Running online real-time lessons

From 2016 to 2020,  I ran around a dozen real-time online cohorts of an online course. The course was for teachers, NOT school pupils, it was the BCS Primary Programming course.  Each cohort met once a week, in the evening for 90 minutes for eight weeks. Over the dozen cohorts, I tried different ways to keep teachers active and engaged with their learning. Cohort sizes varied from six to twenty participants.

Whether the final approach that I settled on was the best way to deliver an online course, I am not sure, but I always had very good feedback on the course.

I am now using the same approaches to teach undergraduates online/real-time (often called a synchronous approach) during the coronavirus (Covid 19) outbreak.

Whether the techniques I am using are useful for those teaching pupils in a school needs to be explored!

Automate stuff e.g. scheduling/recording etc

On the BCS primary programming course, Webex was used to schedule and manage the online session. All sessions were recorded, using a built-in webex option.  Recordings had to be copied manually to a shared “learning platform” for the course.

I now use a different product, Blackboard,  to deliver online sessions for undergraduates, in this product the recordings are automatically shared to the learning platform.

Top tip 1: Automate as much as possible,’s much better to have a product that automatically uploads/links recordings to the learning platform than not #TeacherWorkload

Spend time on routines/rules

The first session of any synchronous course I run always has limited content coverage.

Time is needed to get people online, introduce people to each other, get the routines and process for teaching organised. I  have found using a google doc to create a persistent record of activities, quizzes,  questions asked/answered worked better (for me) rather than chat windows and other products. This saved me time and gave a simple single resource for participants to use – to minimise “cognitive load/product switching” BUT I’d like to explore other combinations. I have not used Google classroom much and I’d like to see how that works.

Top tip 2: The first session will be spent getting everyone used to the technology and the processes of working.

Top tip 3: Set up methods for working e.g. navigating any central resources such as a  google doc, adding your initials to anything typed, using tools available in the meeting software to show you can hear/ are ready to move on etc.

Top tip 4: Keep things as simple as possible for the participants – in terms of the tools and switching products – especially to start with!

Active rather than passive – Activity management

As well as using a PowerPoint to share learning activities and “deliver content”, I used a google doc. Overtime the google doc became more important than the PowerPoint. I switched from a passive talk and chalk to “ask and discuss through typing”. The google doc was what facilitated this.

When planning each lesson, I added activities to the google doc such as:

Example 1: Highlight in red, amber or green your confidence in our learning objectives for today

  1. I can build a PRIMM sequence of tasks to teach about repetition in Scratch
  2. I can evaluate assessment opportunities for teaching repetition

Example 2: In your pairs answer the following questions

  1. What is repetition?
  2. How do you teach it?
  3. How do you assess it?

Example 3: Independently, using the PRIMM sequence of tasks

  1. Predict what this code will do …
  2. Modify this code to ….
  3. Answer these questions about the code

Share your new program with your partner…

Top tip 5: Be prepared, plan activities with lots of student interaction which is tightly linked to your learning objectives.

Lots of pair work rather than wholeclass. Type not talk. Manage your classroom – pairings 

I found that me asking the whole group to respond verbally did not work well unless there was a very small group of say 2 participants. In the google doc, I created a table at the start of the document, where participants signed in each week. Then for each lesson, I added a groups table and allocated participants to a group (e.g. pair 1, pair 2 etc or Blue, Green, Red, Purple groups)

At first participant allocation to groups was random, but as I got to know participants I allocated pairs ahead of times. Sometimes I put people with a similar level of experience together, other times mixed. Just as we do in normal teaching.

This relies on students being able to type! So for younger pupils this won’t work unless their parents type for them. You could use breakout groups – which is available in some webinar software, but I suspect this could be too difficult for KS1. Or just have a small group discussion whilst others get on with other things? But its very distracting. Maybe having lessons for small groups, repeated across a class,  is an option rather than wholeclass lessons?

Top tip 6: Use pairs and small groups for learners to construct their own understanding.

Train your participants on how to use your resources over time

At the start of the course, I would create a copy of the activities in each groups’ “Section” of the google doc. But as the participants became accustomed to the process, they started to be able to copy the activities into their own “sections”. I am sure that google classrooms does this far more elegantly.

Top tip 7: Gradually fade the support for routines, get the students to do more of the admin.

Differentiation/ scaffolding

Whilst participants were answering questions, undertaking activities. I would then “move” between groups and ask extra questions, prompt ideas, nudging learning along. Just as we do in normal classroom teaching.

After answering questions, I would ask groups to look at other groups responses and contribute if they wanted to, modelling how to give “stars and wishes”. This provided some peer-teaching and moved us towards peer-assessment.

I was careful to put groups on different pages and put more experienced participants later in the document. This was just to encourage teachers to contribute their ideas, rather than getting used to reading others ideas straight away. Again there must be easy ways to do this in google classroom.

Top tip 8: Ask questions, use techniques to scaffold learning and differentiate the learning.

Have a set time to meet and encourage participants to be on time.

Sometimes participants are late to online lessons. This was not an issue for teacher-facing sessions, who were normally on time, but has been a significant issue for running undergraduate sessions. I now ask undergrad participants to do a “Do Now” activity where those on time do an activity while we wait for latecomers. It’s very hard to help people join in mid-way in an active online experience… apart from if you have a routine process and they can find where you are up to and can read the activity flow. Or you have to explain where you are up to over and over again – which is ok if those who are already engaged are not distracted.

Top tip 9: Encourage everyone to be on time.

Value everyone

The most important thing was to create a safe collaborative environment, where everyone’s contribution was valued.

Top tip 10: Probably the most important, build relationships, build a community.