Donna Smith

Read about Dr Donna Smith's thoughts on teaching online at a time of crisis.


It’s March 2020, much of the world is on lockdown, most universities are stopping face-to-face teaching for the rest of the academic year, and you’ve suddenly been told that you have to turn all of your in-person teaching into online teaching. Aaarrgghhh!!!! And breathe…


What to do first?

Ideally your institution has provided you with some sort of guidance on a) what you need to do, b) the technology/systems you should use. Fingers crossed they provided training too!

If it hasn’t, or if you have free reign, you need to think about how much time you have, what you are capable of, and what your students need to complete the module/task/assessment (and the most important things they need, not the fluff around the edges).

Many academics probably think they need to record (or even livestream) what they would have said in their seminars or lectures and put it online in the form of a video, podcast, presentation etc. You certainly can do this, and it can be very effective. It can be relatively simple (assuming the tech works), quick to do (assuming you have a basic plan/script), and easy for most students to access. If you do this, you’ve achieved something positive and student-focused in a very difficult set of circumstances. A+ !

Of course, this is easier said than done for most people – you need the time to do this, the confidence to present it well, and the tech to work. It also assumes you have a script ready to go or the ability to present ‘on the hoof’. Also, just like in a physical classroom, in an ideal world students should be able to interact with you and/or each other – if you are ‘transmitting’, rather than ‘interacting’, this won’t be achieved.

So, other options? Well, you could forget recording or livestreaming videos or podcasts, and produce a Prezi presentation or even a simple PowerPoint. Most academics have done this and can probably turn material around fairly quickly.


And if you want to get interactive?

  • If you decide to go down the livestreaming route, students could ask questions during the session which you can answer, and/or they could discuss things with each other if the technology allows
  • You could set up an online room where you can have a synchronous discussion (audio or video based) about any material you have provided; if there’s nothing available in-house, your university may let you use an outside system such as zoom or skype (always worth checking, so you don’t break any rules)
  • Social media, such as WhatsApp or twitter, is a good backup as most students are familiar with it and it’s free
  • You could provide a forum space where you can post questions; students could respond synchronously (so within a timeslot) or asynchronously; the latter is often a good idea, as it means students can fit their study around other responsibilities such as caring or work
  • If all else fails, you can email students questions/discussion points which they can answer and email to you for comment (or even discuss with each other).


You need to think about the learning outcomes the students must meet and the assessment; if they need to collaborate on a task, providing a space for interaction becomes even more crucial.

You also need to consider students with disabilities who may not be able to use certain technologies and have options available for them (so, if they can’t watch a video can you provide the script? If they can’t use WhatsApp can you speak to them on the phone?). In an ideal world you produce something that as many people can easily access as possible.

Some students will have to share laptops, use phones, or have limited data – don’t get too high tech. At this time of crisis, students are likely to be more stressed than normal, with different demands on their time (children at home, caring responsibilities, different working hours), so don’t make things more difficult for them – or for yourself.


Top tips

  • Make sure you follow your intuitional guidance (what you should be doing, what guidelines you must follow, whether you can use external tech/systems, what your colleagues are doing)
  • If you’re a Head of Department, think about whether you can harmonise what’s on offer across modules to ensure a consistent student experience (although if time is of the essence, colleagues may need to just get stuff out there and you will need to support this)
  • Make sure your students know what to expect, when, and how to use any new technology (check what they’ve been told by the university/faculty/school and follow up if needed with specifics)
  • Think about whether you are doing simple ‘transmission’ or more evolved ‘interaction’ (how much time do you have? What are the expectations? What tech is available?)
  • Think about what you are capable of – if you have zero idea about how to livestream something (and have no colleagues who can help, no institutional guidance etc), it’s probably better to produce something far simpler such as a PowerPoint presentation
  • What are the learning outcomes students must meet? What’s the assessment? This may have an impact on what you do
  • If ‘transmission’, try and provide opportunities for student interaction in different ways
  • Think about students who may not be able to use certain systems/technology – provide an alternative
  • Chat to your colleagues
  • Keep it simple: put your mental health first.


Longer term thinking

Maybe the current situation will end up making you, your faculty, your institution, think more about delivering material online in the future.

I work for The Open University, one of the world’s leading online and distance universities (although fun fact, we also have a lot of face to face teaching, meaning we also have to move everything online along with everyone else in the sector at short notice! Luckily, it’s policy that all tutorials must be available online as well as face to face, so we can do this reasonably quickly, have decent systems and technology in place, and students who are used to attending things online).

The one thing we definitely don’t do? Simply record or livestream material (turning it from face to face to online) or post PowerPoints or other material which students are left to read on their own. That’s why it can take us over a year to produce an online module: we write the content specifically for VLE consumption, produce professional audios, videos and podcasts, design online quizzes and interactive elements, curate and integrate external content, make sure any book-based content works well with the online content, and design tutorials which fit into the structure of the teaching in a coherent way. To do it well takes a large team (academics/writers, learning technologists, designers), time, experience, lots of training, an institutional commitment to staff development, listening to students, and funding.

What you have been asked to do could be categorised as ‘emergency online teaching’! This blog post will hopefully help you with that challenge.

To read more about teaching online, keep an eye on the @PSATeaching twitter account where we will be posting links to resources – bookmark them, in case you end up doing more of this in the future! We also plan to commission other blogs from those experienced in online teaching in higher education, to provide more guidance for those of you interested in the pedagogy. Watch this space…


Dr Donna Smith is co-Chair of the PSA Teaching and Learning Network. She is a Lecturer/Staff Tutor in Politics at The Open University and Deputy Associate Dean Teaching and Students in the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies.