Take-away ideas for online learning from two events

I recently attended one conference – 

  • Association for Learning Technology [aka ALT-C, an Annual Conference] day 3, September 5th

and one workshop –

  • Online Pedagogies and Postgraduate Engagement [UK Council for Graduate Education], November 1st

– on a mission to bring back ideas for good practice in fully online learning and teaching.

Here is what I came away with! Well, the most interesting and shareable bits, anyway…


Ollie Bray’s plenary (Bray, 2019) had broad pedagogical relevance and it was easy to see clear connections and potential applications to online learning. The overarching theme was ‘Connecting Play and Education’, and the speaker was well placed to explore this having worked as a headteacher in the UK and now heading up the Lego Foundation’s charitable work in education.

To illustrate the connection and to present a major theme of the talk, Bray started with the idea that although millions of children learn to ride bikes with stabilisers (or training wheels), research shows us that a ‘balance bike’ (without stabilisers or pedals) is actually a better way to start. That’s because balancing is harder than pedalling and children benefit from working on it first. The balance bike approach places learning in a logical sequence by avoiding a major increase in difficulty when stabilisers are later removed. I understood the main points for (online) education here to be:

  • Always look for better ways to do things, even if it disrupts existing practice
  • Make teaching and learning decisions based on what works best for learners and what they need (and constantly research/think that through)

As a related point, Bray presented a ‘free-to-instructed’ continuum in play and how this spectrum of practice can be applied to online learning. Obviously learners need ‘instruction’ from an online course and a good amount of structure, but how much freedom can we give them and what would that actually mean in practice? I’d suggest that an increase in ‘freedom’ for online learning might involve the following:

  • a. Opportunities to study at the learner’s own pace (within reason!) as this is thought to be a major affordance of online learning
  • b. The possibility to make choices about what to study and from what perspectives
  • c. Opportunities to relate material and concepts to their own individual contexts and to draw on their own experiences
  • d. Opportunities to explore/’try out’ practice in a relatively open way (in balance with being told things/told how to do things), in a principled sequence across modules and programmes

Taken from the perspective that a balance between freedom and instruction is important, and that principled decisions based on what works best for learners can be taken (as with the initial training wheels example), points a-d all seem to be useful ideas to keep in mind when designing and delivering activities and assessments in online learning. A good overarching point to keep in mind is that online learners should have ‘agency’ as well as guidance.

The issue of freedom versus instruction had got me thinking about a related continuum to be mindful of in online learning activities – ‘open-to-closed’ – and Bray later referred to this in alternative terms, using play-related terminology. My longstanding impression has been that if online learners are set tasks which require differentiated outputs of some kind (finding different possible solutions to something, applying something to different contexts, finding different things to share) then this leads to more engaged and interesting learning (especially if they are sharing the outputs collaboratively) than if they are working on a task which only has one ‘correct’ answer.  

Bray’s play-based metaphor which maps onto this was a distinction between puzzles (closed, with one solution) and problems (open, with multiple solutions). An audience participation activity from Bray’s session is a good example of this. We were asked to create a duck from a small set of available bricks… here are my results! 

A close up photo of a simple lego "duck", which does not look completely like a duck
A close up photo of a simple lego duck, which looks much more like a duck than the previous attempt

The first picture is my attempt at the task… the second (more duck-like) one is copied from some possible solutions that were later revealed on the screen. For anyone reading this who designs and delivers online activities, I wonder if you can draw an analogy between any of your activities and this process: do learners get a chance to make their own ducks and then compare with other peer-produced ducks, metaphorically speaking? Clearly as a form of practice this was an open-ended problem allowing for individuality and the creation of differentiated outputs which enabled a meaningful comparison with peer outputs. 

To give an example of an online learning activity that would do a similar job, I’d suggest the following: apply theory X to your own practice/context and post 2 areas for possible improvement, then comment on two other posts. This would seem to have elements of both ‘freedom’ and ‘openness’ in the senses that I have discussed here, mapping on to principles discussed by Bray. The cross-posting/peer interaction element to it connects with the five characteristics of good play AND good learning that Bray explained via the duck activity. He said that they should both be:

  • Meaningful
  • Joyful 
  • Actively engaging
  • Socially interactive and
  • Iterative (moving forwards in stages, building on previous ones as you go forwards involving imagination, creation, reflection etc.)

