online learning and pedagogy

Uni’s back: Five ways to build useful online learning

The pandemic hastened the transition to online delivery. While several studies have looked into strategies for developing higher-order thinking in students, the widespread and prevalent use of online learning is limited to lower-order strategies.

We wanted to promote what worked for both educators and students while creating sustainable online communities. We undertook a scoping study at the University of South Australia to look at ways of building meaningful online learning communities while helping students to develop higher-order thinking skills. After a process of review and refinement, we considered the findings of 121 studies from 2000 to 2022 to narrow down what matters. The overarching framework for our scoping review is the community of inquiry.

Online environments are enhancing access to education globally but simultaneously risk depersonalising student learning at a time when connectedness is most needed.  The opportunity created by the pandemic should be seized for prioritizing sustainable content delivery that influences critical thinking, equips graduates for jobs and fosters collaboration. This process can be challenging even for experienced educators.  Providing clear guidance to educators is key to the development of online learning communities that connect teachers and students and deal with the challenges ahead. 

Our research is a one-stop-shop for high-quality online teaching practices, for novices and experienced educators alike, in any discipline, any country, looking for something more (than mere online implementation) to engage, challenge and connect with their students. Educators can see the full paper here, which will direct them to a range of resources that they can utilize in their online teaching practice.  

After distilling the key concepts from the studies, we recommend five evidence-based strategies for building sustainable and meaningful online learning communities in higher education.  

1. Students should be taught how to learn effectively in the online mode

It is vital that students are taught how to study properly in an online environment. It is important to consider that they are not aware of the unique learning presented in an online course, especially while they commence in a new institution, program, or course. Strong foundations in early parts of study are important. Work examples and modeling expectations can set students up with skills for creating new knowledge.  

2. Educators must embed learning tasks that foster self-regulation and higher-order skills in students 

Educators should enable intentional learning and embed problem solving tasks that require self-regulation and higher order thinking. Educators should further be aware of strategies unique to online mode that can foster self-regulation in students. For example, not all the educators should necessarily actively contribute to the text-based discussion. Instead, having provided the initial trigger for a topic, educators can design the activity to be student-led. Collaborative teamwork, such as problem-solving activities are known to foster self-regulation. Student characteristics further influence their own self-regulation capabilities.

3. Course design should include authentic tasks for students to apply new knowledge to real-life scenarios

Along with overall course design, individual tasks such as discussion with peers must be designed to be purposeful and intentional to generate the desired learning outcomes. For example, questioning students on how they would apply what they learned from a task to their own profession could initiate an authentic critical thinking process.  Our research proposes several such strategies that can be useful for educators.

4. Educators must be offered ample professional development activities to build their skills in online pedagogy 

The challenges for educators who have been predominantly involved in face-to-face teaching and unfamiliar with online pedagogies are that it requires them to shift to a facilitator role and develop the skills to design and implement appropriate tasks that enable students to achieve outcomes. One of the key implications for teaching practice clearly includes supporting educators in adapting to online pedagogical approaches. Educators must be offered ample opportunities for professional development in online teaching strategies alongside institutional support for adapting and using emerging technology. There are several frameworks not included in our review, which can also be beneficial to educators.

5. Institutions should encourage translation of educational research to practice 

Institutional support through funding educational research may help to address the gap in translating research to practice to a certain extent. This funding can provide critical impetus to the educators involved. Additional institutional support that focuses on developing and sustaining an innovative pedagogical mindset to enhance teaching and learning practices in online delivery is also essential. 

Following these five evidenced based strategies will provide students and educators with the skills to successfully negotiate the online classroom.  

Sandhya Maranna is a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia and senior specialist sonographer with SA Health. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree investigating cognitive transfer in online learning. Her innovations in online curriculum have led to high-quality impact on student learning. She was the recipient of the 2021 AAUT National teaching citation for outstanding contribution to student learning and the 2021 OLC award for innovation in online learning and teaching excellence

Why practical content really matters for assessment in online learning

Meet Melissa Fanshawe and Katie Burke, two senior lecturers from the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. These two first met in a Zoom workshop in which they were both presenting on online pedagogy. 

Hearing about each other’s ideas, they instantly wanted to work together. Here’s what happened next.

