Backward design, so you can move forward

Right now most of us in higher ed are stuck between a rock and a hard place instructionally. Or between x weeks of productive learning and an endpoint that we can’t reach on the planned path.

At this time, backward design is a great approach to take. It’s a pretty good instructional design approach in general, but right now it’s particularly useful.

The first step is to just let go of whatever you had planned for the rest of the term. Really. Let go of it. Don’t worry about how to convert it to online or some other remote form of delivery. Once you’re able to leave your plans in the past, you’re free to focus on the end point. What do your students need to know or be able to do by the end of your class? What is the next instructor counting on the students to know? What do they have to be able to do, professionally? Let this be your guide.

Ideally, you can look toward your learning objectives and your assessments for guidance at this time. It’s possible, however, that they don’t really reflect what is truly important. Objective drift happens all the time. Sometimes we have interesting ideas, and they lead us astray. The wandering path may be a fruitful one, and we may have some truly inspiring assessments planned. Any assessment, even when aligned with the objectives, is just one of many possible ways to determine if the desired learning has occurred. With that in mind, this might be a good time to come up with alternate assessments — and even to give multiple options.

By staring with the end point, it’s possible to move backward and determine what really needs to happen in a class for the remainder of the term. Let yourself scale back as needed.

Start with assessments.

Let’s say you have a 10 page paper with at least 15 unique references planned. Is the ability to write a 10 page paper an objective? Is synthesizing an argument across multiple references an objective? If not, maybe you can let go of some of these details this term, and reduce the paper length or number of references, or even offer students the opportunity to be assessed in a different form. Similarly, if you had planned in class presentations but now wonder if recording a presentation might be beyond the skill set of some students, maybe you can just have students turn in detailed powerpoints, or allow a brief paper instead.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that you take a look at your planned assessments and determine if they are still feasible in their current form. Will you struggle to grade them remotely? Will your students struggle to complete them under current circumstances? If so, then they’re not the right assessments for this term. Find an alternate.

If you’re not sure what your students will be able to do, here’s a great way to figure that out. Ask them. Maybe provide a few options, and conduct a poll. Or just plan to give them multiple choices, noting that all roads lead to Rome.

Right now I’m helping folks in one course shift from a group project (a challenge to coordinate in the best of times, with class time allotted to group work) to a scaled back version of the same project to be completed individually. In another class, I’m helping an instructor alter a test that was supposed to be proctored, changing it to an open book version. And in a third class, I worked with someone to get rid of some small quizzes and instead make them online self-check quizzes.

Then consider content.

Once you know what is absolutely essential to assess, take a look at content. Is there anything that isn’t critical right now? If so, perhaps you can let it go. Alternately, you might keep it, but mark it optional. I know, I know … that means that a lot of students won’t even open a single document related to that content. They won’t read a word of it, or watch a frame of it. Under current circumstances, that needs to be okay. There will probably also be some students who will enjoy the optional work, and complete it because they are interested and have the time to do it.

Once you know which content is critical, you can streamline for your students. Maybe you can remove a reading or two. Or post a transcript of a video, so bandwidth-challenged folks can read instead of watch. Or turn a complex reading into a brief summary for the students, through which they can quickly glean the key points.

In sum: Start at the end. Figure out what is necessary. Trim and reshape as needed.

Questions to Ask Your Students

In the shift to remote teaching, especially for those schools and instructors proposing to move online (and potentially synchronous) it’s important to consider student comfort, ability and access along with instructor comfort, ability and access.

Instructor comfort, ability and access will dictate what is possible. Student comfort, ability and access will indicate what is reasonable.

Before you get too far with planning how you shift your course online, it’s a good idea to check in with your students to find out what will work for them. Here are some questions you may want to consider:

Basic Needs

  • Are you in a safe place?
  • Do you have food and other basic needs met?
  • How are you feeling? Are you stressed?
  • Are you in a situation where you are able to learn?