The need for online learning to be ‘actively engaging’ and ‘socially interactive’ is well-known and the ABC model of instructional design is one method of ensuring that modules and programmes do this. The point about making learning iterative by design is important and needs attention in the development of online learning.

I took away one other major learning point from Bray’s session and again it contributed to my ideas about how online activities and assessments can best be designed. Drawing on a famous educational concept from Papert, Bray pointed out that opportunities for learning should have:

  • a. Low floors
  • b. High ceilings
    and in addition (as later proposed by Resnick):
  • c. Wide walls 

Having a low floor means ease of access into an activity, i.e. all learners should be able to attempt it (it should not be prohibitively difficult by its nature to even attempt). The high ceiling refers to learners being able to go far (or high) with the task/assessment, i.e. learners should not hit a low ceiling which represents a limitation on what they can say / do / achieve. The ‘wide walls’ concept, means that the task/assessment can be personalised, accommodating a wide range of perspectives and contexts. This latter point is important for online learning as it taps into the experience and diversity of cohorts (which is often greater than in face-to-face learning). The first two points are also essential for online learning – students must have a relatively easy ‘jumping in point’ (for the sake of inclusivity and supporting learners who have been out of education for a while) but must also be able to go far with the task (in terms of practice, conceptually, criticality or whatever is being developed – to challenge and stretch learners). Ideally the online activities that we deliver can have all three of these features.

Bray’s messages on online education (coming through the lens of its connections with play) formed my most powerful take-away messages from the conference. He emphasised other fundamental concepts such as the need to foster curiosity in learners, to develop skills as well as knowledge and the importance of taking informed, contextual perspectives on what skills learners need to develop. To summarise the main points that I have collected above, online learning should:

  1. be designed in a way which most benefits learners, based on research and practice
  2. achieve a measured balance of freedom/agency and instruction, including plenty of open-ended problems to solve
  3. align with key characteristics of play including active engagement, social interaction and iterative learning
  4. include activities/assessments which are easy to access/attempt, can stretch learners far and are open to personalisation/contextualisation  

ALT-C was useful for collecting further ideas for good online learning practice. The other sessions which I attended covered the following areas and more:

  • Alternative forms of assessment including infographics and group video
  • The importance of data protection in online learning
  • Potential use of google slides for synchronous online activities

For the sake of brevity I won’t say more about those here, instead moving on to what I learned from the other event.

Online Pedagogies Workshop

Communities of Practice 

Janet De Wilde explored postgraduate engagement in online education from a Communities of Practice (CoP) perspective (De Wilde, 2019). CoP provides a useful framework for considering learner interactions in online pedagogy, both in terms of participation in collaborative activities and how learners develop and maintain networks which run outside the official communication spaces on modules and programmes. 

The core concept of a CoP is that it involves:

  1. Joint enterprise
  2. Mutual engagement and
  3. A shared repertoire

If we consider point 1 relative to fully online learning, it seems clear and relatively easy to define what the joint enterprise is (successful completion of a module/programme), however one potential issue could be whether all learners have ‘bought into’ the idea of learning from each other in a collaborative way. For numerous possible reasons, online learners may not fully participate in CoPs and may position themselves as peripheral to them.

This links to the often observed phenomenon of ‘lurking’ in online pedagogy (e.g. Highton, 2009) whereby some students read and benefit from posts in a collaborative activity but do not make any contributions themselves. De Wilde discussed some implications of this from a CoP perspective, including:

  1. There are clear extra benefits for the ‘posters’, in terms of the potential to learn more, to increase their sense of support and decrease potential feelings of isolation in online learning
  2. There may be cases of ‘legitimate non-participation’ e.g. where learners are so time poor that they cannot contribute, where they do not understand how the communities work/interact and/or do not have access to their shared repertoire for communication

She made further related points, including that longer lengths of time spent in a CoP and more posts may not always equate to increased learning benefit – a newer member with a more beneficial way of interacting with the group could quickly learn more. Learners manifest different identities in CoPs and take different lived trajectories through them, all of which can influence how and what they learn. 

