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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Robinson


The Matterhorn

My First Online Course

My first online course has now finished. It was an algebra -based Introductory Physics course, taken by 200 students in May and June. Many of the students have significant anxiety about taking any Physics course, let alone during a pandemic lockdown, so naturally, reducing stress and being “there" were extremely important design factors. I've taught this particular course many times, so I have plenty of PowerPoint slides available.

So here are my preliminary conclusions.

1. It worked!✅

Takes a metaphorical bow, and sighs with relief.

2. Asynchronous lecture material✅

Pre-recorded narrated PowerPoint segments, each 10-20 minutes long. There are many ways of recording presentations. I chose to use the inbuilt recording features of PowerPoint. This was all done on my laptop, whilst sitting on a sofa. I did invest in a Bluetooth headset and microphone, and I would highly recommend doing this, if you are going to record.

3. Some synchronous sessions (virtual office hours)✅

We had software called Big Blue Button, which has similar features to Zoom, but is embedded into our Learning Management System (a flavour of Moodle).

4. Have everything ready before you start, if possible.✅

I did not quite manage this. I had lectures fully recorded and online at the outset. However, I was still extending the quiz question bank whilst trying to hold synchronous meetings with students. This left me short on time, as I also had extensive child-care responsibilities too.

5 Encourage student discussion ✅

I put a discussion forum online. It was quite successful, more so than in regular classes. Ideally, I'd like a safe (moderated) space which I don’t look at, to leave students to freely discuss class content. This was probably the area I would like to improve the most in the current design.

More recommendations

Don't underestimate the time it takes to get all this done. It’s a big time-investment. Lots of video to be made, saved, and posted. Just loading files and creating URLs in your LMS takes time.

Record lectures in short-ish chunks, maybe 10-15 minutes.

Have plenty of exercises for student reflection (I used low stakes quizzes).

Have summative milestones, so students can measure their progress. (I used a quiz after each topic)

Introduce an element or theme to keep students engaged. #MontyTheDoodle featured in several quiz/assignment questions, and on the course banner, which changed weekly.

Monty the Labradoodle with stolen sun hat

Have an explicitly stated policy on assignment extensions.

Mine: "This is an emergency situation, if you need a time extension, just ask. No explanation needed".

I found out that a lot of students

a) Needed time extensions

b) Wanted to tell me why. I was someone to talk to. I think that is important. People shared some very personal stuff with me.

Lecture Recordings

I thought that my recorded lectures wouldn't be as engaging as my live performances (which have a certain adrenaline-filled energy), but I got the same positive feedback about engagement that I usually do.

Don't listen to your own lectures. I hate the sound of my own voice.

Resist the temptation to rerecord lectures to make them perfect. You don't have time for that. A live lecture is rarely perfect!

Public Health

Whilst I love doing live teaching, the risks of doing so at present make this unacceptable. I like teaching, but I am not going to sacrifice my health for the job. I am one of two primary caregivers for a disabled person. I cannot afford to be sick, as it impacts their quality of life directly. I also do not believe that having large numbers of young people in the same room for long periods is good public health policy.


Finally, online teaching can still be a rewarding experience. It is not the same as classroom teaching, but it’s still teaching.

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