Teaching Online

clip_image001Those involved in distance education struggled for many years to interact in live settings with their learners. Distance education is with us since the 1890s while the Open University (OU) created its first online course in 1988. The Internet has done a great deal to transform how learners can now learn at a distance.

One piece of technology that is playing an increasing important role in online teaching and learning is conferencing software or to give its correct term Computer-mediated Conferencing (cmc).

“Computer-mediated conferencing (CMC) is unique among distance education media because of its ability to support high levels of responsive, intelligent interaction between and among faculty and students while simultaneously providing high levels of freedom of time and place to engage in this interactivity.” (Rourke et al., 1999; 50)

Today CMC has advanced even further and now allows us to connect in real-time to give us Synchronous Computer-mediated Conferencing. This family of software includes products such as Adobe Connect, AT&T Connect, Elluminate, Lync and Wimba. The list is growing and many educational institutions are excited by their potential to connect learners at a distance. There is currently great excitement around how such technologies can help students learn at a distance and there is a search for the best software tool. However, Dr. Diana Laurillard in the London Knowledge Lab has a word of warning about that

the properties of a medium do not determine the quality of learning that takes place” (2002; 147).

clip_image002So if you are thinking of using such tools in your school or in your learning organisation it is important to consider how you are going to use the software and what role you expect you and your learners to play. Finkelstein (2006) has some really nice suggestions about how teachers can use the analogy of a dinner party to draw their learners in and make the feel welcome and at ease, while ensuring that meaningful learning takes place.

Here are his suggestions and they will work equally well if you are using tools such as Skype with your learners.

Analogy of a Dinner Party (Adapter from Finkelstein, 2006)

Prepare for their arrival

Have resources ready in advance

When they arrive you can focus on these and on collaboration

Welcome them warmly

Welcome people by name

Create a warm and secure environment

Frequently assess the mood of the room

Frequently check that people are alright

Don’t wait till the end of the evening

Have more food (for thought) than you need

Prepare more activities that you need

Don’t feel you need to use them all

Make everyone feel included

Give people opportunities to interact

Refer to comments made by people by name

Facilitate Connections and conversation, but don’t dominate ever discussion

Your role is to facilitate an environment where learners are exchanging ideas with others, and seeing their peers as resources for ongoing learning

Offer guests something to take home with them

Provide a transcript or a recording of the event

Access to slides, readings or continue the discussion on the forum

Know when to say good night; leave everyone wanting more

End on a high point. Don’t try to cover everything. Monitor the energy levels and go with the group.

Remember you want your learners to go away energised and wanting something more. So if you are a student yourself or a teacher and you have a chance to use SCMC in your teaching you might try some of these strategies out in your setting.


Finkelstein, J. (2006). Learning in Real Time: Synchronous Teaching and Learning Online. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies. (Second Ed.). London and New York: Routledge Falmer.

Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, R. D. and Archer, W. (1999). ‘Assessing Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-based Computer Conferencing’. Journal of Distance Education, 14 (2), 50-71.

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