Effective teaching online through reflection, collaboration, and expert input

United Colleges Group

Covid-19 lockdown led us to urgently address online teaching and learning. We established starting points and devised an intensive CPD programme to address specific areas of pedagogy and using online tools. Teachers collaborated to reflect on their learning and how they were applying it in their online classroom to improve practice.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


We provide maths and English GCSE and Functional Skills to approximately 1,200 learners across a range of vocational areas at 5 London campuses. Many of our learners are from lower socio-economic groups. Our mission is to meet the diverse educational and skills needs of our learners and to raise aspirations through innovative and outward looking practice.

Our aim was to enable a group of English specialists to explore methods for improving their learners’ experiences and outcomes in the blended learning environment (BLE). Since lockdown, teachers have been employing a variety of methods for remote learning, to varying degrees of success. Through collaborative practice, we focused on offering interventions to improve the effectiveness of teaching in the BLE. This meant facilitating reflective practice and capturing learner voice at every stage in order to improve levels of learner engagement and achievement.


In common with many colleges, our learners face demotivation by having to repeatedly re-sit English GCSE and Functional Skills exams. Since the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, this level of disengagement has intensified. Since the move to online teaching, we have attempted to employ a variety of methods and online tools. Our research (TES, 2021) was predicated on providing a platform to share what was going well, and to find some solutions to the problems we were encountering as a learning community.

Specifically, we offered CPD on successful use of popular applications such as Microsoft OneNote and Teams for collaboration and teaching. We sought to measure the impact of a targeted programme of support and the resources provided. We applied the latest research on pedagogical approaches to blended learning (Ofsted, 2021a). The basis for these interventions came from an acknowledgement that although the participants in the project were competent and effective practitioners in face-to-face delivery, they wanted support to improve their online practices. Teachers were working from home and isolated. This action research enabled them to identify their learning needs, receive expert input, and practise new approaches, then share ideas, approaches, resources and experiences with peers to improve their skills and confidence in teaching online.


Step 1 – Initially we were going to examine the various approaches to asynchronous vs synchronous learning. However, we decided instead to focus on improving teachers’ pedagogical practice in the BLE because the pandemic meant we had to move to wholesale online teaching almost overnight! We therefore needed something that would lead to more impact in the short term.

Our learning coaches asked for volunteers from the English department and we recruited 6 direct participants.

Think Pair Share adapted for online delivery to encourage engagement and collaboration.

Think Pair Share adapted for online delivery to encourage engagement and collaboration.

Step 2 – To harness the collaborative nature of the project we used a Microsoft Forms survey to establish specific support needs in relation to teaching in the BLE
The most popular responses from these requested support in how to:

  • Use OneNote, Teams, and Forms effectively to provide feedback, communicate and monitor learning
  • Adapt traditional pedagogy effectively for use in the BLE
  • Be engaging and present with confidence online
  • Effectively self-reflect on pedagogic practice in the BLE

Step 3 – Research: meeting participants’ expectations.
We looked at guidance from the Government and ETF to inform our approach (see references).

Discussions with experts, including our mentor, helped to shape the nature of our research going forward.

Finally, we invited the participants to join online training events, with for example, The Skills and Education Group.

Step 4 -What, Who, and How?
Using our data to show baseline starting points (Appendix 5), we devised a 6 week, twice-weekly programme of online CPD sessions. Each session incorporated a professional discussion (attended by staff from across the group) to encourage the sharing of good practice and focused on one approach. Teachers, for example, shared examples of how they used OneNote in their own sessions with other teachers, and to share tips and “easy wins.”

Sessions included:

  • OneNote to plan for success
  • Deeper learning in the BLE
  • Sequenced learning in the BLE
  • Microsoft Teams updates – getting the most from the latest features
  • Using TikTok for revision.

Sessions were teacher-led and therefore sometimes we returned to the same topic as different teachers would use the approach and share their experiences. We included learner voice to include this perspective in our reflections. This embedded our learning across the team, built confidence in using the BLE and created an environment where teachers could take risks and share their learning.

