Skip to main content

‘If we were on campus... ’: Reflections on Managing the Multiple Spaces of Online Teaching


Denise de Pauw
Language Centre, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds 

Jane Heath
Language Centre, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds 

I've not stopped working all day, but if you asked me what I'd actually been doing, I couldn't tell you’. This comment was from a colleague on the pre-sessional English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) course that we led from March-June 2020, which was delivered online for the first time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Managing the multiple new spaces involved in online teaching was a major challenge for our teachers and a significant factor in the increased workload that they reported. In this paper, we discuss these spaces and their impact on our teachers by drawing on mediated discourse analysis (e.g. Scollon, 2001; Jones, 2005; 2015). We reflect on how our attention was distributed across Jones’s (2005) five spaces of computer-mediated communication - virtual, physical and relational, as well as screen space and third spaces - and how this led to an increase in workload and associated stresses. We also discuss and evaluate our responses, as well as further responses enacted on subsequent courses. We conclude that there are steps that can be taken to manage the multiple spaces of online teaching more effectively, thus somewhat mitigating the impact on teachers. 

KEYWORDS: Computer Mediation Communication, Mediated Discourse Theory, online teacher training, workload, impact of COVID-19

In spring 2020, we were preparing to lead Academic English for Postgraduate Studies Level 3 (AEPS3), a ten-week pre-sessional English for General Academic Purposes course at the University of Leeds. By mid-March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision had been made to deliver the course online for the first time, starting on 30th March 2020. AEPS3 was a large course with 340 students, most of whom were based in China or the Middle East. These were taught by 31 teachers, many of whom had been recently recruited and whom we had not met in person. Due to the pandemic, some teachers were not able to travel or return to the UK; as a result, both staff and students were spread over several time zones.   

It soon became apparent that colleagues were working harder and much longer hours than previously. We identified one cause of this as the fiddly and dispersed nature of our new ways of working. To analyse and better understand this phenomenon, we have produced this reflective account, drawing on Jones’ (2005) framework of the five main spaces of computer-medicated communication to make sense of our experiences and recollections. In this account, we use principles from Mediated Discourse Theory (R. Scollon, 2001; de Saint Georges and S. Scollon, 2013; Jones 2014) which consider the relations between actions, practices, identities and discourses inherent in all mediational means, to reflect on the challenges to our teaching practices and identities. We also present our response on AEPS3 and subsequent courses, and make recommendations for how to manage the multiple spaces of online teaching. Some recommendations are evidence-based, while others are based on our non-experimental observations. 

Mediated Discourse Theory (MDT) conceptualises talk and texts as some among a number of modes of discourse, which also can be manifested through action. Action can be both “mental”, for example, thought or talk, and “practical”, for example, clicking a mouse. MDT regards practices as constituted by a socially recognisable pattern of actions.  Actions are to practices like words are to sentences (Bedny and Karwowski, 2004), so to participate in a practice requires actions to be produced in a “syntagmatic” sequence - in a way that is recognisable and meaningful to others. Practices and discourses are mutually constitutive; thus, ways of doing shape ways of thinking: teaching practices become methodologies and pedagogical principles, which can be standardised, so that teachers can be observed and evaluated. Observers look for examples of “good practice” and teachers want to be recognised as “good teachers” who adhere to “professional values”. These discourses permeate the very marrow of teacher identity, an identity that was being radically shaken during our first term of emergency online teaching. 

This was apparent in the way that teachers’ attention was being consumed by an unremitting and exhausting focus on the very basic level of action: where to click on the screen? How to use the various functions of each new platform? How could they feel like good teachers when they could not work out what students would be doing, or where or how they would be doing it? According to de Saint Georges (2005), these ‘sites of attention’ indicate the opening of ‘sites of engagement’ (Scollon, 2001), which are moments when a particular constellation of practices comes together to make something happen. Our sites of engagement arose when teachers faced the challenge of working out how to do simple, everyday tasks in unfamiliar online environments.  

It was difficult to make sense of the rapidly proliferating ways in which we were communicating and so we drew on Jones’ (2005) suggestion of the five (or more) spaces of Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) to think about our sites of engagement. These spaces offer a way of tracing actions across time and place, avoiding the false dichotomy of online/offline communication. Furthermore, they complement the notion that a site of engagement is constructed in interaction, as we multitask, and as different actions draw our attention in different spaces. Jones (2005; 2011) makes the point that discourses embedded in these spaces not only interact but also shape what we can do and who we can be. Below is our conceptualisation of the five main spaces of CMC on our course: 

