Effective ways to support students learning remotely from abroad

“Inevitably, there are times when it’s simply not possible for a student abroad to log on to a class”

While global efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic continue, it is likely that many universities will retain some elements of remote teaching into and beyond the start of the new academic year.

With uncertainty continuing, Parama Chaudhury of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics at University College London shares four tips to help ensure students stranded in their home countries and unable to travel to their place of study get the best possible experience of learning online, wherever they happen to be.

Tackle local technical limitations

The reliability of technology and networks can vary enormously across the world. But one way to reduce the risk of technical issues preventing overseas students from accessing lessons remotely is to enlist local help.

I had two students in Bangladesh and Pakistan run local tests of all the systems, tools and resources we use to deliver online lessons. Through their international student networks, we could extend testing to other countries too so any issues could be addressed in advance.

It’s also worth ensuring learning materials can be accessed from any device. If good wifi is only accessible from a phone in a public place, for example, making materials mobile-friendly and easily downloadable means there’s no requirement for continuous internet.

Address the challenges of learning in different time zones

Video conferencing tools are great for bringing students together online, enabling them to work collaboratively and ask their tutors questions. We’ve found a variety of ways to ensure students located in different time zones get similar opportunities to interact with others in real time.

Live Zoom sessions are scheduled largely in the morning as many of our students are located in East Asia and can attend without disrupting their “normal” routine.

We also run smaller online tutorial groups throughout the day. Students further afield can sign up to the sessions which work best with their local time zones and fit these around other commitments.

In addition, private channels on Teams allow students located in specific regions to work together on group projects at a time of their choosing. The students manage these sessions themselves and simply tag me in the virtual chat if they have any questions, knowing I’ll respond once I’m back online in the UK.

Inevitably, there are times when it’s simply not possible for a student abroad to log on to a class, so we’ve used our hybrid teaching and learning platform, Echo360, to create a central repository of recorded materials students can access at any time, including video of virtual live sessions and pre-recorded content.

This allows students to not only catch up on lessons missed but also re-watch sessions they’ve previously attended at their convenience.

Providing a full transcript of what was said is helpful too, for revision purposes, for those with special needs and disabilities and for students with English as an additional language.

Engage students globally

Keeping students engaged at a distance can be challenging so I like to give them an active role in the lesson and make them feel they are in the ‘room’ with me.

Using Echo360, we can embed interactive questions (open-ended and multiple-choice) into pre-recorded videos and offer students learning activities, with feedback, they can access at their leisure. I use polling software extensively in live online sessions to encourage participation and check students’ understanding too, as I would in a physical classroom.

I can view individual responses and engagement levels and students can always raise a virtual hand to ask or answer a question anonymously. This adds value to the live sessions, making them more about interaction and less about content delivery.

Prevent isolation

The pandemic has underlined how important the social and extracurricular aspects of university life are to students. With planning, at least some aspects of these can be replicated remotely for those learning from abroad.

I’ve participated in student-run and university-facilitated quizzes and “Meet the Lecturer” events attended by students from around the world. Attendees have told me how much these events help to build a sense of community and break the relative isolation of learning online.

A virtual event I organised when the first lockdown hit was much appreciated by a group of students forced to miss the last two weeks of their course. One student who joined from a quarantine hotel in Central Asia was delighted just to see another human face.

The experience of teaching through the pandemic will help universities put effective plans in place to support the progress of all students in the coming academic year – including those who continue to learn remotely from afar.


About the author: Parama Chaudhury is professor (teaching) and tirector of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics (CTaLE) at University College London.