Tips for online teaching and learning

About the author

Ann is a co-founder of PR Academy. Her special areas of interest are internal communication and project communication. Ann leads the CIPR internal comms certificate course. MSc, Dip CAM, MCIPR

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash
Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

At PR Academy we have been running online courses since we began – in fact setting up the first Chartered Institute of Public Relations online PR Diploma was the catalyst for starting the business in 2007.

We know from talking to many of the thousands of practitioners who have studied with us since then that learning online can seem daunting – people wonder if they will have the motivation, if they will feel supported or if it will mean just staring at a screen. Our answers to those questions would be yes, yes and no.

Often in the workplace we are asked to do CBT  – computer based training – for things like data security. It means sitting on your own in front of a screen and is often a tick box exercise. Good online learning isn’t like that, it happens over a period of time, is interactive and should be engaging.

So what are the benefits and what should you look for?

Benefits:

  • Flexibility: we find that some practitioners who could easily get to class opt for online. They like the flexibility of fitting study around home and work.  
  • Study from anywhere: studying online can be done from anywhere – check that any live elements such as webinars are recorded for watching ‘on demand’.
  • Little and often: one student told us he liked the idea of “nuggets” of learning. With online you can do a bit each week, instead of concentrated bursts of learning in class.
  • Easy technology: learning technologies have developed a lot over the years, platforms like Zoom are easy to use and make interaction easy. We are much more likely to be using them in the workplace – now more than ever – and so people feel much more comfortable with them than when we started out.

If you are thinking of signing up for an online course, here are some things to look for: 

  • Is there a course leader and what are their credentials? Are they senior industry practitioners (and if so, what have they done?), do they have academic credentials and/or recognised teaching qualifications? It may be online, but you still want to know you are in good hands.
  • What support will be provided and how is it accessed? How responsive are tutors? Can you contact someone at any time?
  • How is the course taught? Are there any live elements?
  • How long is the course open for? Will you be able to access the resources after the course is finished?
  • What resources are provided? Are there online books for example?
  • What is done to facilitate networking? Can you chat online and message other learners and your course leader?
  • What do past students say about the experience?

We are all going to be a lot more reliant on online learning for a while and it can be a really rewarding experience, now more than ever.

Here is some advice from two of our experienced course leaders on how to make the online teaching and learning experience work.

It’s about people, not technology

Heather Yaxley warns: Faced with moving face-to-face teaching online, it’s tempting to replicate what we do offline. To share slide packs, readings and resources digitally. To replace lessons, lectures and workshops with pre-recorded videos. To offer a quiz, live streaming, forum discussions, interactive exercises, Skype calls, a class WhatsApp group, weekly Twitter chat and so on. 

But online learning isn’t about using every fancy feature that technology makes available. It is much simpler: keep in touch, be helpful – and be human.

 

Heather Yaxley

Keeping in touch

Select a couple of channels to keep in touch. I find that a one-to-one option is more likely to get a response, particularly when students are anxious. Messaging works well to send a quick personal note. This can lead into an exchange and is a quick way to identify and resolve problems. 

In addition, a group channel can be useful. I schedule regular forum updates – providing news, reminders to take specific actions, and easy activities to elicit a response. Engage with those who respond – they will be the minority, but others will read and know they could provide a comment if they wish.

Be helpful  

Studying independently is challenging. Online learning environments can be difficult to navigate – so provide an easy guide. I’ve learned the importance of repetition and clear sign-posting to manage expectations from students. 

Ensure resources are mobile-friendly. Keep file sizes small. If you get asked a good question or suggestion in a personal channel, then share the response with others.

If you can, then include an opportunity to talk with students through an online tutorial or quick catch-up call. This enables you to help in a direct way – and close the contact gap that technology creates.

Be human

Students experience most online learning in an asynchronous way. This loses the spontaneity, flexibility and human aspects of face-to-face learning. My advice is to allow your personality to come over, show empathy and don’t worry about being perfect.

