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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Jumping online: What have we learned?


Written by
Clare Sansom and David Baume

Lecturers and support staff who a term ago were still working largely face-to-face with students have worked extraordinarily hard in the last few months to shift teaching and learning online, with very little notice and with varied amounts of support.

What will be ‘the new normal’? 

Much at least of it will clearly be online. So, in this jump online, what has worked well enough to be part of a new normal? What can, or must, be improved? The CDE webinar on Thursday 28 May, run via Microsoft Teams, set out to answer that question.  Three presentations from CDE Fellows covered:

  • Moving assessment online; 
  • Supporting collaboration between students; and 
  • The use of video for online learning programmes.


Professor Alan Parkinson and Lynsie Chew from the UCL School of Management described the challenge of moving assessments in their large school online. This involved finding replacements for over 2000 exams, and making them available to students, not much more than a month after the UK’s lockdown. 

Some exams could be replaced by coursework. Others were simply cancelled as the students had already met all the objectives of their modules, But large numbers of closed-book invigilated exams had to be replaced by equivalents delivered remotely. The College chose a 24-hour open book format for these assessments. 

Alan and Lynsie reported some concerns of staff and students, and explained how they were beginning to be addressed: 

  • Students worried that they might be penalised for loss of connectivity.
  • Staff worried about parity of assessment and time for marking.
  • And timing was a problem - some 40% of students in the College are based in time zones over 5 hours ahead of the UK.

However, asking the students to submit through Turnitin largely removed questions about plagiarism.  

Most of these exams have (as at 2nd June) yet to take place, and many exam board timetables have had to be put back, which has caused some angst for staff and students alike.

In thanking the speakers, the webinar’s chair, Stephen Brown, commented on the impressive speed and scale of the operation.

Questions and discussions following Alan and Lynsie addressed issues including:

  • How students’ anxieties over the rapid changes and novel format were addressed, with references to student advice centres working overtime, but largely managing to cope
  • Additional problems with a type of clinical exam known as an OSCE, which requires close contact with patients: these have generally had to be stalled
  • Intriguing questions about 2021 and beyond and the possible return of the traditional exam: the situation will be unclear for many months yet, but whatever happens we will learn much from the very strange exam season of 2020
  • So traditional exams will probably return, but not exactly as they were


Interactivity is an essential aspect of learning. But it has often been thought one of the hardest to achieve online. Ayona Silva-Fletcher and Christine Thuraina-McKeever, Professor of Veterinary Education and Director of Distance Learning respectively at the Royal Veterinary College, described how the College is supporting students to interact with a community of learners. This community comprises instructors, peers and the learning content itself. 

For many years, online education has been assumed to complement rather than replace face-to-face teaching. Now, the virtual learning environment has suddenly taken centre stage, and its limitations and strengths have become much clearer.

Ayona and Christine argued that learning design is the key to effective learning, to encouraging interaction and to building a learning community online. They drew a distinction between synchronous (real time) and asynchronous interactions. A well-designed course is likely to include both types; synchronous activities engage students well but work poorly with large cohorts or with students widely spaced between time zones. Even problem-based learning can work very well at a distance, if the groups are kept small and facilitators are well trained. Questions and discussion centred around:

  • Differences between lectures and small group teaching, with many institutions considering keeping at least large group teaching online for 2020-21
  • Advantages and disadvantages of different platforms: Zoom has the advantage that it is popular with students, but there are issues over privacy
  • Different methods of facilitating group activities, and the use of mind mapping software: Ayona mentioned the 
  • Mindmeister app, which is integrated within Microsoft Teams.


The final presentation was given by Dr Marco Gillies, a reader in Computer Science at Goldsmiths College. Marco is a very experienced e-learning practitioner: His 2013 MOOC, Creative Computing, was one of the first MOOCs in the UK. He described how video, a technique that he regularly uses in his teaching, is being rapidly adopted in some of the courses at Goldsmith’s that had to move online very rapidly at the start of the lockdown. 

His own videos are short – he makes no attempt to replicate full-length lectures – and pre-recorded professionally using high-quality equipment. They are usually linked to interactive activities such as quizzes, discussions and games. Video was an obvious ‘go to’ technique to use in this rapid transition, particularly with Panopto lecture capture widely available. Such videos are available to be watched and re-watched at any time, with obvious benefits for students in different time zones.

Recording live events such as lectures also has uses. This format is interactive, engaging and familiar to students.

Video can also play an important role in assessment, particularly in subjects like drama: a live video is an obvious alternative to a live performance.

At the end of his presentation, Marco commended Microsoft Teams – the platform used for the webinar – for its interactivity as a teaching tool. Questions and comments centred around:

  • How Marco’s long experience with MOOCs has influenced his use of video in traditional lectures as well as in online courses
  • Whether access to kit and poor Internet bandwidth limits some students’ ability to access video, whether this exacerbates other types of disadvantage and how this can be addressed
  • What advice and support can be offered to lecturers who want to try video but lack skills or confidence.

View a recording of this webinar.

These discussions will continue in a second webinar on 23 June, Jumping Online: Sustaining Quality Learning. This will consider what happens next. As – hopefully – the pandemic abates, how much of 2020’s experience with jumping online will stick, and what might we do differently in what many believe will become a blended ‘new normal’?