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Online Teaching and the Coronavirus Outbreak

One of the consequences of the Co-Vid 19 outbreak is that many of us in education are being harshly introduced to online teaching and with little time to prepare. Not only do few academics have extensive experience of a purely online teaching environment but in addition, most of our students didn’t sign up for online delivery. It is a new experience for all of us. Here are some of the best bits of advice I’ve come across, plus some of my own.

1 – Place Everything into Context

Most importantly, remember that this is a stressful time for everyone; students, instructors and professional staff. Go a little easy on your students, your colleagues and yourself. All of us have additional worries. Bluntly, your class probably won’t be the most important thing on our students minds at the moment.

2 – Don’t be a Perfectionist

These aren’t normal circumstances and so don’t pretend they are. You’re not being asked to design a dedicated online course with plenty of time. If you’re lucky you’ve a couple of weeks. Don’t therefore try to make the course perfect, especially if this is the first time you’ve taught an online class. Accept that in all likelihood it won’t be perfect and that with the benefit of hindsight you’d do some things differently. However, there will be important things you can learn from it. I had to finish the Winter Quarter online and that was an emergency fix. At least for the Spring Quarter I can plan ahead. If the current situation continues into the next academic year then I can learn from this experience and make future online classes better.

3 – Change your Content

While your course may not be perfect, you do need to alter your content to make it more appropriate for online delivery. It is no different than when you change learning and assessment methods based on the size of your class or the background of the students. What works for a graduate class of twenty generally won’t work for an undergraduate course with hundreds of students. It is the same here. Adapt your material and your means of assessment where possible to reflect the changed circumstances. It may be, for example, that some aspects may not be deliverable on-line. This might mean a change in focus and/or a change in how the course is assessed.

4 – Synchronous versus Asynchronous Teaching

It is important to realise that not everything has to be presented ‘live’ in a Synchronous format with everyone present. Many traditional online courses deliver a large proportion of their material in an Asynchronous way. This is partly because of the flexibility it provides. It is why many people choose to pursue online degrees. We are though in a very different scenario here. While you do have more flexibility still take advantage of the choices you have. While Asynchronous delivery may not be as useful when you have a class predominantly of full-time students, it is still very useful. Students are going to have a lot going on and some flexibility will be useful and appreciated.

I’m intending on delivering most of my more traditional lectures in an Asynchronous manner. This will give students flexibility on when they can view that material. I’m going to balance that by focusing my Synchronous/Live sessions on workshops and more interactive sessions where the students, and I, can take advantage of being online together. I’m also intending on using old school tutorials. I have the advantage of having just one class this coming Quarter and it is a relatively small group of around 25. This is going to allow me to do things that I couldn’t if I had 250 students. Also, it is an undergraduate class and I’m expecting quite a high degree of variation in the prior background of the students. Focusing my live sessions on small discursive environments should be more of greater benefit.

5 – Be Innovative but look for Continuous Feedback

Experiment and try different things. If this is the first time you’ve taught online, or even if it is the first time you’ve delivered a specific class online, see what works and what doesn’t and don’t be afraid to change your approach. Proactively ask the students for feedback as to what they feel works and what doesn’t. Ask them what they are liking from other classes. Some approaches may not suit your course but some of your colleagues may have ideas you hadn’t thought of and they may be worth trying. More generally be reflective and while cliched, view this as a learning opportunity for yourself. I’m going to assess my own teaching using some of the structures I have used when working with junior faculty.

6 – Put Yourself in your Students’ Shoes

This won’t be a normal online course. Most of your students probably aren’t used to an online teaching environment. This is a learning curve for all of you. In addition, they are going to be anxious about the current public health situation. Many of them, if not the majority, are going to be living away from home. Many may be international students. They are away from their families and often living in a confined environment. With increasing travel restrictions in place they may not know when they will next see their family and friends from home. Above and beyond Covid-19 itself, this is naturally going to make many of them more anxious.

They may also be in the final stages of their degree. Those students are especially going to be worrying about grades at a key point in their lives. The current situation may also be hampering job searches. All of this may impact on their performance in class, especially when you also throw in a new teaching and learning environment on top. I’ll return to this, but it is why maintaining contact and communication is so important. We are going to be a face, hopefully friendly, that they see on a regular basis. More generally, even a semi-remote structure means that successful outcomes for students is going to rely more than usual on their own self-motivation. The more structure you can provide, and the more communication you give, will help.

7 - The Loss of Student Peer Groups

In the current environment it is important to remember that students are losing the support group that is their class. The loss of in-person class time means that they will not be able to help and support each other in the usual casual and informal way. We probably don’t appreciate how much that goes on. Try and encourage them to continue talking amongst themselves, but that may be hard. Some classes may know each other really well already due to previous courses they have taken together. In some cases, however, virtually no one may know each other. That is when you’ve got to go the extra mile to help.

8 – Technological Challenges

We are all going to be more dependent than usual on technology. These challenges will hit both faculty and students. Firstly, make sure you have everything at hand and that it works. This applies to both the hardware and software. Check that your webcam, microphones and speakers are working. I’ve just ordered a new webcam as my one at home is being a little temperamental. Always ask at the start of a live session if everything is working okay.

Technological issues can also apply from the student’s perspective. They may not have the best resources available or at hand. Not all students may have laptops. This is another reason to think carefully about how much material is presented live. Also, remember, even when material is delivered live always record it so that students who miss the session can catch up.

9 –Learning Management Systems (LMS’)

Most of us are well versed in systems like Blackboard or Canvas. However, we generally use them to support in-person teaching. Check out some of the features that you may not normally use but that may be useful in an online setting. A prime example here are Discussion Forums. Also, enquire as to whether other dedicated online resources are available within your institution.

