Making online events more effective

Remember to maintain unblinking eye-contact

If you’ve got to this point without thinking about this question, then you’re either someone who’s had no need to be online in the past year, or just a very unreflective person.

In either case, I envy you.

As we roll around to a full 12 months of All This, I find myself spending as much time wondering how an online event could be working better as I do engaging with the nominal point of said event.

This isn’t about the – scarcely believable that we still have it happen – “you’re on mute” or the – only slightly less credible – “can you see my slides?”, fun though those things are, but about the structure of events in the broader sense.

Moving online has given us a great opportunity to reimagine how we do an important part of our work as academics. Personally, I’ve loved being able to join groups that would have been essentially impossible to talk with if we’d had to be in the same place, as well as the possibility of levelling-up access to debate, rather than just having to go with the tedious “it’s more a monologue than a question” from the usual suspect in the audience.

But it might not be the most controversial position to hold that this could all be working better.

In particular, the notion of “let’s just move it online” seems too often to mean “let’s just do exactly what we’d have done in-person, online”, rather than “let’s try making the most of the opportunities that moving online offers.”

To take the most obvious example, we still find ourselves sitting through lots of transmission, rather than getting to use the space for debate and dialogue. Even as we’ve all spent ages moving our lectures into pre-recordings, just to avoid doing that to our students.

As ever, I think this comes back to the same kinds of issues that we talk about so often on this site: are we being clear about what an event is for, and are we structuring it so that we have the best chance of hitting that objective?

I’m not going to offer a solution to this one, for the simple reason that I don’t think there is a single solution, just a need for constant reflection and discussion among organisers to check if this is doing what it needs to do.

That must necessarily be an occasion-specific process, even if it does work from a standard set of principles. As with our teaching, it’s possible (likely, even) that there are multiple ways to hit our goals, and that variety is part of our response (since there’s a limit to how much engagement you’re going to get from someone who’s sitting through many hours of video calls every day).

But maybe the first step is something like the one I’m making: constructive critique.

When I’m sat in something that’s not working so well, I try to think if I am clear (as a participant) about what the objectives of the session are, and then I try to think if I could have devised something that might work better.

Importantly, that’s not always possible, so we have to consider whether it’s a matter of the least-worst option.

I also try to think about what elements work and why: most obviously, I try to think about the extent to which individuals’ personalities and actions cover a lot of the ground, as opposed to more structural elements, because the latter are going to be much more transferable.

And I try to do that while still paying attention to what’s happening in the event. Hopefully with my mic muted.

Changing the debate on remote learning

Talking about L&T on Twitter is often a rather niche pursuit; one for the specialists and enthused.

But from time to time, it’s possible to get a wider set of views, as happened to me last week.

I’d posted a pretty rhetorical question about the image of online teaching, off the back of Alex’s comment:

For reasons best-known to himself, a well-known radio presenter retweeted me, resulting in a large number of responses, which you can read by clicking on the tweet above.

The responses covered a lot of ground, and highlighted some of the different dimensions we might want to engage with.

To reiterate my starting point, there remains a strong tendency to see distance/remote/online learning as inferior to face-to-face modes, something that is not, and cannot be, ever as good as ‘the real thing’.

To take that one step further, I wonder if part of why we often see Oxbridge held up as a gold standard of education is because it’s so intensely face-to-face, with one-to-one or one-to-two instruction, in person. That face-time must be good, no?

Pulling back out to face-to-face in general, part of comes down to the perceived disintermediation: it’s you and the instructor, there, just doing your thing. The other modes involve various kinds of technology to engage or facilitate communication: a computer screen, a workbook, etc.

Certainly, that additional layer does require close attention, but it does not necessarily preclude effective and efficient learning. Just as you’ve all seen a disaster in the classroom at some point, no method is inevitably fool-proof or ‘better’.

Likewise, the capacity for responsiveness and on-the-fly adjustment is something that comes up repeatedly in critiques of distance learning: the workbook can’t ‘see’ that you’ve not understood concept X.

But again, that is to take a workbook as the sole element of how that learning operates, when typically you are engaging in multiple streams of content and activity, precisely to ensure that content is tackled from multiple directions, maximising the chances of successful learning.

