5 ways to keep your students engaged online

When teaching online it is important to consider ways to help students engage with the materials and activities. Here are a few tips.

Paolo Oprandi

1. Establish clear routes of communication 

Your main route of communication is likely to be the module’s Canvas home page and weekly pages. Additionally, you might use Canvas announcements (which by default will email students as well, unless they have changed their notification settings). Whatever your chosen route of communication be consistent and use it regularly. You might present learning materials via some text, a Panopto video or short audio podcasts. Whatever your chosen route(s), provide opportunities for students to tell you if they find accessing your communications or learning materials difficult.

2. Prioritise clarity in communicating what students should be doing

When we study online it can be harder to follow directions or know what you are meant to be doing next. Furthermore, we might be less easy to contact as we would be in a classroom setting. As a result, we should prioritise creating a consistent structure for teaching and learning activities, so students become familiar with a weekly study pattern. 

3. Combine ‘live’ teaching with asynchronous and/ offline learning activities

Combining and blending types of teaching activity can deepen your students’ learning. For example you can use Zoom as short interactive teaching sessions, and then give students a group or individual research task to do and ask them to post their findings on a Canvas Discussion. In the next face-to-face session, talk in detail about the students’ contributions. If no students have completed the tasks you’ve set, talk about what you would have expected from them and the importance of completing tasks for achieving their assessment

4. Put a face and a voice to learning activities

The online world can be lonely and disconcerting. It is a nice touch to put a photo of yourself on your Canvas page, next a task and in welcome slides of your presentations. Even if you are not sharing a Panopto lecture, include a welcome video or a short audio podcast to a week’s piece of work.

5. Use Canvas to make expectations you have of your students very clear

Use your Canvas site to set the expectations that you have of students and point them to the weekly tasks that you expect them to do.

As ever, Technology Enhanced Learning are ready and willing to help University of Sussex staff with online teaching, via the Teaching Online Learning Anywhere site or tel@sussex.ac.uk

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Blended learning

CEW: Child Enhanced Working

an open laptop, with the tops of two children's head showing over the top

The day starts with calm but it’s not long before our youngest starts screaming. The noise finally subsides as the children are ushered in front of the iPad for 30 minutes of Cosmic Yoga, buying time for the morning meeting. As people are joining the Zoom call, I print off reams of colouring-in mixed with maths worksheets. Later, I take a few minutes to set up some paints then rush back to the computer to answer another email. Afternoon arrives and I wonder if the webinar attendees can hear the Mary Poppins Returns karaoke taking place downstairs. As the webinar continues, some curly blond hair sidles into the corner of the screen to pick up yet more colouring sheets and deliver a biscuit on the way. 

Like many other people, the last three months of lockdown have seen my wife and I juggling childcare with our respective jobs. We have two children aged 6 and 4 and both work a kind of ‘covid’ full-time, fitting in the hours where we can.

We’ve opted to split the days in half. In the morning, one of us will take the ‘office’, anywhere the kids aren’t, while the other will sit or work with the kids. We swap in the afternoon or for important meetings. While it’s not ideal, we’ve managed to get by with this approach.

I take some comfort knowing I’m not alone in this experience. I often see a colleague pause a meeting to talk to their child or see the slightly frazzled face of another colleague after an afternoon with their two year-old.

While lockdown is beginning to ease and I start to entertain the thought that things may eventually get back to some kind of normal, I recognise that this may remain the experience for many of our distance and some of our campus students. 

With this in mind, some of the things I’ve most appreciated during this time are:

  • The importance of having a space away from distraction.
  • The ability to turn my camera off and mute the mic from time to time.
  • Captions on videos so I don’t have to have the sound on (a magnet for my children).
  • Patience of others in meetings when there are unexpected interruptions.
  • Asynchronous means of communication. For all its frustrations I’ve really appreciated chat through MS Teams.

These things will be much more present in my mind in the future.