Class Needs

  • Do you have all of your course texts with you? If not, what are you missing?
  • Are there any items that you are missing that you need in order to learn effectively? If yes, what do you need?

Technology Access

  • Do you have / have access to a computer sufficient for writing papers?
  • Do you have sufficient Internet access to participate in a synchronous class session?
  • Do you have sufficient Internet access to use the course learning management system?
  • Do you have sufficient Internet access to watch videos?
  • Do you have / have access to email on a regular basis?
  • Do you have access to a telephone?

Technology Skills and Comfort

  • Do you know how to access online materials via the university library?
  • Are you comfortable using the course learning management system?
  • Are you comfortable participating in a synchronous class session?
  • What technology skills are you worried about, if any, right now?
  • Do you have a preference for learning online synchronously or asynchronously? Using video or text-based communication?

Time

  • What time zone are you currently in?
  • Are you able to meet online during the regular class time? If not, are there other times that would work for you?
  • Do you have any demands on your time that would make it difficult for you to complete the work for this class? If so, what are your constraints or concerns related to time?

Other 

  • What are your biggest concerns related to this class right now?
  • How can I help you succeed in this class for the remainder of this term?
  • Do you have any concerns related to school right now? Are these things I can help you with?

This is not an exhaustive list, and not all questions are relevant to each context. However, asking these questions may help you determine what you can reasonably ask of your students for the remainder of the term, what kinds of learning activities and materials might work best, and what kinds of learning assistance and other you might provide for your students.

It would also be a good idea to cycle back to some of these questions in a few weeks, to see if your students still have their basic needs met sufficiently, and to ask some new questions to evaluate how well the reworked class experience is meeting their learning needs.

People first. Content second. Technology third.

Copy of people first content second technology third-2

People first. Content second. Technology third.

This is the way to handle the shift to remote teaching that is happening due to COVID-19.

Instructors who are nervous about shifting online for the first time, students who chose to be campus students, not online students, and people who are feeling unsettled and/or isolated during this crisis: I see you.

In the midst of our educational response to a public health crisis, it’s easy to fixate on the technology. I’ve seen lists of tools that are available to use for teaching online. I’ve used several of them in the past, and they’re good tools. I won’t dispute that. Several of the tools are already available for free in some form, and many technology companies have offered their tools for free in the midst of this crisis. That’s very generous. But it still doesn’t mean that our primary job right now as educators is to learn how to use tools.

In the midst of this time, our response as educators should focus on the people first. Per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we know that it’s difficult for people to focus on tasks like learning if their basic physiological and safety needs aren’t being met. Many of us are worried about our health right now. Finances may also be a struggle, and nothing feels quite normal. Plus social distancing is not easy. We cannot make these issues go away for our students, but we can provide them with safe people and spaces to discuss and process their feelings. We can also consider each student’s ability to learn under the current conditions. For some, learning may be a respite from worry, and our classes may provide a helpful social connection. For others, the distraction may be too great, and keeping up with courses may be an additional stressor.

Of course, we have an obligation to support learning whenever possible, and in that sense we need to focus on the content second. In our courses we already have learning objectives related to that content. Look to those objectives to determine what the teaching obligation is at this point. In other words, the question right now shouldn’t be “How do I put my class online?” Instead, it should be “How do I best help my student meet these learning objectives during what’s left of the term?” You probably can’t take your class as it was originally designed and put it online. Maybe you can do that with parts of it. However, right now the key is to do whatever works.

With people first and content second, technology is third. Technology can provide a means of connecting people, delivering content to learners and facilitating assessment, but it can also be a barrier. When I design an online course, I want the technology to recede into the background so the people and content can connect effectively. If my students are focusing on how to use the technology, then they’re not focused on learning. What we’re all doing right now isn’t even designing online courses. We’re just figuring out how to help our students meet the learning objectives while we’re all social distancing and trying to keep ourselves and others healthy. So, while the Internet and apps can help, they’re not the only way we can make this work. I say this last part with great confidence; as a high school student in the 1980s I took a correspondence course, communicating with my instructor via Canada Post. I learned.

