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ONLINE LEARNING: schools and higher education

work in progress - this edition: APRIL 24 @ 8:00 AM - APRIL 25 @ 5:00 PM UTC+0

stephen heppell smiling

Prof Stephen Heppell


Our first fully online degree was back in the 1980s, using electronic mail and Prestel's teletext. Since then we have had many large scale projects: from the then Guinness Book of Record's largest internet learning project in the world, for school children; via the decade long online-only learning community that was NotSchool (for some 10,000 children excluded from school by circumstances or behaviour), to moving the English NPQH (National Professional Qualification for Headship) fully online and upping successful completions from 11% into the 90%s, and much more besides.

OnLine learning is not a subset or analogue of face to face learning; it is different, can be better, and like all learning is complex to get right. This page is simply to pass on the experience of these very many years, working with a considerable numbers of learners. There are no "must dos" here. No "right way to do it". Many are finding unique ways to make online learning effective and enjoyable for all. We hope this helps.

Below are simply the things we found to be effective


The obvious equity problem from having some children at home with no technology, no bandwidth and no support is tough enough, but is only a part of the problem. In 2020 it is not unusual to have a parent's "work" computer around, but these are often locked down ("no downloading") and with a parent often working from home too, there is competition for use of even that restricted computer, and for bandwidth ("will you stop streaming, I'm trying to Zoom for work"). Experience of home learning varies. All homes are unique.

So, some simple axioms that help to minimise inequity:

empty laptop trolleys


If you simply announce a synchronous ("we will be doing this at 10:00, and this after at 11:00") timetable, you will exclude many children from learning:

Firstly, because they will also need to fit into whatever "new" routine is running in their family. If Mum is Zooming to colleagues, or being told the week's zero hours contract employment then the learner might be looking after siblings, or whatever. The more flexibility you allow in your online learning / home working, the higher the level of participation.
Secondly, families, and children, plan. Announcing at 09:00 the schedule for the day is simply going to exclude more children. And some of them might have committed to other worthwhile online activities - Joe Wicks PE lessons perhaps.
Thirdly, even before lock-down and home-learning our many years experience of teaching and learning online suggests that below is good model for setting online tasks, whether it was millions of children in Tesco SchoolNet 2000, aspiring headteachers in NPQH online, or our many thousands of excluded children reengaging with learning:

Tasks need be be pre-announced, to have a clear and finite time for completion, to have a warning of the approaching completion deadline and to have an endpoint which values everyone's contributions. As you move away from this model you will lose engagement and participation. Clearly also the tasks need to be "bigger" - more project based application than disaggregated knowledge collection. Tasks can overlap a little too: you might be preannouncing an activity as a previous one is drawing to a close. The pre-announcements need to contain little "hooks" to catch everyone's attention. These work best as visual material, usually.

task line


Online learning in lockdown can be a lonely place. There are myriad reasons for setting tasks and activities often in pairs or maybe threes. Having other members in your little group keeps everyone on task ("see you tomorrow; let's see how far we've got by then..."). A collaborative task has an immediate sense of audience, but most importantly perhaps it considerably reduces the load on the teacher as the children mentor and partner each other along. And the children will signal problems ("nobody has heard from him in 5 days...") with their peers.


Children born in this millennium will need the skills of working with others around the world. Home learning is a wonderful opportunity to help build that capability. If you have contacts of colleagues in other schools in other countries, then arranging shared activities with them will help build these skills. Perhaps most important is for your learners to understand the difference between working with others sharing your line of longitude and sharing with others, as you sleep, on your line of latitude.

global diagram


A "sense of belonging" needs many little cues and clues of reinforcement. But small things go a long way. An occasional "everyone on line together" is a powerful restatement of reality. Moments of plenary activity are powerful in the creation of shared community identity. My grandaughter living at home with me tunes into another school's Friday celebration assembly (!!), because it feels like normality to her (her own school doesn't do that online yet)!

atlantic academy

Often children can be quite inventive with little whimsical shared moments online: dressing up, passing a banana from one Zoom frame to another (you each need a banana for that to work in real time!). Some schools have even recorded soundscapes of familiar noises from around the school - strangely comforting!

Sometimes, but not too often, it is exciting to be doing something with very many other children all at the same time (see Joe Wicks, above, or BBC Singing Together if you are quite old!).

content is king?

