Teaching Materials for Low-Tech Online Teaching: Planning for Social Distancing

by | Nov 27, 2020 | General | 0 comments

In this guest post, the first of two looking at low-tech materials for online teaching, Dr Mary Morrissey, Associate Professor in Early Modern English Literature at the University of Reading, offers advice to teachers about the different teaching materials to use to help plan and teach online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The advice is to help teachers to think about the different ways low-tech can be used to incorporate different teaching methods to cater to students with different learning needs, especially for those who have acccessibility issues. The post is designed to show how this can be easily developed from teaching resources already in hand with teaching documents, and how this can be useful in teaching pedagogy more widely.

Teaching in most HEIs during this academic year is being conducted with at least some Covid-19-related restrictions in place. What follows 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 plan our teaching so that we can work from the resources we already have, particularly teaching documents.


Planning for Teaching with Social Distancing

For a great many of us, 2020 has involved a ‘temporary pivot’ towards online teaching with some social distancing restrictions in place, not a permanent move online. Nonetheless, with a little planning we may create resources for this crisis that prove useful afterwards.

For example:

  • We usually plan our lectures around 1-hour or 2-hour slots; we may need to think about timings more flexibly.
  • For a seminar, where interaction may be more difficult, we could give time to ‘breakout groups’, and/or give time for students to watch video resources prepared in advance. A short introduction to the topic (like a mini lecture) could start the conversation.
  • For a lecture, we might deliver the material in a mixed format: perhaps mixing recorded video with live discussion.

With lectures, we need to consider:

  • What material from the normal lecture can best be delivered ‘live’ and online?
  • What material is background or context and could be provided in advance (and/or played through in the timetabled time) in a recording.
  • What material might actually work better as post-lecture reading?
  • Could pauses be created with short polls, short Q and As?

Most of us will be using privately-owned devices at home. To protect our own and students’ privacy:

  • Before a session in which you plan to ‘share’ your screen, make sure all programmes that send notifications are OFF and not running in the background: this is especially important for email.
  • Use an ‘Incognito’ private browser window, so that your search history does not appear. On Chrome: top right, click the three dots icon> New Incognito Window. In the new window, check for the Incognito icon .
  • Online teaching should not lead to an ‘always on’ culture. Make your online office hours visible to students – perhaps in your email signature – along with your general working hours (especially if they do not include weekends).


Using Our Existing Documents

We can still deliver a lot of teaching using the tools that we are already familiar with: documents and readings. We may need to think more about how we use these, however, as students will need more direction on what the document is for and how they are expected to use it when we are not using them in seminars together. This is particularly true for first year students.

Any current handout can be uploaded in Word or (to save formatting) as PDF. PDF are smaller in terms of memory use, so easier for students downloading on old machines or on phones. PowerPoint presentations can be annotated with ‘notes’ that will provide students with additional information that might otherwise have been provided in the lecture.

Not interactive.

Accessibility considerations:
PDFs are harder to edit for those with sight impairments than Word Documents: You need to ensure that you make the Word document accessible before saving as PDF, so that the formatting remains.  Microsoft offers useful advice here on making Word documents accessible.


Making documents accessible

  • Use legible font sizes: at least 12 point (documents) or 18 point (PowerPoint). Use sans serif fonts if possible.
  • In Word, use ‘Styles’ to designate hierarchies of headings etc: for reading software this is vital to help users navigate the document. In PowerPoint, use the ‘Titles’ textbook for each slide, so that machine readers can navigate the document.
  • In all documents, use ‘alt text’ to describe any images used. If the image contains content-material (graphs, or artworks being discussed), then you need to include a description of what the image shows (‘graph 1 shows a 20% increase; the portrait shows the sitter staring out the window’, etc.) within the text, so that the visually impaired can follow the argument. Use captions to introduce audio or video files embedded in the presentation.
  • Insert a text link (Insert menu> insert hyperlink) rather than paste in the URL: machine readers will not be able to read the URL. Add meaningful hyperlink text: Don’t use terms like ‘Click here’ for the link, but give the link a title that will convey information about the destination (‘See BBC news report on Dominic Cummings from March 27th 2020’ for example).
  • Use high-contrast colours between text and background. Do not use colour alone to convey information (‘traffic lights’ system) for those who cannot process all colour contrasts.


For help on creating accessible documents:
On MS Word and PowerPoint, there is an ‘Accessibility’ checker that will help identify any problems. (If it isn’t visible at the bottom left of the screen, you can search for it). Google Docs does not have an Accessibility checker built in, but there is an add-on called Grackle Docs that can be used.


Revising your teaching materials for next year

Check that your folders are labelled consistently, so that students can find it easy to navigate the site. You might want to put a welcome message in the announcements explaining where key documents (assessment timetable and criteria, for example), can be found.

Label items and folders in a way that allows students follow the course: Add ‘week 5 lecture materials’ for example, as well as the title of the text discussed that week. Group materials chronologically, following the teaching pattern rather than by type (videos in one place, documents in another): Cross-refer students to materials, particularly in the reading list.

Check the Accessibility report for your documents, using ‘Ally’ in Blackboard or ‘Atto’ in Moodle.


Further Reading

Emily Nordmann et al, ‘10 simple rules for supporting a temporary online pivot in higher education’, PLOS Computational Biology, (1 Oct. 2020).


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