Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Teaching and learning online

Sarah Cornelius, Carole Gordon and Jan Schyma, University of Aberdeen


Online learning provides an opportunity to engage diverse and distributed learners, often using approaches that would be impossible face-to-face. It has become part of the experience of all learners, regardless of whether they are on- or off-campus, and includes both formal tutor-directed activities and informal self-directed study. Students are connected to their peers and teachers via institutional computer systems and their own devices. Online teaching and learning is already, or will become, part of the experience of all lecturers and tutors. However, online learning is rarely something that teachers have experienced as learners themselves, and they need to be aware when teaching online that there can be barriers to learning for some students, created by issues of access, technological skill and individual needs.

In any online context the lecturer or tutor remains important. They have a role in building relationships and nurturing supportive communities of learning built on effective rapport, trust and reciprocity. They need to help learners engage effectively with learning opportunities, demonstrate competence with the technologies they use, and design and facilitate learning activities with creativity and flexibility. Crucially, online learning needs a good understanding of learners’ needs and experiences (Sharpe et al., 2010).

There are three main approaches to online learning:
  1. Asynchronous – the use of discussion forums, blogs and wikis which allow learners to contribute at times that suit them characterises asynchronous learning. Currently, most tools used for asynchronous learning are text-based (so there is an emphasis on writing), but tools using audio and video are becoming more common. Salmon (2011) provides essential advice on designing effective activities for asynchronous online learning.
  2. Synchronous – tools such as Skype, web conferencing and Google Hangouts require same-time, same (online)-space attendance, and increase opportunities for engagement and interaction. Approaches to teaching with these tools vary from presentation style ‘webinars’ to facilitated group discussions and collaborative activities using web conferencing software such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect. Cornelius et al. (2014) offer examples of strategies that work effectively in these environments and provide an insight into learners’ and teachers’ experiences of synchronous online learning.
  3. Blended – a combination of synchronous and asynchronous approaches, perhaps together with face–to-face interaction, can be used during a course to provide flexibility and variety for learners. Sometimes the mix includes mobile and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook. Using a variety of tools requires skill from the lecturer or tutor or a team approach to the design and delivery. Macdonald (2008) provides advice for lecturers and tutors designing blended online learning.
Advice on teaching online:
  • Aim to adopt learner-centred practices to help you put learners’ needs and preferences first when you design and implement learning activities.
  • Develop your own skills with appropriate technologies. Working alongside experienced colleagues, team teaching and engaging in reflective dialogue are all effective ways of developing skills.
  • Develop an understanding of the student experience of online learning. Enrol as a student in online courses to get first-hand experience, but evaluation of your own teaching is important to understand the diversity of responses to working online.


Cornelius, S., Gordon, C. and Schyma, J. (2014) Live Online Learning: Strategies for the web conferencing classroom. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan

Macdonald, J. (2008) Blended Learning and Online Tutoring: Planning learner support and activity design. Farnham, Gower.

Salmon, G. (2011) e-Moderating: The key to successful teaching and learning online, 3rd edn. Abingdon, Routledge

Sharpe, R., Beetham, H. and de Freitas, S. (2010) Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: How learners are shaping their own experiences, Abingdon, Routledge