Teaching online: so far, so good.


19th June 2020


15th May 2024

I wanted to note here some reflections on how I have been doing in my experience with teaching remotely during the COVID-19 “lockdown”, which came as the PGDE Secondary programme I teach on was in its final few weeks. I ignored the suggestion that we should only have a narrow focus for our teaching at this stage, being the preparation for GTCS registration, the final task for most of the students in my cohort of about 16 physics PGDE students.

At the same time as thinking about how it’s gone so far, and sharing some of the student feedback, I am also going to reflect briefly on one aspect of how to prepare for a “digital-first” or hybridised model of teaching when the next cohort arrives in mid-September, several weeks later than usual.

The values of near future teaching

The Near Future Teaching project ran between 2017 and 2019, with the goal to develop a values-based vision for the future of digital education at the University of Edinburgh. In planning for a different delivery, it is worth considering the four values1 the project identified:

  1. Experience over assessment

    Learning should not be over-assessed and instrumentalised. Teaching should share a focus on employability and success with an understanding of the value of rich experience, creativity, curiosity and – sometimes – failure.

  2. Diversity and justice

    Education should design-in meaningful diversity and real inclusion across all areas of activity. All near future teaching should further social responsibility and global justice.

  3. Relationships first

    Relationships, dialogues and personal exchanges between students and staff build understanding in a way that is not possible via transmissive forms of teaching. Teaching should be designed to provide the time and space for proper relationships and meaningful human exchange.

  4. Participation and flexibility

    The University community should cooperatively shape how – and what – it learns and teaches. Flexibility for individuals, fluency across disciplines and cooperative responsibility for curricula should shape near future teaching.

Now, we are not in a position to just tear up all that has gone before and begin with a new design. We must retain all that is good and work with what we’ve got: there are many reasons for this, not least of which is time and cost; but also the fact that our initial teacher education programmes are carefully and rigorously accredited by the GTCS. This means that we are not in a position to substantively alter content.

What we must do, therefore, is focus on the elements of delivery and overlay the changes imposed upon us by that, on our core material. This is hard to do, and much work is being done to anticipate the future and plan for equitable and valid experience on the PGDE as it will be delivered in the coming session. These four values are helpful to me in thinking about how I do my part of this, alongside professional learning, reflection and dialogue with colleagues. I like to think, and can show, that these values are already present in my teaching and those of my colleagues in initial teacher education: these values reflect those of the GTCS professional standards by which our product is measured. So, the future is now. Let’s get on with it.

How have I done so far?

In my online teaching, I have found that direct teaching, which has a place in the usual run of things, is significantly less effective. I have learned to move away from this towards a more student-focused pedagogy which makes frequent use of groups working together on a problem or question, and plenaries or discussions intended to draw out key ideas and actions, and which offer some form of formative assessment opportunity.

An example of this might be a stimulus question like this, which I used in the last tutorial they had as a group:

A tutor gives the following feedback to a student on an essay: “You assert without evidence that making shy young people do a presentation to peers will help ensure they become confident somehow. How do you know that?”

In groups, consider what specific advice you would offer next year’s PGDE students about this challenge from their tutor.

Which is followed by a well-signposted time of about 10 minutes for students in small groups discussing, and preparing to share their responses.

I asked the students to share their thoughts on how they thought the last online session had gone, compared to those in recent weeks. Here is a small selection of their responses.

On the structure of the session

  • I liked the breakout groups.
  • Breakout groups were good for engagement and keeping me interested in the discussion.
  • … today was the best, lots of breakouts, lots to do, didn’t feel like an hour and a half.
  • Thanks, good session today, good amount of content w/o overloading, and good balance of big group and breakouts
  • The later sessions have been more interactive and using the breakout rooms and mixture of chat and voice has been much more productive/engaging.
  • Yeah it flew by! Pace was good, lots to keep me engaged and interested
  • I liked the breakout groups and discussion on stimuli.
  • Nice wholesome session, Breakout sessions really make it interactive for us.
  • Enjoyed the frequency of the breakout groups today they seemed to come at just the right time and varied the pace of the tutorial.

On the stimulus

  • The stimulus for thought at the end was interesting, especially as there were different levels to engage with it.
  • Giving us a small stimulus and letting us get on with it worked well I thought.
  • Particularly liked the last stimulus and got me thinking reflectively as a learner and teacher.

Other remarks

  • Useful as always. Ideas for practical online delivery as well as things to think about.
  • And some reassuring chat about probations was appreciated


So far, so good, but I have not discovered any solutions here. This model cannot be applied to the entire course, and like all good teaching strategies, has a place in amongst a boxful of others. It would become very dull indeed, if I used this formula every week. What is clear is that pace and variety are very much more important in the online context. The implication of this is that these sessions in the new academic year must be time-limited, well planned and tightly managed.

Does that seem obvious? It probably is, but I think I had to go through this with my last cohort in order to have that clear vision for my next.


  1. I’m thankful to my colleague and friend Val Gordon for sharing her perspective on this project, which was described by Professor Siân Bayne during her recent keynote at the University’s Learning and Teaching Conference.↩︎