Melissa: We teach maths and the arts for pre-service teachers, who enrol mainly in online courses. These are very hands-on practical subjects so we are always looking for ways to try and help our students ensure they learn the course outcomes while learning online. This is the story of how we changed our courses using constructive alignment to get our students to participate in practical learning activities.

“In constructive alignment, we start with the outcomes we intend students to learn, and align teaching and assessment to those outcomes” (Biggs, 2011, para 2). 

Katie:  We signed up to do a peer review of each other’s course to see how our students engaged, and saw a number of opportunities to improve. We then decided to use the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Cycle (Kinash, 2019) to engage in a data-informed approach to improving our courses. This would also help us assess the innovations we wanted to implement.

We were really concerned to find that it was possible for our students to complete our courses without undertaking practical learning activities in the weekly learning which would help contextualise theory and practice and prepare them for the classroom.  

Our course engagement data over two semesters in 2019 found that only 72 per cent of students in our courses participated in course content. More than 72 per cent of our students passed the course. How was this possible?

Melissa: We believed our students needed to do practical activities not only to understand the application of theory, but more importantly, so they could feel confident to teach our discipline areas when they graduate. 

We found our students chose to engage with the activities that were related to the assessment. This was concerning for us, as we both believe the purpose of assessment is “to inform future teaching and learning, rather than only for assigning a summative grade” (Ayalon & Wilkie, 2020, p.1). 

Katie: So knowing that some of our students only complete what is being assessed, we saw an opportunity to bring practical learning into assessment. Then our objectives would be constructively aligned. 

Melissa: We decided we could prioritise specific outcomes by creating practical learning activities and aligning them with assessment. This meant that activity completion was a part of core learning, and students would probably do it, because they were being assessed! 

Katie: We both rewrote our courses starting with the content and skills needed in our disciplines when teaching in the classroom. We created practical activities that the students had to do each week, and this became part of their assessment. This allowed them to practice with the hands-on learning that you don’t often get online.

Melissa: My maths students were guided to submit practical activities that related to number and algebra, measurement and geometry, statistics and probability.

Katie:  In my Arts course, students completed and submitted evidence of their completion of a range of practical activities in dance, drama, media arts, music and visual art. 

We then collected data within our online courses over two semesters through course engagement data (n=305), an anonymous voluntary survey (n=64), and semi-structured interviews (n=3).  We found our students not only found these activities enjoyable and achievable but they also improved knowledge, understanding and confidence in discipline areas.

Melissa: We were happy to find all students who responded to our survey indicated growth in confidence in their respective discipline area, with the majority of respondents indicating that the assessment tasks were important (19 per cent) or very important (75 per cent) in improving their skills and understanding of maths or the arts. One student told us “I now feel confident that I have the theory together with the practical elements of the arts knowledge”. 

Katie: What about our interview participant who said they had “a lot more confidence and a deeper understanding of not only mathematical content but also how to teach this to children”?

Melissa: Oh yes, our data also showed us

  1.  the importance of Critical reflection to help students realise the application of theory into practice (Biggs, 2014). Following the activities, our students were asked to reflect on their activities, and how they aligned to the curriculum and course theory. 91 per cent of survey respondents found this useful for preparing for the classroom. 

Katie: Students told us that they gained an understanding of how learners would feel completing the activity, as well as some of the complexities of planning. One interview participant told us, “I didn’t realise how much depth I’d have to go into planning a lesson and how much content and thought goes into that”. This thinking is really getting them ready for the classroom.

Melissa: They also said it made them think about the resources required and differentiation for diverse learners.  

Katie: I think our strongest finding was that:

  1.  assessment of practical learning increased engagement. 

Melissa: It sure did. Only 54 per cent of our students said they would have completed the activities if they were not assessed. Some students told us they may have completed the activities they enjoyed. Like your arts student who said “I definitely would not have done the drama or the visual art …. I would have done the music one because I enjoy the music”. 

Katie: Or the many respondents who told us they were time poor. 

Melissa: That’s right, there were many comments about that, such as “I feel that as my studies need to fit around so many other aspects of my life, I wouldn’t take the time to complete optional activities”. Our survey showed only 38 per cent of students in full time employment would have been likely to complete the activities if they had not counted toward their grades.  

Katie: Well this supports research (Bettinger & Loeb, 2017; Stone et al., 2019) that many online students try to complete studies alongside many other responsibilities such as families, work and other responsibilities. So they often engage only with course content that will ensure they pass the course assessment.