More so than when used in a supporting capacity, take time in structuring the online learning environment in your LMS’. Make sure that it is intuitive, and it is clear where material is. Check how it looks and how easy it is to use from the perspective of the user, i.e. the students.

10 – Be Clever with your Material

Remember that you’re using asynchronous material at least in part to be flexible. Three-hour Peter Jackson like epics won’t help. Shorter slices of material will work better. This isn’t to do with attention span. People are going to watching recorded lectures when they can. Many will be trying to fit watching classes around other things. It isn’t just professors that are going to be managing family life, many students are as well and if you’re like Seattle they will be doubling up as homeschool teachers as well. Breaking the classes into 30-minute segments will make it easier for them. If they do have the time then great, they can always binge watch your marvelous lectures instead of being tempted by Netflix. Treat your classes as you would do a tv series on a streaming service rather than a movie.

11 – Don’t Overload Students with Material

The use of alternative sources of information is a fantastic resource with online teaching. However, it is easy to run away with yourself and put a huge amount of supplementary material online. Multi-media material can be great. I’m intending on using some video clips from YouTube and other sources, partly to make up for the probable loss of some industry based visiting lecturers.

However, don’t use such material just for the sake of it. As with anything, if you overuse something there is the risk it will lose its effectiveness. It is important to remember that students have more classes than just yours. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of overloading them with supplementary resources in an attempt to be helpful and deliver a great online course. If you do provide additional material emphasise its relevance and the role it plays in the overall course structure and also highlight which material is of relatively more or less importance.

12 – Look at Assessment Methods

There are a number of issues here. Some are more obvious than others, for example not being able to use certain types of assessment methods in an online context. However, some challenges can be more subtle. For example, how viable are group projects in an environment where not only do you not see the students, but they may not see each other. This may lead to considerable challenges. How comfortable are students themselves with resources like Zoom or Google Docs? I think it is important that right at the start of the course you make clear how you are changing the assessment methods. I also think it important that they know that you’ll be adapting your marking scheme to take into account the somewhat unique circumstances.

13 – Keep your Time Schedule

To at least some degree students are going to be isolated. We are going play an important role in stopping Social Distancing turning into Social Isolation. It will help them if there is some regularity in their routine. You may not be doing a live session in every scheduled time slot but if nothing else make sure you are available for online office hours during those times. Also, under no circumstances do any live sessions outside of your set lecture times. They will have their other classes to keep up with as well.

14 – Effective and Frequent Communication

The lack of in-person contact means that effective communication is going to be vital.

  • Be very clear how the course is going to be structured. Re-write your syllabus to reflect the new reality and make clear how you’ve changed the course. It will help put students minds at ease.

  • If it is at all possible, the first class should be done live in order for you to meet your students and for them to meet you. It will help build up rapport and trust. It also gives you an opportunity to explain how the class is going to work.

  • The lack of in-person class time can make it harder for you to get to know your class. One idea is to send a personal email to everybody asking them for a bit of information about what they are hoping to get out of the course and perhaps give them an opportunity to voice any concerns they may currently have.

  • Post a weekly announcement providing an overview of what is to be expected during the coming week, e.g. readings to do, any live/synchronous sessions, discussion forum times, any new asynchronous material posted etc.

  • Use multiple lines of communication, don’t just rely on Canvas or Blackboard. Use regular email and also consider a social media presence for the class.

15 – Be Accessible

Don’t go silent on students. Too often the biggest failing of online teaching is placing material online and then forgetting about it and the students until marking comes around. We are not looking at a correspondence course, especially in the current circumstances. Being a friendly face that they see once or twice a week can help enormously in allaying anxiety. Continuing to engage with the class is vital.

  • Communicate effectively at the start of the quarter/semester/term about how questions can be posed and also manage expectations as to how quickly students may expect a response. This will obviously vary and at least partly depend on the size of the class and how many classes you are teaching. Detail all of this in your syllabus.

  • Keep virtual offices and make sure you are available. These can use your scheduled lecture times, if you’re not doing a live session, or by appointment.

  • If a number of students come to you with the same question or misinterpretation about say an assignment maybe do a short video that can be posted to clarify the position, just as you’d make an announcement in class if a similar circumstance arose with a normal course.

  • Look at an array of alternative communication/feedback mechanisms, e.g. email, online discussion forums, live Q&A sessions.

  • If you don’t already, have your email synched to your phone and try to prioritise student emails at the moment.

  • You may be usually wary of giving students your phone number, but these are unusual times. One option is while discouraging phone calls, you may allow students to text you with urgent/quick queries.

16 – Being an Effective Online Instructor

Online teaching brings a natural barrier between everyone involved, between you and the students and between themselves. Despite that you need to still try and bring your personality to the course. Even using slightly less formal language than you’d normally adopt in communication may help.

One major challenge though is that it can be extremely hard to pick up on non-verbal signals. In class, even large ones, you can often spot when someone is struggling with a concept or when the class as a whole is struggling or even bored. That will be a lot harder in an online environment. The big disadvantage with asynchronous delivery is that students can’t immediately ask a question. They need to feel comfortable about getting in touch with questions. This is why working on developing a welcoming environment, even within the cold atmosphere of online delivery, is important.

17 – Be Flexible

Finally, be flexible and adaptable. Be prepared to adjust deadlines, grading policies etc. to student needs and to what may be rapidly changing circumstances. For example, how do you respond if your institution closes down the libraries or computer facilities? The students need to know that you are on your side and that you are all in this together.


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