• Carolyn Stuart

How do we foster learning relationships when teaching online?

Like many, I have been thinking a lot about what we need to do to help our students continue their learning journey through this enforced time of self-isolation. So far I have observed a proliferation of websites and platforms offering learning resources to support teachers and students. I think that this is amazing and I certainly take my hat off to the many, many companies who have removed their paywalls, giving students free access to rich learning resources.

Learning however, is more than just providing rich and engaging content to students. John Hattie’s research told us years ago that the relationship between the teacher and student was the thing that made the biggest difference to student outcomes. So the provision of rich content, the cognitive side of learning is important, but will only be of true value partnered with the social or relational side of learning which is the student/teacher relationship.

"Learning is both cognitive and social.” - Robert Garmston

So the big question becomes:

How do we foster learning relationships when teaching online?

Some teachers in New Zealand have been doing this successfully for years through platforms like the VLN, but for the majority of our teachers this is new territory. Here is my thinking about how we could replicate the relationship side through an online medium.

Meeting and Greeting Students

Face to Face

Teachers greet students usually in an upbeat manner, setting a positive tone from the start. Most teachers also use this time to observe students for emotional cues, figuring out who is going to need extra care and support


Teachers greet students as they come into a video conference ‘room’, although through a screen it will be much more difficult to pick up the social cues critical to assessing who needs extra care and support. An online poll asking students to rate how they are feeling as they arrive might provide this critical insight - and if the class results of the poll are shown it might help students understand that they are not alone in how they are feeling.

Student discussion groups


Teacher either asks students to move into groups or gives out pre-arranged groupings. Students given tasks to complete while in groups. Teacher moves around groups assisting as required. Groups often report the outcomes of their conversations back to the rest of the class.


Teachers could make use of Zoom’s Breakout function - the ability to assign students to small breakout rooms for small group dialogue - groupings can be either random or teacher organised ahead of time, and the teacher, as host of the video call can pop in and out of the breakouts to ensure students are staying on topic. At the end of the breakout students can record their ideas either using a chat channel or via a virtual whiteboard.

New Learning


Teacher explains new content or organises students into different content-rich activities. Teacher checks for understanding by giving students the opportunity to ask questions. Teacher moves around groups checking for understanding or takes a subset group of learners for more targeted instruction.


Teachers screen-shares with the learners and, using Slides or PowerPoint, talks through either the prepared content or the process students are going to undertake to unpack this new learning. The presentation is available for students to use after the video conference has ended. Depending on the purpose of the learning the teacher might put students into online Breakout rooms or give students an online way to access help should they need it - this may be via chat or email or video call.

Checking for Understanding


Teachers might ask questions to check for understanding as they move around the room, or give pop quizzes.


Use of Polls to check if students understand the content, and the use of a chat channel for emerging questions.

The examples given above are by no means definitive, but I offer them as a resource to help teachers and leaders think about how best to foster learning relationships alongside all the content that is available to the learners in your context. We are seeing some lovely examples emerging such as the principal of Tawa Primary School reading books via YouTube to the learners at his kura. I am also aware that not all learners have access to the internet but this is a different conversation.

As I have been thinking about what effective online teaching and learning looks like I have also been looking at, and learning about, the different platforms that are available. The one that seems to have it all is the Pro version of Zoom. It allows you to do Video Meetings, Polls, Breakout Rooms, Chats, Screen-sharing, recording etc and I think there is a huge advantage to having all of the learning relationship tools in one place. You would use Zoom alongside content platforms such as Google Classroom. Zoom also seems to have good reporting functionality.

This is indeed a unique time, but it is also giving us a reason to investigate how we might best use the tools of the age in which we now live. My hope is that at the end of this time we will not lose the taonga of these new ways of fostering learning.

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