Scaling up online learning during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic

As universities begin to mitigate against risks posed by coronavirus (Covid-19), with some such as Durham and LSE indicating a complete shut-down of face-to-face teaching, online learning is coming to the foreground as a route for continuing business as usual. In this post, I’ll look back briefly at a similar situation ten years ago with H1N1, and some of the key differences now in terms of our #edtech capability. I conclude with a personal reflection on the role of learning technologists in the current crisis.

Online learning saved the day already

It’s rather pertinent to reflect back to previous cases where pandemics have led to the use of online technologies. Meyer and Wilson (2011) compared 50 US university websites to identify trends in the use of online learning to address issues arising from shut-downs due to H1N1. Their findings indicated only a third citing alternative teaching approaches using technology, and only one specifically mentioning online learning. Whilst the sample may have underestimated the prevalence of digital, online or distance learning as specific pedagogy, there remains a parallel to how institutional responses depend upon assumptions about the availability of educational technology to fill the gaps left by face-to-face. Such emergency shifts in practice reveal underlying attitudes to the role of technology for teaching and learning. Rewinding ten years, Schaffhauser provided a case study about Penn State in 2010 that cited that to keep learning, students wanted:

“Access to e-mail, access to course materials through the college’s Angel Learning Management Suite, and access to lectures through Mediasite, a lecture capture system from Sonic Foundry.”

(Schaffhauser, 2010)

Translated: email, a VLE (virtual learning environment; which may be interpreted as a repository, or if we are more optimistic a place to interact or engage in structured online learning) and videos of lectures. These are quite straight-forward uses for learning technology, easily scaled and which certainly provide options for rapid massification. However, will that suffice for student learning today?

According to the article, the success of these measures led to Penn State rolling out lecture capture across the institution post-pandemic. This echoes an interesting point made in a further case study in Schaffhauser’s article, that after the event, the use of learning technology can shift from being a ‘nice to have’ to ‘mission-critical’ for the business of education. However, the technology, and the support and infrastructure required to make it function, is always only half the story. The learning design, the intention and purpose behind the use of technology needs developing for sustained and effective use to support effective teaching and learning.

Support for education during coronavirus

The current #LTHEchat (worth following this week for experienced insight) is looking at how educators can be supported to continue teaching, with an emphasis on distance approaches. Some of the recommendations from Twitter posts hark back to the emerging guidance of online facilitation from the first rapid scaling of online discussion forums and interactive online learning activities (usually for postgraduate students) at the turn of the century. The reference list includes Gilly Salmon’s ‘e-moderating’ (2000) and ‘e-tivities’ (2002; and subsequent editions); Diana Laurillard’s conversational framework (1993; 2002); and David Merrill’s first principles of instruction (2002). These works still shape the way that online learning is designed today, particularly considering the roles of teachers, students and content in these spaces; constructivism and social constructivism pedagogies, drawing upon existing knowledge, applying it to new contexts; the ideas of activity, interaction and communication, not just transmission of content. 

Salmon’s five-stage model (cited many times in the #LTHEchat so far) appears very straightforward to implement across ‘emergency’ online learning deployment, but it was created in an age where student ownership and daily use of technology was not the norm. Students did not have institutionally-mandated VLE spaces, lecture recordings, WhatsApp or even mobile phones with Google and YouTube on tap. The model also presents itself as being educator-led, rather than perhaps student-focused, with emphasis on technological capability, socialising and information exchange being scaffolded by the educator before knowledge construction and more collaborative interaction. I have previously commented on the limitations of such a model in open online learning that is informal, fluid and more student-centred in terms of learning outcomes. 

Today, students and educators are socialising online (not necessarily together), they have their own personal learning spaces which may be formal or informal, ways of seeking content to meet short-term learning needs, they have their own choice of equipment, tools, apps and preferences of communication. In many ways, the challenges that learning technologists were facing ten years ago to deploy existing institutional technology at a greater scale, instantly, are subverted somewhat by the proliferation of the wide variety of open, and often free, online platforms now available.

