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Information about technologies, accessibility & inclusion, differences between online and in-person teaching, facilitating inclusive discussions, ​and choosing between live and asynchronous styles


In this section:

Choosing between live or asynchronous teaching

Key points

  • 'Synchronous' (live) and 'asynchronous' teaching
  • Deciding whether to pre-record or teach live
  • Using multiple platforms and technologies

There are several ways to teach online: synchronously (live with students logged on at the same time); asynchronously (pre-recorded teaching which students can access at any time or within a given window of time that you establish); and, a blended version of these two (mixing pre-recorded elements with some live segments). There are advantages to each of these methods.

Pre-recording teaching sessions offers many flexible options. It gives instructors who are new to online teaching the flexibility to practise their teaching sessions. Pre-recorded teaching also gives flexibility both to students and to staff who may be affected by illness or the need to care for others. Some students also like the freedom of being able to listen to a lecture or class when they want to and to be able to pause or re-listen to specific parts. Further, pre-recorded teaching sessions have many accessibility features and can more easily accommodate learning differences and varying needs among students.

While some students prefer pre-recorded sessions, others engage better with live lectures and classes. This seems to stem from students’ desire to be co-present with instructors or peers and to experience a lecture or seminar in the way they’re most familiar with, that is, as a group engaging together at the same time. This need for connection is real and should factor into your planning, but it is important to note that live teaching is not the only way to be co-present with students online. Other techniques for creating ‘presence’ with students are explored in later sections of this guide. 

Your Department or Faculty may have developed guidelines concerning live or asynchronous teaching: if you aren’t already aware of these, please check with your Department or Faculty. If you are in a position of choosing whether to teach synchronously or asynchronously (or a combination of both, see below), it is important to ensure that your decisions constitute the best choice for creating effective and inclusive learning environments for all students.

As indicated above, under Technologies, recording, accessibility and inclusion, during the disrupted period all online larger-group teaching must be recorded and made available to students unable to attend, in order to minimise the disruption to their learning.  

Beyond these considerations, there are a range of further questions which are always relevant when deciding whether to teach live or to pre-record:

  • Is it necessary for students to engage with the material simultaneously with each other and with you?
  • What synchronous and asynchronous options are available to you and to your students to enable interaction, collaboration, and making connections between topics, questions or concepts?

Useful tools

Technologies, accessibility and inclusion

Key points

  • The technologies available to your students
  • Minimising disruption: flexibility, accessibility and inclusion
  • Recording teaching: practicalities and policy during 2020-21
  • Making teaching accessible to meet different learning needs

With most students returning to Cambridge for Michaelmas Term, we can assume they will have access to some computing device and an internet connection. But with increased online traffic, connection difficulties might occur, ranging from delays in the transmission of sounds and images to longer interruptions. For students who will be unable to return to Cambridge, the quality and type of network connection may also vary.

When you plan your teaching, try to build in flexibility for both you and for your students. For example, if you will teach live, at some stage connection difficulties are likely, which may lead to intermittent pauses or loss of sound for you and / or for your students. If you have been reliant on live teaching only, you will need to find time to record interrupted sessions and to make them available to students afterwards.

All synchronous and asynchronous teaching sessions must be accessible to all learners. There are benefits to all students, including students with hearing impairments and those for whom English is not the first language, in the availability of captioning and the production of automatic transcriptions. Follow the links from this page to fuller detail concerning accessibility, inclusive practices and recording teaching.

During the disrupted period, all lectures which are given live must be recorded and subsequently made available to students. This is to minimise the disruption to the education of students who are unable to ‘attend’ at the designated time. Note that copyright and intellectual property rights remain with the instructor and recordings may be used by students solely for their own study and must not be shared on social media. 

We strongly recommend either recording using Panopto or creating your recording and then uploading it to Panopto afterwards. This is because Panopto enables recordings to be searched using text on slides, spoken word & transcripts and can be adjusted for accessibility requirements. You can also use Panopto to help your students understand the structure and narrative of your teaching: recordings are automatically divided into ‘chapters’, information can be added about timings and you can post questions in a ‘discussion’ box which sits alongside each recording.

