What I learned about online teaching and research management?

As a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, UCL, like many other universities, is switching to online teaching and interaction between staff, students, and also research teams. I wanted to share what I’ve learned over the year through my use of online teaching and management tools. The experience is based on using tools such as Moodle since 2003, when I led the first departmental installation of it at UCL to the use of Basecamp since 2007 to manage research projects. Most recently, I’ve run the DITOs project, with 11 partners across Europe for over 3 years. The tools that I’ve used include online project management (Basecamp, Slack, SVN), teaching environments (mostly Moodle), and online meetings (Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype, and now starting to use Microsoft Teams), as well as email and teleconferences.

I’m not eLearning or Computer-Supported-Cooperative-Work (CSCW) researcher in the main, although I have looked at the literature and had received support from people who are (and that improved my work). So what is provided below if from the perspective or teaching and research project leadership that I hope is useful to someone.

So here is what I learned:

1.  The starting point is to remember that even with video, this is a reduced interaction compared to a face-to-face meeting or teaching. There is no way around it. We’re physical beings in physical spaces and despite all the advanced in online learning (this is from my 2010 book) and it is based on work in CSCW that goes back to 1995. that means that all other modes require much more work and planning to be effective. 


2. Remember the 90-9-1 rule of online conversations – I’ve learned that originally at   https://www.nngroup.com/articles/participation-inequality/. You need to actively work to change it by reaching out to people on your call (relevant to tutorials or seminar). Remember that it’s easier to “lurk” in a digital space, so if you are running a digital seminar or meeting, there need to be much more work on making sure that everyone is included.

3. Because of 2, Live webinars using @zoom @gotomeeting or @microsoftteams are more productive when there is a “social licence” to comment in the chat during the presentation. To make this happen, before starting the talk do start a conversation in the chat area – e.g. roll call, introduce yourself and things like that.

4. Be silly. It is OK to have puns and emojis in a group digital space and sharing “irrelevant” stuff, especially within research teams. It helps in dealing with the serious stuff and keeps the creativity. In DITOs we had a whole theme of sea slugs at some point – they are beautiful.


5. Try to have collaborative notetaking. It works well to have a summary of the meeting for other people – better than recording or transcripts. This can work with an agenda document in a shred writing space.

6. Mute everyone, and as meeting organiser be ready to mute someone else as soon as echos start. If there is a feedback loop, it reduced the quality to everyone very quickly.

7.  Plan to start the seminar or talk 5 minutes after start time, as you will have a lot of “do you hear me” process. Always.

8. Avoid Skype. God knows why, but after all these years of operations, the call quality deteriorates after a while. The number of faults is higher than any other system.

9. In webinar and lecture – make sure that video for the speaker is on, and not only the slides: it’s difficult to concentrate otherwise. Make sure the speaker is looking at the camera. My current office camera is not positioned well at the moment, and it does influence conversation. Regardless of how you feel embarrassed, the speaker should be on. In a meeting, if people can put their video on it will be more effective, but it can be effective without it.

10. In both seminar and teachings prepare a working document on a shared writing space – etherpad or Google Docs. not just an agenda, but it’s better to start with some examples or statement so people see a document that is “seeded”. People are generally a bit afraid of jumping into an empty document and need encouragement. Plan what people will do and prompt them to do the task when needed.

11. Don’t waste your time on recording over Powerpoint and share a recorded lecture – people don’t like it (I can see that in the YouTube viewing statistics of our online course). Instead, write in the notes area what you are going to say and create a PDF of slides + notes, and provide that in addition to the lecture. Run the lecture using a digital tool and use the chat (as above) as a webinar, and for everyone else – the lecture notes will be more useful. Plus to it – you can use the text for papers or maybe for a textbook eventually.

12. Break things to 10-15 minutes, especially if it is recorded. It’s difficult to maintain attention beyond that.

13. If you are using an environment like Moodle, go to YouTube or Vimeo, find a suitable video, TED talk, documentary, or similar that is no more than 20 min, and use it. It can be a great basis to start a discussion, which you can run for a seminar. Student can be asked to watch that before the lecture and it can be used for a discussion and framing of the issue. There is so much content out there that it can be useful to reuse it.

14. It takes significantly more time to prepare an online lecture than a face to face lecture – you can adlib, correct logical bugs, and deal with unclear things easily in the class situation. The online lecture needs to be well structured and self-contained. If an hour of lecturing usually takes you 2 or 3 hours to prepare, the online version of an hour can easily take 4 to 6 hours to prepare, set into segments of 15 minutes, record and test. On the plus side, the result is a much better lecture and material in notes that is going to be useful for you for a long while and can be reused (I’ve used mine in papers already!)

More useful resources (through Shannon Doesmagen):


And there is also Tool Kit for Online Instructors (and generally Tomorrow’s Professor resources)

There is even more in the Coronavirus Tech Handbook



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