Moving online: What you can implement now

Moving online: What you can implement now
Photo taken from the iMBA program from the University of Illinois, hosted on Coursera

By Linlin Xia and Alexandra Urban, Teaching & Learning Team, Coursera

Online, live sessions provide effective synchronous learning opportunities and create a space to engage with your students while remote. In particular, live events are optimal for:

  • Mastering content that requires students’ active participation in collaborative problem solving
  • Fostering peer-to-peer interaction, especially when distance or health concerns limit in-person meetings
  • Offering step-by-step guidance, while responding to students’ questions in real-time
  • Providing personalized scaffolding in smaller group settings

While we’ve worked with Coursera partners to develop and launch programs that leverage live sessions as a way to build interactivity and in-depth learning, we’ve consolidated best practices into key tips for core use cases regarding live sessions and how to implement them.

1. Enhance course community

– Start with ice-breaker questions (e.g. what’s your favorite dessert) to get all students participating from the very beginning

– Invite alumni or previous students from the course to share their learning tips

– Encourage real-time community by asking students to submit messages, raise a hand, or use other tools within the virtual classroom

2. Dive into key concepts

– Share your screen or use a virtual whiteboard functionality when the problem involves calculations, concept mapping, or images

– Show step-by-step problem solving to guide students in your thought process

– Make sure to pause and ask students questions throughout the session to ensure understanding

3. Preview or debrief an assessment

– Collect questions from students about the specific project before the session

– Walk through the purpose and benefits of completing this assignment

– If it’s an open-ended project, allow students to share ideas with instructors or their peers and collect feedback

– Address common pitfalls, as well as how mistakes can be avoided

4. Conduct a live demonstration

– Make sure the code, software, or interface is large and clear enough for students to read

– Zoom in on important elements to focus students’ attention

– Talk through the process for conducting this type of simulation or problem solving, so students can recreate needed steps later on their own

5. Initiate a team project

– Encourage peer-to-peer learning through specific prompts and clear deliverables desired

– Use virtual breakout rooms with separate video conference links for each student-group to discuss

6. Highlight a guest speaker

– Send a summary of the guest’s background and expertise before the session, so students can prepare

– Collect questions from students ahead of time to add structure to the meeting

– Add interactive and reflective elements to help students apply what they’re hearing and encourage the guest to brainstorm alongside the students when possible

7. Create virtual office hours

– Let each student or team sign up for 10 to 15 minute slots of time at least one week ahead

– Ask students to submit their questions before the event so you can use the time most efficiently and center on the most frequently asked questions

– Send out beforehand which topics will be covered to pique students’ interest to attend


  • Determine the goal and learning objectives of the event
  • Define a clear agenda and share it with students to convey the benefits of attending
  • Prepare clear guidelines for student participation with a timeline of all activities
  • Test your internet access, camera, and speakerphone


  • Use icebreakers or virtual polls to get started and encourage all students to participate
  • Invite a teaching assistant to help moderate while you lead
  • Stick with your planned schedule and keep track of time


  • Upload the recorded session, including both the video and chat files
  • Create a brief survey to collect feedback from your students
  • Complete any action items raised from the live event, whether creating a frequently asked question and answer sheet for an upcoming assignment or planning a next guest speaker

While live sessions may feel less natural at first than standing in front of a full classroom, these online events are full of potential. In Degree and MasterTrack™ Certificate programs hosted on the Coursera platform, students have shared that live sessions are some of their favorite experiences in these online for-credit programs. For students and instructors alike, live events can add a much needed synchronous element, creating deeper bonds and dynamic problem solving in online experiences.

Though live sessions are powerful to engage students at distance, it’s not the only tool that you can use for synchronous learning. You may consider a live forum event for students to actively post and respond to each other within one hour – this is a written discussion when students and faculty are all engaging together at the same time. Live forums are particularly helpful for students who are shy to speak up or who speak English as a second language. Written posts and responses allow more time for students to organize their thoughts. You may be happily surprised by the depth of the conversation. If possible, instant messaging could be another channel for you to connect with students. It’s best for quick questions and check-ins. For example, an instructor on Coursera used to run a Facebook group where students could report their learnings and reflections at 5 PM everyday. In that way, students stay motivated by each other in an online learning community.

As you continue moving content online, we look forward to hearing your learnings and supporting your new endeavors together.


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