Finding the positives from online learning in a pandemic

At the moment I feel like Rumpelstiltskin trying to find golden threads of what we have delivered over the past year. Some say that this year will have changed University education forever, I must agree, I htink we can take some really positive things from it. We also need to see what aspects of the face to face and campus experience we have really missed and look at getting those back as soon as possible.

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We have adapted and changed our provision overnight. Some things have worked and some didn’t. What are things that have worked?

At the moment I feel like Rumpelstiltskin trying to find golden threads of what we have delivered over the past year. Some say that this year will have changed University education forever, I must agree, I think we can take some really positive things from it. We also need to see what aspects of the face to face and campus experience we have really missed and look at getting those back as soon as possible.

We can probably all think of a session that has worked (and those that haven’t). Some colleagues have done better in translating their material online than others. I’m looking at the bigger themes that we can look to take on next year.

I can probably sum it up as flipped learning has been demonstrated to work on a large scale but students and staff will still need time and space to meet face to face. These others below are some of the major things I can think of or have noted this year. I’m sure lots more are there…

What has worked?

Treating each week as a ‘work package’

We have generally structured our modules by week, with a schedule of activities for the students. They will have asynchronous material recorded to watch (see below) and directed reading/online quizzes/other activities as well. This gives students autonomy over their learning and is anchored around the synchronous (ie live) online session for checking how the students are progressing. With this approach (really a general distance/open learning principle) we acknowledge students have other things going on in life and can work around commitments. It also saves time and money of staff and students commuting into campus (and therefore is greener too!).

Online recorded material

Students have reported that the use of pre recorded material is great for them to watch at their own pace, rather than having to take notes during a continuous lecture.  We know (through analytics and student reports) that the videos are being used for revision and also during the 24 h online exams (see below). It is a very efficient way of delivering material to large groups, and videos may well be usable in the future – some videos have been used across modules/courses as well, meaning less prep time is required.

Tutorial type synchronous session

For the majority of modules there has been at least a one hour live online session each week. Now we do have a few things to work on here but generally students like the more active learning workshop/tutorial type sessions than straight lectures. Not all students engage, we have lots of blank screens and some types of sessions work better than others. When we go back onto campus we will all have lots of this type of session ready to rock,  which hopefully work really well with people being in the room! It will however reawaken the discussion over whether the lecture is dead or not. Most lectures pre pandemic had an aspect of active learning anyway. Thoughts on lectures to come shortly…

Change in exam questions – problem solving

We have struggled a little with exams, some have worked well, others not so well. University policy shifted traditional exams into 24 hour open book exams. This means the type of question has to be changed away from fact/knowledge recall which were more common in the first year or two. This shifts questions up the pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy from the bottom step of remembering up towards analysis and application. Professional bodies have been commenting for a while that exams should have more elements of problem solving – looks like it takes a pandemic to get that to happen!


I have seen some great examples of this in practice from our staff and our local LTA group have been preparing resources for staff to develop their exams for this way of doing things.

Online / virtual labs

The lab experience is key for chemistry and biosciences students for skills development. When the labs were shut it became critical to replace that experience with virtual delivery.  We have done this well for our PG programme in particular this year (paper in prep on the experiences), with our UG programme it has been a bit more piecemeal but those that have been delivered have been high quality and very useful. It is possible for students to gain skills such as experimental design, problem solving, record keeping and data analysis. Many labs have used simulators or recorded material with data analysis. We have also introduced elab books for the MSc, which we will probably keep and possibly roll out to all years next year.

So what hasn’t worked – there’s a fair few things but lets either save those for another day, or file them a ‘learning opportunities’!

I have a few big issues (think lectures, exams) we are thinking about for next year – I’ll pull those into a post soon!

Thanks for reading.

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.