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James Thomas

James Thomas

If teaching means delivering information, leading discussions and helping students do exercises, it is time to rethink teaching processes for the online environment.  The ideas on this page are an alternative to teaching classes online. They  can be applied to any subject in any language. Instead of being a sage on the stage who provides students with information about a topic, the idea here is to guide them to find the information  themselves. They then process the information in creative ways that involve higher order thinking skills (HOTS).  And the internet. The teacher can meet the requirements of the curriculum and syllabus as a guide on the side and in the process, replace the stress level of dealing with multiple students at one time in an online class. Guided discovery tasks and projects are enjoyable, creative and stimulating for teachers and students. The student participation rate might improve if they have got a clear task to fulfil and if the teacher is working with fewer students at a time.

Basic Outline


A. The Teacher Sets a Task

The students should know what they are required to learn and experience from the task.

  1. The teacher gives the students specific tasks to ensure they focus on specific content.
  2. Tasks can be done alone but they are much better done in pairs or small groups using a variety of online tools.
  3. The task will lead to a product.

If the teacher sets tasks that require creativity, the students will be creative. If the teacher doesn’t …

B. The Teacher Provides Information

  1. Students read set sections of their textbooks.
  2. The teacher shares a presentation that they normally give in class. This will need narration. It is an opportunity for the teacher to make their presence and personality felt. Familiarity is valuable.
  3. The teacher can make a screencast in which they talk through a poem discussing the use of words and references and imagery. A geography teacher can do something similar with maps. A music teacher can talk through a musical score highlighting ostinati, cadences, syncopation, etc.

The are many websites with information about recording and sharing presentations.

C.  The Teacher Recommends other Sources of Information

The choice of site is likely to be part of creating the task in the first place.

  1. Many course books have accompanying eBooks and websites.
  4. Videos at TED Talks, BBC Reel, Virgin Media Shorts, YouTube, Movieclips.
  5. Wikipedia and Simple Wikipedia
  6. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  7. Khan Academy
  8. Podcasts
  9. Education departments all over the world have created and shared resources for their schools, teachers, students. So have some universities.

Choosing resources is quite time-consuming, especially if teachers are doing this for the first time, but it is important to send your students to sites that you have approved. Just as we ask students to work together, teachers can also work together to create annotated inventories of online resources.  Google Forms can be used to good effect.

D. Expectations

  1. The teacher lets the students know what they must do to get a pass, merit, advanced grade, whatever system is used, before they start the task.
  2. Students should know the extent of the work: how long, how tall, how wide, and how deep their creation should be. By what criteria will they be assessed?
  3. A timeline for the process.

E. Get to Work

  1. The teacher provides students with a clear outline of the task that they can refer to whenever necessary.
  2. Students start work on their task.
  3. They consult the teacher, as necessary. The teacher accepts appointments.
  4. They submit drafts and outlines for the teacher to comment on.
  5. Consultations and drafts should obviate plagiarism.

F. Submitting and Presenting Work

Depending on the type of task, the students submit their work:

  1. to the teacher.
  2. to the other students.
  3. publish it on the class website.
  4. Upload it to the VLE (e.g. Moodle, Edmodo).

G. Students Teach

  1. As part of the original plan, the teacher can distribute parts or aspects of a topic to different groups in the class. The groups will introduce/teach their sub-topic to the others.
  2. In setting the task, the teacher can ask each group to prepare some questions that they can ask their audience after the presentation. This is highly recommended.
  3. The teacher will typically elaborate on the topic and the answers that the students give to the presenters’ questions.

H. Critique

  1. The teacher comments on the strengths and weaknesses of the work presented using the pre-set criteria.
  2. Peers give feedback via online discussion or a form, perhaps a questionnaire.
  3. The teacher needs to consider how the students will process the feedback. Feed forward is a useful approach.
  4. Will students need to resubmit better quality work?
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Access to the Course Material

​The resources that the teacher provides as well as the material that the students produce needs to be readily accessible. This is important if the content is going to be developed or tested formally.

Virtual Learning Environments

If you already used Moodle, Edmodo, Blackboard, etc. you already have a system of courses, classes, groups, resource banks, mark books, etc. If you don’t, and you want to get started today, make a class website.

The Class Website

Google sites was not designed for educational purposes. But it is easy to start a site and add pages galore as you go along. And into those pages, Google Slides, Docs, Forms, Sheets, Calendar, Maps and YouTube can easily be embedded. Other file types can be uploaded as well.

  • Managing Google sites is a skill. But it speaks the same language as the other Google products, so the learning curve isn’t too steep.
  • A Google site is not open to the whole world unless you want it to be.


The projects and tasks suggested below assume that everyone involved is online and that they have decent ICT Skills. It assumed that the students already know each other and the teacher.  Or that they quickly will. 