Step 5: Dissemination
To continue this work, we have developed an E-zine to share good practice across the college group. This is an interactive newsletter that shares our practice through videos, comments and top tips.

We also use ‘Researchmeet’, a national online group bringing together practitioners to examine lessons learned and share with colleagues.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Through this work, we have begun to think critically about our practice. Our teachers have found space to try out new approaches and share their learning with colleagues which has raised levels of confidence in remote teaching as well as creating a community of practice.

We have built on established pedagogy (Sweller, 2011) such as embedded regular retrieval practice by using MS Forms and QR codes to engage learners. We established a centralised system of collating and providing feedback to learners via OneNote. Previously this process was random with learners using a variety of modes including for example, attachments to email and sharing Word documents, resulting in confused and often lost feedback opportunities. Our CPD session resulted in tangible changes and every member of staff in the English department now uses OneNote successfully to track progress and provide personalised feedback (Appendix 1).

We used Microsoft Teams as our primary vehicle for learning in lockdown, however feedback from learning walks suggested that there was inconsistent and ineffective use of this online tool. Many teachers used it as a meeting rather than a teaching tool, with sessions often dominated by teacher-talk and few opportunities for checking progress or monitoring learner engagement. Our session on Effective Use of Teams introduced staff to using breakout rooms, Whiteboard, Forms as polls, and the Insights app to monitor and engage learners. Feedback from staff and teachers for this indicated that this led to profound changes. As one teacher remarked:

“We don’t have to fear the tools anymore – we can just focus on delivering good lessons again!”

This positive change was disseminated across the College group and recognised by Ofsted, who said, that the College:

“provide appropriate staff development so that teachers are competent in using relevant online platforms.”
(Ofsted, 2021b)

There is a stronger culture of self-reflection as a result of our strategy of self-recorded lessons, and completion for a self-reflection TLA form. One teacher remarked:

“I was really shocked how little time I give my learners to respond to my questions!”
(Appendix 4)

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Plenary created and shared

Plenary created and shared

The English department actively collaborated with colleagues from other campuses to share good practice on using effective and innovative learning strategies in the BLE. They used, ‘Think, Pair, Share’ and we held an online professional discussion (Appendices 3 & 4). Teachers shared the following recommendations, which were then implemented by teaching staff across the college group:

  • Learners who were initially reluctant to share ideas publicly on ‘Chat’ loved the ability to post in the teacher-learner area on OneNote and this also worked for learners who were similarly reluctant to engage face-to-face – and have now developed a new-found confidence.
  • Teachers recommended the use of OneNote as a marking and assessment tool, where they had the option to record verbal feedback, which saved time and enabled a more personalised experience.
  • One teacher recommended using the Insight app to encourage learners to stay in when they have logged in. Following this, using Insight was widely used to monitor log-in/log-out, but also to ensure they were there physically and hadn’t wandered off.

Because of the success of filmed recorded online sessions and filmed face-to-face sessions, staff have developed much more confidence in self-reflection, and this practice has been successfully shared with colleagues in other departments, e.g., Business and Travel and Tourism.

A further innovation is our new teaching and learning ‘E-zine’ – an interactive newsletter. We can use this to share the findings of our research and bring together a greater number of teachers to share their ideas and experiences.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Our learner feedback showed evidence of significant improvement in the experience of learning online (Appendix 6). A learning coach observed two sessions where fruits of previous CPD sessions were apparent: The lecturers used OneNote to replace screen sharing (which was limited by the requirement for all participants to remain on track at the same pace – not always realistic in varying home contexts, with variable internet speeds etc.) As a result, some of those learners who struggled, for instance due to SEN difficulties, were able to access the learning at their own pace. This was further informed by introducing these learners to the use of immersive reader in OneNote. One highly dyslexic learner commented:

“Now I can blur out the rest of the writing, everything is so much easier to read and when my eyes are tired, I can ask it to read to me at my own speed.”