Physical Spaces
Physical space refers to where people are physically located during interaction. Physical spaces embody certain discourses. For instance, a discourse of teaching and learning is embodied in the layout of a classroom or lecture theatre. Features such as the seating arrangement, and position of the whiteboard and teacher desk work to structure attention towards teaching and learning in particular ways, such as passive listening in a lecture, or active construction of knowledge through academic discussion. By contrast, then, attention in the ad hoc physical spaces where we found ourselves working was structured by other, quite different discourses. Working from home, we experienced a blurring of the professional with the domestic or private discourses, alongside changed routines. Not needing to walk between classrooms, we took fewer natural breaks. Many colleagues were working from cramped accommodation or stranded overseas; many had to manage the demands of young families; few had comfortable work-stations. At the same time, many students exploited the affordances of mobile learning by working in restaurants or even driving from place to place while taking live classes. Thus, expectations around the teaching/learning experience were suddenly upended by intersections of discourses in new places. 

Virtual Spaces
These are the different spaces where we interacted online. The number of virtual spaces in use on the course proliferated, as country- or region-specific restrictions, and the differing affordances and limitations of each potential platform meant that no one space met all our requirements. Our main virtual space was Microsoft Teams, but we also continued with Outlook, our VLE and shared documents in OneDrive, as well as introducing One Note/Class Notebook, Zoom and FlipGrid. Colleagues frequently “disappeared” navigating between virtual spaces and many suffered from distributed attention: ‘I've not stopped work all day, but if you asked me what I'd actually been doing, I couldn't tell you’.​ Managing different identities in different spaces occasionally caused cracks in the professional veneer, for example mis-posting a staff message in the student team. Ownership of class space also felt contentious: some teachers even reported feeling under scrutiny, as if they were working “in a goldfish bowl”. Some created their own closed virtual spaces; others devised alternative collaborative writing spaces, using Word instead of Class Notebook. 

Relational Spaces
This refers to the social relations between staff and/or students. As mentioned, many colleagues had not previously met or worked together and the majority of students were also new to the university and had not met in person. We noticed that (non)use of webcams in classes and staff meetings profoundly affected participation and engagement, through loss of visual cues. Similarly, difficulties in turn-taking in virtual space reduced the amount of spontaneous talk, meaning that staff meetings felt far less collaborative than we would have wished, and live classes were more easily dominated by teacher talk  Monolingual groups were hard to avoid because of grouping classes in the same time zones, and so it was more difficult to encourage and monitor students’ use of English, as students in breakout rooms often resorted away from English language. As a result of the frequent need to make our shared purpose – the development of students’ oral English fluency and meta language for participating in academic discussions – more explicit, teachers reported more “language policing”, which may also have affected teacher-class rapport. 

Screen Spaces
By screen spaces, we refer to screen layout. Working from home, we all used our own devices, set up in idiosyncratic ways, so what we saw was often slightly different from what others saw. This was a huge challenge when remotely inducting teachers into the new platforms, technological literacy practices and online pedagogies ‘I can't see that on my screen ...’  was a common and persistent refrain. Teachers frequently faced this same challenge when interacting with students: a significant proportion of time, before and during teaching sessions, could be spent on checking what was visible, or what tools were available on what devices, as opposed to the lesson content. This added further to the demands of teaching (well) remotely. 

Third Spaces
This refers to places evoked during interactions, other than the places where the interactors were located at the time. Frequently, the third space evoked was the university campus. Many teachers commented about their teaching, ‘Yes, but if we were on campus ...’, often followed with a comment about how it would have been better, easier, quicker in some way, trying to make sense of their current practices in comparison with what they might have done in the physical classroom. At least initially, this preoccupation could be said to have impeded our development of effective online teaching practices.  We were working out, through experimentation, how to minimise the loss of affordances available through in-person teaching in the physical space of the classroom, and perhaps too focused on replicating communicative language teaching remotely, instead of exploring new equally appropriate ways of achieving the same.  

The University campus was also a third space for students, albeit one that most of them had never visited. In terms of students’ sense of belonging, it was difficult to conjure up a sense of the university and the region where they would one day – we hoped – live and study. We experimented with a "course discussion” channel on Teams where we integrated the third spaces in our university and regions, and encouraged students to share their own. Once again, however, this incrementally added to our own workloads. 

The effect on workload of managing the multiple spaces discussed in this section was voiced frequently in the first month of the course. A significant amount of time was being spent on puzzling out new practices at the level of mental and practical action, and staff reported hugely increased stress from working longer but with less tangible results. We found that changing our professional practices challenged existing teacher identities and displaced our sense of who was who and what was valued in our community of practice. The result seemed to be highly discomfiting for many teachers. One joked, ‘I'm a very competent teacher, I know I am!’ 

We immediately implemented a range of responses on the initial remote iteration of AEPS3, which we reflected on and refined for subsequent iterations. In this section, we will discuss and evaluate these initial responses, relating them to the multiple spaces above. 