If you have any questions about how you can make the best use of technologies for the autumn semester do contact tel@sussex.ac.uk and we’ll do our best to support you. 

Posted in Case Study

4 top TEL tips for videos

This short video will take you through four quick top TEL tips which can help you improve the quality of your videos when you’re recording yourself.

Screenshot of the video: $ top TEL tips for recording video with link to the video https://sussex.cloud.panopto.eu/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=e8c256ec-8086-48b4-98b8-abc000aef99d
Click the image or this link to watch the video.

Tips include:

  • Positioning. Ensure you are in the centre of frame of your camera and that you’re not positioned too close or too far away.
  • Beware of background noise. It can be wise to pay attention to what sort of background noises appear in your video, often these are noises we hear every day and so we don’t pay attention to them, but for students watching our video these sounds can be distracting. It can be wise to try and find either a quiet area or to use an external microphone which can help to isolate sound.
  • Ensure you’re well lit. Make sure that you’ve got as much light on you as possible when recording, if you’re too dimly lit it’ll be hard for students to see you. Also make sure that strong light is coming from either the side or in front of you, if strong light comes from behind you it can again make it hard for students to see you.
  • Be mindful of what’s in the background. Ensure you’ve given some thought to what’s in the background of your video, you don’t want anything too distracting to appear, nor do you want anything appearing that you don’t wish for your students to see. It’s also wise to not have too cluttered a background or too blank and clinical a background as these can be either distracting or intimidating, it’s best to try and strike a balance where the background isn’t overly distracting but it still shows you as human and approachable.

There are more useful resources for staff at the University of Sussex in the Teaching Online Learning Anywhere Canvas site and you can contact tel@sussex.ac.uk to discuss ways to use video and other learning technologies in your teaching.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in digital skills, Panopto

TEL:US Podcast with Professor Pam Parker – Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

TEL:US Podcast logo.

In what now seems a distant memory, our last on campus seminar was the first of the DARE to Transform seminars. Sessions to support colleagues who are on the Scholarship track at the University.

In this session Professor Pam Parker joined from City, University of London to give an introduction to scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).

In this podcast Dan sat down with with Pam after her seminar along with our very own David Walker (Head of TEL) to speak more on the topic of SoTL.

For staff at the university, don’t forget to find out more info on the DARE to Transform Canvas site, and book on to our next seminar, Pedagogy Action Research on the 30th June.

Posted in Podcast

Working as a team remotely

Since March we have all been working at home. Having only recently got used to being all together in an open-plan office in the library we were suddenly spread across Sussex. So how are the Technology Enhanced Learning team working together while apart?

Focusing on the team

We believe it’s really important to work at maintaining and building our sense of community while we can’t see each other face-to-face. So we are using Zoom to hold a brief check-in every morning. Not too early, to allow for those with children to look after, we get together to check how we are all doing. Sometimes we talk about work briefly, but we have other team meetings for that. The daily check-in is mainly to say ‘how are you doing?’

The TEL daily check-in on Thursday 14th May 2020.
The TEL daily check-in on Thursday 14th May 2020.

At the end of the week we have a fun get-together and to give us a focus we have a weekly quiz. This is homemade and involves identifying team members from various photos that have been submitted. Topics so far have included baby photos, the view from a window, an unusual object, a book and a work of art. We never do very well with scores – I rarely get more than 2 right, which considering 1 of them is mine is pretty bad, but we always have a good laugh!

Team working in Teams

When it comes to the work, we are using Microsoft Teams. We were fortunate that we had been using Teams for some time before the move to remote working, so it is a comfortable online space for us.

Teams allows us to have separate ‘channels’ for different projects we are working on as well as a ‘Random’ channel for those water-cooler chats. With tools for chatting to individuals and small groups within the bigger team as well as sharing documents, making calls and holding video meetings, it has been invaluable.