Again, as someone who tried and failed to do some trigonometry with my son this weekend, in-person instruction doesn’t always stick either [for me, more than for him, to be clear].

Ultimately, the standards of ‘good’ teaching remain the same as always: clarity of learning objectives; alignment of objectives, content and assessment; and engagement with students’ needs.

None of that is platform-dependent or only possible in person. Instead, it’s about us, as instructors, working to produce effective learning environments for our students, whatever the circumstances we find them to be.

And if this all sounds a bit self-serving, then you’d be right, since I’m moving in May this year to the Open University, one of the world’s leading distance-learning institutions, so you’ll be getting a lot more of this kind of thing from me, and less of the empty-room exercises. Although I mention it, maybe that could work…

Getting out and about

A fringe benefit of writing this blog is that I regularly get asked to do reviews of L&T work for others.

It might sound odd to put it like that, since I guess you also have a pile of journal article review requests and the like, and you probably don’t think it’s the best part of your job.

But L&T reviewing work tends to be somewhat different.

Most obviously, it’s more varied. This week, I’ve been reviewing an article, but also sitting as an external expert on a programme validation panel and inputting to a promotion application for someone on a teaching track.

But it’s also that there’s much more scope for me to learn from all this.

In all three cases, I’ve got something useful for my own practice. Clearly, I’m not going to talk about the article or the promotion here, since that would be inappropriate, but I can tell you about the programme validation.

This is a distance learning programme, building out from some existing practice, but also making systematic use of an approach that I didn’t really know about before, namely e-tivities.

In essence, this is a methodology for creating structured and engaging online activities : as with so much L&T it’s not particularly complex, but it is clearly-presented and digestible.

And that’s why I like doing this kind of thing: I get to discover more ways of making learning work, that I can pull pretty directly into my classes.

Whether those who ask for my comments feel the same way is more debatable, but maybe we’ll get those involved here to write it all up some time in the new year.

So next time you’re asked to do something like this, do consider it, because it might be as good for you as it is helpful for them.

And on that note, I’m off on annual leave until 2021, which doubtless contains its own unique pile of Things To Deal With. Have a great break, as and when you get to it.

Using Wooclap in on- and offline teaching

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis has forced us all to rethink our teaching, but not all innovation has to start from scratch. For instance, when you feel uncomfortable with recording a video for your lecture, you can also simply use the narrated slides option in your presentation software.

And when you want to stimulate student engagement and interaction during an online talk, existing audience response tools such as GoSoapBox, Kahoot!, Mentimeter and Wooclap are ready for online use.

I’m a frequent user of Wooclap myself, but also have experience using GoSoapBox and have trialed some other options too. My choice for Wooclap is partly one based on its user-friendliness – though the additional perks that come with Maastricht University’s subscription are welcome too. I’ve been using Wooclap offline for quite some time already, and I’ve continued using it when we went online.

Continue reading “Using Wooclap in on- and offline teaching”

Connecting in-class and online students


I’m guessing that several of you find yourself in a position of having to offer teaching to a mix of students in person and online. Maybe, like me, you have to do that as part of your university’s delivery model; maybe you’re just a nice person trying to help students cope with the shifting sands of Covid restrictions.

Whatever your reason, I’m also going to assume you find it difficult to make those two groups interact seamlessly.

Certainly, if you’ve ever tried to open up a Zoom call while in class and get everyone to participate on a level footing, you’ll know it doesn’t work.

For that reason, I’ve spent a lot of time during the summer creating parallel tracks for my classes: shared pre-recording video lectures for all, then separate activities for those in-class and those online.

But it’s not been as simple as that.

The online students – a minority at present – want to have as much interaction as they can. So I’ve been trying some different things.

Firstly, I’ve been broadcasting most of my in-class sessions on Zoom, so the onliners can listen into the discussion. I say they can ask questions on the chat, but mostly it’s been one-way traffic. Where we’ve had activities, they often form their own group to try it out, aided by the need for the in-classers to use Teams to build joint documents.

Secondly, I’ve tried to ensure feedback to online students makes connections across all content, so any useful insights from class get shared with everyone. I record short (5 min) clips of video and post to our VLE each week, so there’s a bit more character to it than just some bullet-points.