Melissa: Well if they are only going to prioritise the assessment, doesn’t that show how important it is to make sure that our assessment includes the knowledge and practical skills they need when they graduate? 

Katie: I think so, but what did the course engagement data say?

Melissa: The best part was that after changing our courses to focus on practical activities as assessment, in two courses, over two semesters, 94 per cent or 287 of 305 students completed the learning modules directly aligned to assessment. This was an improvement of over 20 per cent! 

Katie: Wow! These incredibly high engagement statistics suggest that the practical learning experiences as assessment, created with a constructive alignment to graduate outcomes strongly influenced students’ engagement in our courses. 

Katie Burke is a Senior Lecturer (Arts Curriculum & Pedagogy) at the University of Southern Queensland. Melissa Fanshawe is a Senior Lecturer (Mathematics Curriculum & Pedagogy) at the University of Southern Queensland.

COVER IMAGE: this beautiful work is from one of the students who participated in the research.


Ayalon, M., & Wilkie, K. (2020).  Developing assessment literacy through approximations of practice: Exploring secondary mathematics pre-service teachers developing criteria for a rich quadratics task. Teaching and Teacher Education, 89. 1-14.

Bettinger, E. P., & Loeb, S. (2017). Promises and pitfalls of online education. Evidence Speaks Reports, 2(15), 1–4.  

Biggs, J.(2011). Constructive alignment.

Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, 5-22. ISBN 2652-6328

Kinash, S. (2019). Applying for academic promotions workbook: The learning & teaching component.

Stone, C., Freeman, E., Dyment, J. E., Muir, T., & Milthorpe, N. (2019). Equal or equitable? The role of flexibility within online education. Australian & International Journal of Rural Education, 29(2), 26-40.…

The shock of dealing with Covid-19 has made teachers even stronger and better at their craft

Cast your mind back to the end of the first school term for 2020: Australian states and territories were rapidly moving into lockdown because of COVID-19. Political leaders were signaling – often using mixed signals – the likelihood and need to close schools and transition to distance learning. Here in New South Wales schools switched to distance learning for about six weeks, forcing teachers to adapt their programs very rapidly to support students and their parents with learning from home.

Currently around Australia we now have the whole range from fully face-to -face schooling, to partially remote learning, to fully (with some essential worker exceptions) remote learning. Random schools are thrown into immediate lockdown whenever a teacher or student tests positive to the viral infection. Teachers pivot their programs very rapidly between the different ways of delivery depending on the advice from health officials to their education authorities.

My doctoral research explores the way policy is enacted in teacher practice, and I seem to have landed in the middle of a system where policy has flown into flux.

My fieldwork actually started in the midst of one crisis – the Black Summer bushfires – and ended during another – COVID-19. I was fortunately able to modify the shape of my research to allow for interviews with teachers to find out how they experienced the rapidly changing work environment during the virus response.

I’m sure some of the findings are familiar to many teachers and researchers out there, and they aren’t specific to schools. For many people, the switch to working from home was sudden and required quick thinking and adaptation.

The teachers who participated in my research reported a number of interesting, and not all negative, experiences.

Workload increased dramatically

Teachers already faced significant workload demands going into the crisis, an issue plainly described in a partnership study between the NSW Teachers Federation and the University of Sydney. The teachers I interviewed explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this big time.

Teachers spend a huge amount of time planning and programming a school term, and much of that planning is premised on the physical environment in which they work. Educators take for granted the material contexts of their work – it helps them to improvise when necessary, to draw on a repertoire of skills and capabilities built up through experience.

In the Sydney school where I did my research the staff made a very rapid shift to online learning. This led to late nights preparing lessons, in some cases over-planning work for students in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Some students felt more comfortable online

A number of teachers reported some students coming out of their shells in the online space. Otherwise shy students felt more empowered to contribute to lessons. Students with strong digital literacy skills were able to support teachers and fellow students in creating dynamic and interesting contributions to online learning.

While there has rightly been some attention paid to students who missed out because of inequitable access, there are also lessons that can be learned about engaging students who are less confident about speaking up in front of a classroom of peers. The digital world is here to stay: being confident learners in digital communities is an important life skill, virus or not.