Most digital platforms are equipped with simple recording mechanisms, which make recording easy. Many platforms also allow you to edit a recording however, it is important to read through the saving options carefully, as some platforms (Zoom, for instance) only allow editing on recordings saved to the Cloud and not on those saved directly to a device.

Useful tools

Some differences between online and in-person teaching

Key points

  • How onling teaching environments differ from in-person settings
  • Focus on learning to structure teaching
  • Cultivating a sense of contact and presence online

There are many practical and creative tools at your disposal for online teaching. In order to use these tools effectively, it is first worth considering some general differences between face-to-face and online teaching. In this section, we briefly review some of the elements of in-person teaching and learning which can go missing. The remainder of this guide provides examples and illustrations of ways in which active learning can be designed into online teaching.

If you taught during this past Easter Term, you may have experienced the challenges of teaching in an online environment where social cues, verbal and nonverbal feedback are either absent or greatly altered. Some lecturers described a feeling of ‘speaking into a void’. Others found that it could take longer to explain something online than it would in person and that it could be difficult to gauge students’ understanding while teaching. 

More generally, it is beneficial to reflect on the impact of where students learn, in addition to how they learn. A residential university experience is tied to space and the presence of others. (For more on the concept of 'presence' see David White's blog "The need for Presence not 'Contact Hours'). Normally, in Cambridge students learn with us in lecture halls or in seminar and supervision rooms, by themselves in corners of the library or with friends in college. Even when students are studying alone in the library, they are unlikely to be alone.

Reflecting on what they’d struggled with in adapting to remote learning during Easter Term 2019, Cambridge students  mentioned first problems with technological connectivity, followed by a sense of isolation. They also indicated ways in which a sense of connection could be created online, including integrating ‘chat’ functions into larger-group teaching, combining recorded teaching with ‘live’ Q&A, as well as fairly quick responses to emailed questions.

Similarly, Cambridge educators noted an increased desire among students to connect : “I definitely feel that the students are more responsive to all the interaction (mainly emails) I offer”. Another commented that they had worked “to make sessions more engaging, so [I] have asked students to prepare more presentations / lead particular parts of the discussion”. Others found that “controlled moderating of discussions”, “directing questions to students rather than using open questions”, yielded good results in terms of richer, more creative and inclusive discussions.

Inclusive discussions

Key points

  • Fostering inclusive interaction online
  • The challenge of conducting group discussions online
  • Inclusive practice: creating structure and clear goals for interactions

One of the most important teaching skills is the ability to guide students in discussion, or in shared problem solving – and to do so in a way that includes all students in contributing to and learning from the activity. Fostering inclusive interaction online takes forethought and planning as well as consideration of what ‘inclusive teaching’ look likes in an online platform.

In online settings, interactions can be slow or fragmented, as the non-verbal cues of in-person interaction are absent or altered. Delays in the transmission of sound and images can also make interactions feel stilted and you and your students may need to take a little time learn how to engage in discussion online and to become more confident in doing so. Video conferencing can also amplify challenges for students and staff for whom English is not a first language, and many disabled students, for example those with visual and hearing impairments and neurodiverse profiles.

In this new setting, it is therefore particularly helpful to work on creating structure for discussions and problem solving. This involves setting clear goals for discussion, thinking about what type of questions to use and when, and listening and responding to students thoughtfully. Using focused questioning and responding can lead to more equitable levels of contribution and increased levels of student-to-student interaction. You may find it helpful to guide discussions by directing students to speak in a certain order or to respond to each other according to a sequence. Try to word your ‘instructions’ clearly and, where appropriate, to communicate them in advance: this is likely to help you plan an effective and engaging framework for interaction. Understanding the purpose and structure of activities in an online environment can be challenging. This challenge can be addressed by sharing questions and activities in advance; doing so is particularly beneficial for students with neurodiverse profiles. 

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