This post is part of a series on how staff in the School of Arts and Humanities at NTU are finding new ways to bring presence into their blended and online learning and teaching. We hope that highlighting some of the different practices we’re seeing and supporting in the School might give others ideas that can be adapted and replicated elsewhere. We’d love to know if anything you see here sparks a new approach for you – email us at

As a team, we’ve heard a wide range of feedback from Arts and Humanities teaching staff on their experiences of using the new online learning environments that have become central to teaching this year, especially online synchronous sessions. Some tutors, including those reporting benefits, have also identified a variety of challenges including the lack of a student presence now that students can attend a session but remain almost entirely invisible to the tutor by keeping their camera and microphone off. This has been one of the most talked-about issues in relation to synchronous sessions, both within our School and, judging by the burgeoning Twitter debate on the topic, in educational institutions worldwide.

The Challenge

Shialing Kwa, Lecturer of Spanish in the University Language Programme, noticed that without the physical presence and the eye contact that comes with being together face-to-face, students were choosing to speak during her seminars less frequently overall. As part of addressing this challenge, she designed an asynchronous formative assessment to ensure that students got as much opportunity to practice their speaking as possible, but also saw the chance to simultaneously give students even more detailed feedback on their speaking than the time constraints of synchronous online or face-to-face sessions would allow.

The Idea

This entirely optional activity asked students to make a recording of a self-interview using questions that were provided, and then submit the work to her for written feedback. After speaking with the LTSU, Shialing decided to embed an H5P audio recorder on the webpage with the activity instructions to create a straight-forward recording option, though students could use any device or software they liked to record themselves. Students then saved and submitted the audio file to the Dropbox like any other NTU assignment.

The Results

100% of the students polled afterwards (22 respondents) agreed that they found the activity helpful for improving their Spanish speaking and would want to participate again in future. Interestingly, when asked how far they agreed with the statement “I would prefer a formative speaking activity that is “live” with the tutor, rather than recorded in advance, even if this is in a pair or small group” 36% agreed, 23% disagreed, but 41% were neutral on the topic. The accompanying comments suggested that students appreciated the different purposes that synchronous and asynchronous speaking activities could serve: the asynchronous self-interview activity allowing for more practice, and therefore more focus on the details and pronunciation for both student and tutor, whereas synchronous speaking time provides a more “realistic” experience, with the chance to practice comprehension and response in real time.

Possible Iterations

Based on her own experience and student feedback, Shialing has some plans to improve the activity for the next time she offers it. First, she wants to further clarify her instructions to ensure that students realise that asking the questions is an important part of the activity to demonstrate varying tone of voice, after finding some of them only gave the answers. She also wants to make clearer that students must create one continuous recording, rather than a short one for each question, so that students are encouraged to speak for longer at once.

Although this time the activity was a late addition to her modules as an adjustment to online learning, next time she would offer this activity early in the semester, as a scaffold to more challenging speaking activities with less preparation time, more closely mimicking real conversation and the final assessment. She is also considering trying out audio feedback, perhaps as a complement to her written feedback, especially to better comment on pronunciation.

Shialing’s activity, though created to address an issue in the synchronous online learning environment, could be a valuable addition to her modules regardless of the future delivery mode. Developing activities like these can help towards a resilient teaching approach that creates preparedness for uncertainty.

If any other staff in the School of Arts and Humanities at NTU would like to have a conversation with us to explore building resilience into teaching practice, email