Create effective synchronous online learning events

WHAT and WHEN this tool/approach is to be used

This resource is useful for teaching staff who are planning synchronous online learning events. This guide focuses on online written interactive discussions, lectures and seminars/workshops.

Why would a teacher use this approach/tool, and link to the 4C features

Synchronous online learning events allow students to interact with, contribute to and shape their learning experience. They enable Q&A in real-time, and increase a sense of collaboration and a learning community.

This guide provides recommended strategies for maximising benefits, and thinking through to mitigate the risks, associated with different types of synchronous online learning events.

How to use this approach/tool

Types of synchronous online learning events, and things to consider for each:

1. Written interactive discussions:

  • Are best organised on Google Chat or in a Wiki (one of the Moodle tools).
  • Use a variety of question types.
  • Encourage the students to ask questions of each other, and consider selecting student discussion leaders (note: provide some coaching/guidance).
  • Encourage contributions which are constructive, respectful and add to the discussion: explicitly supporting others' points is also valuable (and demonstrates active 'listening'), but everyone should try to contribute their own ideas.
  • Clarify to all students that some students will find contributing via live typing and/or written English challenging. To increase inclusivity, emphasise that clear communication is the goal: the crafted eloquence and accuracy in grammar and punctuation desired in written coursework are not essential in this context here. Share at least some of the questions in advance.
  • Encourage students to summarise the discussion/key points as a consolidating follow-up activity.

2. Lectures:

  • Clarify protocols such as keeping microphones off and, if necessary, video off to support bandwidth access for all and note when sessions will be recorded. Let students know when contributions are expected, how to unmute mic when speaking, and how to raise a hand to ask to speak in the chat function.
  • Consider use of music or social chat at the start as people join.
  • Break delivery/topics into chunks of around 7-8 minutes and build in interactive elements such as Q&As, opinion polls, sharing prior/related learning/experience etc to keep students engaged.
  • Ensure any visual content (e.g. a slide deck) is designed according to the digital accessibility guidelines, and uses subtitles.
  • Consider using tools that enable students to ask questions anonymously during a session, for example Padlet (

3. Seminars/workshops:

  • Encourage students to keep their cameras on for live seminars/workshops (if numbers allow), and small group live video sessions, if they can. Let them know in advance that this is encouraged and explain the 'humanising', community-building value of this.
  • Share questions/activities in advance on Moodle and clarify expectations regarding preparation.
  • If using Zoom, consider using break-out groups for small group work addressing a particular question to then feed back into the larger group.
  • Student presentations (prepared in advance or during the session e.g. using Jamboard) enhance interactivity and peer learning. Share the digital accessibility checklist as a brief guide to support students in creating accessible content.
  • Use live subtitling where possible.

General tips

Manage expectations in advance, including:

  • The possibility of technological malfunctions and interruptions, for both tutors and students, with a 'just wait/come back as soon as you can' policy.
  • When and how students will be expected to contribute.
  • Whether or not the event will be recorded (note recording should be the norm to increase accessibility).
  • Recognising that e-learning technologies and modes will be new to some and a period of adjustment is entirely fine.

Remember that some staff and students will not have a private/quiet workspace, and some will have difficulties with particular modes (e.g. written text, visual/auditory context).

Make it valuable, and foreground the benefits of attending/engaging and the relevance to their learning. Both before and during the event, clarify how the learning connects to and builds on other teaching in the module/programme. Make the content, energy and community-building valuable so that students don't want to miss it. At the end, encourage them to explicitly reflect on what they have learned and what they have enjoyed, so they recognise the gains.

Keep it varied and co-ordinate with other module leaders as far as possible to avoid repetition across classes.

Some of us are new to this and all of us are learning. Solicit feedback to support ongoing enhancement.

Practise in advance with colleagues.

Record synchronous events to make content available to students unable to attend (or provide an alternative recorded version).

Finally, ensure all relevant activities are added to the Student Study Plan for the module in question.

Inclusivity and Accessibility review

This How To guide advocates designing content, delivery and engagement in line with digital accessibility guidelines and mindful of different kinds of challenges facing different students (e.g. access to technology).

Ensure all relevant activities are added to the Student Study Plan for the module in question.

All online resources should be compatible with the UK Digital Accessibility Standards 2020. See Creating Digitally Accessible Learning and Teaching Materials Brookes Moodle course.

Use the Blackboard Ally tool to help check the accessibility of the content you have prepared (available within Moodle late July - early August 2020).


  • Andrea Macrae

Further resources/references