Covid: support for teaching and assessing online

Information and support for teaching and assessing online during the Covid-19 crisis.

Two people in medical masks videoconferencing.

Covid: support for teaching and assessing online

Information and support for teaching and assessing online during the Covid-19 crisis.

Many teaching institutions have responded to the Coronavirus pandemic by announcing that they are moving their teaching and assessment online, wholesale. If you need to move your teaching online and are new to distance learning there are some important things you can do.

6 important things you can do

1. Be realistic

Don’t let perfection stand in the way of getting the job done quickly. Now is not the time to obsess about getting everything just right. There is plenty you can do that will be good enough for now. You can refine it later when you have more time and when you have a sense of how your students are responding to your first attempts.

The University of London has also created a suite of resources to help teachers to understand the principles of good online learning design, what is involved in the design and development process for University of London distance learning programmes and how to create effective audio and video.

2. Be professional

Don’t forget what we already know about effective teaching, learning and assessment. This might sound like a contradiction of point number 1, but it isn’t. Doing things less than perfectly doesn’t mean doing everything from scratch and making it up as you go along, or just uploading all your lectures as PDFs to Moodle or Blackboard.  Basing your teaching and assessment on sound, well established principles like these will help you to build effective online learning and assessment activities faster and more easily.   

3. Be confident

Don’t let the technology put you off. There are a lot of easy to use, free tools readily available online that you can use to create and run outstandingly interesting and effective learning activities. Of course finding them and learning how to use them is a challenge, but you can join this short, free online course to find out about some of the best tools to use and how to apply them to your own teaching. You will also get first hand experience of being a distance learner yourself and make lots of contacts with other people in the same boat as yourself.  

The University of London has also created a suite of resources to help teachers to understand the principles of good online learning design, what is involved in the design and development process for University of London distance learning programmes and how to create effective audio and video.

4. Listen to your learners

Don't forget that distance learning may be as new for your students as it is for you. Finding out what works for them and what needs to be changed is going to be even more important than usual. George Veletsianos, Professor at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC Canada and Royce Kimmons, Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University have scraped thousands of Twitter posts to identify recurring pain points and positive experiences among students switched to online learning and have blogged about their findings.


5. Re-use material

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Lots of other people have already been through what you are setting out to do now and many have generously put their teaching material online for anyone to use (with acknowledgement) and sometimes even to modify. So you can save yourself time and effort by re-using other people’s work. There are many collections of these so-called Open Educational Resources (OERs) and quite a few online gateways have been set up to guide would-be users to them. Here are a few:

6. Get help

Don’t feel you are alone.  There are are plenty of reputable organisations willing to offer help, advice and support. For example:

The University of London Centre for Distance Education (CDE) is a University of London initiative to support the development of expertise in the field of distance education. We support a community of practice, promote collaboration and knowledge-sharing and provide a focus for the development of high quality teaching and research in open and distance learning throughout the University of London and beyond with events, resources and scholarships. In addition to this help page, CDE publishes a range of resources and project reports, news items and blogs to help teachers and researchers in this field. 

The International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) is the leading, global membership organisation that works towards bringing accessible, quality education to all through online, open and distance learning. They have collated a set of useful resources to help teaching institutions respond to challenges created by Coronavirus.

JISC is a UK based membership organisation for institutions that conducts research and provides consultancy and training on technology in education. It publishes reports and guides on many aspects of teaching and learning that are free to download including a curated collection in response to the Coronavirus pandemic and useful guidance on online assessment.

The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) is a UK-based membership organisation for institutions and individuals that supports a community of practice and research in the field of technology assisted learning through events, blogs news, discussions and reports. In particular it has a large membership that actively responds to online questions and requests for help. ALT is holding weekly online Members' Assembly Drop-Ins to help members share expertise, ask questions and come together to support each other. These Drop-Ins will take place in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, starting Thursday March 19th and are open to all. To join follow the weekly drop-in link. No registration is needed.

The European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) exists to share knowledge and improve understanding among professionals in distance and e-learning and to promote policy and practice across the whole of Europe and beyond. It is running a series of free webinars addressing how to take face-to-face education online. These webinars start by focussing on the day-to-day challenges our teachers and educators face and move on to consider other, broader institutional aspects.

The Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) is an international membership organisation that aims to empower people through learning that leads to economic growth, social inclusion and environmental conservation. CoL have produced guidelines for decision makers in governments and institutions on how to invest in the systematic integration of good DE practices in their specific context. 

Tony Bates has been one of the leading thinkers and researchers in distance education over the last 40 years. He has a regular blog and a recent blog post provides links to 12 videos produced in association with the Commonwealth of Learning on key aspects of teaching in a digital age.

Stephen Downes is a well-known educational technology blogger who is curating a crowd-sourced set of resources in response to Coronavirus called Creating an Online Class or Conference, Quick Tech Guide.

Resources to help you today

To get you started quickly, CDE is offering the following set of free resources to help you get your teaching and assessment online fast:

Download our How to move your teaching online fast guide (PDF). Three pages of simple, practical advice and tips.

Sign up for the free online course 'Get Interactive: Practical Teaching with Technology'. This is a three-week exploration of some of the popular technologies that educators use to make their learning engaging, interactive and dynamic. It is aimed at educators who have little experience using online tools and technology for teaching purposes but who have basic familiarity with the Internet, online learning environments and computers in general. The course is most relevant for teachers, lecturers and instructors of adults and older children (i.e., secondary school, college, further education, higher education, continuing education). 'Get Interactive: Practical Teaching with Technology' was co-developed by CDE Fellow Sarah Sherman.

