I spy what’s in the prof’s study: lessons from students in online learning

By miranda.prynne, 21 January, 2021
Student feedback is crucial to improving remote teaching. Here, Roger Austin shares key lessons for effective online course delivery based on a survey of his students
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Like most in higher education, I’m continually looking for new ways to improve online teaching and engage students who are learning remotely.  

Gathering feedback from the students themselves is an effective way to do this, to find out how they feel about the new modes of learning, what works and what does not. 

These are the five key lessons from surveying all 58 first-year students I co-taught online in the autumn semester. 

1) Check-in early  

Before our scheduled teaching started, we emailed everyone in the class to confirm they all had the technical means, laptop or other device and access to the internet, to take part in the induction session. We chased up anyone who didn’t respond, even sending them text messages; so from the very start we established a “social presence” with all our students, helping them feel personally involved. Regular communication and check-ins continued over the 12-week term, with the lead tutor emailing the class regular reminders of tasks due, praise for work done, relevant resources and more. Student feedback showed this was extremely well received. 

2) Encourage student interaction in online lectures 

We had just one live online class each week, running for three hours on Thursday afternoons, so it was vital this “lecture” successfully engaged the students. Basic training in Blackboard Collaborate highlighted useful tools to encourage student interaction and participation through the live classes. These included the chat box, which enabled a running commentary among the students, and the shared whiteboard, which allowed us to pause our lecturing and ask students to anonymously share responses and thoughts generating healthy discussions around key topics. Many in the class said they had enjoyed this and valued the anonymity.  

3) Humanise the digital 

We introduced personal and fun elements to humanise the online learning experience and create a sense of community. I started playing classic rock tracks from my mobile phone just before the class officially started. The warmth of student reaction expressed in the chat box encouraged us to expand this idea so the class could submit requests to the “resident DJ”. This quickly became a feature of every class. When students arrived in the online class, their names appeared on the screen, so tutors used the chat box to post individual welcome messages and invariably got cheery replies. These two personal touches were highly praised by students and created a readiness to learn and communal buzz. 

4) Introduce healthy competition 

We ran the first-ever Online University Challenge, which saw 14 teams of students compete in a quiz each week using Collaborate’s breakout rooms. Students were asked to suggest questions for each quiz based on that week’s lecture and general knowledge. This culminated in teams with the most points competing in the semi-finals, then the final in week 12. The teams of four to five students were randomly allocated and students could gain extra points for their team during the term through other activities, such as regular online seminar discussions, which helped sustain momentum. 

5) Foster discussion and application of knowledge 

We used asynchronous discussion to consolidate students’ learning, starting with purely descriptive tasks but moving towards problem-solving briefs for which students needed to apply their knowledge. Five weeks in, we started to award points for “star comments” that were clearly evidence-based. We used the flipped-classroom model, asking the student groups to create presentations based on the learning materials supplied, which led to more points being distributed. In a 12-week term, around 986 comments were posted, with tutors frequently joining in to encourage students who found this first foray into online discussions a little unnerving. 

There were lighter moments. We often had 15-minute pauses in the three-hour live classes. Once I left my camera on and came back to find students playing “I spy what’s in the prof’s study” using the on-screen chat box. I took it as a positive sign that they were building connections and confidence as online learners. 

Roger Austin is emeritus professor in the School of Education at Ulster University

This article is based on the draft research paper “Causing a buzz: student interaction in online learning. The role of synchronous and asynchronous contact in social, cognitive and teacher presence” by Roger Austin, David Barr and Franz Hoeritzauer. 

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Student feedback is crucial to improving remote teaching. Here, Roger Austin shares key lessons for effective online course delivery based on a survey of his students