Staying connected

Quite a few people have been asking about how to keep connected with students and how to set something up in an emergency or at short notice.

This post tries to cover a few things to help organise your thinking – as always, it’s a good idea to talk to other people to find out what they have done. And try not to teach alone…

An image of uniform people connected in grids. A single figure is obviously doing something different to try and break the grid.


Without getting too academic about it (sorry), it is worth remembering that you can organise issues around communication so that you can think about them a bit better. So, for your context and need (and your students!), think about:

  • Purpose: Lecture; tuition; discussion; catchup; studio; assessment; etc.
  • Type: 1-many; 1-1; tuition; peer to peer; tutor- or student-led discussion; etc.
  • Mode: Synchronous (e.g. conferencing; online meetings); Asynchronous (e.g. forums; email)
  • Methods: VLE; Social Media; mailing list;

The medium you use might depend on how you are supported institutionally, what is available to you, and what you are prepared to use. But you (or your institution) should also consider what students will see and have access to – if you don’t have email addresses for all students then you can’t rely on a mailing list.

Here are few of the more common media. See the Resources page for actual tools and services:

  • Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) page/location;
  • Mailing list;
  • VLE notification system or forum;
  • Online forum service;
  • Single online location/URL (webpage, blog, or other service);
  • Online platform group list (e.g. Twitter group; Facebook page; etc.)
  • #hashtag (can be federated by Twitter and Facebook);
  • Specific social media account (e.g course, faculty, or one you set up for this purpose etc.);
  • A media channel (e.g. YouTube; AUDIO;)

Staying connected

If you are having to discontinue face to face teaching, your first priority is most likely to be communicating with your students. This is most likely to be a 1-many broadcast to let students know:

  • What’s happening
  • What you will do, how and when
  • What they need to do as a priority / urgently

Select a single, main emergency broadcast medium

Pick a single communication medium that you will use throughout as your core method.

You can (and probably should) add to this later to give students choice of notification but by always having a core method, you will always have a stable and predictable place from which you send out messages and communication.

Be clear that this is the point of authority (peer messages repeating what other students thought you said do not count!)

Get a response to your first message

Make sure that you ask your students to reply to your first message to confirm they’re there and have understood what’s happening

Let students know that they are supported both academically and pastorally.

Outline the ways you are going to communicate with them and they can communicate with you for both of these types of contact.

Pastoral care and queries

Set contact hours and times and stick to them. Make it clear when you will be available and how student can contact you for particular reasons.

These can be both academic and pastoral reasons and this will depend on your role and how your institution supports this role.

For example, you could direct students to email you with any queries or concerns they may have and let them know that you usually respond to emails in the morning, or every second day.

Or you may have set times for this during each week. Either way, set expectations and stick to them.

Always provide some kind of emergency override for students – either to you or (ideally) one supported by the institution.

Be aware of what support your institution is providing to students and try not to duplicate this. Never ever offer support that you are unqualified to offer – you may make things worse. I know you’re a teacher and you want to help – but finding someone else better able to support specific situations is


This post won’t cover how to do lectures online – there are many other resources on this and we may cover this in a future post.

A few design tips here, though:

  • Don’t be afraid to be yourself and talk like a human – not a human pretending to be a TV presenter…
  • A good way to record lectures is to do them live (ideally with an audience) and record them. Having real questions from students is irreplaceable.
  • All assimilative material can be made more interactive. All. There is no excuse to talk people to death whether you are in a physical or virtual lecture.
  • In fact, being online can give you access to a significant range of material – make good use of found and federated material

Tutorials and desk tuition

Holding online tutorials can be done in many ways but the simplest is a form of ‘show and tell’, where students present material followed by a discussion. Typically, this is better in smaller groups of 5-8 students, depending on time available and the stage/detail of work.

If you are running interim submissions of weekly sessions, then a really nice way to do this is by using a whiteboard application.

  1. Get students to prepare for the session by having images ready (And optimised for web use!!!);
  2. post a running order or have a sign-up and get students to attend all sessions
  3. Set guidelines for the presentation (e.g. 3 minute quick pitch)
  4. Hold a timed discussion and make use of visual interaction on the whiteboard – sketching over images is a good way to
  5. If you’re not recording the session, make sure you take a screen capture of any over-marked work
  6. Summarise each discussion/feedback – even better, with feedforward
  7. Ideally, get student to summarise their feedback

A list of whiteboard tools can be found in the Resources page but here’s a few to look at right away:

You can also run tutorial sessions without a whiteboard. An online meeting service (e.g. Skype, Zoom, social media meetups) can work just as well because tuition is about emergent issues that arise during the session.

Hence, starting in one medium and then moving to another might be more appropriate. For example, you might start in Skype, a discussion about problem framing comes up and you switch to do a presentation in Prezi, then over to a whiteboard to try a few examples.

Similarly, if you need to spend time with a single student it can still be useful to do this with a whiteboard in order to have options to broaden the discussion in whatever way is useful.

Use whatever you need to make your tuition work.


  • Whiteboards are great for quick ideas, sketching and also image sharing (have Google images running in the background for that picture of X to share with students…)
  • Once you get into the swing of this you can start to take a back seat and let students take more responsibility in the discussion – suggest they continue discussion outside of the session
  • Even if you’re running a lecture, having a whiteboard running at the same time is useful (even to allow students to doodle while you talk…

Accessibility and participation

Whatever medium you choose to communicate with, it should be accessible for your students.

This can be a significant barrier in some online services that consider only the very superficial aspects of accessibility. It can also be difficult to do this quickly and in an ‘emergency’ so start with what you know – your students’ needs – and work from there.

WC3 Web Accessibility Tutorials
WC3 Accessibility tools


Not everyone has or wants a digital presence. Forcing students online or to sign up for particular services is ethically challenging.

You should, wherever possible make allowance for this and provide alternative options as far as possible.

It is very likely that your students will need to be online at some point, however. Asking students what options they have available to them is useful but do this in a considerate way and certainly not publicly.

Consider the activities you are setting and try to allow for an offline / online balance in favour of offline. Set activities that require less of an online demand (fewer and/or smaller files to upload) and flexibility in submission times (e.g. a 12-hour period to allow off-peak online access).

Make sure you know what your institution is doing to support students online.

You could also try handing this as a challenge to your students: where can they get online? Find free wifi? Could they use phones instead? Social media to submit assignments?

Published by Derek Jones

Derek Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University (UK), part of the OU Design Group, and the Convenor of the DRS Pedagogy SIG. His main research interests are: the pedagogy of design and creativity, embodied cognition in physical and virtual environments, and theories of design knowledge.

2 thoughts on “Staying connected

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