Educators will reach for apps that perhaps they are familiar with already in supporting learning, these might not necessarily be the same as what the institution provides. Students will use the platforms for communication that are already embedded within their social and learning circles. In a sense, a baseline of technology often now exists, but how far that is pushed into formalised learning is dependent on course design. Learning technologists can nudge digital learning behaviours further by introducing particular features of tools that have more relevance in a distance setting. There is also the need to consider those who are possibly excluded from ‘third-party’ environments, because of accessibility, equipment, technical capability and perhaps country firewalls; not to mention copyright and GDPR issues. This is where support time could be best spent.

In terms of some of the quick wins: Google is not shy about promoting Google Classroom and Google Meet, with significant free upgrades for Education customers including 250 seats on a meeting and 100,000 viewers on live streams. Some of the lesson known features such as Google Slides Q&A could also play a key part in avoiding boredom by lecture stream. Software providers such as Techsmith are providing extended free trials of content creation tools, including screen capture. Online course platforms such as FutureLearn are pitching MOOCs as a way to access online content and activities specifically designed for distance learning, for universities to use at scale immediately. All these require both a degree of technical confidence, and an understanding of how that medium and form of activity actually support learning.

A role for learning technologists

The reality is that few academic staff will have the time to critically engage in the theory, pedagogical reasoning and learning design associated with online and distance education. Teaching staff need a quick fix, a temporary measure that enables business as usual as far as possible. Therein lies the longer-term issue for those supporting learning technologies. Business as usual is, in many cases, still the lecture or seminar. It involves large groups of individuals, all attending the same space, at the same time, but not necessarily engaging with each other. The same could be said of those at a distance watching a lecture being streamed live, or pre-recorded, or perhaps reading endless journal articles and posting their thoughts to a discussion board for no-one to read.

Better teaching involves formative assessment, and this does not have to be laboriously marked written work. Questioning techniques, both synchronous in the case of remote streaming or asynchronous in text-based facilitation, that give a lecturer evidence to respond to and steer the direction of the learning can be far more valuable. Furthering learning involves students communicating with each other, with activity structured between modes of transmission, collaboration and application. This can all happen using the technology available now with live-casting platforms, collaborative documents, shared spaces and apps. Uncovering these functions, and realising that how things work face-to-face is not how they work online with remote participants, is a learning curve for both educators and students. The challenge for learning technologists will be how to help colleagues move from quick fixes, and the possible consequences of regressing to poor practice, to full maximisation of the tools available to truly support learning.

Meeting the challenge

We can continue to look at this challenge from the three perspectives of:

  • Educator
  • Content
  • Student

For educators, do they have the tools they need, the technical skill and the pedagogic creativity (perhaps with a limited palette of activity options) to stimulate learning and engage students? Surely, the best use of educators’ time is not to deliver lectures remotely, but is better spent scaffolding a series of learning activities using the thousands of freely available learning resources (YouTube, FutureLearn, OpenLearn, OERs) and providing tailored support to individuals and groups. Compromises could, and should, be made in this situation to prioritise communication and dialogue for learning, not transmission of content.

In terms of content, is it readily available and in a format that is accessible to all students, appropriate in terms of medium and enables individual self-study without an educator immediately available? Sharing existing slides is rarely sufficient. Repurpose where possible, and put resourcing into the development of activities that can be undertaken at a distance.

Most importantly, do the students have the necessary learning skills, self-regulation and efficacy to communicate effectively, challenge themselves and seek support when needed? Within online distance settings, learning skills, such as conversational thinking (see this post for justification), need developing within students. These skills are not inherent in all learners, and supporting these skills and attitudes for independent learning will need to form part of any strategy. As Salmon (2002, p.12) noted, “what really matters is acquiring the emotional and social capacity to learn with others online”. 

Educators, content and ultimately students, will need guidance both for short-term massification of learning technology, and, what we may see as a step-change in the long-term establishing of online learning replacing, where appropriate, traditional face-to-face teaching approaches. 

I conclude with, perhaps, a controversial statement. Now is probably not the time for learning technologists and learning designers to impart our collective wisdom of the theories and frameworks of online learning onto our colleagues. Now is the time to support educators to do what they do best, just in a different space. 