Another commented:

“I understand most of the information, but sometimes I just have to go over it again in my own time. This allows me to do that.”
(Appendix 2)

Following a session on using Microsoft Stream to enhance the learners’ BLE experience one learner said:

“I believe that we are learning a lot more and at a much faster rate, than we would have done in class. The videos are also helpful as I can go back and watch them if I forget or miss something.” The teacher for this group also commented, “Your CPD has been amazingly productive. It has helped me save and upload so much content for learners to access in their own time. Thank you, Azmol.”
(Appendix 2)

Attendance across the groups associated with the projected demonstrated a marked improvement in line with the roll-out of our CPD delivery.

Image showing improved attendance

Attendance across the groups associated with the projected demonstrated a marked improvement in line with the roll-out of our CPD delivery.

Crucially, when teachers were interviewed about this improvement, they were unanimous that there was a clear link between improved attendance and improved delivery as a result of training and collaboration. One teacher commented:

“The added confidence has paid dividends; students, when they think they have posted a good idea, are then much happier to engage.” Another added, “Thanks to taking part in the research I was able to effectively review the merits and drawbacks of a range of approaches, then select the best for my particular requirements”.
(Appendix 4)

Learning from this project

What went well …

  • The simple act of naming: Do not call it a project – call it research! This instils in participants the sense that this is something autonomous and continuous.
  • We changed tack when required, and this meant we could maintain focus more appropriately. For example, at the outset our focus was going to be on asynchronous vs synchronous delivery. Soon we came to realise that this direction would not provide us with the useful outcomes we required, so we listened to the participants and adapted our planning accordingly.
  • In line with the previous point about changing direction, whilst we took charge of overseeing the operational elements, we allowed ourselves to be directed by participants’ areas of interest.
  • We learned a lot! In response to requests for specific training in particular areas of pedagogy we undertook copious research and summarised this to disseminate, and, in the process, our own presenting skills and confidence improved enormously e.g., we had to present our finding on Dissemination Day.
  • We also gained collaborative access to our colleagues across the FE sector and this allowed us to both share good practice and learn from others in similar situation.

Even better if …

  • Teachers are busy! Flexibility is key. If we want people to give their time and energy, we need to be attentive to their needs, e.g., we responded to what they felt it was important for them to research / test.
  • Some CPD sessions we decided were necessary, ended up being poorly attended. Survey staff to ask what is that they feel THEY need, not impose it on them.
  • We harnessed support from members of the SLT: always useful but particularly so here as it allowed us the freedom, for example, to make time to collaborate across campuses.
  • Provide incentives to keep participants involved once recruited in the form of small gratuities e.g., stationery/remission; this should not be seen as uncompensated extra work.
  • We feel we could have benefited from having more time available in the working for the admin and research, because often we found ourselves working evenings and weekends. More than once we had to be chased for our monthly report! Next time we would negotiate in advance with our respective line managers to have ring-fenced time to work on the project.


Department for Education. (2021) Remote education good practice. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/remote-education-good-practice/remote-education-good-practice [Accessed 5/7/2021].

Education and Training Foundation. (2021) Enhance Digital Teaching Platform. Available at: www.et-foundation.co.uk/supporting/edtech-support/enhance-digital-teaching-platform/ [Accessed 5/7/2021].

Ofsted. (2021a) Remote education research. Available at: www.gov.uk/government/publications/remote-education-research/remote-education-research [Accessed 5/7/2021].

Ofsted. (2021b) United Colleges Group Progress monitoring report. Available at: https://files.ofsted.gov.uk/v1/file/50161400 [Accessed 5/7/2021].

Sweller, J. (2011) ‘Cognitive load theory’ in J.P. Mestre, B.H. Ross (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Vol. 55. The psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education, Elsevier Academic Press (2011), pp. 37-76, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780123876911000028?via%3Dihub

Times Education Supplement. (2021) Remote learning – What DFE expects of teachers. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-schools-full-remote-learning-what-dfe-expects-teachers [Accessed 5/7/2021].