Teaching online to teach online

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In this case study, Dr Sue Folley, academic development advisor from computing and library services, writes about developing a course to support staff teaching online.

The Background

Through a combination of undertaking of an MSc in Multimedia and eLearning (2003-2005) and personal experience of teaching online as part of the Specialist Conference for the School of Education and Professional Development (2009-2012), I realised that the culture of teaching and learning in a wholly online context, and the skills needed from the tutors, were very different from the ones that were used in the traditional face-to-face environment. Because of this I based my doctoral studies on the tutor experience of teaching online (EdD gained in 2013).

From this, I realised that we, as an institution needed to develop some further support for staff in this area, as all we had in place were short staff development sessions, of about 1-2 hours on individual tools that could be used in teaching and learning. What was needed, was something more substantial that immersed the tutors into the online learning context and showed them through modelling good practice, in addition to discussion about and exposure to new tools, how an online course could be. The other thing I noticed both from my EdD work and just through discussion with academic staff about teaching online, that there was a degree of negativity about it, as people had often been given no choice of teaching online, and their preferred method was the face-to-face context. Instead of just embracing the task on hand, the staff tended to look for negatives about teaching online, rather than being open-minded about what was on offer. I wanted to change this perception and show that although online teaching is different, it has some advantages over teaching face-to-face (as well as some disadvantages), but more importantly, it can be engaging for staff and students, as well as a rewarding teaching experience.

So in 2013, I decided that I needed to create a staff development course to address some of these objectives. I did some research online and found that a course to help teach how to facilitate online had been devised by Carr et al (2009) from the Centre for Educational Technology, University of Cape Town, created with a Creative Commons Share Alike licence for adaptation and reuse. It needed some updating to include newer tools and technologies, and adapting for our context at the University of Huddersfield, but otherwise the structure and some of the contents were ideal to use as a start point for developing the type of course I had in mind. I also thought that it would be a lot of work to develop and run alone, so I needed a partner in crime, so I approached a colleague from the School of Human and Health Sciences who had been given a remit to support staff in his School in teaching online, Stephen White, to see if he was willing to collaborate on this, and luckily he agreed. Stephen had taken the same MSc in Multimedia and eLearning as me, and was very experienced in online teaching. Developing the course fit in well with his role, as it gave Stephen a structured way to support the staff teaching online in his School. So we began developing the course using the one I had found as a basic structure, but adapting most of the content to our needs. It took a few months to develop the Facilitating Online course, but now, almost three years later, we have run seven cohorts of the course with a further one planned later this year and we have had 75 staff across the University attend the course.

The Facilitating Online Course

The course runs for five weeks wholly online to give the participants the student perspective of taking part in an online course. Each week is a stage of online learning: Week 1 – Applying; Week 2 – Participating; Week 3 – Facilitating; Week 4 – Creating; and Week 5 – Applying.

Each week we provided the same structure of activities to model good pedagogic practice of keeping to patterns of delivery, so each week contained the following elements:

  1. A short welcome video introduction from one of the tutors – to model how this can help build social presence and humanise the online learning process.
  2. A written introduction outlining what the week is about and which skills of online facilitation the week will be covering, and how it fits into the overall objectives of the course.
  3. Some appropriate pre-reading (selected by us) usually combining a mix of pedagogic journal articles, blog posts, videos and other web-based resources.
  4. A small task to ease the participants into the topic, this was designed to take no longer than 30 mins and was usually fairly easy and often light-hearted.
  5. A larger task for the week to explore the topic further, setup to take about an hour, and this took various formats including participating in discussion board tasks, group wikis, and creating artefacts.
  6. A synchronous webinar to give the participants a chance to get together online to discuss the week’s activities, led by the tutors and help build a learning community.
  7. A private reflective blog post, for the participants to each reflect on the week’s activities and readings.