Professional communities were more important than ever

The staff at the school scheduled an impromptu staff development day focused entirely on delivering learning remotely. Colleagues ran sessions on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Faculty members headed to different classrooms to practice running Zoom lessons with each other. The New South Wales Department of Education also facilitated a ‘virtual staff room’ on Teams, and many teachers reported the value in sharing ideas with their colleagues both within the school and further afield.

When I spoke with the Deputy Principal of this school, he suggested that their quick response to COVID-19 was possible because of the school’s proactive approach to professional learning. The school saw the Professional Development Planning (PDP) process not as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, but rather a way to learn about the strengths and opportunities facing the school. He explained:

“What professional learning is about is foreseeing what obstacles might lie ahead, so that you can be properly prepared for when they do happen and you couldn’t get a better case in point than COVID.”

A year-round professional learning calendar helps staff at this school see the connection between their own Professional Development Planning and the whole school plan. Qualitative analysis of Professional Development Planning goals and professional learning needs helps inform the school planning process. And the teachers I interviewed were consistently engaged in improving their classroom practice.

Teachers felt their practice had improved because of the crisis

Each teacher I spoke with said that they had learned something during the crisis and that their practice going forward would improve as a result, sentiment echoed in a survey conducted by researchers Rachel Wilson and William Mude. This included their ability to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into their lessons, the different ways they can engage with their students, and their professional knowledge in the domain of online teaching and learning. As one teacher explained:

“I think there will be good development in our skills that will make us better teachers going forward. It’s been a baptism of fire, but I think we’ll all be better practitioners and have a wider repertoire of skills.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of things on their heads: it is a black swan event, something gigantic and unexpected that shifts the way we understand the world. Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, The Black Swan, followed that with another book, Antifragile. He explains that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, but antifragility: where something responds to a shock by getting stronger.

The teachers I worked with pre and post COVID-19 (as far as we can say that we are ‘post’ this virus) are a perfect example of antifragility. So far, 2020 has delivered some of the biggest shocks imaginable. And out of it the teachers in my study have become even better at their craft thanks to the strength of their professional communities and their school’s meaningful approach to professional learning.

Pat Norman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney, looking at the way politics and political events shape the rationalities of policy and practice. He is particularly interested in the way neoliberalism and globalisation impact professional work. His current research in schools looks at the way teachers experience and enact policy, and how an understanding of good practice is produced in real-world contexts. He tweets as @pat_norman.

How teaching online during COVID-19 lockdown made me think deeply about how physical presence matters

There’s a general feeling among teachers of pride and relief that we got through the recent few months when were teaching online. And at the moment, all of us are feeling for our school teacher colleagues in Melbourne who face returning to the challenges of teaching remotely again in just a week with their city again in lockdown.

Teaching this year has been hard work. I spent most of my hours online and ‘with others’. The surprising thing was just how much I missed feeling how my students were thinking. This was more than just how the relationships changed online. This was how my senses were stimulated in different ways and how this altered my capacity to feel the group was together and who was thinking. In a world looking for ways to beat the robots, this may be one skill we should pay attention to.

The experience of online teaching, especially in a course that required students to take risks in thinking and feeling, has spurred my curiosity on what we gain and lose when our proximity changes. Mostly I want to know if others teachers share this experience and what is it that we can learn.

Sensing our students

The question came up in a webinar during the lockdown, ‘What do you find the most challenging about online learning?’. The host, a fabulous experienced online educator, gave us ‘thinking time’ and then asked us to simultaneously post our thoughts in the chat.

I tell it like it is, so I wrote, ‘I missed hearing them breathe’. I was a little embarrassed about the intimacy of such a statement so I was surprised when so many comments said pretty much the same thing. Teachers wrote, ‘sensing their engagement’, ‘noticing when things don’t make sense’, ‘knowing they get it’, ‘really seeing the one student amongst the 20 onscreen’, the ‘feeling that things are buzzing’.

There’s something curious about how we ‘feel each other’ in person versus how we see and hear each other online.  A troubled but brilliant Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, helped us understand this when he said, ‘The human body is the best picture of the human soul’.

Schooling and the ‘soul’

In my experience, learning that makes us think, lifts off when we see and respond to the ‘soul’. Whilst soul is not a word we see in education thinking, there are numerous philosophical notions in education that are also understood in this way, take for example education thought leaders such as Gert Biesta, Pasi Sahlberg and Sir Ken Robinson. Anyone familiar with their work knows they are often talking about being human.

