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Queen Mary Academy

Designing online courses

Spring 2020 saw lecturers across the world adopting emergency online teaching measures to complete delivery of modules once Covid-19 lockdown had resulted in the closure of most university campuses and the end of face to face teaching. 

Emergency transfer to online teaching was a huge challenge in itself, but now we are faced with the even greater challenge of preparing courses for delivery fully online, or with potential for a combination of face to face and online elements.  Designing for online teaching isn’t just a case of transferring face to face sessions to webinars – trying to simply replicate face to face contact with online contact can prove exhausting for staff and students and is likely not the best way to engage your students when studying online.   

Online teaching and learning activities can be divided into: 

  • synchronous – those happening in real time such as webinars or live chats 
  • asynchronous – those that happen in students’ own time such as posting in a forum, completing a quiz / worksheet, watching a video or viewing narrated powerpoint slides 

It’s important to think about how you can use both modes to complement each other and support students to achieve your intended learning outcomes.  You need to think critically about the role of the students and teacher in online learning, and how to promote effective engagement between them (students-teacher, and students-students).  Research shows that active learning and interactivity in online teaching enhances learning (Durrington et al, 2006; Croxton, 2014; Kent et al, 2016; Dailey-Hebert, 2018).  Interactivity will also be hugely important for student engagement, and opportunities to collaborate and have discussion with peers will be vital for activating the social side of learning and helping to combat the isolation of distance learning. 

It can be useful to begin by thinking about the types of learning activities that students undertake on your module.  Diana Laurillard’s learning types provide a useful framework for thinking about this: 

  • Acquisition (watching a video, listening to a lecture, reading an article) 
  • Discussion (learner articulates their ideas and questions and respond to peers and teacher) 
  • Investigation (learner explores, compares, critiques course resources) 
  • Practice (learner develops through practising and re-trying, receiving feedback and drawing on that to try again)  
  • Collaboration (drawing on discussion, practice and production – students work together to produce a shared output while challenging and negotiating with each other) 
  • Production (learner uses knowledge and consolidated by producing something new for teacher to evaluate) 

(This is drawn from the ABC Learning Design process which is a fast method for redesigning teaching for blended or online learning, first developed at UCL – see more here:, and on our dedicated QMPlus page 

Asynchronous activities 

The asynchronous elements of online teaching can still be highly active and engaging for students.  If face to face contact time was spent doing large amounts of acquisition (e.g. students listening to a lecture), is there a reason to deliver this material synchronously online?  Can this material be provided asynchronously instead, for example via narrated slides?  Can you add questions, quizzes, 1 minute papers or other activities for students to complete as they work through the slides in their own time?  Could you replace some of the lecture with a Youtube video explaining a key concept?  If you want to use a recorded lecture then think about breaking up the video into shorter segments, and again consider about how you could use a quiz (e.g. asynchronous Kahoot, or QMplus quiz) or reflective questions (post responses in a forum), or even a skeleton handout for students to fill in as they watch to add an element of more active engagement. 

Other face to face activities such as seminar discussion, group project work, workshops or lab activities can also be moved into an active asynchronous format (learning types: collaboration, discussion, investigation, practice, production).  Some potential types of activities could include:   

Self-directed learning – students formulate investigative questions around your learning outcomes and test their hypotheses:   

  • design small assignments around various outcomes and allow the students to pick and choose the ones they prefer;  
  • create opportunities for the students to develop a project incorporating several learning outcomes;  
  • ask students to come up with their own critical thinking questions around content and then provide answers.  

Small group work – collaborative work:  

  • encourage students work together to solve problems, share ideas, and discuss content;  
  • suggest that students form study groups to support each other through the course; 
  • have students create a short video or other different presentation format;   
  • suggest free tools that allow for group chats and interactions.  

Discussion forums – interactive and truly facilitate participation:  

  • set out guidelines for posting in the forum (number of responses required and behaviour expectations);  
  • identify an open-ended topic question;  
  • ask students to post meaningful insights in response;  
  • encourage students to post questions, comments, and insight;  
  • provide feedback;  
  • advocate for other students to provide input.  

Synchronous activities 

If your acquisition activities could take place asynchronously, then what would you use synchronous contact time with students for?  Consider learning activities that involve collaboration, discussion, investigation, practice and production. How will these complement the asynchronous activities you are developing for students to undertake independent study, small group work or discussions?  

If you previously held face to face seminars, discussion groups or workshops, then webinars can work very well in place of these.  Webinars allow for community building and important social interaction, discussions and debates, opportunities for live feedback, informal assessment and more.  

There are a wide range of interactive activities you can use within webinars such as breakout groups, polling, chat, annotating a slide, writing on a whiteboard, quizzes (using external student response systems such as Mentimeter, Kahoot, PollEverywhere,, Padlet etc) student presentations, raising hands or using reactions.  Ask students questions and get them to type a response, raise their hand to speak, or write their comment on a whiteboard.  For group brainstorms ask students to add their comments to a blank table on a slide.  Ask students to annotate an image or diagram or to complete blanks in a table.   

Some of these methods are not very practical for very large synchronous groups.  With very large webinars it won’t be possible for everyone to speak and it may be a challenge to manage any level of interaction with the students – for this reason it can be extremely helpful to have a co-presenter to help moderate the session.  A co-presenter could manage the chat, set up polling or quizzes while the main presenter focuses on their presentation.  For very large groups polls or multiple choice questions (either integrated into Blackboard Collaborate or using one of the external student response systems) may be the most practical interaction method.  If you have already been using clickers or Kahoot during face to face lectures then this can be recreated online.   

For very large modules it may also not be practical to move the acquisition content online, and interactivity for these students may not happen so much during synchronous webinars, but during asynchronous activities.  

You should also consider providing an alternative to attending live synchronous sessions for those students unable to attend for various good reasons (international students now in a different time zone, no suitable study space, internet connectivity issues etc).  Set out the alternative option for these students, for example they must watch the recording of the webinar and then complete a quiz or answer questions in a discussion forum – it is especially important for these students to receive tutor feedback and to find ways to encourage interaction with their peers.  If you are setting up group work or study groups, then ensuring that there are a mix of local and international students within each group can be a great start.   

Some final thoughts: 

  • Start with your intended learning outcomes: how can students achieve these online? 
  • Active learning and interactivity online can be synchronous and asynchronous  
  • How can we activate the social side of learning online? 
  • Webinars can combine effectively with asynchronous activities 
  • Do what works for you - keep it simple  

Interactive online teaching guide

View the full Queen Mary Academy guide for supporting the development of interactive teaching online below.  This guide explores synchronous and asynchronous activities and how they can be combined, considers student engagement online, communication and interaction with students, and moving assessment online.

Interactive online teaching and learning guide [PDF 424KB]

Visit our QMplus page for asynchronous learning and teaching for more ideas on designing interactive asynchronous activities and examples of good practice from colleagues.

The Queen Mary Academy and E-learning Unit are running ABC learning design sessions to support you in redesigning your courses online, see our training page for more information. 



Croxton, R.A. (2014) The role of interactivity in student satisfaction and persistence in online learning. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(2), 314-325.   

Dailey-Hebert, A. (2018) Maximizing Interactivity in Online Learning: Moving beyond Discussion Boards. Journal of Educators Online,15(3).  

Durrington, V., Berryhill, A. and Swafford, J. (2006) Strategies for Enhancing Student Interactivity in an Online Environment. College Teaching, 54, 190-193.   

Kent, C., Laslo, E. and Rafaeli, S. (2016) Interactivity in online discussions and learning outcomes. Computers & Education, 97, 116–128.