moving your class online: a primer

a quick and not too techy guide for college and high school faculty

I’ve been teaching online for 20 years, and the rapid movement of many classes to an online format because of the coronavirus does not intimidate me at all. But I know for some, who have not taught online or have not taught much online, these are challenging days. What follows are some principles that may help.

Obviously, there are different subjects and different contexts, such as institutional expectations and production heavy courses or labs, but remember for most courses you could do this on email if you had to. I’m not recommending that, as you will see, but if you have a small class it might work. I’ve managed tutorials this way before, simply exchanging links and posing questions.

What I mean by bringing this up, however, is that you can have a class if you have a way to speak to the students and a way for them to speak back. Online actually offers you more ways to speak to them and more ways for them to speak back, and by managing certain efficiencies you can have a richer experience. I’ll unpack this below.

Communicate early and often

Send them a message, by email, through a learning management system, or in a group text as soon as possible, even if all you say is you don’t know what you are doing yet. Some of them are as anxious as you are, not about the technology but about the uncertainty. Maybe give them a place to start, pointing them to your favorite course-related article, website or YouTube video, but also tell them you will be sending along a plan next week. Or will even be making it up as you go along. Just let them know what you are thinking, with humility and humor.

Establish some protocols

You will quickly encounter a flood of questions—emails, texts, or phone calls. It will be over whelming, so you have to get on top of it right away. Young people are used to instant answers—but you need time to sort the questions out and stack them up and figure them out. You will have email going in spam folders and overloading your inbox. We will discuss ways to fix or redirect this flood, but when you communicate early set some guidelines. LIke these:

  • Have them always use institutional email if they have it. This will help keep it out of the spam folder, although you still need to check it. And this will also keep your Google search results from reflecting that student email you got from hotchick397@yahoo.
  • Establish certain hours for them to text or call, if you are open to that. Think of them as office hours.
  • Ask them to always include their name and the course number or title in the subject line of an email or in the body of the text so you can sort them easily.
  • Indicate how long you expect to take to respond to messages or grade papers. This can differ based on the size of the project.
  • Tell them your “off days.” I don’t even check email or online message boards on Sunday, for example.
  • Try to avoid social media. Typically way too awkward. Often too political. And probably against the rules.

Manage some efficiencies

So yes, you could do this by email, but you will get exhausted. If your school provides a learning management system (LMS), like Blackboard, figure it out as best you can as soon as you can. There will be workshops and online tutorials. Investing a few hours upfront will be worth it. While an LMS offers tools you may not be used to, the low hanging fruit is ways to post announcements, organize learning materials and collect assignments easily. Even to provide feedback and post grades.

If your school does not have an LMS, there are still some things you can do to make things easier: Set up a discussion environment with free software like Slack, create tests and forms online with Google forms, have small groups collaborate with Goggle docs. You could use a service like Box to share and collect documents. Create some rubrics for grading. Frankly, to the extent you are comfortable with these tools, you may be able to create your own hacks and reduce the time it might take to figure out how to create an exam on Blackboard.

The key here is to find the tools you need to get organized as quickly as possible and create online places for things to live. Start with what you already know or need most.

Experiment with new tools

Doing this may involve the tools we’ve mentioned, but there are more options than you can imagine for technologies to speak to students. You can create a podcast on your phone these days, or record brief video segments. Ask the students to do so too. ( We teach speech courses online.)

Your school may also have a video conferencing tool, like ZOOM. But if not, plenty of free (and limited) services exist. And there is always Skype. Take some of the canceled class time to meet online in real time, but not all of it for reasons I’m about to explain.

Embrace a new pedagogy

Frankly, the real challenge is changing the way you think about students. And yourself. The best online pedagogy presents the teacher as a guide, and not as the expert. It invite the learner to explain and explore. If you try to do everything the way you have been doing it, you will fail to recognize and experience the full potential of this moment.

For example, if you post a thought provoking question on a discussion board or even in an email, you will likely get richer answers than you might have in a class. Obviously some of us are better at posing good discussion questions than others, but the difference here is that the student has more time to reflect on his or her answer, you can have higher expectations (such as please cite and reference the readings), and everybody has to respond, even the quiet and thoughtful ones we often miss. You can expect them to do more research, citing other things they find while you help them understand what is credible and what is not. Get them to compare and defend and explain.

They can still do group projects online. And presentations. But don’t give too much direction—they can figure out on their own how to build and share a slide deck online. The real potential is that you can raise the bar, and expect them to reach it. Unfortunately, this requires more time, not less. But because you are interacting more thoughtfully with individuals, you can spend less time lecturing. A thoughtful email nudge has the potential to stimulate more learning than a conversation in the hall.

I would avoid the temptation to just put your lectures online or spend an entire hour in a video conference twice a week. Do these things in 15-20 minutes, handling some logistics and framing the conversation, and spend some of that time you gain finding new resources to share, more current articles and demonstrations. Expect/require them to also find, process and share new information. But in the end, spend most of the time you aren’t spending in class monitoring group and individual conversations—provoking new thinking and learning.

You may rediscover the joy of teaching.

Be flexible but don’t bend

And finally, cut yourself some slack. Admit your mistakes.

Have high standards and expectations. A comma splice is still a comma splice.

Ask the students for advice. Find a mentor. Go take a walk around the art gallery. (Trust me, no one is there this week.)

Mostly, be patient. You won’t figure this out in a day or two. Or even a month or two. I’ve been doing it 20 years and I’m still learning.

But isn’t learning what we first loved?



What are some challenges you face? What are some things you have learned? Leave questions and comments below.

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