In terms of ‘non-official’ CoPs or those running external to modules/programmes, De Wilde explained that learners tend to form these themselves outside of the main study spaces on the VLE, using their platforms of choice. From a CoP point of view these are legitimate, important ways of working on a joint enterprise, engaging for mutual benefits and using a shared repertoire. However the concept did lead me to wonder whether not being part of such a group (for whatever reason) could be a disadvantage, and I have also seen module feedback to the effect that some learners would like more informal support from peers in their online learning. 

In terms of practical responses to the points made so far, my main thoughts are: 

  1. Should online learners be presented with a clear ‘statement of learning’, encompassing how their programme has been designed to include collaborative activities and explaining the intended benefits? This might mitigate the risk that some students will not participate due to a perceived lack of benefit.
  1. What can we do in instructional design terms to drive up engagement in collaborative activities – is it enough to have a good activity which aligns with learning outcomes and assessments (and explain that to learners), or what more should be done? Two further pieces of advice I took from the session were:
    • a) ‘tell learners how unique they are’ and emphasise the benefits of learning from each other’s perspectives, contexts and experience (De Wilde cited a study to this effect)
    • b) include summative assessments which involve reflection on what has been learned from the collaborative activities in a module (this came from Jorge Freire – another presenter at the event – during a small group discussion)
  1. How can we enhance the sense of community, learner experience and sense of support in online learning (especially when external CoPs have not been set up and/or specific students do not have access)? One possibility would be to set up small study groups of learners at the start of each cohort for mutual discussion and support. Challenges to overcome would include:
    • a) when there are different routes through a programme and multiple starts, how to maintain a sense of group cohesion 
    • b) whether such groups would require tutor monitoring – if so what would the impact on workload be and if not would there be any risk of setting up the groups and then not monitoring them 

Following on from 3a in the list above, De Wilde’s session made me think about the impact of this kind of programme design on collaborative learning within modules. Would the constant changes in CoP members be a benefit or a hindrance? I think this could work either way – a ‘settled cohort’ could presumably lead to consistency of repertoire, purpose and participation (and provide the possibility of these developing positively over time) whereas changing cohorts could also have benefits such as new starts which fresh group dynamics, and allow for collaborative learning from a varied set of peers over the course of a programme. 

Overall, I found De Wilde’s application of the CoP concept to online learning very useful and thought provoking. 

Good practice in educational video

Houx (2019) explained how common-place and popular educational video has become (in formal online learning and beyond) and talked through 10 tips on how to enhance it from a cognitive load perspective. CL theory entails awareness of working memory and its limitations: that it can only hold a small amount of information, that it has an ‘auditory’ and ‘visual’ channel and that both hearing AND reading text both go down the auditory one. Furthermore there are three types of cognitive load related to learning: 

  1. germane load (the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge or schema) – we should foster this 
  2. intrinsic load (the effort associated with understanding something and processing it in working memory) – we should manage this
  3. extraneous load (the way information or tasks are presented to a learner, is there anything superfluous, irrelevant or distracting?) – we should reduce this

Houx presented his 10 tips with reference to these types of cognitive loads and the principles he associated with them (to foster, manage and reduce the different types). Here are his 10 tips, mapped on to the load types and associated principles:

Foster germane load

  1. Include a test
  2. Speak informally
  3. Bring energy

Manage intrinsic load

  1. Reveal in parts
  2. Front load keywords

Reduce extraneous load

  1. Remove superfluous elements
  2. Minimise text
  3. Use parallelism
  4. Use a grid (invisible in the background of slides, to give them a consistent spatial layout)
  5. Integrate visuals and text

Houx gave a detailed explanation/rationale for each point on the list. The use of quizzes after videos was an interesting one, which Houx clearly believed to be a strong enhancer of learning. The broad rationale for this is that it helps learners to retain information from the video in terms of: recall/consolidation, heightened motivation to watch/pay attention to the video (because learners know that a quiz will follow), providing a quick sense check on learning and adding an active element to an otherwise passive activity.