With this philosophy in mind, I’ve been writing this series of blog posts, all of which are being rounded up here. Some of these posts focus on people and their needs, Others on figuring out what to do with the content. And yet others on the technology, because we are using it. I love to geek out on the technology, but I am not doing that right now. Instead, I want to keep stressing how important it is to keep in perspective that it’s okay to use the technology imperfectly right now, and to use as little of it as possible and in the simplest of ways. If you have great ideas, save them for later. Propose properly designed online classes, and seek development assistance and funds to accomplish that goal. But for now? Keep it simple, and use just what you need to help your students learn.

Finally, as an instructional designer, I should point out that “people first, content second, technology third” is not just a statement for getting through COVID-19. It should always be our mantra as educators. It is only after we find out what people need and are ready to learn that we can determine what content should be learned. Then technology should just be brought in as a support, not as the showcase itself.

Video conferencing from home, distractions and all

I’ve seen a lot of people worrying about teaching via video conference tools from home among the many distractions. It’s a real concern, especially if you have children who are home from school or other family members who will be in the household. In my case, my biggest problem can be the dog. Whenever I’m on zoom and someone new joins, a doorbell sound goes off (yes, I could turn it off, but I like it on for office hours and then forget to turn it off at other times). The dog gets so excited because he thinks the UPS guy has arrived. He also barks when people walk down the street. It’s loud and super distracting.

photo of dog

Gratuitous photo of the high energy puppy who likes to bark at doorbells and people walking down the street.

 

I also have a tween. She knows that I shouldn’t be bothered when I’m teaching, but she might come stand behind my laptop with impatient eyes. Or make faces at me. And then there was the summer that every time I tried to do a video she walked behind me and made rabbit ears, kissed the top of my head, pretended to be a model walking down the runwalk, etc. You get the picture. I tried to find you the actual picture, because I know I grabbed a screen shot from one of the videos, but I can’t find it right now.

I won’t tell you that your anxieties about the distractions are unfounded, or that you’ll have ideal conditions, but I’m here to assure you that your less than ideal conditions are probably okay, and can probably work if you need them to. There will be exceptions, of course. I don’t know what to do if you have a three kids under 5 climbing all over you and no one else to help out.

What’s the anxiety all about, then? What immediately comes to mind is the BBC interview with a professor in South Korea during which his young child wanders in. It’s a dreaded moment — your 15 minute of fame come along and instead of being known for your intelligent commentary you go viral for your kid interrupting you.

However, for most of us a class session is not our 15 minutes of fame. It’s not a TED Talk. It’s a class lecture. Classes are just a part of our jobs, and thus a part of our lives. So are families, pets, and so much more. If you teach (or learn) from home, the line is going to blur a little.

I chatted with a fellow academic mama about this topic over the weekend. We were laughing about how much we’ve dealt with over the years while working from home. Some of the more notable ones from my list:

  • Joined a dissertation defense via Skype while on maternity leave. Nursed an infant while on camera. Kept that camera pointed high. I’m not sure anyone ever noticed. If they did, they didn’t say anything.
  • I also remember nursing a crying babe while on the phone with a dean somewhere getting a job offer. She was crying. It was the only way I could think of quieting her so I could take the call.
  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to excuse myself for a sec to go let the dog out/in. It’s a great time to tell my students to take a few seconds to answer a question and/or give them time to come up with questions and type them in the chat.
  • I have a video — that I used, because I was too tired to re-record — with a little girl belly laugh in the background. It’s a cute laugh. Apparently something funny happened on TV in the next room. I just paused for a second, said “And that’s what I get for recording this from home,” and moved on.

