Towards teaching and learning online

For the last two or three years, we’ve started every academic year at CILT with a series of four workshops. One of the “Big Four” is an introduction to teaching and learning in online spaces. Most staff who attended these workshops had very little experience of either being online learners or attempting to teach online. (Next year will be a whole new experience!!) Further, use of online spaces for teaching and learning always vary widely in the group – some attendees have not even logged on Vula (our Sakai-based, institutional LMS), others are preparing to teach online, and the rare would have undertaken some online study themselves or taught online in another context.

To support these colleagues, who are just dipping their toes into the ocean of online learning, we’ve used the triad of Transfer-Transform-Translate to describe the choice they’ll be making about teaching and supporting learning in online spaces.

Transfer refers to a process of simply taking an existing activity and moving it into an online space. Pre-COVID, at UCT, many staff had started transferring Course Readers to an online space, uploading a single PDF of readings, syllabus and sometimes assessment briefs to a course site, avoiding the cost of copying. Another example of transferring material online might be recording a 40 minute long lecture and uploading it to Vula. Direct transfer, while almost inevitable as a first toe in the water and a common response in the context of COVID 19, is unlikely to sufficiently support learning online. At first read, our use of “transfer” seems similar to what James Clay, in his most recent blog post, Translation vs transformation, calls “translation”.

In our work, we have reserved the term “translation” for a slightly different case. Teaching where we do, issues of equity of access (data, devices and infrastructure), academic and digital literacy, and the deep contemporary shades of the historical economic, political and cultural oppression of black people force us to pay careful attention to the translation of processes, resources, tools and activities in online spaces.

Translate, in our understanding, takes cognisance of teaching and supporting learning in and through online spaces in relation to what we know about student behaviours online and, particularly, in light of the local context. An example of translation, in our model, would be taking a 45 minute video, and, cognisant of the context of access and what local focus groups suggest about how students watch recordings online, chop this up into shorter, topic-focused chunks. One might, in another example, as many of our staff have, offer audio recordings, and pdfs of transcripts or notes, in addition to a video recording in an attempt to widen accessibility.

But taking either a transfer or translate approach leaves us living in a kind of unsatisfying duplicate of the online space, and so, in our context, we turn to the idea of transformation to invoke the potential and possibility of online learning. To transform processes, resources, tools and activities suggests looking beyond the constraints of our context (what we can’t do) to what might be possible if we consider as creatively and openly as possible the affordances of the online. Even while embracing a low tech response to teaching online, online learning affords the opportunity to change what is available to students when they are engaged in a learning activity.

An example of transforming learning might be to take that humble pdf and enrich it. Add guiding questions, using the comments tool to develop the academic literacy of your students. Add voice note comments to enhance a sense of teacher presence. Link to other resources in your LMS, assuming that you’re working in a low-tech model and that perhaps your institutional LMS is zero-rated. (If you’re not constrained by these things, link to anything you please!) Get super crazy and use a tool like or Perusall to help your students engage with other students working on the same document.

In the context of COVID 19 and the demands of the contemporary educational context, thinking in the three levels – transfer, translate and transform – can give us some nuance to describe what we’re doing, and to aspire to doing better with all the potential at our disposal.