Teachers are mostly meeting the requirements of their curriculum and syllabus. And every topic has aspects and angles that students can explore once the demands are made on them. The following list contains a few examples from various subjects and cross-curricular areas that could be pursued using the Processes described below. 

  • the water cycle
  • the food chain
  • causes of WW1
  • protest songs
  • Shakespeare sonnets
  • punctuation
  • ways of learning
  • organs of the body
  • chemical reactions
  • features of text genres
  • words and phrases related to crime  in the students foreign language
  • fund raising for …
  • online safety
  • the health benefits of …, 
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A Learning Journal


  • What am I doing?
  • Why am I doing it?
  • What am I learning from it?
  • How did I just spend the last week?
  • How do I feel about this?

These are questions that students should be asking, especially when they are expected to study and learn in new ways. Students can write a learning journal day by day or week by week describing what they have learnt and experienced, how it happened, how they feel about it, and what contribution knowing or experiencing this has on their lives. Learning journals is big topic in education and many references to it can be found on the web. The learning journal may lose some of its honesty and spontaneity if the teacher sets it as an assessable course task. The teacher can ask the students to show them that it exists, perhaps with blurry photos. And the students can be invited to post highlights from their journal for their teacher or for the class. If they can still write by hand, it would be nice to have a notebook into which they write the reflections in various non-linear formats, write captions for picture they stick into their notebook and annotate various  ‘souvenirs’ of their learning experiences.

Products, Processes, and Outputs: A Provisional Menu

​The following task types are best done by small groups of students – study buddies. The teacher needs to establish the groups and keep a record of who is doing what with whom.


Many students are familiar with making presentations. They can do so at a distance using Google Slides. Making a presentation requires considerable reprocessing of several sources of information. And working with a study buddy requires considerable negotiation.


Students can read a text or watch an informative video and write their own quiz questions. Once the teacher has vetted them, the quizzes can be shared with other students. Google forms can be used for quizzes.

A Questionnaire

This process starts with a research question.  To design a questionnaire, students require background information which they will get from the sources the teacher provides – initially. The students need to understand the information well. Writing good survey questions is a skill and an art, for which plenty of guides are available on the web for the teacher to recommend. The questionnaire can be made in Google Forms. It can be distributed to relevant respondents via social media. The students then need to process the results, which Google Sheets may help with. The results must be interpreted in the light of their research question. The researchers then present their findings. This is an extensive project.

  • Example topic: the effectiveness of an advertisement.
  • A maths teacher might help with interpreting graphs. A language teacher might help with writing up the results.

Write a Review

Some students can co-author a review of a novel, a poem, a film, a song, a sports match, a game, an app, some software, or hardware. This can be done in Google docs, for example.

Demonstrate How

Using their mobile phones, students can make a video that teaches someone how to do something, or shows others how they do something.
They might demonstrate how they practise the clarinet, how they make an omelette, how they tie a tie, how they bathe their dog, how they write their learning journal!

Think Aloud Protocol

Students can make a screencast of their use of Wolfram alpha to perform various calculations in maths, chemistry, and physics. By talking through the process, they demonstrate to their teacher their understanding of the specific topic, its terminology, and the use of the software. There are many applications of TAP.

Demonstrate Improvement

Students can make short videos of themselves at various stages of getting better at something. For example,

  • physical exercise
  • articulation in their mother tongue in preparation for public speaking
  • pronunciation in a foreign language
  • playing something on their musical instrument


  • What has led to the improvement?
  • What role did the teacher play?

A Debate

Two groups of three students could prepare for a debate. If the students are not familiar with the structure of a debate, they will need instruction in this. The two teams can plan their arguments, strategies, and stance in advance. The debate can take place in front of the whole class using Zoom.


Students can script an interview with someone who has made an important contribution in any field. The students need to research their subject thoroughly to do this.
They can perform this on video or provide the ‘transcript’ in written form as we see in magazines.

Note Taking

​To ensure that students have correctly processed a presentation or a recorded lecture such as a TED talk or a podcast that is part of the course material, they can be tasked with taking notes. They can email this to the teacher or share it on Google Docs. The students could also be tasked with submitting a set of questions whose answers are in the talk.

Solve the World’s Problems

Identify a major problem. Come up with as many questions as possible that have to be answered to solve this problem. What information and skills do you need to solve them? What do you need to know of history, geography, maths, physics, chemistry, sociology, and philosophy to answer them? This is a good group activity for students with different strengths.


A webquest is a specific type of activity in which students use the internet to solve or work something out.  For example, a group of students might be planning to go to a music festival: Student A has to look into transport, B into accommodation options, C into the festival program, D into   nearby attractions, E into budgeting it all. The group must then agree on the offers of each aspect of the plan. They will arrive at a complete itinerary which they will submit – and they may also talk through it with the teacher.  A shared spreadsheet is indispensable. There are many websites devoted to webquests.

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