If you want to know more about using Teams for staff at Sussex have a look at the ITS website http://www.sussex.ac.uk/its/services/software/teams

Managing tasks with Trello

Another tool we have been using for a while is Trello. This allows us to create cards for specific tasks, assign them to individuals and keep track of progress. Here is the Trello board we use to manage the TEL blog, with a card for each post that moves across the board from ‘draft awaited’ to ‘published, tweeted and posted on LinkedIn’ via reviewing, editing and posting in WordPress stages. Each card shows who is assigned to it and due dates. There are also drafts and images attached to the cards.

What have we been working on?

Since March we have been very busy supporting staff in the move to teaching and assessing online. The most visible outputs are the Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere site in Canvas which contains a wide range of guides and videos on teaching and assessment online at Sussex (staff can self-enrol to see the resources) and the Maximise Your Learning Online site which has been created for students in collaboration with colleagues in the Library and Careers and Employability Centre. 

We have also been running lots of webinars on topics such as Keeping students engaged online, Panopto basics, Teaching online with Zoom, Canvas tips, tricks and shortcuts, Canvas Quizzes and Engaging students with video. There are more sessions to come and recordings of past sessions on the Teaching Online, Learning Anywhere site. 

And of course we are still here for staff queries and advice. We are asking staff to use our team email address tel@sussex.ac.uk so that we can make sure that even if individuals are unavailable there is always someone to respond.

Posted in Case Study

My working from home desk

With the sudden move to working from home we all had to quickly adapt to working in new spaces, both online and physical. We thought we would share how someone in Technology Enhanced Learning has set up their home working space. 

As I only have access to a laptop at home, when the move to working from home was first announced, the first thing I did was race out to buy a wireless mouse and keyboard. Working on a laptop is notoriously bad for your neck and upper back, so with a wireless keyboard I am able to place my screen at eye height (albeit precariously balanced on an old Amazon delivery box!) and have my keyboard lower down at a comfortable height.

I don’t have a dedicated office space so have had to set up camp at our dining table, meaning that I have to pack away everything at the end of each day. However, I do think this helps manage work/life balance when work and life are now temporarily in the same location. Our table is a bar table so it is quite high. I thought that this would be inconvenient and uncomfortable however I have realised that the table is actually the perfect height for a standing desk meaning I can quickly switch between standing and sitting throughout the day.

The only thing I’m longing for now is a comfortable office chair! 

Wherever the TEL team are sitting or standing, we are still here to support University of Sussex staff with the move to online teaching,learning and assessment. There are lots of resources available in the Teaching Online Learning Anywhere site in Canvas and you can email us at tel@sussex.ac.uk 

Posted in Case Study

Canvas quick tip: Muting notifications by module.

Do you have a role on Canvas modules that you are not teaching on a day-to-day basis? If so, you may be receiving more notifications than you want.

It is now possible to mute the notifications you receive from a module. And soon there will be more options for muting just some types of notifications on a module-by-module basis. This is how you do it:

1. Go to the home page of the module that you want to mute.

2. From the panel on the right, select View Course Notifications.

screenshot of panel on home page showing View Course Notifications button

3. Use the toggle button to disable notifications.

screenshot showing toggle button to enable or disable notifications

4. When you return to the home page, the panel will now show the notification icon (bell) crossed through to show that notifications are muted.

screenshot of panel on homer page showing notifications muted

You can turn them back on at any time.

For more detailed instructions see the Canvas guide How do I manage notifications for a single course as an instructor? 

To change the type of notifications that you receive for the modules that you teach on follow this Canvas guide How do I set my Canvas notification preferences as an instructor?

If you have any queries about using Canvas for teaching at Sussex please contact tel@sussex.ac.uk 

Posted in Canvas

Accessibility tips: considering user needs

Students may have a range of different accessibility needs, so it’s important to be aware of these varying needs and some of the key considerations to ensure that all students have access. This can include the teaching materials you produce, how you organise and run seminars / lectures and how you assess your students. Other posts in this series have looked at:

With all user needs the most important point to remember is to talk to your students, they’ll be able to tell you what works for them in terms of improving their access and helping them to learn. 

