Many teachers, parents and learners of all ages have discovered the world of video conferencing in recent weeks as schools have moved online. People are now openly chatting about Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts etc. in the context of teaching ‘live’ online. For some this is working well, but for others it has not been as easy as first imagined.
Teaching live online, is hard and can be a very tiring experience for both teacher and learners. My first live online teaching experience was one of the most draining experiences of my life. I still recall the tiredness I experienced on turning off the microphone having talked at my students, at probably 100 miles an hour, for a period of sixty minutes. It was not a pleasant experience for me, or for them. Subsequently I reflected on these practices and it became the focus of my doctoral research and it still continues to fascinate me today.

We assume that if we bring people online and use the ‘right’ technologies, then we can recreate the face-to-face classroom experience virtually. Unfortunately, it is not that straight forward and the research shows that online distance education can be much better and also much worse than classroom education. This clearly depends on a range of factors, including the teacher, the learners and the learning strategies utilised. The research is clear on the need to provide quality interaction for your learners and NOT speak at students for 60 minutes. All too often such technologies only support information transmission and learners are lost and become disengaged. Interaction in online learning is key and in the live settings we need to give students their voice. A colleague of mine once said:

“I don’t like the sound of my own voice too much [nervous laughter] so I love to give voice to others and to build up the team and that everybody in the [online live] classroom is teaching, like using all the resources in the classroom, that it is not just one teacher but everybody has something to teach and to share and to try and draw that out.”

Video-conferencing tools were developed for the world of business, so people could meet and discuss remotely online at the same time. These technologies have matured significantly in terms of their features and functionality in the past 5 years and today we use these technologies to regularly ‘connect’ with friends and family. The tools are becoming much easier to use, so therefore it appears to be straight forward in using these tools in educational contexts. Recently a colleague in higher education asked if I had a template for a 2 hour live teaching session and it made me ask, why would you even try and teach live for 2 hours online, as it would be unbelievably stressful? But this is a very reasonable question to ask, because the technology allows you to connect live with your learners and so you can surely just apply your face-to-face strategies in an online live setting?  Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Key elements of online teaching
Figure 1, The 3 key elements of online teaching

So the question initiated a conversation and I suggested that it might work better to utilise the 3 elements of online teaching and redesign the 2 hour face-to-face lecture in a different way.

I suggested:

  • Why not record a series of short lecture snippets [no longer than 15 minutes] and upload these to the college’s learning management system and then have a 60 minute live session where the materials could be discussed and interrogated?
  • In this way the live session could take the form of an informed discussion, where learners could interact with the content in advance and then come prepared to discuss it with their peers and their teacher.
  • If there were issues that required further discussion, then the discussion could continue afterwards on a forum, such as Teams.


Such a model of learning is typically referred to as the flipped classroom model, and it is captured below in figure 2. Typically it consists of 3 phases: before; during and after the live class. Learners engage with the learning materials before and after the live session.  In the live session they typically actively participate in a range of learning activities.

Flipped classroom graphic
Figure 2, Flipped Classroom

This model ensures that the live session is extremely productive, with the teacher playing the role of a facilitator, who ensures that learners are engaged and interacting with him, their peers and the content. It takes an extremely skilled teacher to design and implement such engaging live learning sessions as they need to stand back and let the learners take ownership.
The creation of such interactive sessions takes planning and I particularly like Jonathan Finkelstein’s analogy of a dinner party in relation to how a teacher might plan and facilitate such a live synchronous teaching event.

Dinner party anology
Figure 3, Dinner Party Analogy

Before you engage live with your learners you should also check out the PDST Video Conferencing and Video Calling Guidelines, and the practical advice they provide around hosting such events. Once you have selected the appropriate technology and you have the various permissions in place, you then need to prepare for your live session by ensuring it is planned and timed. For more on this you should visit the recently created Hibernia College course on how to plan your online teaching session.

Sample lesson structure

A colleague once said, “You can’t just rock up to an online session”, you need to be prepared and have a plan of what you are going to do and for how long. That means knowing what activities you will engage in and how long these activities will last for, as timing is key.

Prepare for their arrival

When your learners arrive, welcome them by name and ensure that everyone is able to communicate with you, via their microphone or via the chat box. You need to have clear guidelines for your learners in relation to the use of video cameras, will they be on or off etc. These ground rules should be communicated in advance of the live session.

