Professional Learning online

LPI Fellow Mark Burns writes:

Since the advent of Covid and it’s massive impact on schools, more and more communication is being conducted remotely via Zoom, Teams and the like. Indeed there is the likelihood that professional learning will be continue online through the Autumn and beyond.

Online facilitated sessions provide huge potential for more flexibility for participants, as they can be accessed from their workplace or at home, removing the need for travel. They also provide the opportunity to engage with facilitators who might have greater availability as they don’t need to travel either.

Creating effective online professional learning will be crucial to support staff to learn new approaches required in this ‘new normal’.  It will also be key to demonstrating our continued investment in them as professionals.

However they are key differences with face-to-face facilitated professional learning which have to be taken into account.

I’ve been on the receiving end of many online learning programmes over recent years. Some have been fantastic and I’ve left with real gold dust, whereas others have been a real struggle. 

I’ve also been designing and facilitating many online learning programmes myself on teaching, learning, leadership, and well-being too.

So what is important in ensuring effective online facilitated learning?

Here are my top five principles. I hope they’ll be useful for those of you who may be designing and facilitating online sessions yourselves.


With a plethora of potential distractions literally at their fingertips, engaging the thinking of participants online is so crucial. This is where learning design is so fundamentally important.


In my experience, the best way to guarantee to lose online learners (me included!) is to under-estimate prior learning. This can leave participants silently opening other applications and quietly getting on with clearing their to-do-list rather than engaging with the session. Over-estimating starting points too can have a similar dis-engaging effect.

Therefore conducting full pre-course diagnostic with each individual is crucial in meeting their needs, and securing their buy-in. Useful questions at this stage include:

  • What are the key takeaways you’d like?
  • What professional learning in this area have you had?
  • What are the challenges in your current role?


I’m a great believer in planning backwards from the end of the session(s). In particular, being clear on the answers to the following questions; Why?, What? and How to? will enable participants to leave with confidence and clarity on their next steps.

This will prevent the dreaded cognitive overload that comes from opening powerpoint and starting planning the session by building an enormous slide deck.


The human touch online is just as important, if not more so, and key to creating a ‘high trust’ environment. Indeed, for many participants, the quality of the facilitator can make a huge difference to their learning experience. In particular, the way I’ve observed the way the best facilitators use their voice effectively to convey enthusiasm, nurture curiosity and encourage contributions in subtle, but really powerful ways. After all, with just a slide or image in front of the participant, the facilitators voice has to do so much more of the heavy lifting, than in face-to-face professional learning settings.

For me, the human touch starts the moment participants start to ‘arrive’ at the session by:

  • Welcoming them and checking in on their situation
  • Helping them to get familiar with the features on your online platform
  • Checking their audio/video works and that they can see any visuals you have displayed. Getting participants to join ten minutes early, will give you time to fix any tech issues. It also ensures the session can start/finish on time.

This is akin to the way you would welcome a visitor into your home and making them feel comfortable.

Don’t assume, that just because they are familiar with the navigation of other online platforms, that this one will be identical for them.

The final key aspect is through developing the quality of interaction with participants. Effective facilitators are able to encourage participation, notice and adapt to feedback, and check for clarity and confidence. They make the learning environment feel safe and rewarding.


Where are the opportunities for deeper thinking, discussion, and reflection? This might be as a whole group (if this is 8 or less) or through the use of breakout rooms, if the number of participants is too large for effective dialogue to take place.

How are you, as facilitator going to prompt that deeper thinking through questioning?

In a recent session, facilitating a workshop designing online learning sessions, I shared with the group some discussion frameworks (including the ones below) to help them engineer deeper thinking in their own online sessions…

  • Apply new skills to ‘real life’ 
  • Compare-contrast (similarities and differences)
  • Make predictions
  • Ranking
  • De-constructing models of excellence
  • Analyse event and explain causes/effects
  • Making connections

This stimulated their thinking about how richer dialogue and meaning-making could be designed into their own sessions. Doing so will also provide them with richer feedback on the participants level of understanding too.


I recall a session a year or so ago, where the facilitator had a raft of online tools, and boy was he going to show them off. By the end of the session, most participants left with only one learning point; that the facilitator knew a lot about using the various polling options, whiteboard features etc.

Remember the danger, just as in a lesson in school, of the ‘GLA’ – the ‘Good Little Activity’. Does the tool add to the learning of those taking part, or provide the facilitator with feedback to adapt the session? If not, it’s probably best saved for a better, more suitable occasion.

As participants become more familiar with online platforms such as Zoom, either through work or the ubiquitous ‘lockdown’ family quiz, the novelty value of shiny tools can quickly lose their lustre.


You may have experienced this yourself, I certainly have. Facilitated online learning sessions seem far more intense, in terms of cognitive demands on participants than their equivalent face-to-face sessions.

My experience is that sessions lasting more than 1.5 hours, even with the most skilled facilitators, risk burning out participants.

The use of images on slides is also much more important, as word heavy visuals seem to weigh far heavier online. Therefore taking a ‘face-to-face’ slide deck and simply dropping it online, is unlikely to serve you or your participants well. Slides need de-constructing, so there is one idea per slide. It’s always working asking, if there is too much reading involved in a session for participants, why not send it in advance, and use the session to explore the shared meaning and implications of the content…?


What’s been your experience of online professional learning?

Which of the points above resonate with you?

About the author – Mark Burns:

Over the last ten years, Mark Burns FLPI has developed a proven track record in developing teaching and leadership in education. He’s co-authored three best-selling books in this field.  More recently, he has worked with FTSE100 retailer and third sector organisations, to develop the quality and impact of their learning and development programmes.

Through his work, he has developed a deep understanding of learning design and how to overcome the barriers to learning in organisations. He is passionate about supporting the development of performance through effective learning. Hence his company’s name, Plus One Learning.

Mark has two daughters in secondary school and is passionate about creating school environments where they’d thrive and grow, regardless of whether they are pupils, teachers or leaders.

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