Online teaching: what next?

May 15, 2020
Steve Farndon

Steve Farndon

Fellow, Ambition Institute

Since I wrote my first blog about online teaching at the beginning of lockdown a lot has changed.

Firstly, large national organisations such as BBC Bitesize and Oak National Academy have begun to produce a range of quality resources to support teachers in their online teaching. Secondly, we now know that we'll be managing continued online provision for some year groups while others return to school. 

With these new developments come further questions about delivering remote learning in this context. I've started to answer some of these questions below and you can find further detail in my Summer Series webinar

Child laptop glasses

1. How can I make best use of available online resources?

The need for teachers to balance the demands of online and offline lessons, pastoral commitments and our own wellbeing means a need to consider how the wealth of remote learning resources available can be used. 

Most teachers take pride in designing and delivering all of their pupils’ learning, however we must now consider what we can borrow from other providers to take the pressure off ourselves. 

There are lots of constraints which determine our actions: our curriculum content, technical accessibility of resources and how well they suit our students. We also need to carefully consider when in a sequence of learning we choose to use these resources. This leads us to the second question...

2. Is the organisation of knowledge in my subject hierarchical or horizontal?

These categories are based on a simplified use of Bernstein’s distinction between hierarchical and horizontal knowledge structures within subjects. 

Hierarchical subjects build on a foundation of core knowledge, adding more abstract concepts to this foundation as pupils progress – new learning is therefore highly dependent upon previous learning. Whereas, in horizontal subjects, each topic can be encountered separately and doesn’t necessarily rely on pupils’ prior knowledge. 

Here are some concrete examples from my colleague, Nick Rose:  

  • Hierarchical: In science, understanding radioactivity or chemical reactions using dot-and-cross diagrams requires some understanding of atomic theory. 
  • Horizontal: In history, understanding the events of the Napoleonic wars doesn’t depend on an understanding of Ancient Egypt. 

We believe this can help you to manage your time when planning for online learning by guiding when your input is most powerful. 

For example, for hierarchical subjects you’ll want to design your own inputs early in your pupils’ learning to link back to their prior knowledge. This would be followed by using other resources for independent practice, either online or from your department or phase team. 

In horizontal subjects pupils will be able to access third party resources to introduce new learning, but will need your help later on to link these to your wider curricular goals. 

Teachers meeting book

3. Are you thinking about ‘mobile first’?

Josh Goodrich, who has been instrumental in the CPD design for Oak National Academy, offered the following advice about designing your recording of online inputs. When recording these inputs, such as introducing a new science topic or modelling a worked example in maths, consider 'mobile first'. 

Assume that your pupils will be using a small mobile phone screen to access content. Ensure that all text and graphics are easily visible on such a screen and consider whether replacing text with narration could be more helpful.

Avoid switching platforms mid-delivery. For example, asking pupils to switch between a video and a document creates both practical and cognitive challenges: practically it's difficult to do so on a phone screen; cognitively, trying to hold a set of instructions in mind whilst switching to a different platform can overload pupils’ working memory. This means that they learn little even if they complete the task successfully. 

4. Are you making the most of retrieval practice?

Conventional retrieval of previously learned content is great for preparing students for new learning in hierarchical subjects. However, where you want students to connect together topics in horizontal subjects that share similar concepts, you will want to vary your retrieval. 

Once pupils are familiar with the basics, consider how you can focus their attention on the conceptual links between different topics by asking different types of questions such as: ‘How was the situation facing John I similar to the situation facing William I in 1066?’. 

5. Are you supporting students in co-construction?

When pupils are developing new understanding, it’s really helpful for them to fully formulate their ideas and receive feedback on them. They also benefit from hearing the thoughts of their peers. In a classroom this happens through discussion and we can use online tools to fulfil a similar function. 

Online forum discussions can allow pupils to share their own thoughts and give feedback to others, and live video calls can allow for the same if students have prepared their thinking in advance. Either option allows students to test and refine their conceptual understanding.  


I hope that these questions provide some food for thought for teachers and help you manage and plan your time over the coming weeks. Thank you for all of your hard work and the brilliant job that you’re doing for your pupils. 

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