educator. Watch students expressing how much they prefer this approach.

5. Embrace learning design

You may have heard about UCL’s ABC learning design workshop featuring the six learning types that are necessary for successful online learning. You may not know that UCL also has an online tool, the Learning Designer that we created to help educators design teaching sessions using the learning types.

You can watch a video of how to use the tool to design the online part of a lesson and then see how to create this design in Moodle. You don’t have to start from scratch either – you can adapt existing lesson designs, like the one featured in the video.

You can even share the learning design with your learners so they understand what you have planned. Watch out for our learning designer workshop as part of the Connected Learning Essentials course to help UCL staff move their teaching online and online ABC workshops.

Further information

For help with putting this into practice, check out the Connected Learning Essentials programme, attend a Connected Learning Live staff development session, or contact Arena Centre or Digital Education staff for personalised support.