Moving to teach online can feel scary and there is a lot at stake. Most of us have never done it before, except as an emergency response this spring. We don’t have a framework to think about it and we’re not sure where to start. But some universities have run online programmes for years. SUMS has sought out the best practice from the UK and beyond, to share with the sector.  Here, SUMS Associate Consultant Nick Skelton shares his findings.

We are currently running a series of events in association with Bisk Education. Bisk is a leading specialist in online education, which works closely with many of the best-known US universities. In our second event, we spoke with Professor Keith Niblett from Michigan State University. Keith gave us his tips and tricks for engaging students, based on ten years of experience running online programmes.

Keith encouraged participants to focus on the social dimension of learning. A physical classroom is a social environment. Students get to know each other and find that they have common interests. This just happens, student-to-student, over coffee breaks or in the queue outside a lecture theatre; the lecturer isn’t particularly involved. In the face-to-face classroom, lecturers don’t tend to think about it, but this socialisation is vital. It ensures students support, encourage and learn from each other.

When teaching online this social engagement won’t happen automatically. It is up to the lecturer or course director to facilitate this process, to help students to get to know each other and to feel part of a community. Do this upfront, before getting on to the traditional course content.

There are lots of ways to provide this social fabric online. You could:

  • Post your own introductory message, and set the students the task of introducing themselves. This could be a text on a bulletin board in your VLE or more engagingly a short video intro on Flipgrid.
  • Ask a simple question in the discussion board: “Tell the class just one thing you are passionate about that we wouldn’t know just by looking at you on a Zoom screen.”
  • In a live video conference, divide a large class into small groups (eg using breakout rooms in Zoom). Give students a people bingo card – their task is to find people who play the clarinet, has a twin, doesn’t like chocolate, or whatever.

When you’ve uncovered some common threads of interest these can be discussed in live teaching sessions and used as examples.

If you don’t prioritise this social dimension in advance, it might be that you are always teaching at students, not working with them. If you do put in the time early, interacting with students in online discussion boards, you will find that students respond and engage, with you and with each other. Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. Over time, you can take more of a backseat as the community of students finds its feet and becomes closer.

What we pay attention to in universities is only a part of what is actually going on, as this example illustrates. Moving activities online forces us to think about what is really happening. Only then, when we have understood what is important, can we develop the equivalent online processes.

SUMS Consulting is owned by the HE sector, and we understand the purpose and nature of universities like no other. If you’d like advice on moving your activities online, we’re here to assist.

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