Synchronous/Asynchronous Sessions 
Perhaps with most impact, we reduced the number of platforms used, and thus the time spent both on switching between virtual spaces and on familiarising both colleagues and students with new digital literacy practices. We now more carefully evaluate platforms’ affordances before adopting them. Working across several time zones limited synchronous contact time. Therefore, we implemented a flipped learning approach, introducing concepts in asynchronous sessions, and then consolidating and extending understanding in synchronous sessions. Thus, we could exploit the affordances of different virtual spaces for both learning and academic community building (as explained below). Adopting this approach freed us from the constraints of seeking to replicate our classroom practices remotely, as mentioned above, and allowed us to explore new practices which were more effective in online environments. As course planners and materials writers, we had to shift our perspective on interaction design to think in terms of computer mediated, rather than person mediated interaction and quickly learnt the importance of viewing asynchronous materials from our students’ perspective (Hattie, 2009), always considering, ‘Are these instructions clear enough?’. We used Carroll’s (1999) scenario-based design approach, in which we visualised students’ progress through self-study materials as a journey, enacted click by click. Scenario-based design and the reduction in number of platforms improved navigability through virtual spaces.  

Initially, we designed asynchronous sessions to be highly communicative, requiring tutors to set up tasks and provide answers or feedback in multiple virtual spaces (a Teams post, a collaborative document…). Teachers quickly and emphatically informed us that this was creating unsustainable workload. In response, as well as using one platform per session, we streamlined these sessions by providing answers through keys, pre-recorded videos or Microsoft Forms quizzes; and directing tutors to provide general, group comments on selected tasks only. We asked teachers to monitor students’ engagement with flipped learning materials through the synchronous sessions, which were designed to check and consolidate students’ asynchronous learning. In in-person teaching, teachers would not read or listen to every student’s response to every task; therefore, we concluded that there was no need for them to do so in online teaching either. Teachers reported that their workload was significantly reduced by these changes. On the initial online iteration of AEPS3, we (as module leaders) took responsibility for creating and sharing asynchronous materials with all students; however, we soon realised that this reduced the opportunity for individual tutors to take ownership of planning and personalising materials for their own classes. On subsequent iterations,  we refined this approach, encouraging teachers to adapt course materials for their students (see Teacher Agency and Identity below) and securing a solution that was also sustainable in terms of module leaders’ workload. 

We have learnt the importance of communicating clear expectations of colleagues. As a result of adjustments to new practices outlined above, not least the time taken to navigate and set up tasks in virtual spaces, initially, many staff reported working into evenings and weekends, especially in the first month. We repeatedly emphasised, therefore, that we were not expecting perfection, particularly as we were delivering emergency remote teaching rather than carefully-planned and designed online instruction (Craig, 2020; Gardner, 2020).  

We also needed to manage student expectations in two senses. Firstly, that they should not expect tutors to be constantly and instantly available, nor should they expect individual feedback on every task. Secondly, students should understand our expectations of them: for instance, that it was not appropriate to join webinars from the restaurant where they were working or the car they were driving. On subsequent courses, we have ensured that expectations of both colleagues and students are clear to all from the beginning, as recommended by Cross and Polk (2018). As working in online spaces is relatively new to all of us, it is important to make clear expectations that might be embedded in the discourses of  in physical spaces such as classrooms or staff rooms. 

Sharing Information and Support
To better manage questions and concerns (Dunlap, 2005), we created a stock of answers to FAQs, for staff and student teams, which reduced the number of queries needing a direct response. This reduced everybody’s stress. 

Technological practices had a profound impact on relations within the team, some members of which had limited experience with digital pedagogy. Solutions included sharing screens and recording screencasts, which were used to ‘walk colleagues through’ instructions on the screen. We also found that by sharing screencasts with students directly, or by providing tutors with screencasts that they could share with students, we saved tutors’ time and, in some cases, reduced their stress: tutors could spend valuable contact time on teaching, and did not have to worry that the technology would let them down mid-demonstration. 

As mentioned above, many colleagues were recent recruits whom we had never met. This affected our relational space, as it was harder to know how these teachers were managing and whether further support was needed. Therefore, we arranged one-to-one video calls with all teachers. While still a virtual space, these calls had more in common with physical space than text posts and messages; for example, we could drink a coffee ‘together’ and see each other’s body language. This allowed us to better build rapport and identify support needs. 

Teacher Agency and Identity
The greater importance of technological knowledge increased the profile of less-experienced EAP teachers, while other highly-experienced EAP teachers with less-developed technological knowledge found their professional identities threatened. Therefore, while encouraging peer support was important, we needed to be aware of the potential impact on teachers’ sense of professional identity and relations within the team. 