General tips  

  • Post as much of your learning materials as you can online so students can review and access information at their own pace and record your lectures. 
  • Record teaching activities such as lectures and seminars where appropriate.
  • Provide alternatives for any tasks or assessments you set.
  • Maximize your use of digital resources. These are easier to adapt for accessibility purposes than print resources and far easier to use. Students may have restricted access to print media and digital resources are far easier to share and distribute to students online.
  • Use alternative formats for learning resources and content. Embrace multiple forms of media.
  • Be aware of conceptual barriers to understanding such as describing colour to a student with a visual disability.


Visual needs will mean a user may have trouble perceiving visual content. Examples include low vision such as having blurry or clouded vision or only being able to see part of their field of vision. It can also include other forms of partial or full blindness.

Students may also have a form of colourblindness, this can cause difficulty in differentiating certain colours or in some cases cause a total inability to see colours.


  • Add alternative text for images. This is essential if the student relies on a screen reader to access content.
  • Contrast ratios. Have a high contrast ratio between the background and foreground of any content such as the colour of text on a coloured background.
  • Don’t rely on colour for meaning or differentiation. Use other indicators such as shapes or patterns.
  • Text size. Ensure your text size is large enough to be legible and to stand out against the background
  • Use structured headers. This makes it far easier for a screen reader to navigate pages.
  • Justification of text. Justify text so it’s left aligned and easier to read.


Physical needs mean a user may have limited physical control and coordination, impaired movement and limitations of sensation. They may need to access digital content using specialized hardware and software. Examples of physical needs are conditions such as Muscular Dystrophy and Rheumatism.


  • All content must be accessible without the need of a mouse. This means you should be able to navigate through content using only a keyboard.
  • Use structured headers. This makes it far easier for a screen reader to navigate pages.
  • Avoid tasks or learning with strict time limits as this can put students at a disadvantage. In some assessments it may be possible to give students extra time such as in the case of reasonable adjustments. 


Cognitive needs can encompass a wide range of areas including ADHD,  Dyslexia and memory impairments to name just a few examples. These can all affect how users take in, comprehend and process information. 


  • Clearly structure your content with a consistent approach so that students can easily see exactly where to find learning materials.
  • Use multiple forms of media to communicate information.
  • Captioning of video and audio content.  Panopto can be used to automatically add captions, see our blog post for more information
  • Clear and simple sentence structures and descriptions. Avoid using complex language while retaining comprehension.
  • Simple colour use with strong contrast ratios.
  • Avoid using distracting content such as anything that flickers, blinks or flashes.


Auditory needs can range from partial hearing loss which may cause some degrees of hearing loss or may make it hard for students to understand speech against background noise to substantial hearing loss . 


  • Transcripts or alternative modes need to be supplied for any resources that are communicated through audio.
  • Captioning for video / audio content. Panopto allows you to apply automatic captions. 
  • Participation in class. Offer some form of backchannel students can use to ask questions and interact. For online teaching this may entail using the chat feature in Zoom for live classes and utilising asynchronous text based tools such as the discussions within Canvas.


Students may be unable to produce speech to varying degrees. This can include conditions such as muteness, stuttering or dysarthria.


  • Means of assessment. If an assessment requires some form of vocal component such as an oral presentation then offer an alternative.
  • Participation in class. Offer some form of backchannel students can use to ask questions and interact that doesn’t require speech. This may entail using the chat feature in Zoom for live classes and utilising asynchronous text based tools such as the discussions within Canvas.

For more help and guidance with digital accessibility please see the TEL digital accessibility toolkit or get in touch with us at tel@sussex.ac.uk 

Posted in Accessibility

About our blog

We are the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

Subscribe to the Blog

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow us on Twitter