Thirdly, my negotiation course is running a big, semester-long joint activity online. I’ve got all the students enrolled on the course to create and run a renegotiation of the WHO’s founding treaty, using Teams as a common platform and giving them a semi-structured reason to be in constant contact. That’s still quite early on, but they seem to be working pretty well, with the onliners all mixed up with inclassers within groups. I’ll write this up later in the semester.

Finally, I’ve been trying some other ways to make connections.

Last week I got my inclassers to produce a couple of collaborative documents; one each for the Trump and Biden campaigns about how to tackle a disputed vote in Ohio. Within class it was a good way for them to learn about how to prepare for interacting with others: the class was split in half, prepped one document, then swapped over to rework the other one.

I then sent the documents to the onliners, to add into their activity, relating to Trump-Senate interactions in the case of a disputed vote nationwide. They’d already written a first draft, but then were asked to revisit it in the light of the inclassers’ work.

This seemed to work pretty well, in terms of moving text through several stages and getting some appreciation of what others are doing.*

Of course, that was a one-off, and still I worry about keeping the links clear between the two tracks as we continue through the autumn.

But that might be the general take-home from all this: if we keep chipping away at it, maybe we’ll find something that works better. And that’s a pretty good ambition to have.

*- This reminds me of an idea I discussed some years ago about a shared chain of simulations: we never got that off the ground, but maybe we should come back to it some time soon.



Writing as someone who’s spent three weeks trying to find the right seating pattern for his students, I’m not sure that I’m on top of the current situation.

Certainly, I am spending a very much larger proportion of my working week on teaching-related activity, despite having the same modules I taught in previous years and despite having spent the summer swotting-up on How Tos and webinars.

I don’t need to rehearse the arguments again about this, but instead I’m going to share some practices that have made it all a bit more manageable, in the hope they’re of use to you too.

To recap some important context, we’re running a hybrid model here, with pre-recorded lectures and in-person seminars. We’re also to provide fully online content for those unable to attend on campus. And since I wasn’t too confident about a number of things, I’d only prepared the first 3 weeks of semester prior to its start, so I could make running changes.

Well, we’re into our third week now, so it’s been time to generate more content.

And that’s been where keeping track really comes in.

In a typical week, I’m giving students: a pre-recorded lecture (or several, if I’m breaking it down); notes on what we’ll cover in class; an online activity for those, um, online only; guidance on tasks towards the next assessment; preparation for the following week; plus I’ll be sticking some more procedural items into the news feed and recording some video feedback for the online-only students.

You’ll not be too surprised to find out I have a spreadsheet for all of this. Plus many calendar reminders to release/check content.

This has really come into its own when thinking about the connections between weeks, helping me to build linkages in content (hyperlinks as much as verbal cues in lectures), so students can see the joins. It’s also (so far) helped me avoid forgetting to do something.

I’m also been much more assiduous about getting feedback.

Next week, I’ll be running my usual ABC exercises, but every class I’ve been asking about specific elements of what we’re doing, to see if it’s working for the students. As I told my class yesterday, it doesn’t matter that I think I’m doing all good stuff if it’s not clicking for them.

I’m also trying to get feedback outside of class, when I talk with students in office hours, plus the whole Department is sharing comments (constructively) that we pick up from students about other modules too. I’d like to say this is our normal practice (and it is), but I’m more conscious that we’re pushing for student input rather more.

And finally, I’m talking with people about my teaching as much as possible.

You can feel a modicum of pity for my daughter, who found herself caught in a rather long conversation this weekend about how we might run an activity on the theme of ‘power’ in my negotiation class. Just as I can be proud that it produced some good ideas that I’m working on now.

We spent a lot of time as a community talking about all these things during the summer, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stop there. Our collective experiences are all the richer for actually putting our plans into action.

It’s a lot of stuff to keep in the air, but that’s exactly why we need to keep on trying.

Musical chairs

This week’s photo is my seminar classroom for the semester, for one of my modules. It’s a 300-seater lecture theatre, with about 20 of the 40 students taking the module. Those white straps close off seats, so everyone’s spaced out.

The question to you is: have I seated them correctly?

I ask because last week I let people sit where they would: that resulted in a scattering across the whole space. The result was some difficulty with them speaking to each other in small groups, plus some other difficulty in me being able to hear them speaking to me (I get a lapel mic: they don’t).