The technologies we have used for the course include:

  • UniLearn (Blackboard) to host the course, to model good practice of the University’s VLE.
  • Yammer as a social network for informal discussion and networking and this was used for some of the tasks to model how the students need to build social presence and a community of practice.
  • UniConnect (Adobe Connect) for the weekly webinars to model synchronous webinars, discuss the week’s activities both in terms of how the participants engaged with the tasks, and how they may use similar tasks with their students in the future. We also demonstrated some of the monitoring tools they could use.
  • UniLearn’s in-built tools including discussion boards, Campus Pack wikis and blogs, to model the use of these with online students.
  • Doodle polling tool to arrange tutorials with the tutors.
  • The participants also had to create an artefact which included an audio and visual element, so had a choice of tools for this with ranging from PowerPoint to mobile apps and Camtasia screencasting software.
  • The tutors also used UniLearn’s in-built monitoring tools to monitor activity and chase up any non-participants or those not completing in the expected timescales. These included the Performance Dashboard statistics, the Module Reports, each task having to be marked as reviewed once completed.

As part of the course, the participants also develop an online activity to run at a later date with their students. This is developed throughout the course under the guidance of the tutors, and gives the participants a tangible outcome that can be implemented in practice. The online activities are also shared with the other participants on the course, so they develop a good understanding of a variety of potential applications of technologies to different teaching and learning contexts.

We have also aligned the course to the University’s Digital Literacy Grid (to be used in appraisals to assess and plan development in learning technologies for academic staff) as well as in order to meet our University’s interpretation of the QAA’s requirement to ensure staff are trained to deliver courses in the appropriate format.

The course has also been supported by my placement students (one per year), who help develop and update the course, test out the technology, monitor course activity and support the participants with various aspects of the technology. This helps us provide a really good support service to participants, as well as give the placement student some interesting and rewarding work to get involved with, as well as building their employability skills.

Course Feedback

The course has received overwhelmingly positive reviews and just a sample of the qualitative feedback comments from the participants in the anonymous evaluation survey are as follows:

  • I have thoroughly enjoyed the course. It has heightened my awareness of the range of tools available to enhance the student experience of DL [Distance Learning]
  • The course has shown me how a DL course should be set up. The standards were very high
  • I really enjoyed this course. I have learnt some good techniques for improving my own courses and have gained confidence. I would recommend this to others. For some lecturers this should be part of their training so as to open their minds about what is available for teaching
  • Great course, 75% relative to all teaching… not just Online. A must for all academics!
  • An excellent course, helped by the fact that the tutors were both knowledgeable and enthusiastic
  • Everyone should be encouraged to complete this course – this will improve the delivery of my modules.
  • Very well done to our tutors, you are all to be congratulated for the best course I have been on in my education career.  I have learned so much about online learning but I have relearned so much about sound educational practice.
  • I immensely enjoyed the course, learned a great deal from it and shall continue to do so.  The last 5 weeks has enhanced my teaching, my knowledge and my online skills.  I shall miss the course.  Thanks to all the facilitators for making their time and expertise available in this way.  I am very grateful.

Future Plans

Each time the course has run, we have reviewed it both in light of our experiences and observations but also as a response to the feedback from participants (both formal through the evaluation survey and informal through comments or questions about the tasks or in their blog posts). The instructions to tasks have been updated to reduce potential misunderstandings; links to support and help made clearer; blog posts have been templated; and checklists added to each week. Several activities have been changed, removed and added, resulting in the seventh version of the course being quite a departure from the first one, and we have further changes already planned before the next cohort runs.

We have plans to develop the course to appeal to those who are interested in incorporating technology more in their face-to-face or blended delivery formats or used flipped classroom approaches, in addition to those who are teaching or planning to teach wholly online. One of the most positive outcomes of the course, is the feedback from participants about how much taking the course has impacted on their current teaching practice.

On the whole, we think that the course has been a success and Stephen and I have presented it at an international conference, as well as having an invited journal paper in progress. Delivering the course, although time-consuming, has been a really positive experience and hugely rewarding. 


Carr, T., Jaffer, S., and Smuts J. (2009). Facilitating online: A course leader’s guide. [Online]. Retrieved: 21 December 2015.

Folley, Susan (2013) Bridging the gap between face-to-face and online teaching : a case study exploring tutors’ early experiences of teaching online in a UK university 2009-2012. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

Posted by Kathrine Jensen (@kshjensen), Research Assistant, Teaching and Learning Institute. The Teaching and Learning Institute (TALI) coordinates, evaluates and disseminates inspiring and innovative teaching and learning. Follow TALI on Twitter


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Supporting and connecting colleagues to develop inspiring and innovative teaching and learning
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