I’ve also just given in at times, told folks I was at home with a kid, let her have her moment on camera, and then (satisfied with a little attention) she moved on to her own amusements. And admittedly, I’m also not above bribery (extra screen time if you use headphones!). I’ve hid out in a bathroom to narrate slides, too. Do what you can. Remember that I’m confessing just how “unprofessional” some of my video appearances have been for years, under regular circumstances. These are not regular circumstances. You’re supposed to be social distancing and/or at home. If you have the big distractions, like being sole caregiver for a number of small children, maybe live video is something to avoid (and you can try to record videos late at night, if video is necessary). For the rest of us, I think we should just accept the conditions and allow worlds to merge a little. If a cat winds its way in front of you while you teach, it’s okay. If a dog barks, no big deal. If a toddler shows up and wants to be on camera for a few moments, why not?

I’d like to think there’s an upside of all of this. At the end, we’ll all seem a little more human to our students, and it’s through seeing everyone’s human side that we find ourselves in a better position to band together and support each other though the crisis.

You’ve got this!

PS: Did a zoom with faculty at another university earlier today. I had headphones on, mic off when I wasn’t speaking. There was a wall behind me. My 11 year old was mostly in the next room, quietly watching TV. The dog miraculously only barked once, and I was already muted. My husband walked in and out a few times, but never spoke. At the end, we all joked about working from home. They said they saw the shadows of my family on the wall as they walked past my workstation. I had no idea!

Setting up for video / synchronous broadcasting

So you’re staying home due to the Covid-19 response and you’re going to record videos for your class, or run a synchronous session. Here are some ideas about setting up a recording station at home.

To keep things simple, it’s possible to just use your internal microphone and webcam. You may not end up with the best audio/video, but it should be functional.

If you have the interest and inclination, and in a few instances a small budget, you can easily improve your recording setup.

Here’s one of the web-conference set-ups that I regularly use from home:

WebinarSetup

Let me break it down by component:

Audio

  • I have an external microphone (a lavalier one here, sitting next to the computer). I don’t always use an external microphone because my MacBook Pro has a pretty decent built-in one, more than sufficient. However, my other laptop doesn’t have a great built-in mic, so if I use that laptop I need the external one.
  • Sometimes I use a USB headset with noise canceling mic if there is likely to be extraneous noise in my house. I also keep my mic on mute when I am not the person speaking.

Video

  • I use my built-in webcam most of the time because it is convenient. If just recording a video, I may use my phone camera.
  • My laptop is on a stable surface and raised to a level where I will appear well framed and at a pleasing angle when the webcam is on. Note that a key part of framing is having the computer level with or slightly above eye level. That’s why I have the laptop sitting atop a tray desk. It’s cranked up to a height that will be eye level for me (I’m short). If you’re seated at a table, you may want to put a few books or a small box under your laptop to raise the camera height.
  • The background that shows up on camera is simple and uncluttered. In this case, it’s just the corner, and a pile of art books on a table. I’ve chosen this spot because it is a corner. You can’t see family members (including and especially the dog) walking around behind me, nor do you see where a backpack got dumped on the floor or a pile of mail sitting on the table, etc. This spot is always tidy and ready to serve as a background.
  • I use a ring light (aka my glamour lighting), which is positioned in front of me to illuminate my face without shadows. No matter how tired I am, this glamour lighting always makes me look pretty good. Best $30 I’ve spent on technology, hands-down. You can also place a lamp you have around the house in front of you. What you don’t want is strong light coming from behind or the side.

Personal comfort and preferences

  • I have a comfortable chair and a drink of water nearby.
  • Printed slides or notes are positioned where I can read them (just in case I get lost or need to look ahead).
  • My iPad is at my side because I like to have a second screen available and sometimes I log in to the session twice and use one device for the camera and to monitor the participants and chat panes and the other for the screen share. (This is really quite extra … but I always feel better with a second device by my side.)