So, reflexive pedagogist that I am, this time I asked them to sit in that one section of the room.

Pretty clever, no? They’re closer to each other (while still being appropriately distanced), plus we have the option to talk as a single group more easily. Couple that to using group documents on Teams and surely we have a winner.


No, actually; we don’t.

While students liked being closer for discussion, they still found it hard to talk for two reasons. One (which I’m unable to change) is the ranked format of the room – it’s just really difficult to turn and interact.

The second problem I can deal with, namely the noise from the other groups. Students reported that they couldn’t really raise their voices much because they were aware that the group right to them might do the same and then they’d all be shouting. Quite apart from being epidemiologically bad, it’s also unnecessary in this room.

So here’s the plan for next week. I will be splitting the students up as they arrive, into one of four groups. Each group will have a block of the seating (maybe sitting near the front in block 1, nearer the back in block 2, etc), sitting as close as the strapping allows.

This way, they’ll have the proximity to each other, but without so much of the noise of the others.

Maybe this will work, although we’ll have to see what it does for general group conversation (which has hardly been free-flowing so far).

While this is my problem, I’d also emphasise that this has been about sharing that problem with students and getting their input: this plan is one I’ve talked about with them directly, since they know better than I do whether it’s a goer or not. I think that might be the bigger lesson in all this and is likely to be my big takeaway from this semester.

Some reflections on hybrid vs online lectures

This guest post comes from Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht).

We have just entered the third week of the new academic year here. With regards to the Covid-19 challenges, our faculty has decided that we should offer students one on-campus meeting per week. This particularly concerns our new BA and MA students, who want to help adapt to this new environment. Obviously, this comes with huge challenges as to how to organise teaching, including students who have simply not been able to come to Maastricht.

I myself am currently in the process of designing a new course and updating an old one. So far, I have given lectures in two different set-ups: once completely online and once in a hybrid setting with on-campus and online students.

I have experience with Zoom lectures and decided for a similar approach for my online lecture on interdisciplinarity for our new BA students. This included a short video introducing topic and initial questions for discussion. This worked well. Many students seemed to have prepared the questions, which resulted in some good ideas and suggestions (including some funny memes about academic research and writing):

The only real problem was that I was only co-hosting the session, which complicated things a bit as far as technicalities (breakout groups, integrating Wooclap) were concerned and which, hence, created a bit of fuss. Something to avoid in the future. Yet, with all students being at the other side of the screen, it was easy to engage with all of them in a  similar way.

My hybrid experience was vastly different, though. Engaging with students was just one of the problems.

Going hybrid

My hybrid lecture was part of our Research Master. The lecture took place in ‘Tent 1’ – the faculty has set up tents to allow for more on-campus activities. The acoustics were awful. And the A/C, despite making lots of noise, was unable to keep the temperature below boiling point…

This was a lecture that I have just inherited from a colleague, which meant I had to adapt it. This, together with the fact that some students would be online and some on-campus, made me opt for a plainer set-up. Following Chad’s experience with breakout rooms I decided not to use audience response tools. As the group was quite small, I thought it would also work to simply ask questions as we went along.

Unfortunately, response was slow and only came from on-campus students. The only comment raised online concerned an echo on the portable mic that I had been asked to use. The latter was not the only challenge resulting from the hybrid setting. As ‘Tent 1’ comes with an in-built laptop camera, I had to stay in front of that laptop. I couldn’t walk around – something that usually helps me to stimulate interaction – and using the (real-world) whiteboard was near impossible, as it meant having to juggle with the laptop camera.

But the most problematic thing of all was me overlooking the online students. When you have real people in front of you, this is whom you engage with. At first, I thought this might be due to the online students not having turned their camera on. I asked them to do so after the break, but, again, my attention drifted towards the on-campus students very quickly.

Lessons learned

I can imagine Simon being anxious towards teaching this semester. At any rate, my hybrid teaching experience was similar to Chad’s: quite terrible.

I will meet most of the Research Master students again from the end of October. At least one of them is unlikely to make it to Maastricht. Hence, given that this will be one of my own courses, I have decided to:

  • Do all lectures in Zoom – i.e. no hybrid lectures.
    • No one benefits from a hybrid setting. It creates extra fuzz, also for the experienced online lecturer.
    • Ask lecturers for short videos to introduce themselves and the topic so as to already raise a couple of questions for discussion.
  • Do all tutorials in a hybrid setting.
    • This should work because of the small group size and tutorials being student-driven and centred around discussion of literature.
    • Create additional online individual and collaborative assignments in Canvas and Wooclap to aid preparation and discussion.