As I see it, Biesta knocks it out of the park when he calls out the purpose of schooling in three ways; qualification, socialisation and subjectification.

Qualification is something to have as you navigate through your schooling into adult life. Think of qualifications like the passports into employment and further study.

Socialisation happens throughout the schooling years. This is not just in how we behave, think hygiene habits and common courtesy, it also gives us shared stories to bind and protect our institutions and identify. For example, curriculum decisions, such as whether we taught World War II or US civil rights movement, makes a difference how we resolve racism as a collective.

Subjectification is perhaps a less contentious and more accurate way to name what I am calling the ‘soul’. It is how we can be in the world but not of it. It is the development of self that allows us to participate in the work and toil of life but at the same time, be removed enough to regulate our desires and our need to belong. This is what I am really interested in and how it works in schooling.

When education works

When education works, we leave school as people who can disagree agreeably. We have successfully transitioned from the properly narcissistic world of an infant to that of the grown up, able to rationalise desire and impulses out of concern for a common good. Schools do this when they engage young people’s critical and creative thinking. It is not about making them like us but helping to value themselves, as both distinct and as part of something bigger.

German-American philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt, another great post war thinker, wrote:

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

Critical and creative thinking

I believe when Arendt says, ‘their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us’ she is talking about that moment in the classroom when we see the student’s soul. The ‘unforeseeable’ happens when students are thinking creatively and critically. It is tangled into what is broadly referred to in the Australian curriculum as ‘general capabilities’.

Most importantly, it requires teachers to be highly adaptive in their teaching. In my experience it is the best part of being a teacher because it is always a transmission of the whole person, not just the mind. It is a very satisfying and inclusive experience, not just available for ‘talented’ students, because there is no right answer, but for every child. Within many classrooms the tyranny of success, or when every answer is ‘right’ dulls learning like a symphony orchestra playing with the sound turned down.

How mass online learning has made us think about our teaching practices

If teachers’ capacity to notice the ‘feeling’ changes in students as they learn is altered, how does this change their capacity to adapt and respond in a way that takes critical and creative thinking forward? Our time where online learning was the only way to learn for many students has made us think about this. It has especially made us think about how we might adapt our teaching practice to new challenges.

Teacher adaptive practice, how teachers follow the student, not the script,  is thought to improve student learning and early evidence suggests it is a key disposition in engaging students in critical and creative thinking. It means changing how we ‘thought we were going to teach’ when the unforeseen, a student’s curiosity and new ideas, emerges.

It is exactly our response to this magic moment that I believe teaches a child if their soul matters and how what matters to them needs to find its place in what matters to others. So what can we learn from that moment, when the way we were together, teacher and students, changed with online learning?

If you think of a hinge and how it swings open and closes a door, the COVID 19 crisis and the rapid large scale experience with online teaching has swung open a whole conversation about proximity, teacher adaptability and teaching the whole child. We can use these experiences like counter intuitive game theory (where two losing games results into a winning game); COVID and social distancing could generate a win for teaching.

Learning something new and important from the experience

The online learning experience is a particular sort of sensory experience and I am interested in knowing more about what teachers can tell us through these experiences. The realisation when I saw the comments in the chat function on that webinar reassured me I was not alone in this thinking. Maybe there was another teacher at the webinar who, sitting like me in a tracksuit at the kitchen table, saw my comment and thought, ‘I know exactly what she means’.

This is not about making a choice or deciding what is best between online and face to face teaching. It is about learning something new and important, such as the teaching for the soul, when things fall apart.

Even now that we have ‘returned’ to the classroom, the experience of having to move so quickly to remote learning will have changed teachers’ understanding what it means to be together. If we learn from this extraordinary experience we may find new, more generous, ways to entreat young people to vita activa or live life as ‘activists’. This experience is an opportunity to learn and more explicitly identify the teaching and learning interplay that helps students build and value their critical and creative capacity and, ultimately, as Arendt says face the ever more urgent ‘task of renewing a common world’.

Penny Vlies is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney studying the intersection of curriculum policy, general capabilities and teaching. Her work with schools involves designing learning that is built by and for teachers to embed critical and creative thinking into classroom practice. She is an Academic Tutor with the University working with students in the Service Learning in Indigenous Communities course. Penny is an award winning secondary school teacher who sees education ‘to be, not to have’. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at Penny is on Twitter @pvlies.