Photo of a hands writing on a wjhiteboard Photo by Kaleidico

By Dr Pablo Dalby, University of East Anglia* 

One simple, quick strategy for enhancing the inclusivity/accessibility of online teaching and learning is to use a shared ‘live’ document (e.g. a Microsoft Office document like OneNote/Class Notebook, Word, PowerPoint etc.) as an online collaborative whiteboard. A shared ‘live’ document is one that can be edited by multiple people at the same time, or over a period of time. I've often used a simple MS Word document successfully in various online and/or face-to-face teaching contexts. 


If you're wondering why it's worth using a shared ‘live’ document, rather than just using the whiteboard features already built into some online platforms, below are 10 reasons (these are a combination of accessibility benefits and general benefits, though those two categories overlap of course):

  1. Compatibility with screen readers (can work well with them, if the document is created with accessibility in mind);
  2. has accessibility enhancing features in ‘Learning Tools’ like ‘Immersive Reader’, ‘Accessibility Checker’, 'Dictate' (voice typing) and ‘Read Aloud’;  

  3. can easily build organisation and structure into the whiteboard so it's clearer and easier for people to use (e.g. tables with areas laid out for different breakout groups and pre-populated with breakout group questions and areas to document responses);
  4. has an organised comments thread feature, making it easier to make written comments on specific aspects of the whiteboard, respond to each comment and have written discussions in an organised way that is easy to follow (n.b. applies to Word and PowerPoint not OneNote);  

  5. ability for session leader to set up the whiteboard as far in advance of the session as needed (without needing to open a virtual room which students can enter) which can be useful if any structure needs to be built into the whiteboard beforehand;  

  6. can be accessed and used by all participants before and/or during and after the session which is useful/accessible in many ways (e.g. students can revisit ideas after the session);  

  7. same whiteboard can be used throughout and has infinite space if needed;
  8. one less new tool for students (and staff!) to learn (especially at this moment in time, when there is a risk of new-technology overload and fatigue) as almost all will be familiar with it already (n.b. applies more to Word than OneNote);  


  1. quicker and easier to input typed text which is easier for most people to read than cursive handwriting;
  2. can be used as a backup location for communication throughout entire session. This is useful for sending messages if anyone loses connection to the main platform being used.


I wouldn't recommend trying to get too many participants to edit a single shared ‘live’ document simultaneously. Although the document may not 'break', it might slow down and could be an unwieldy process to manage. I'd suggest having a limited number of participants editing at any one time. So, if say, students are working in breakout groups, ask them to choose 1-2 group members to be 'scribes' and write down key ideas. These 'scribe' roles could also rotate so students take turns.


Do you have any experience with whiteboards that you would like to share? Let us know in the comments!


*This post was originally written in the context of staff development activities at the University of East Anglia. This orientation means the post only mentions using Microsoft Office document formats (although other formats are available!) because these are supported at the University of East Anglia for use in learning and teaching. Some of the 10 benefits may also pre-suppose access to features for Microsoft 365 subscribers.


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