As ever, listening is going to be our key skill, to understand the intended learning and provide selected options that enable that learning outcome to be met by the students that learning is designed for. Yes, we can challenge preconceptions where appropriate, but we need to keep things understandable at first by drawing upon what colleagues already know. As we have heard many a time, and not just in the current crisis, this is about the long-haul. 


  1. Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge.
  2. Merrill, D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3) 43–59.
  3. Meyer, K.A. and Wilson, J.L. (2011). The role of online learning in the emergency plans of flagship institutions, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 14(1).
  4. Salmon, G. (2000). E-Moderating. London: Kogan Page.
  5. Salmon, G. (2002). E-tivities. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.
  6. Schaffhauser, D. (2010). Just what the doctor ordered. Campus Technology.


4 responses to “Scaling up online learning during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic”

  1. There are some very pragmatic suggestions from @rbarrettfox which focus on the fact that education is about people (and our current situation is going to affect them beyond the context of the course they are on) and that time has to be used wisely:

  2. Simon Rae

    Quite surprised that the only (online) pedagogies sourced were Salmon’s ‘e-moderating’ (2000) and ‘e-tivities’ (2002; and subsequent editions), Laurillard’s Conversational Framework (1993; 2002) and Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction (2002). All turn of the century publications, the first two of which I’m very familiar with having crossed paths with them at the OU and their books are on my shelves.

    Are there no more recent sources of new ideas and pedagogies? In 20 years what have people been thinking about? In those two decades most conventional universities have had to come to grips with making some online provision for their students (my own three kids went to uni post 2000 and all spent time online on their uni’s network, albeit mostly in a content-retrieval mode and not a T&L mode) – surely someone has formalised this online activity into a book. Or was all the new thinking subsumed into Flipping Lessons and MOOCs?

    Is the collective HE thinking based on ‘blended students’, ie students that are not Distance Learners in the sense that OU students who never see Walton Hall (the centre of the OU) are, but are instead only distant for a time from the F2F lecture theatre?

    What pedagogies do you subscribe to?

  3. This is an interesting point you make Simon. There is obviously an ongoing community of researchers in distance and online education, but from my reading, most of the theories of learning are mode independent (social constructivism, problem-based learning, situated learning and authenticity, threshold concepts, activity theory… All applied in, online, face to face and blended). Some of the frameworks that spring to mind are Conole’s 7Cs, Young and Perovic ABC, and Smyth et al 3Es, useful for considering both strategic and activity design. Personally, Engestrom’s work on activity theory remains a driving influence. In many cases, lessons learnt from purely online, distance and blended learning designs are being swapped interchangeably between modes. Is this a reflection of ‘learning is learning’ wherever it takes place?

    Most of my reading has been on open, MOOCs and workplace learning (Steve Wheeler’s recent book is a useful read about digital learning in organisations). There are a few notable shifts in recent years, though I can’t pin point the exact definition, including emphasis on (somewhat buzzword) “student-centred learning”; flexible pedagogies (Gordon, 2014; HEA report); all the work around Learning Design as a discipline (Dalziel et al, 2016); rhizomatic learning (Cormier, 2008); informal/formal learning; digital literacies. There’s resurgence of interest in communities of practice/or inquiry. Recent developments in educational neuroscience are also shaping our understanding about the scientific basis for certain practices (retrieval, spaced, interleaved). These apply across modes of study.

    A personal view is that to view online learning in isolation is an artificial boundary. We all exist in a physical space, online and offline are set within a context that blurs the boundaries already. As someone working in professional learning, this is all the more important and the informal learning and formal online course structure have to complement each other. Lifelong learning (surprisingly emphasised in recent election manifestos) is a reflection of the continuous change of this context due to workforce needs always evolving. Seeing online learning pedagogy in isolation from face-to-face doesn’t reflect the way online learning is situated.

  4. […] educational organisational change management (Starr, 2011), probably forms part of my anxiety (discussed previously) about the long term sustainability of shifting online for some academic institutions. When this […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.