This is tough to take on board. Every tech revolution from Teletxt to Multimedia and on to the World Wide Web had people shouting that "content is king", but forgetting that content alone is just a dusty bookshelf. Teachers are (mainly) wonderful at being in a realtime real place with children. They know when to move around, who to stand by for support, when direct instruction is needed, when repetition helps, where pausing and even humour might be appropriate. It is a carefully honed craft. On the other hand, stood in front of a video camera sometimes those skills vanish and not-very-compelling content results. If you can find the content you need, presented by a screen professional, then using your precious teacher time to create a challenge using that content, or to feedback on children's contributions, is a better use of time.

If (for example) Brian Cox has offered some useful little videos for Key Stage 2 looking at the solar system, or whatever, use them and then use your time for the other many important tasks that busy and exhausted teachers need to do (eg feedback).


Learning needs spaces for (1) collaboration, (2) for individual endeavour and (3) for celebration / exhibition / audience. Try to think how those three map onto your online learning experience. The collaboration in this instance is largely online, or with siblings. Often it is far too one-way and then individual - a lot of Me but not much See and We. Online galleries of work are appealing, but you can think of many other good solutions, no doubt.

me we see

When we surveyed thousands of people in the 1990s to ask about their fondest remembered "best learning experiences" they always reported that there was an audience for their work. This is an area where online learning has huge advantages. Not many see your work on a classroom wall; the whole world can see your work in a gallery online.In setting and managing home learning tasks, paying attention to the widest possible audience is time well spent that will be repaid in further engagement.If you don't have a gallery or some online celebration of the children's work, you are missing a really important element. TV show's like Blue Peter have known that for decades.

mixed age

For all sorts of reasons, many school organise their children in same age groupings, rather than same stage groupings. With the exception of twins, tripkets etc and "merged families" few children live with others the same age. In our 30 years of online learning work it has been clear that mixed age tasks on line are effective. The littlest ones want to adopt the role model of the oldest and the oldest respond well to the responsibility of leadership.

For example in our record breaking Tesco SchoolNet 2000 project, for most tasks the same activities were attempted by the full age range of school students. Of course the 5 years olds produced something different to the 15 year olds, but very often the groups doing the work were mixed age with shared work, and all the better for that in terms of outcomes.

TSN2K age ranges


Technology advances. Not so long ago the best computer you saw was in a school, or the first 3D printer. Over time these things have become ubiquitous and often better is found outside of school. Families move in different directions with technology, so the more devices and environments that your home learning can run on, the more children can be engaged. Typically the most expensive item for a family to run is a colour printer - certainly more expensive that a hand-me-down phone with data - so it is much better to see completed work as a photo or file online than as a printout. Printing excludes children and that includes expecting them to print out "worksheets".

So much of the activity can be done away from a screen altogether of course, especially if the home learning is dominantly asynchronous. Here is some support for outdoor learning back at school - where the habits of online communication developed during home learning will be invlauable. And here is a suite of daily, simple, home based learning activities for youngsters to do, most outside (also here in Google's Spanish) well away from the hardware of computers, printers and screens.

thinking beyond "lessons"

Because online learning offers so many more possibilities, inevitably it goes very quickly beyond online lessons (or online lectures) for many of the equity and engagement reasons mentioned above. Often of course it bypasses that altogether. The great thing about social media is that many great and tested ideas get circulated between teachers, children and parents. That can also be frustrating - if you see online about another school's exciting online assembly guests, you wonder when you can have that too! See also Be Very Afraid on our links page for examples of ideas.

professional development

Professional development is changed online. There is, quite simply, no substitute for modelling what you are learning. If you are discussing different protocols for Zoom conversations (it's a bit like a Harkness table really) then the only way to really do it, is in a Zoom conversation. It is sometimes said that: 3 people talking is a conversation, 2 talking is a dialogue, 1 talking is a monologue and 1 talking with nobody listening is professional development (!!). Often the traditional "talking head" conference input ("Stand and Deliver!") moved online is immeasurably better because there can be a back channel for comments and plenty of time for Q&A. It is also typically easier to include the learners too. In a world where asynchronous is often better that real-time it can then be then be even better because the "input" and other stimulus material can be some pre-assembled, and then a Q&A fielded over a week, as and when delegates watch the input and formulate questions.

Contributors to this page: Professor Stephen Heppell, Lys Johnson, Carole Chapman, Juliette Heppell, Pete Bradshaw, Alison Gee, Geraint Laing, Ian Tindal, Shirley Pickford, Tom Smith, Sam Deane, Jonathan Furness, Tom Stacey, more to add here...

some past project details | optimal home learning spaces (and in Spanish) |

this page last updated by Professor Stephen Heppell: 05/04/2020 18:48