Seven practices to avoid in online teaching and learning

Following on from seven ways to improve students' online learning experiences in your subject here are some tips on what to avoid in order to create a successful online teaching environment.

1. Avoid simply uploading PDFs to Canvas

Where possible, rather than using PDFs, develop your teaching materials using Canvas pages. Canvas pages use a web/HTML format that makes your materials more responsive, user-friendly, and accessible to all students and across all devices. This will also help you to keep within the data limits of your Canvas account. In addition, use links to online versions of resources, as opposed to uploading a PDF version. This will mean your materials will automatically reflect updates made to the online version, which will help to keep your learning materials up to date.

For set readings, you can use Readings Online to provide access to subject readings via Canvas. Readings Online provides you with analytics on student access, while also managing the University’s copyright obligations.

On occasions when you do need to upload materials, you can avoid problems by:

  • Using MS Word documents rather than PDF files, as they are preferred for accessibility
  • Using Ally to check whether a PDF is accessible
  • Checking on copyright compliance - for journal articles use Readings Online
  • Providing some information about what the PDF is and what students should do with it (both logistically for downloading, and also to provide context around the reading).

2. Avoid overusing written text on pages

Where possible, consider using varied ways to present learning materials to students, to promote engagement and accessibility. Think of how you might present your learning materials using:

3. Avoid simply adding videos, readings and files without context

Online resources (including reading links, files and video embeds) may not speak for themselves. Where possible, consider adding some context for the learning resources you provide. You could:

  • Add an introductory sentence to tell students what the resource is and where it is from
  • Where you can, suggest key points to consider while reading or watching, and indicate the relevance of this resource to upcoming activities or assessments
  • When it would be particularly useful to students, consider a follow-up activity, such as asking students to discuss, respond or reflect on the resources you have shared.

4. Avoid long videos and large media files

Have you ever seen: video-recorded Zoom sessions full of dead-air; long lecture captures with no chapters; large PowerPoint files; and PDFs of screen captured text? These can be unengaging for students studying online. Where possible, consider breaking slabs of media into smaller, logically ordered chapters or sections. This has a range of benefits:

  • It better suits online consumption habits and student study trends
  • It encourages a better mix of active and passive modes
  • It is more compatible with a modern modular subject design
  • It is easier to keep up to date
  • It is friendlier for students with bandwidth limitations
  • It encourages the removal of redundant or superfluous information
  • It creates a sense of progress through the subject
  • It makes it much easier to make incorporate of some of the exciting online interactivity tools available
  • It better suits online study and the way many students study.

5. Avoid assuming your students are comfortable with learning technologies like Zoom, Canvas and Discussions

Canvas and Zoom are not social media platforms and may be unfamiliar to students. Many of these technologies are specific to LMS and educational settings, and new or returning students may not be familiar with the LMS features and academic 'netiquette'. Compared to social media sites and commercial websites, these tools require different communication strategies.

To support students in using these technologies and strategies, begin your subject’s Zoom and Canvas interactive sessions with low-stakes activities (for example ice-breakers) that introduce students to the technologies being used and how you would like them to interact. If you think it useful, post an exemplar post to your general Discussion and unpack what makes it a successful example. You could invite comment on your exemplar and allow your students to contribute to protocols and expectations.

If possible, it can be helpful to outline and model your expectations early in the semester. This could include explanations of how you intend to use technology such as pre-recorded videos, discussion activities and Zoom sessions. You could explain their function and their regularity, and model best practice communication techniques and posts. You could also provide links to technical support for your students for any educational technologies you intend to use.

6. Avoid a set-and-forget approach

While online learning provides opportunities for self-directed learning, undergraduate students in particular benefit from support and guidance. In a face-to-face environment you would often do this by responding to questions in and after class. The good news is that you can bring your good teaching practice into the online environment with a few different strategies:

Facilitating group discussions:

  • When face-to-face you might facilitate (by listening, clarifying, prompting), and then respond (by acknowledging participation, summarising)
  • When online in Canvas discussions, you can facilitate (by setting regular times through each week to read and prompt), and then respond and summarise using a Canvas announcement.

Balancing instruction and activities:

  • When face-to-face you might lecture or deliver some materials, and then break up the session with some activities for active learning
  • When online in the LMS, you can provide learning materials (such as a reading or short video), and then follow up with an activity (a discussion, reflection prompt, poll or quiz with automated feedback) for students to apply, check and extend their understanding. You can then view the outcomes and respond in an announcement or Canvas mail to clarify any areas of confusion or concern.

7. Don’t doom your Zoom

There are many ways to ruin a synchronous session! Happily, some of the most common are easy to avoid:

  • Poor audio quality - the tiny built-in microphone in your computer is prone to whirr, crackle and pop. Where possible, use earbuds, a headset or a USB microphone.
  • Feedback - that is, when your microphone picks up sound from your speakers and sets off a feedback loop. Headphones with a microphone will cut down feedback.
  • Stutter - we might not be able to fix poor internet, but maximise your chances for success by closing any other applications that might be stealing precious bandwidth.
  • Bad picture – the most common causes of poor video are the easiest to avoid. Strong backlighting can cause silhouette head shots, and a too-low camera angle can give an ‘up the nostrils’ effect. When preparing for your session, consider lighting angles and adjust the height of your webcam/mobile device if needed.