Student Experience and Wellbeing Teaching and Learning

Are your staff digitally ready to communicate with learners online?

Kellie and Scott explore how a transition to online delivery at scale impacts on both staff and student wellbeing. How digitally ready are your staff? Top tips and useful resources included.

As the transition to online delivery at scale gathers momentum many teachers are understandably anxious about how to model appropriate online behaviour and protocols with learners. What platforms should I use? How do I establish boundaries with learners?  How can I demonstrate the kind of empathy and support for my learners that I do when in a face-to-face class or lecture?

These are all important questions to ask and the approach organisations adopt will need to take into account the processes and platforms they already have in place and the specific needs of their learners. For some staff, using online platforms to interact with learners will be a big leap out of their comfort zones, but there is a lot of support and guidance out there already to help.

Jisc subject specialists Scott Hibberson and Kellie Mote offer their observations and guidance.


How digitally ready are your staff?

Before the coronavirus outbreak Jisc carried out a teaching staff survey which provides insights into how teaching staff are using technology and how they feel they’re being supported. One key finding from the report is that teaching staff, especially those in FE, get most of their digital support from other teaching colleagues.

With the shift towards remote working, organisations need to think about what peer networks can be put in place to create opportunities for staff to collaborate and work together. Collaborating online with peers and students to ensure that disruption to learning is mitigated wherever possible can make a big difference, but there are also challenges that staff need to be mindful of.

Balancing empathy whilst establishing boundaries

That rapport and empathy that a teacher builds in class can often be tricky to replicate in an online context.

Meeting with students online may cause concerns about breaching boundaries or questions about etiquette. It’s important to ensure that both staff and students are protected and understand how to maintain boundaries online. It may be simpler for staff to use personal accounts to interact with students, but this presents a number of safeguarding risks that can create more problems than it solves.

Consult with colleagues with a responsibility for online learning over which platforms you should use and for what purpose. It makes practical sense to make use of platforms your organisation already has to communicate with students wherever possible. This will minimise the need to rapidly upskill staff and ensure that they operate in a safe online environment.

Using popular social media tools may well be simple to use with learners, but the risk of your work life bleeding into your personal life is considerably higher. In this difficult time when technology is often presented as a ‘silver bullet’ it’s especially important for all teaching staff to feel that they can detach themselves from their work and have the downtime they need too.

Top Tips

  • Clearly communicate your expectations to students when working online. Guidance may be as simple as reminding students to dress as they would at college when using webcams.
  • Using a webcam can add a personal touch and help to build rapport, but be mindful of your surroundings and, if possible, use a dedicated work space. When presenting online, if you do not feel comfortable using a webcam then don’t. You can show your slides or other material and only use audio.
  • Recording online sessions not only creates a useful reference for students, you will also have a record of exactly what was said. Be mindful that even if you do not record a session, a student might, so do not say anything that you would not be comfortable with becoming public.
  • If you are new to teaching, close in age to your students, are feeling vulnerable, or are overly concerned with being liked by students, you might find yourself at more risk of forgetting about boundaries. Keep reflecting on your motivations if you feel boundaries may be blurring. Could you justify your actions to a concerned parent or manager?
  • It feels good to help others who are experiencing difficulties, but creating a situation where a student becomes emotionally reliant on a member of staff, especially where that student is young or vulnerable, could be interpreted as grooming behaviour and constitute a serious abuse of trust.
  • Be mindful of the language you use – terms of endearment or banter could easily be misinterpreted online.

Useful resources

There’s a number of useful resources across the sector to help staff and students, including:

  • The University of Leeds has launched a free new course on Future Learn Preparing to Learn Online at University. It includes the broader aspects of studying and researching online, as well as methods for collaborating and communicating.
  • The Open University has developed an online module on Communicating Online as part of its Being Digital series. The module covers ensuring your interactions with others online are appropriate and effective.
  • The Education and Training Foundation’s Enhance platform includes a number of freely available online modules to support teachers, including topics like digital wellbeing and digital footprint.
  • The mental health charity Mind provides guidance on how to maintain healthy relationships online and flags many of the potential misunderstandings and pitfalls that can happen.

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