Online teaching: five things to consider before you start

March 20, 2020
Steve Farndon

Steve Farndon

Fellow, Ambition Institute

Steve Farndon has spent a lot of time delivering online training for teachers working in challenging contexts. Here, he channels that experience into five questions he thinks teachers need to ask themselves before they start their online teaching journey.

A decent internet connection and a working laptop is a lot to ask for some of the families served by schools in low-income or isolated communities.

We’ve known for a long time that teachers working in disadvantaged areas are some of hardest-working in our society. As schools close their gates for most children from this afternoon, they are grappling with the question of how they will continue to teach their pupils in the coming weeks – all the while striving to make sure the disadvantage gap between rich and poor does not get wider.

We know that online teaching and learning won’t work for everyone – but where it can, we need to make sure it’s high-quality.

At Ambition Institute, the charity where I am a Fellow, I have spent a lot of time delivering online training for teachers who are working in challenging contexts. Here, I’ve channelled that experience into five questions I think teachers need to ask themselves before they start their online teaching journey.

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1. Should I be teaching online at all?

Depending on the year group, topic and point in a sequence of learning, live input from you may not be the best approach. Consider using parents, providing reading, or suggesting videos that pupils can access instead.

If you do choose to teach live via video conference, your precious time might be best used to model how to apply difficult concepts, and scaffold this for pupils. For example, pupils might be familiar with a range of persuasive writing techniques, and have practised them in isolation, but would benefit from a model which makes explicit how to construct a piece of quality persuasive writing.

But it’s worth remembering that the coming weeks and months are likely to be disruptive and worrying for many pupils. Interacting with you during this time, even virtually, may make a huge difference to their wellbeing.

2. How can I ensure that pupils get the most out of online teaching?

When you lead an online lesson, just like in a classroom, you’ll want to build on what pupils have remembered from their previous learning.

Rather than doing a quiz during a video call, it’s much more efficient to use other online tools in advance. For example, you could get pupils to use quizzing software or another homework platform to answer some relevant questions, and then analyse the results.

By doing this, you’ll be to establish pupils’ starting point and identify any errors or misconceptions that you need to address during the lesson well in advance of starting a video call.

3. How can I plan for high quality interactions with pupils?

Teachers build routines in their classrooms to allow everyone to contribute equally to lessons: asking for hands up; facilitating paired discussion; no hands-up questioning; asking follow-on questions. These routines need to be re-worked for the online environment as they rely on a range of body language cues and other social norms.

This means that time spent planning how to solicit pupil input (and how your chosen platform can support it), and rehearsing this with pupils, is well spent.

Decide in advance whether you want pupils to raise their hands (which can be difficult to see when you’ve got 30 people on a call!), whether you will call on them, or whether you can use the functions of your platform, such as students typing in answers or completing multiple choice polls.

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4. How can I make engagement observable?

In a classroom, the main distraction for students is each other. If they aren’t interacting with each other, then there’s a reasonable chance they’re focusing on what you want them to.

The online environment is not like this - distractions are everywhere on the internet – so pupils could be on a call with you, but not mentally present. As a result, some approaches that you might avoid in your classroom as being gimmicky or distracting can be valuable when delivering online.

It’s worth starting by agreeing with pupils what strong engagement looks like – having their cameras on and using a notepad and pen to take notes for example. Asking pupils to demonstrate engagement regularly can also be a powerful way of keeping their attention. Getting pupils to show thumbs up or thumbs down to true or false questions, using polls if your platform allows, and targeting questions all work well.

5. How do I know when students are ready to work independently?

This question is challenging when teaching in a classroom – and even more so when working online.

With no ability to circulate your classroom to check pupils’ work, it’s vital that you plan systematic checks for understanding before letting them work with complete independence.

This will always include some form of targeted question; but how you gather responses will vary. It could be with students holding up written answers, completing a multiple-choice question, or typing a response into a chat function.

The important thing is that you are able to see all responses and act on them. One advantage of online learning is that if you set your pupils independent practice on a self-marking platform, they can get immediate feedback, and the analysis can help you will later with monitoring and planning.


The education profession has never faced a crisis like this, and the coming months are going to be challenging for children, families and educators alike. I hope these questions give you some guidance that will help you to do your best by your pupils. Stay well, and keep going – you’re doing a fantastic job!

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