Sign up for the free online course 'How to Teach Online'. This three-week course is designed for educators, teachers, lecturers, and trainers who have to rapidly move from face-to-face to online teaching in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The course offers practical steps towards online teaching and student support. You can reflect on your own work, adapt your approaches, and share your stories with a global community of educators who’ll help you to get started and keep going in uncertain times. 'How to Teach Online' was co-developed by CDE Fellow Simon Rofe.

Download the CDE Reflective Tool for Emergency response to teaching online. This reflective tool is aimed at those who were required to make a rapid emergency response to the COVID 19 pandemic by moving their teaching and/or assessment activities online. It will prompt you to start thinking about what worked well and what was less successful, and the implications of the emergency teaching process for the next academic year and beyond.

Download our guide to what to do about assessments when conventional examinations are not possible.

Download the University of London Assessment toolkit, part 1. This toolkit has been designed to support the review and redesign of existing programmes and courses as well as the development of new ones for the University of London. It is divided into a number of sections which give both general guidance on assessment, feedback and marking as well as providing detailed descriptions and discussions of a range of methods.

Download the University of London Assessment toolkit, part 2. The exploration of time-constrained examinations presented here highlights the range of possibilities that examinations offer in terms of different methods of assessment. At the same time, it embeds the discussion of possible methods of assessment under time-constrained examination conditions within the broader context of assessment and feedback practice. It covers:

  • principles underpinning good assessment design practice, 
  • the relationship between formative and summative assessment, 
  • the language and design of exam questions, and 
  • design which minimises opportunities for academic misconduct.

View the recording from the JISC learning and teaching reimagined event on emerging best practice. You’ll also see a link to download the transcript on the page too. JISC’s Learning and Teaching Reimagined project has seen a number of events focusing on emerging best practice. In this webinar colleagues explored Designing for hybrid learning; Keeping students engaged and on track with their learning; Rethinking assessment and feedback. Colleagues preparing for a complex autumn may find the discussions and findings here of use

Looking further ahead

So, you have managed to switch your teaching and assessment to online in just a few weeks. Congratulations. But, impressive though this is as an achievement, it may be that after the novelty has worn off, your students will be asking questions about the quality of their learning experiences and their assessments compared with traditional methods. See for example this Guardian article about UK universities' £1bn struggle to move courses online. It seems unlikely that Covid-19 restrictions will be fully lifted by September 2020 and, in any case, the current pandemic is unlikely to be the last of its kind. 

So, what can you do to address your students' concerns and put your distance teaching on a sounder footing in the longer term?

The University of London has been educating students at a distance since the mid nineteenth century and we are the UK’s largest provider of distance and flexible transnational education across some 190 countries with around 50,000 students currently. We have built up considerable expertise in this field that we are happy to share. To get you started on enhancing your online teaching and learning we are offering the following suggestions:

View this presentation about moving online in a pandemic by CDE  Fellow Alan Tait. In a presentation given to the Department of International Education, University College London, Alan reflects on the continuities between face to face teaching and learning online and how we can build on them in the move to online teaching prompted by Covid-19, but also highlights important differences between face to face and online teaching and how to exploit those differences for maximum effect.

Download the free CDE workbook on Making ODL Happen: Open and Distance Learning Planning and use it to work with colleagues to begin to plan and develop a programme of distance learning for your course/subject area/institution. Developed originally to underpin a three-day staff development workshop, the main aim of this workbook is to provide information, ideas, resources, and support for participants to plan the next stages of development of Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in their institution, whatever their role.  By the end of the 15 activities it contains you will have developed strategies, policies and plans for working with colleagues in your University to develop and run high quality ODL programmes.

Download the free slides on Strategic approaches to developing Institutional capability for high quality ODL and use them to assess your institution’s readiness for implementing distance learning and to develop a strategic action plan to address weaknesses you have identified.

Register for our Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, studied completely online. “The exposure to such wide literature on learning theories increased my understanding of how to support learning, undertake assessment, provide feedback and introduced me to the world of blended e-learning. I started reflecting on my own practice as I was asked to make my lesson plans, provide the feedback I gave to my students and post my reflections after having taken a teaching session.” Sarah Tarar, Head of Laws at UCL Lahore.

Apply to become a CDE Visiting Scholar. Visiting Scholars are generally supported by a team of CDE Fellows, led by the Head of the CDE, Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper and supported by our Executive Leads for Research and Dissemination and for Learning and Teaching. Visiting Scholars are housed in the University of London’s iconic Senate House complex, provided with a desk, email account and computer facilities and granted acces+s to our extensive online Library with over 100 million digital items in the collection plus our physical Senate House library. A bespoke programme of activities is developed to support the intended outcomes for the placement. Placements at CDE usually last for between four and six months. The nature of the placement can vary from specific research projects, to skills development. 

Attend the CDE Research in Distance Education (RIDE) annual conference to discover the latest developments in distance education practice and research and to exchange ideas with colleagues.

Talk to us about ways in which we can help you with distance learning strategy, planning, research and design. Contact Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper, Director of the University of London Centre for Distance Education via email at