In March this year, like many others working in higher education, we shifted from running the U:PASS program entirely face to face (f2f) to fully online in the space of a week. At the point of lockdown, we had already trained our 40 new U:PASS leaders in facilitating f2f and we had 60 experienced leaders who had already been facilitating learning f2f from the previous semester or longer.

It was of course a huge adjustment.

Since then, after we recovered our mojo and our scattered wits, we have learnt of the additional challenges in the online space and thought we would share some of the approaches and solutions we’ve come up with.


Sage on the stage

It’s even easier to become a “sage on a stage” in a fully online context. This is not what we want in the U:PASS model, we value interaction amongst students, as well as interaction between the leader and the students. The following diagrams illustrate the contrast between these two modes of student engagement:       

Illustration describing the 2 models of teaching described.
Illustration by Georgina Barratt-See

Black box syndrome

The second challenge we’ve faced, which every educator will be super familiar with, is the “Black box syndrome” (as I like to call it). Whether it’s because they don’t like being on camera, can’t turn their camera on, don’t have a camera, don’t have a mic, don’t have internet bandwidth, or are too anxious or concerned about speaking,  the black box syndrome makes it harder for the leader to know if anyone is there or AFK (Away From Keyboard).

Early exit

And finally, the “Exit syndrome” – whether it’s students who come and leave immediately once they realise it’s interactive, or leave when breakout rooms are open, students are able to exit the online class at any point that in a f2f context that would be more noticeable and embarrassing.


Our team developed some principles that we’ve found useful in addressing these challenges:


We’re social beings – but building a social connection online can be difficult.

  • Having the leader show their face on camera. Can’t overstate how important this is!
  • Check-in and make time for small talk, ask how each other are going, Even if students only answer in the chat can help humanise the experience and provide valuable mentoring opportunities.
  • Model vulnerability and grace. Show that it’s ok to not know or get something wrong.
  • Allocating students to break out groups without a teaching presence. With a clearly defined task this can build responsibility and rapport within the cohort.
  • Check in privately. As the facilitator in Zoom you can privately message people and check in on them.
  • One of my lovely postgrad leaders came up with the idea of “lost my voice” game. She speaks as little as possible and the students have to step up a bit more. Now, it’s important to say that this was only when she had got to know the students well and is not a beginning of semester strategy!


There’s something about a bit of competition which really engages students. So using Kahoot, Socrativ, Mentimeter or even a game of Bingo can really help get students more actively involved. This might involve simple group based strategies like breaking the class into two teams and asking them to work through a multiple choice quiz together – and then competing to see who gets the most right.

Allocate responsibility

A student is less likely to exit if they feel responsibility to others, so allocating responsibility to a group to solve a question can help a lot:

  • Google slides or a Jamboard, where students collaboratively add what they know about different topics.
  • Break out groups – Zoom has just introduced a new feature where you can allow students to allocate themselves to different groups – e.g. they could choose the topic they want to work on. Just bear in mind that everyone needs to update Zoom!
  • Think/pair/share – this classic technique works well if you give different topics to different pairs – and then they come back and share what they know.
  • Serial versus parallel groups – if you have a bunch of topics that don’t require “follow on” from each other than you can allocate groups in parallel – a different topic to each group. That cuts down the time they spend working and thinking together. Of course, this doesn’t work if you need to work through concepts that build on each other, which is where you need to work through topics in sequence.

Hold the silence

It’s easy when you know a topic well to forget that it takes time to learn. One of my leaders in nursing wrote:

“Also not being afraid to sit in silence for a bit while students work things out. Sometimes it can be hard not to jump in because it feels like they’re just sitting there hiding, when actually they’re looking through their notes. So ensuring they are given the time they need and aren’t rushed.”

U:PASS leader

So there you have it – some ideas and thoughts to we hope will help you facilitate learning online!

2020 had been an incredibly challenging year, the team at U:PASS will continue to reflect upon our experiences, and hope to improve the student experience more. What have you discovered in your experiences of teaching online? Get in touch with the LX team or leave a comment below!

U:PASS is a facilitated learning program where high achieving senior students are hired, trained, mentored and observed to run study classes across the semester in about 50 early stage high risk subjects. Leaders design activities and discussions and the focus is on an active, collaborative learning experience. U:PASS is a part of HELPS, which provides English and academic support to all UTS students.

  • Thank you Georgina – note to self – find out more about Socrativ and Mentimeter – also remember ‘to hold the silence’.

    • Thanks Fotini! Yes, holding the silence is hard – so tempting to fill it, especially online! Mentimeter and Socrativ are both cool and just as easy to use as Kahoot. Mentimeter can do polls and word clouds and Socrativ is more like Kahoot but without the timed/pressure element.

  • Thanks for this article Georgina and thanks to our wonderful U:PASS leaders too. So many practical and useful ideas.

    • Thanks Amanda – I’m always trying to use my knowledge for the broader T&L community so that’s good to know 🙂

  • What a creative group of leaders you have! Many thanks to you all for the ideas – I’ve made a note to myself to check out Socrativ and what a Jamboard is! 🙂

    • Yes, Socrative similar to Kahoot with slight differences. Jamboard super useful for brainstorms! Easy to use too. Unfortunately you can only have up to 20 jamboards per link.

  • Many thanks for these ideas Georgina…I think they will also work well in Conversations when I get there! Really respect your and your UPASS leaders’ experience and advice.

  • It was incredible to watch UPASS shift online as quickly and seamlessly as they did. Just shows the innovation, flexibility and generosity that UPASS is built on and that clearly the 2020 UPASS leaders have. Well done Georgina!

  • Just wanted to say a big thank you to Kathy Egea, Alex White, Chris Girdler and of course, the amazing U:PASS leaders for their help, editing and encouragement with this post 🙂

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