How to teach online (quick and dirty version)

Thanks to Covid-19, we’re all being forced to adapt to being unable to teach face-to-face. While I’ve seen a lot of excellent resources online about how to switch a class to online, I thought I would weigh in because I actually got my start teaching online courses at Southern Cross University.

I hope that this quick and dirty version of teaching online helps!


  • Streamline your lessons

When you’re teaching online, it’s super important to make sure that you’re getting to the point and not blasting your students with too much information. What is the class about? What are the outcomes? Teach to the outcomes first, then teach to everything else that might be interesting but not as crucial.

  • Choose a platform based on the class you’re teaching

Some universities have online platforms already – like Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, etc. But if it doesn’t, you might need to choose one yourself. Zoom seems to be enjoying a renaissance right now, being free and generally easy to use, and some teachers have even turned to Twitch because the platform is built for high traffic.

Your teaching style/learning outcomes should dictate your platform choice. If you have a lot of workshopping/conversation in classes, then you’ll need something with a robust forum like Moodle; if you’re mostly lecture based, then something like Twitch is way better. Blackboard and Zoom combine forums and lectures, which is nice, and there are also platforms like Google docs and hangouts that can be just as useful if you’re in a pinch. Whatever you choose will have pros and cons, so take your course into consideration before you make that choice.

Side note: Whichever platform you use, make a checklist of things you need to do at the beginning and end of each session. This checklist can include things like: check your mic, check your audio, make sure that there is good lighting, make sure that your reference books are at hand, feed the cat to keep it from walking across the keyboard… whatever you need to do to make things smoother for yourself, put it in the list. This will be a lifesaver, I promise.

  • Make sure that your students can access the learning materials, lectures, etc.

The sad fact is, the internet is not as ubiquitous as we think. Some students just don’t have access to online resources, or if they do it might be limited to certain times or certain sites. You need to be aware of that and adjust if you have to. I go into more detail about ways to adjust below.

  • Make sure your instructions are clear and simply explain what you expect from them and when.

Social media has trained us to skim read when we’re online, so make sure that you’re not making things more complicated than they need to be. Give your students clear deliverables. Make a timeline of the course (visual, if possible) and guide students through what they’ll be learning by referring to that timeline frequently. Group similar tasks together.

  • Pay attention to analytics and use them to inform your style

If you’ve got a lot of students engaging with the video but not the text, consider why and how you can make the text more accessible. Similarly, build feedback moments into the course because teachers usually have the benefit of body language and facial expressions to judge whether students are understanding the information – without those cues, we might miss students who aren’t understanding.


Specific tips for forums:

  • Put students in groups (8-10 is the max) so that you can keep track of everyone and easily follow conversations. Give them dedicated groupwork spaces and give them reasons to interact with each other. A class forum should also be set aside for everyone to share information, study notes, and interesting insights that came up in the groups.
  • Pick specific days and times that you will be on the forum. Tell the students when these days and times are and stick to them. You might be tempted to only go on the forum during the time that you would usually teach, but this is a mistake. You’ll only see it once a week, which means that there is a chance that the forum could get out of hand during the other six days. Instead, take the time you usually teach for (2-3 hours, 90 mins, etc) and split that over the five workdays. This way, you’ll have a presence on the forum but you won’t be hovering or give students the expectation that you’ll be available at all times.
  • Guide the discussion, but try and lean more towards student-centred learning. Ask leading/guiding questions and recap each week with takeaways from the students’ posts.


Specific tips for video lectures:

  • Your setup doesn’t need to be perfect. Just make sure that your students can understand you (limit the amount of background noise, make sure that your face is well-lit so that they can read your lips, etc). It helps to look at the camera when you speak so that the students feel more engaged (as opposed to reading from your notes) and a cool hack to force yourself to do this is putting googly eyes on either side of the camera to trick yourself into thinking that you’re talking to a person.

  • Use your checklist. Check your equipment before you begin (don’t be that teacher who can’t tell when their mic is muted)
  • Always lecture at the same time every week and record it. For accessibility, a transcript of the lecture would be fantastic. If you can’t do it yourself, there is software that will generate one for you, though you’ll still need to check its accuracy before posting it.
  • Make the slides available separately (either in a forum, or emailed after the lecture) if you’re using them. Don’t just rely on the visual of the slides on the recording. It’s easier for students to engage with a separate document that is made for annotations and editing, rather than screen-shotting notes from your presentation.
  • Make sure that the students mute their mics during the lecture. You don’t want to hear someone pottering around making coffee while you’re trying to teach. If a student has a question, there’s usually a chat feature that they can use in software designed for teaching. If there’s no hand-raise function on the platform you’re using, agree to use an emoji or recognisable symbol for students to indicate that they want to ask question


What if the students can’t go online?

  • Reach out via phone or email and ask them what steps they can take to gain access to wifi – is there a hotspot nearby, is there access to a school or library?
  • If wifi really isn’t possible for these students on a regular basis, you need to come up with ways for them to demonstrate their engagement through the weeks.
    1. Email them a couple of forum posts from other students that they have to respond to.
    2. Post something they write on their behalf and invite students to engage, with you emailing the student their responses to keep the communication going
    3. Arrange a conference call with wifi-less students and go through the lecture notes with them


Finally, how to measure participation (which is sometimes an assessment moment in university) in an online course:

  • Analytics – shows when the students were online, though this can be manipulated so make sure that you combine analytics with:
  • Posts – size and frequency
  • Engagement with others – reacting to others’ posts


Hope this helps! Good luck to everyone trying this new thing for the first time



PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂

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