Similarly, some early decisions had compromised teacher agency: for example, as mentioned above, presenting learning materials in a course-wide Class Notebook limited teachers’ ability to adapt materials for their groups. This decision had a negative impact in terms of teacher identity and therefore relational spaces. On subsequent courses, we have given teachers more choice over the virtual spaces they use and enabled them to adapt or create their own materials.  

Explicit Community Building
On De Pauw’s subsequent six-week summer pre-sessional, she and her co-lead created some cross-team spaces, for example, a student café channel, which aimed to socialise students into the wider university by helping them connect with others with the same destination programme or who perhaps lived nearby in their home countries. They also integrated wider Language Centre activities by posting links to other online social spaces and events.  Responsibility for sustaining these initiatives was shared out among the teaching staff on a rota, distributing the workload. Perhaps equally importantly, sharing this responsibility out also encouraged cross-team collaboration from teachers on short summer contracts, an opportunity that may not have existed as explicitly before COVID-19.  

As has been discussed (e.g. Blum, 2020), teaching online can be exhausting for many reasons. Using the CMC framework of spaces described above can be helpful for pinpointing where attention is being redirected away from main goals, and thus some of the sources of frustration, as well as how workload issues might subsequently be addressed. The responses mentioned here seem to have had a positive impact. Teachers have reported fewer issues with workload and stress, for example, although some teachers may have been reluctant to share their struggles with us, particularly those on fixed-term contracts and/or who continued to struggle for longer. It is also difficult to know to what extent improvements were due to our responses rather than colleagues gradually adjusting to online teaching. Despite these caveats, there do seem to be steps that can be taken to manage online teaching more effectively, thus somewhat mitigating the negative impact on teachers. 

Address for correspondence:,  



Bedny, G. Z. and Karwowski, W. 2004. Activity theory as a basis for the study of work. Ergonomics, 47(2), pp. 134–153.  

Blum, S. 2020. Why we’re exhausted by Zoom. Inside Higher Ed. [Online]. 22 April [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from:  

Carroll, J. M. 1999. 5 Reasons for Scenario based design. In: Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences Volume 3, January 1999, Hawaii. [Online]. [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from:  

Craig, R. 2020. What Students Are Doing Is Remote Learning, Not Online Learning. There’s a Difference. EdSurge. [Online]. 2 April [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from:   

Cross, T. and Polk, L. 2018. Burn Bright, Not Out: Tips for Managing Online Teaching. Journal of Educators. 15(3), no pagination.  

de Pauw, D. and Heath, J. 2020. “If we were on campus....”: reflections on managing the multiple spaces of online teaching. BALEAP TELSIG 2020 conference, 3 October 2020, [Online].  

de Saint-Georges, I. 2005. From anticipation to performance: Sites of engagement as process. In Jones, R.H. and Norris, S. eds., Discourse in action: Introducing mediated discourse analysis. [Online]. London and New York: Taylor & Francis Group, pp.155-166. [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from: 10.4324/9780203018767 

Dunlap, J. 2005. Workload Reduction in Online Courses: Some Shuteye. Performance Improvement. 44(5), pp.18-25.  

Gardner, L. 2020. Covid-19 Has Forced Higher Ed to Pivot to Online Learning. Here Are 7 Takeaways So Far. The Chronicle of Higher Education. [Online]. 20 March. [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from:   

Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning: a Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.  

Jones, R.J. 2005. Sites of engagement as sites of attention. In: Jones, R.H. and Norris, S. eds., Discourse in action: Introducing mediated discourse analysis. [Online]. London and New York: Taylor & Francis Group, pp.141-154. [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from: 10.4324/9780203018767 

Jones, R. 2011. Cyberspace and physical space: Attention structures in computer mediated communication In: A. Jaworski and C. Thurlow, eds. Semiotic landscapes: Language, image, space. Bloomsbury, pp.151–167. 

Jones, R.J. 2014. Mediated Discourse Analysis. In: Norris, S. and Maier, C.D. eds., Interactions, images and texts: A reader in Multimodality. [Online]. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter, pp.39-52. [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from: 

Jones, R.J. 2015. Introduction: Discourse analysis and digital practices. In Jones, R.J., Chik, A. and Hafner, C.A. eds., Discourse and Digital Practices: Doing discourse analysis in the digital age. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 2–17.  

Scollon, R. 2001. Action and text: Towards an integrated understanding of the place of text in social (inter)action, mediated discourse analysis and the problem of social action. In: Wodak, R. & Meyer, M. eds., Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: Sage Publications, pp. 139-183.  

Scollon, S. and de Saint-Georges, I. 2013. Mediated Discourse Analysis. In: Gee, J.P. and Handford, M. eds., The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis. [Online]. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 66–78. Routledge. [Accessed 13 January 2022]. Available from: