I taught my first online training course this week using Zoom. After 20-years of teaching adults in the classroom, at first, it felt weird and disjointed, but I found my flow and got great feedback from the students by the end. What’s more, some of my teaching techniques were enhanced by the online platform.

Here are my top seven tips.

1. Do something different every few minutes
My classroom courses are interactive to keep students engaged throughout – learning at their peak. Online teaching shouldn’t be any different.

I used a combination of Q&A, chat-box quizzes, short video clips, and breakout rooms to make this happen. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is not acceptable in the classroom or online. Fundamental to teaching and learning is engaging with the student. A two-way flow of information.

I found one of the simplest – and most powerful – techniques was simply to switch off the presentation and go face-to-face. I realised that students could see me more clearly on their computer screen they would in a large classroom, drawing them in.

2. Make your exercises sweat
Clients are always surprised at how many bags I’m dragging when I arrive at an office or factory to present a course. They are stuffed full of interactive exercises (Jigsaws, Washing lines, Card games, Photographs, Visual aids). It took me a while to redesign these exercises to function effectively online, but eventually, I figured it out.

For a typical jigsaw exercise, draw the cards out on a PowerPoint slide, convert them into jpegs so they can’t be edited, and shuffle. Email out the activity in advance. When students arrive in their breakout rooms, one opens the file and shares their screen. Like magic, learners from Sunderland to Stornoway solve the problem together.

Dropping into each breakout room, I was able to seamlessly observe progress, assisting if necessary. After I got the hang of it, this was more comfortable than leaning over shoulders. I also used this opportunity to chat with the students in smaller groups.

When the students fed back the whole group, once again, they could share their screen – visual as well as verbal feedback. Another enhancement on the classroom.

3. Turn thoughts into marks
I use the flipchart continuously in the classroom even if I have perfectly good slides illustrating the point. Some trainers don’t get this. It is all about energy. The back-and-forth between the students and tutor: turning thoughts into marks.

My single biggest worry before the course was not being able to recreate this magic online.

So, I bought a graphics tablet.

During the course, I either annotated the slides with the ‘pen’ facility in PowerPoint, or, for a major piece of artwork, inserted a blank slide and drew on that. I asked questions and wrote answers directly onto the slide or screen.

No flipchart, no problem!

4. Chat-Box Quizzes
This tip is from a workshop by sustainability guru, Gareth Kane, of Terra Infirma. It’s so good I have included it here – and it achieves something almost impossible in the classroom: simultaneous engagement by all.

Ask the students a question and tell them to write the answer in the chat-box, but not to press ‘enter’. When sufficient time has passed, say ‘post’. All replies appear simultaneously, thus avoiding groupthink. Students are fully engaged, and the tutor can rapidly evaluate the level of knowledge in the room. Thank you, Gareth.

5. Sound, sound, sound
“It sounds like you are in my living room!” one student said. As an audiophile, sound is important to me – I wasn’t going to subject my delegates to 5-days of ‘tin-can telephone’.

My ‘Yeti’ by Blue Microphones did the trick and adds a touch of retro-styling to my desk. Studio quality sound. It has functions for ‘gain’, ‘directional’ and ‘surround sound’. However, it was only after the first day of projecting my voice (as if in the classroom and suffering from habitual teachers-soar-throat) that I realised I could turn up the ‘gain’ and speak at normal volume – no soar throat for the rest of the week. Happy Marek.

I also made a serious mistake regarding sound. For the first few days, I failed to click the option to ‘share computer sound’ when playing a video. The students could only hear the video via my speaker and microphone. Thank you to my friend, Andrew Keys of Keyes Eyecare, for solving this problem for me over the weekend.

6. Noise, noise, noise
“Switch your microphone off during the call unless you are speaking”, states the conference organiser.

I asked my students to leave their microphone on at all times (unless their dog was barking, or they had aliens in their speakers). Why? Instant feedback. Learning is not leaning back in your chair and taking a nap. I wanted to hear the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘eureka’ moments.

For me, talking into a black hole of silence sucks the energy out of my being.

7. ‘Getting to know you
During a typical course, I circulate between students and spend some time one-to-one over lunch, and during breaks. This is more difficult online, so I forced the issue.

Each morning I asked an ice-breaker question (what is your favourite film, book, holiday?) and went around the room. In this way, we learnt more about each other over the week, and I watched one of the films recommended, opening up discussion.

I also gave the students the opportunity to arrange a private discussion with me before the course each morning to talk about any issue: from the nitrogen cycle to the weather.


I was exhausted every evening; it was a steep learning curve; and I was redesigning exercises on the fly as I discovered what is possible. At the same time, I was genuinely surprised at how effective online teaching can be; was invigorated by the experience; and I got to know a great group of learners, something I have missed since Covid struck.

I was presenting IEMA’s Foundation Certificate in Environmental Management for Northumbria University. I am very grateful to Anna-Lisa of True North Sustainability who has taught this course previously for Northumbria (both in the classroom and online) and shared her experiences with me.

By Marek Bidwell

Follow me on Twitter at @marekbidwell