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Blog post Part of special issue: Uncharted terrain: Teaching and learning in higher education for times of uncertainty

Empathy and engagement from a distance: Three learning delivery options in an uncharted terrain

Godwin Ioratim-Uba, Assistant Professor at University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China

My understanding of the uncharted terrain that ensued from January 2020 in China and March 2020 the world over is that human in-person mobility and interaction outside homes has been completely stopped or seriously curtailed at set times due to the highly transmissible and fatal novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Face-to-face teaching and learning in higher education (HE) found itself in uncertain times as stay-at-home directives necessitated total online delivery. Existing academic calendars have by necessity continued in order to fulfil scheduled and paid-for tuition, and to allow for the start of new academic calendars.

Universities in particular have been emboldened to implement creative ways of learning delivery and learner engagement, and I have found myself resident in the United Kingdom and delivering learning to students in China given the impossibility of returning to my place of work in the city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province. Among the online delivery options I used, three have struck me most because they pose a challenge to pedagogical effectiveness (Kanga, 2016): content preparation, student engagement and empathy with students. These three options (outlined below) are undergoing further scrutiny in my ongoing educational research. Each has their limitations, but crucially provide an authentic physical-classroom substitute when it comes to virtual online delivery in the HE context and they fulfil tangible online learning content that is highly capable of meeting students’ ‘classroom’ needs.

‘These three online options … provide an authentic physical-classroom substitute when it comes to virtual online delivery in the HE context and they fulfil tangible online learning content that is highly capable of meeting students’ “classroom” needs.’

The first online delivery option is asynchronous and involves inserting voice-over PowerPoint presentation (PPT). This could demand a lot of teacher time and it requires professional effort to not simply read the slide contents but also provide relevant comprehensive added value which connects with the students. Voicing over PPT (also video-over and synchronous Zoom) can be challenging for the teacher whose efforts to speak out loudly and clearly may be hampered. It is difficult to gauge one’s volume and clarity until the recording is finished and played back, which might sometimes require deleting and re-recording. There are also challenges linked to distractions in the home, lighting, and noise interference coming from the street, such as human and automobile traffic.

The second option is inserting video-over PPT, which is also asynchronous, but goes a step further to boost interactivity as learners can see the face of the teacher. Both pedagogy tools can then be uploaded to the virtual learning environment (VLE) such as Moodle (Vu, Fredrickson, & Moore, 2017) for learner access and task completion, which can also be monitored. For learners, these two tools – although asynchronous – might ‘feel’ synchronous and can build a mental sense of connection with the teacher. The play-back feature of these two delivery options permits students to re-listen/watch the lecture, allowing time and space for multiple reviewing and reflection. The tools guarantee accessibility by offering written and spoken word alongside visuals; being supportive for dyslexic, visually or hearing-impaired students; and helping students who might be struggling with the ‘distance’ of online learning who can then customise and revisit the resources. Connectivity problems are also addressed as students with network connection issues do not lose out because they can download a recording at a later time.

The drawback with these two asynchronous online delivery options, particularly for learners, is the lack of physical in-person interaction.

A third option is live sessions on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, which are forms of synchronous learning that can run for three or more hours but come with potential connectivity, bandwidth and power backup challenges depending on location. This option is also challenging for student engagement; however, opposed to asynchronous learning, it is open to spontaneous and unpredictable learning moments, tasks and content which might sustain learner interest and willingness to remain online. To increase learner engagement, learning time could be chunked by breaking a three-hour lecture into 30-minute lectures, followed by student-led tasks, activities and a repetition of this cycle on the next content. The lecture stages could be mixed with elicitation and guided learning to reduce a frontal-teaching style. Breakout rooms on Zoom and MS Team facilitate group work, learner–learner empathy, and collaboration (Coates, 2007) during which the teacher floats in and out of the breakout rooms. Graded PPTs to suit learner levels work well and can be shared on screen, which also makes the online synchronous tools mimic the physical classroom. In general, there should be a balance between PPT text and visuals with greater use of visuals than perhaps usual. These measures could counter learner distraction and limited attention span, which tend to become intensified in online synchronous learning.

Perhaps online learning should not be thought of as a replacement for the physical classroom in HE. However, this uncharted terrain is encouraging me to believe that a hybrid model to learning will probably become the norm, with the traditional physical classroom retaining its strong influence while at the same time online learning becomes second nature to us all.


Coates, H. (2007). A model of online and general campus-based student engagement. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(2), 121–41.

Kanga, A. W. (2016). A teaching philosophy: A prerequisite for effective pedagogical practices in teacher education. In J, G. Keengwe, Onchward & G. J. Mbae (Eds.) Handbook of research on global issues in next-generation teacher education. (pp. 123–135). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Vu, P. Fredrickson, S., & Moore, C. (2017). Handbook of Research on Innovative Pedagogies and Technologies for Online Learning in Higher Education. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.