But in any other setting I would certainly suggest not to go hybrid. This may mean having to split up students in on-campus and online groups. Yet, if resources allow you to do so, all students will benefit; either from your best on-campus teaching or from your best online teaching.

Improve Breakout Groups with Collaborative Document Editing in Google Slides or MS Teams

If you are teaching synchronous virtual classes on Zoom, Webex, or any other teleconference platform you are probably using breakout groups for small group discussions or student presentation preparation. Breakout groups are a great technique to break up a session and help build connections between small groups of students, but they suffer from three core problems:

  1. Students don’t remember or understand the prompt and take awhile to get started.
  2. Coordinating how to take notes or otherwise share the group’s work with other groups can be difficult and time-consuming, and may result in a single student doing most of that work.
  3. Students don’t get a quality set of notes from the presentations of other groups, reducing the likelihood that they will get much value from what other groups have done.

Collaborative document editing solves all three of these problems.

This idea is courtesy of Dr. Jenny Cooper of Stonehill College, who has found great success in creating a seamless breakout group experience in her classes. Instructors create a shared slide presentation in MS Teams or Google Slides that contains a slide with the prompt, instructions for the group work, and any expected output. This is followed by individual blank slides for each group to fill in, labeled ‘Group 1’ ‘Group 2’ etc. Share the link to the presentation with students, and then every member of each group can access and edit the document in real time during breakout groups, recording notes, images, or graphics in their assigned blank slide. The result is a single shared document that contains the work from each group, eliminating the need to share screens or additional files during presentations and ensuring that students have a complete set of notes they can review after the class.

This method can be used by anyone regardless of what teleconference system you are using. I advise that only those classes already using MS Teams should use the Teams method; everyone else should use Google Slides. This is easy to use for students: Google Slides does not require students to create an account to access or edit a document; all you have to do is send your students a link with editing privileges to the slide presentations, or post one in your LMS/VLE. They will click on the link and immediately be able to edit the document in either platform. As for faculty, if you have ever created a PowerPoint or other slide presentation, then this method will require minimal effort to adopt.

The only drawback is that there can be connectivity issues if a lot of people are accessing the same document at once. If you see that happening, you may want to ask a single student in each group to act as notetaker, and to share their screen within the breakout group so that their group mates can easily see what they are writing. In addition, students accessing Teams or Google Slides on a mobile or tablet may not have full editing functionality, so notetakers should generally be students using a computer.

Here is an in-depth guide with screenshots on how to do this in both MS Teams and Google Slides:

Keeping Students on Track

Regardless of how well our autumn checklists prepared us for autumn teaching, there is a good chance the unexpected will introduce the need for change. Or, to paraphrase a philosopher, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. A few tips on how to minimize the pain:

Build an asynchronous component into a synchronous course. If your campus is evacuated, technology fails, or you have to shelter in place, there is at least one part of the course that continues to operate. You can use it as a foundation upon which to construct substitutes for the other parts that are no longer working.

Create routine using repeated cycles of the same activities. For example, I have one undergraduate course meeting twice per week. On Tuesdays, class begins with students discussing an assignment in small groups. A randomly chosen group then reports its findings to the whole class. Then I give a brief lecture. On Thursdays, students take a quiz, work on team projects, and meet with me individually. That’s the pattern for almost the entire semester.

Narrow each class session to teaching a single big idea, preferably one directly related to a course learning outcome. Get rid of the peripheral “it would be nice if students also knew about . . .” content, because it confuses students — they aren’t as good as you are at identifying what they should focus on. If the unexpected disrupts class, the clarity of the lesson will make it easier for you to quickly develop an alternative method of delivery.

Regularly remind students what is headed their way. I’m now sending out “agenda for the coming week” announcements. My intent is simply to reinforce the messages in the syllabus and in the schedule of assignments in the LMS/VLE. Again, if there is an unplanned interruption in any particular week, I can conveniently refer back to that week’s agenda to inform students what is changing and how.