Taking a recorded webinar as an example, these can be difficult without the usual in-person interactions. Think of ways to engage students, such as including questions and suggestions for actions that you will follow up on. 

I treat recordings as conversations rather than performances, which feels more natural for me. Heather Yaxley

You can experiment to learn what approach helps you to feel comfortable. Treat technical glitches or minor errors as you would during a face-to-face session – apologise and resolve. Or re-record if things have gone really badly. 

Students like to see inside your world – my dogs often make an impromptu appearance in webinars. When I’m watching others’ recordings, I love to see bookcases and try to read book titles. There’s no need to stage a background, but you could if you wished. 

I’ve just discovered Zoom allows you to add a photo image as a backdrop, which could be a fun thing to do. I’m coveting the colour-coded shelving display that Monica Lewinsky shared in a recent photograph of her office – so maybe I’ll ‘borrow’ that for my next webinar. 

Chris Tucker adds: ‘I have been teaching online since 2007, in fact not long after I began teaching PR in any form.  I was working as the Head of PR for Barclays when Ann Pilkington, now one of the founders of the PR Academy, asked me to address a workshop of students on financial PR.  After that I began to take on more and more offline and later online PR teaching. So, I am now in a position to be able to reflect and to give insights into how both types of teaching are both the same but different.  

I have a further insight in that my 13-year-old daughter is now being taught remotely.  Her school for various reasons shut its physical doors from Friday 13 March. So that has given me an insight too from the customer point of view so to speak.

My first piece of advice to teachers is that a student’s online attention span is even shorter than in a classroom – yes really.  Pretty obvious if you think about it.

Chris Tucker

When we share a physical space, we have a lot more visual stimulation than when we appear on a screen.  It is also easier to interact with students and that too keeps a student’s attention. I would say that 40 minutes actual teaching online is probably the limit. 

This is not simply doing what you would usually do and live streaming it.  

So now that your teaching time is in effect cut down how do you structure your lessons?  Basically, it’s a return to the learning outcomes of whatever it is that you are teaching and seeing how you can break down lessons into those short slots and match them against what students need to know.  Not that different from what you probably already do when you think about it. Then look to supplement the classroom experience time you have lost with other resources. There is such a wealth of material online.  Whatever your subject you will with the help of a search engine find resources in the form of videos, links, apps, quizzes, academic papers, TED Talks etc.

Do not overwhelm your students.  If you are now in the position of a school or university or college switching from a physical classroom to a PC screen there may well be a temptation to deluge students with everything you have found and everything  you need to teach them in one go. 

Students, especially the younger ones, have never had to manage an Inbox before.  Educational establishments and timetables have managed their day for them.  

Try to parcel out the work and the assignments in a measured way to help them adjust to this new world.

Signpost and test everything.  The best way to help you do this is to walk in the shoes of your students.  Are your instructions as to what they need to do super-clear? When you ask them to e.g. read a document, do they know exactly where to find it?  If you are uploading documents do come out and go back into whatever online platform you are using as a student and see exactly what that document looks like to the end-user.  Use what I call book-ending for every lesson: this is what we are going to cover today and then repeat this at the end with the message here are the next steps and what you should be doing now.  

Commentators are already dividing time into BC and AC – Before Covid and After Covid.  For me this is never so true as it is for the world of education. So much in terms of teaching and learning was already moving online and this development will, I believe, hasten that move still more.  

 

Think about the hundreds of years old business model of the university: come and pay to sit at the feet of the leading thinkers in a given subject. Now this can be done over the Internet for hundreds, thousands of students at any one time. We don’t have to go anywhere.

In terms of the students impacted by this situation, even if school’s out for only a short time (and we all pray that will be the case) they will have learnt very valuable skills: time management, self-motivation, virtual teamworking, and the need to pick up new digital skills super-quick.  We have often heard governments and educationalists talk about a need to foster life-long learning – that should be a little easier now.