Teaching Materials for Low-Tech Online Teaching: Online Discussion Groups

by | Nov 27, 2020 | Teaching Portal, Teaching Portal: For Teachers | 0 comments

Teaching in most HEIs next academic year will be conducted with at least some Covid-19-related restrictions in place. In this second post for the Teaching Portal considering low-tech materials for online teaching, Dr Mary Morrissey, Associate Professor in Early Modern English Literature at the University of Reading, offers a summary of some of the ways that we can adapt our current teaching materials to the needs of this new learning environment. It looks at some of the tools available for online teaching that we can use to make our online provision effective and accessible to all students. Some elements of these changes, and some of the teaching resources we create as a result of these changes, may be useful in subsequent years too. This post looks at how we can use facilitate discussion-based teaching with students online. 


Webinars and Online Discussion

Maintaining student engagement is more difficult when we are not seeing each other regularly face-to-face. We will need to build ways to foster discussion without taxing students’ electronic access. This can be done synchronously, where we all log in at the same time, or asynchronously, where a discussion is started by the convenor but students can contribute later. Building in more, and more directed (possibly smaller), discussion tasks into the teaching can foster engagement.


Discussion Boards


  • Easy to set up.
  • Students don’t need any equipment or fast broadband.
  • The pace of the discussion can be set by the convenor: you can set a time in which students should be on the discussion board and contributing (for example, in the timetabled seminar time). You can also start a thread and leave it for students to contribute. (You may want to ensure that you ‘subscribe’ to the thread, as this will send you an email notice that there is something on the discussion board to answer.)
  • You can set up multiple threads, perhaps on different pieces of reading or on different topics.



  • You will need to set up the forums and the threads in advance, but this could form part of normal seminar planning.
  • No option for face-to-face interaction.
  • You can’t share the screen, so that everyone is looking at the same document / slides while the discussion is ongoing.


Accessibility Considerations

If the platform used for the discussion board is compatible with screen reading technology, then whatever is typed directly onto the board (as opposed to documents etc. that we upload) can be accessed by visual impaired students.


Webinars (e.g. BB Collaborate, MS Teams, Zoom, Google Meet)

In some respects, this is the closest online analogue to face-to-face seminars that we have. But these platforms work best if we don’t merely try to replicate face-to-face seminars. ‘Zoom etiquette’ is evolving, for example, and it would be helpful to let your students know whether you expect them to mute their mics at the start, for example. Take a few to introduce everyone to the functions that allow them to participate (‘chat’ functions or ‘raised hand’ function) and how they will be used in that session. Always allow time for everyone to introduce themselves. (If younger family members interrupt a speaker, allow them to be introduced before moving on.). You will need to be very clear about your institution’s policy on recording these sessions: even if this is done to facilitate a student who cannot attend, other class members may have the right to request the recording is edited to remove their contribution.


  •  Interactive. Students can share audio and / or video, or neither (just using chat function) in real time.
  • A webinar platform can be used for discussion and ‘content delivery’: Convenors can share their screen, to foster discussion by putting text / slides on the screen as a prompt to discussion. So, it can act as an effective forum for interactive lectures. You can also play videos through the ‘share content’ menu. Uploading this content can take a few minutes, so it’s best to have this ready in advance.
  • Sessions can be recorded for those who cannot attend at the time (but get advice from your local ITS team on data protection regulations).
  • ‘Breakout groups’ can be used for small group work. If you have a large class, this might allow more students to use audio and / or video, to help them feel more ‘present’ in the session. You can assign people to particular groups in advance, or you can allow the system assign students randomly.



  • Using video in a webinar needs more bandwidth than audio , and platforms differ in how well they manage the demands on data capacity. Screensharing can also add to the demands on bandwidth. This may create accessibility issues for students. Some users may need to turn off their video to prioritise audio participation, and they should know that this is available and acceptable. Other participants may have to re-enter the session after a loss of connection: if you are using breakout groups, ensure they can go back to their group. Student can access some platforms on their phones, so remember that not everyone may be viewing the session on a large screen.


‘Zoom-bombing’: if you are using a platform that isn’t supported by your institution make sure the meeting is password protected or has a waiting room enabled. The RHS blog has some further tips for securing online meetings.


Accessibility Considerations

  • Any documents ‘shared’ on screen should be accessible (see the first post in this series, under ‘Documents’). Keep the design simple, so that it easier for those joining the session on phones or those with visual impairments.
  • Many platforms allow users to choose a background for video-calls. This is a useful function for students, for whom quiet work spaces may overlap with private spaces (like bedrooms). Let your students know if the option to choose a background is available.
  • When sending invitations to students, ask them to let you know (privately through email) of any considerations that you need to build into the planning of the session.
  • Pace the session carefully: perhaps present a short timetable for the session at the start. You can stop every so often to ask for questions (see ‘polls’ below).


Polls and Quizzes

Building some into dual-delivery teaching might facilitate engagement. Most VLEs have tools for setting up polls and quizzes.



  • You can have various types of answers: short answers, multiple choice, opinion scale.
  • For yes/no or multiple-choice questions, you can add feedback on answers that students will see once they answer the question.
  • These tests can be used formatively and without grading.
  • A quick quiz could be used as a formative task, to encourage students to check their progress. It could enable them to check that they have managed new terminology, for example.



  • Not much Humanities teaching involves questions whose answers are right or wrong, so setting test questions will require some thought.
  • Setting up tests from scratch will take time, but they can be revised and re-used from one year to the next.


Polling with webinars

There is an option within Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom to take a quick poll of participants views. This may be a useful way to check students’ engagement and progress, and to ask if students want anything repeated or if they are ready to move on.  Here is a short video explaining how to use polls in Bb Collaborate. And here is a video explaining how to do polls in Zoom meetings.


Accessibility issues

  • Check that the app you use for the quiz can be used on a phone on tablet.
  • If you use video (you can embed video to the questions, for example), ensure that you include a caption explaining what the video is. Similarly, with images ensure you use ‘alt-text’ descriptions.

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