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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

Collaborative distance-learning in a time of coronavirus

James Derounian of the Association of National Teaching Fellows offers tips on delivering quality distance-learning for quarantined students.

James Derounian, Dr, Visiting Professor at University of Bolton

There is none so zealous as the reformed smoker and, now, distant-deliverers of higher education (HE) teaching and learning. For years, distance learning was seen by managers as a Cinderella. But we’re all born-again remote teachers now, c/o Covid-19.

‘We should recognise that what’s good for the remote student is, likewise, good for those used to face-to-face learning.’

My overriding advice is to embrace collaborative distance learning as not only good for part-timers or those at a distance from an HE Institution: we should recognise that what’s good for the remote student is, likewise, good for those used to face-to-face learning. Both depend on fundamentals like clarity of communication, regular checking on student understanding, and enabling a conversation and exchange to take place between student and lecturer. It is important to ensure regular staff ‘appearances’ online, preferably on a set time and day (for example, in students’ usual/expected lecture slots), in order to overcome the feeling that they’re being overlooked. It’s crucial – as it is with all students – to be dependable, to build relationships and trust, and to be responsive to their concerns rather than just leaving them ‘hanging in the ether’ (Salmon, no date)

Synchronous contact sessions – that is, sessions in which students and staff are ‘present’ together using technologies like virtual learning environments (VLEs) – enable interaction that mimics face-to face. You can have virtual break-out groups; intersperse ‘talk and chalk’ with electronic polls to garner student inputs; lecturers and students can post questions to stimulate discussion. And the beauty is that the online session can be recorded, and thereby become a permanent resource for students to return to at times that suit them, as opposed to fitting with a rigid timetable. Similarly, prerecorded materials may be accessed asynchronously, at individuals’ convenience, and allow for collaborative study with peers and tutors. Given social distancing requirements in a time of pandemic, virtual sessions facilitate learning while reducing the likelihood of infection transmission.

There are also opportunities for electronic formative and summative assessment preparation, support and feedback. Use of VLEs can be complemented by other ‘remote’ means such as email exchange, mobile phone or ‘conference call’ tutorials, and the use of online platforms. Of course, the assessment must fit the module, purpose and learning outcomes, and it may require extra work to revise assessment briefs in light of social distancing.

Another example of collaborative distance learning is the group essay produced by groups of students via VLE. A few years back I set a task was for undergraduates who typically didn’t know each other, to work in electronic teams of four to produce a joint essay on the principles of community-based work. As they assembled the essay, students practiced aspects of community development, such as inclusion and integration of work. A portion of marks was awarded according to how individual students reflected on the assignment by linking their experience to the principles they had studied: for example, did everyone pull their weight or were there passengers? What this example demonstrated was that the process is the product – where a group worked well, the resulting essay was invariably decent. In a few cases, of course, the reverse was true – where they fell out, they crashed and burned. One student commented,

‘I feel that the task turned out to be just like belonging to a real live community. One dropped out due to too much work, one had to leave through ill health… I feel that a successful outcome was achieved by taking ownership of the task.’
(Skinner & Derounian, 2008)

Or you could pose an online question as a time-limited task, to replace a conventional exam. I recently moderated an online conversation among around 20 final-year undergraduates. This was as part of a module studying power in the modern world. Students were required to post contributions electronically as roughly four 400-word inputs spread over a month, which needed to be responsive to points from others. I explained this in terms of being at a party, where someone – in this case me – starts a conversation by asking, ‘To what extent can local communities influence decision-making?’ They then interacted and developed the dialogue.

I never thought a pandemic would vault distance learning into the mainstream. But it’s gone… viral. Keep as safe as you can, colleagues, families, and students.


Salmon, G, (no date). The Five Stage Model [Webpage]. Retrieved from

Skinner, E. and Derounian, J. (2008) Building community through online discussion. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (2) 57-70. [accessed online 07.04.2020]