Regarding points 7 and 10, these were the parts of the talk when Houx expanded on the ‘audio + visual’ nature of working memory, drawing out the fact that if you try to send conflicting text (spoken and written) down the same channel at the same time, they will interfere with each other and disrupt learning (hence point 7). For the same reasons, careful use of visuals WITH text (i.e. the speaker’s voice plus a visual) IS a strong driver of learning (because this combination of input is easily processed in working memory). Apart from agreeing with Houx’s point that text on slides should be minimised (that a brief version of what the speaker is saying including front loaded keywords should be used), another take-away from this is about the accessibility of online educational video. In a situation where the alternative text for images is provided in a transcript (so screen readers will deliver the original spoken text plus descriptions of images), should the ALT text appear before the relevant spoken text? I would say so, because this should allow the user to perceive the image before the text, allowing both channels into working memory at the same time.  

Houx persuasively made the case that the features on his list lead to enhanced educational video (although many of them also apply to presentations in general). It was useful to hear his application of CL theory to derive the ideas for good practice, including those related to visuals (e.g. the need to avoid distracting/unnecessary ones and to have a consistent, good layout) and linguistics (e.g. front loading keywords and parallelism – note that if you’re unsure of what this is it would be worth a quick check – you should find that the list immediately above conforms to this desirable quality!).

Interestingly, the common piece of advice to ‘keep videos brief’ was not one of Houx’s 10 tips, as I had expected it would be. Advice on this is included in a recent blog post on learning from video by Donald Clark. This is also written from a cognitive load perspective but covers slightly different areas, which makes cross-referencing the two sets of advice an interesting exercise. 

Other take-aways from the workshop

I took away further useful ideas from the event, including a summary of ways to try and create continuous engagement in online learning (expectation setting, tutor presence, good instructional design etc.) and how JISC’s Digital Capabilities Framework can be used as a route into ensuring postgraduate learner needs are addressed (both topics were covered by Jorge Freire). 

As a final take-away to report back, Hande Alptekin (a PhD student at Imperial College London) presented some findings on online versus traditional (face-to-face) learning which she had conducted with her peers via social media. Alptekin (2019) found that when asked which they prefer for learning, 64% chose traditional and 36% online. 

The perceived ‘pros’ of online related to savings of time and money, and especially the increased flexibility/ability to study at own pace, time etc. The perceived ‘pros’ of face-to-face included the sense of it being more interactive, easier to motivate oneself to learn (no option to postpone, higher motivation derived from studying with others in dedicated learning spaces) and the fact that questions can be asked of tutors in a synchronous fashion (no need to wait for a response when a question is asked).

I’d suggest that the implications of this for those involved in the design and delivery of online learning would include:

  1. Look for ways to make online learning as interactive as possible (in this I would include both collaboration with peers and how individual learning activities can be made as active as possible – i.e. avoid fully passive learning, so when readings or videos are set, make sure the students are completing some associated task and also use frequent concept check quizzes and/or click and reveal type activities which keep them active and provide quick feedback)
  2. Look for ways to motivate learners to keep on track with their studies and assessments (this could involve the study groups as mentioned above and extra steps to check in with learners such as dedicated personal tutor contact time, along with good quality materials and instructional design of course!)
  3. Look for ways to avoid delay in responses to student questions i.e. feature some synchronous tutor contact and/or provide some discussion board spaces that are rapid response – so if a student has an issue that is preventing them making progress with an area of their studies, they have a way to get past this blockage quickly

Thanks for reading my take-aways from the two events, I will certainly be keeping them in mind for my own practice. Happy online learning and teaching!


Alptekin, H. (2019). Traditional vs Online Education. UKCGE Workshop, London.

Bray, O. (2019). Connecting Play and Education at the LEGO Foundation. ALT-C Annual Conference, September 5th, Edinburgh.

De Wilde, J. (2019). Creating online postgraduate communities of practice: between pedagogy and practice. UKCGE Workshop, London.

Highton, M. (2009). Encouraging participation in online groups. Oxford University.

Houx, L. (2019). Educational Video: 10 best practices from research. UKCGE Workshop, London.


One response to “Take-away ideas for online learning from two events

  1. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – January 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

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