Welcome them warmly

So when the learners have arrived you might break them up into smaller groups, using a breakout room feature, so they can chat to their friends for a few minutes before your start. This works well with adults who may not have seen one another for a few months at this stage, but it can also work well with younger children. Ultimately you want people to be safe and to feel secure.

Frequently assess the mood of the room

Once people are relaxed and ready to engage you should begin your learning activities and constantly monitor to see if learners are engaged and if they are interacting. It is always good to have ‘plenty’ learning activities, but don’t feel you have to use them all. It has happened that an activity I planned did not work, so I moved on to something else and you need to be ready for such events.

Make everyone feel welcome

In planning your session, design them in such a way that you include everyone. If you break people up into small groups, then they can discuss and one person can report back to the bigger group. So in this way you need to consider what role your learners will play during this live session:

  • Will they be listening?
  • Will they have opportunities to speak to their fellow learners in small groups?
  • Will they get a chance to speak to the group?
  • Will they have to interact using the chat function?

Facilitate connections

These decisions will depend on the technology selected, the size of the group and the age of the learners. There is no one-size-fits-all formula here, but you must consider how learners can interact with you and their fellow learners? There is a tendency, as I have done myself, for the teacher to overly dominate the discussion in such live events. It is a good idea to keep a piece of paper and jot down when you speak and for how long. You need to give your learners an opportunity to connect and you need to stay quiet, on occasion.

Offer learners something to take home

When the session is over, it is good practice to give them something to take-away and for the learning to continue on the learning management system. You might not have had time to finish a discussion during the session, so it is good to continue it online later, using Teams or some other platform. Finally, always finish on time and don’t go on over time. This again enables you to continue the discussion on another platform.

Live online learning can be really engaging and beneficial, but it needs to be carefully planned and it needs to have a clear purpose. When used in this way, the live teaching sessions are blended in with asynchronous learning session and teachers can create a flipped classroom experience for their pupils, as captured below by regular TeachNet blog contributor, Kevin Maguire in an example from his Dublin primary school…

Flipped Classroom Approach

Preparation for the arrival

Our daily conference call is set each day for the same time of 12AM which best suits parents, students and the teacher. This provides a good structure around the students day and gives them a sense of routine and normality. Each morning the students are sent their homework at 9:30 AM using the ClassDojo platform. This allows the students plenty of time to work away at the homework. Before I begin the call, I ensure to have the homework screenshots uploaded into Activinspire so that I can edit and annotate over the work as I talk through it with the students.

Warm Welcome

The first five minutes of the conference involves a catch up and a chat. I welcome the students and we all talk about what we have been doing. They discuss what they spent their evening at the day before and what they have been doing this morning. They share ideas and tell stories to one another.

Frequently assessing the room

Once everyone has joined and is set up I ask the students to open their relevant workbooks and we begin to discuss the homework. They share parts that they found difficult and I help them. I do this by using the share screen tool in the conference platform and going through the relevant questions/paragraphs etc. I regularly ask the students if they can hear and see me clearly. The students frequently give feedback and discuss the different work. I introduce new concepts very gradually and ensure all students are comfortable with them.

Have more food than you need

Sometimes I have found that a few students are finished the work and do not need to go through it with me. In these cases, I will have some additional work on the screen and ask them to work on that while I talk through the other homework.

Make everyone feel included

If we are doing some math work, I will ask all of the students individually to share their answers in turn so that each is given the opportunity to speak and talk about any issues they are having. They lead the discussion and I try my best to facilitate it with good questioning. I also frequently use my mobile device [a second device] to join into the chat. I find this very helpful as it allows me to see what the presentation looks like to others and this helps me grasp if the students can see my screen clearly or not.

Facilitate connections and interaction

The students often do project work and during the conference call I ask each of them to give feedback to each-other on what they have learned. Those who feel comfortable talking give their piece and others learn from them.

Something to take home

Some virtual conference platforms allow for the recording of the conference. I have used this during third level lectures with the permission of the students and have emailed the link to students that missed the lecture. At primary level I do not record the conference but in conclusion of the live chat I will refer the children back to the ClassDojo page where they can access the homework list again. I will also refer them to links that are relevant to the work and research that they are doing as part of the homework. This gives the students some extra resources that they can use in their learning.

Leave on a positive note

Our class lesson normally lasts between 30 minutes and 50 minutes. I will always end the class on a good humoured and positive note. Sometimes I leave the students with  a riddle they must solve before the next lesson or I ask them to share a joke or even their plans for the day. This leaves the students feeling positive about the lesson and eager to join back in the following day.

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