Preparing to go online

The following guidelines are offered as assistance to instructors moving class online temporarily for emergency circumstances. Many of the same principles would apply under regular conditions, but I’ve modified them somewhat in recognition that this is a swift move to online instruction, and with so little time to plan it is best to focus on survival and not strive for perfection.

STEP ONE: Choose your mode(s)

Decide how you want to approach teaching your class. Specifically, decide whether you plan to teach synchronously or asynchronously, or to use a blend of the two approaches. The former is appropriate for activities that require real-time interaction, while the latter can support deeper reflection. Either is suitable for information dissemination (e.g., lectures) or discussion, but the overall flow and sense of time will differ.

Under the current circumstances, I recommend having some synchronous interactions available to your students. Students who are used to attending classes on campus will probably appreciate a nod to their regular routine, with synchronous classes held at the same day and time. It will be comforting for them to know you’re still there on Tuesdays at 10:30. Many of them intentionally signed up for face-to-face classes because they wanted to hear their instructor speak, and to be able to ask questions in real time. Some probably wanted accountability in their learning process, such as a specific time and place where they needed to show up and be counted.

That said it can be difficult to teach synchronously for the same length of time that we teach synchronously in a classroom. Attention spans drift and students wander away. It’s okay to plan synchronous session that are shorter than your regular campus sessions, or to have fewer synchronous meetings per week than campus meetings. You can fill in with asynchronous activities, or reserve part of the time for Q&A or office hours.

Also be aware that synchronous instruction may leave some students excluded. This is not a reason to avoid synchronous instruction, but it does mean that you need to be aware of who your students are, what their living and technology access conditions will be for the next few weeks, and provide alternates or make accommodations for them as needed. Synchronous sessions should not be mandatory, and should not be the only way to access critical information. They should be recorded and shared with students for viewing at a later time. Ideally you will also use a tool that generates a transcript (or upload to youtube and generate one that way), so you can offer the transcript and a copy of slides or other shared files to students who may have bandwidth issues.

STEP TWO: Choose your tools

As a general rule, I discourage instructors from trying too many tools in an online class. It just causes confusion. Even if you know how to use the tools already, your students may not, and each additional tool can add layers of confusion as students try to orient themselves in virtual space and struggle to remember multiple URLs, usernames, and passwords.

This is not the time to be playing with new tools if you can help it. A lot of people are recommending tools right now, and there are so many good ones to choose from. Some companies are offering free use of their tools for the next few months, which is very generous. However, success in the current context means keeping it simple. Learning new tools is not keeping it simple, and the more complex the tool, the steeper the learning curve.

Still, most folks who are new to online learning will have to learn a new tool or tool feature in order to teach online. If you’re already using a learning management system (LMS), like Canvas, then you’re well on your way. Stick with it and learn new features of it, as needed. If the LMS doesn’t fully meet your needs, look for the simplest tool you can find that will meet your needs.

If your campus has supported conferencing tools, those can be a good choice because it’s likely that you will be able to access technical and instructional support at your institution. Additionally, using institution-supported tools increases the likelihood that your students are already familiar with the tools you choose.

STEP THREE: Prepare your students

Your campus students are probably used to a predictable routine. They know what time class starts and what time class ends. They know how you start and end each session. They have already developed a clear rhythm for the semester, and that rhythm is being disrupted. They are now looking to you to set the new rhythm.

As chaotic as things may feel right now, it is your job to determine a plan, share it with students, and then stick to it. If you can tell your students right now what they should expect when their class goes online, they will appreciate it and have less anxiety over the situation. Specifically, students will want to know

  • what they need to do
  • when they need to do it
  • what tools they will use to do it
  • how they need to prepare to use those tools and interact in class

Providing this information in multiple modes and locations can be helpful. For example, you might write it all up into a long email and send that to your class via email, post a copy of it in the LMS, and also take advantage of a face-to-face meeting (if you have any left) or record a video. Your students might benefit from having this information delivered via video because they will see your familiar face and hear your voice reassuring them that this switch to online instruction is going to be okay.

Also remind your students that these are unusual circumstances, and that you’re doing the best you can on short notice. Ask them for their patience and kindness, and offer them yours in return. Tell them you will solicit and be open to their feedback, and then follow up on that.

You also might ask if you have anyone in the class who is familiar with the tools you are using and would like to help out, whether that means supporting classmates as they try to figure out new tools, or helping you moderate a synchronous class session.

STEP FOUR: Test the tools

Try out whatever tools you plan to use for online instruction before you have to teach with them. If you have time, do it quickly before telling students what you’re using so you can make an easy switch if it doesn’t work as planned.

Get a friend or two to test tools with you if possible, with one person playing instructor and a few people playing student. Colleagues who also want to use these tools can be helpful collaborators for testing tools.

Once you have a sense of how the tools work and how you want to use them, you might even set up an optional test session with your students, so they can try the tools without feeling the simultaneous pressure of needing to learn how to use the tool and focus on course content at the same time.

STEP FIVE: Teach … and be kind to yourself

This is probably not going to be your best teaching experience ever, but it also doesn’t have to be your worst one. Allow it to be imperfect. Put the people first, the content second, and the tools third. Recognize that it’s pretty amazing that you’re doing this shift in the middle of a term, and focus on how well you’re meeting your students’ needs.

4 thoughts on “Preparing to go online

  1. Vanessa this is very helpful – I am preparing to move everything online for the foreseeable future and was struggling a bit with creating an interesting experience and engaging everyone remotely!!

    • I’m so glad you’re finding this useful, Suzanne! It’s a big challenge sitting in front of us all this term, but I’m confident we can get through it.

  2. Thank you for this! It is just SO helpful to find clever advice and words of wisdom in the middle of the jungle of tools provided – and so little time to make this change.

    • I’m glad this is helpful for you, Helena. There is a lot happening all at once. I plan to develop posts on the more granular or nuanced issues we’ll all face as the remainder of the term progresses.

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