When recording a video (not live)

  • If using a script, I tape the script on my screen, just to the side of the webcam lens are. That way I won’t be fussing with paper and my eyes will be generally looking in the right direction).
  • If I need to read a long, continuous script, I’ll use a teleprompter app on my iPad / phone so the words just keep scrolling along.
  • If not using a script, I tape a little photo of someone right next to the webcam lens area so I have a reminder to look at the camera (i.e., make eye contact with the viewer) and not at myself or random things on the screen.

My Equipment

Here’s a list of equipment that I use fairly frequently. This equipment is NOT NECESSARY, but if you think you’ll be doing a lot of video work it can make your life a little easier.

  • Selfie Ring Light on stand — $30 on Amazon — This is what the YouTubers use, and it will make you look good. It’s much easier to set up this light than to try to adjust regular household lighting and window shades. The stand has a clip that can hold a smartphone, which is also handy if you want to record a brief video on your phone. It runs on USB power, so you can either plug it into a laptop or use an external power supply. You can see my external power supply in the photo above (the light blue brick).
  • Selfie Ring Light — $13 on Amazon — This is a smaller, cheaper ring light. It clips right onto the top of your computer/tablet/phone. It isn’t as nice as the freestanding one, but it’s very portable and it gets the job done.
  • Lavalier Mic — $22 on Amazon — This inconspicuous mic clips on your clothing and helps get a cleaner sound than the typical built-in mic.
  • USB Headset — $24 on Amazon — This headset has a noise canceling mic, which helps reduce pickup of extraneous household noise. I live near the train, the hospital (ambulance sirens), and a high school where the students like to rev their engines loudly as they drive away at the end of the day (why????). I never notice these sounds except for when I’m recording videos or on a web-conference. The noise canceling mic helps.
  • Blue Snowball Mic — $50 on Amazon — This microphone is pricier, but has a great, warm sound. It’s really nice if you plan to record narrated slide shows or podcasts.
  • Teleprompter Lite — free for iPhone/iPad — Nifty little prompter app. Also helpful when giving a scripted speech in person.
  • Webcam Cover — so many options, less than $5 — I used to just put a sticky note over my webcam when not in use, but I’ve shifted to a cover. I like the ability to just leave my camera on but slide the cover down over the camera when I take a break in the middle of a class.

What works for you? Feel free to leave a comment with your video tips and tricks.

Writing good discussion prompts

In a classroom setting, an instructor can walk in with a general question, like “What did you think about this week’s reading?” and then weave student responses into a meaningful, complex discussion in real time.

On a discussion board, that same question will fall flat. Students won’t know how to respond. There’s the honest response: I thought it was long. The complementary response: I thought it was very interesting and important. The factual one: This reading was about x, y, and z.

Other discussion questions that don’t work so well on a discussion board include:

  • Who invented the ____________?
  • What does the author mean she says “insert quote from reading here”?
  • What were the three main points of the reading?

The first one has a single correct answer. Once that answer is given, there’s nowhere for the discussion to go. I’ve seen questions like this asked in the past, and I’ve seen a dozen students proceed to give the same response. One of the last to reply even wrote, “I’m not really sure, but I think it’s …” before giving the correct answer, showing that they hadn’t even bothered to look at what others had written before responding. The second and third ones may be open to interpretation, but will reach the saturation point for responses pretty quickly. Again, there will be nowhere for the discussion to go. Additionally, all three questions orient the students toward the instructor rather than their peers. When students respond, they’ll wait for an instructor to affirm their response.

These questions may work in a classroom because a skilled instructor can take any student response and redirect it, fill in missing details, or connect it to another thought. It’s pretty amazing how live facilitation works. In contrast, on a discussion board a student response that falls flat just sits there in an unsatisfactory way until someone else responds to it — if someone else responds to it. Often such contributions are just ignored.

The key to developing fruitful discussion prompts is writing a set of directions that:

  • tells students what they should write in response to the prompt
  • offers the opportunity for each student to have a unique and appropriate response
  • tells students how they should respond to each other, in order to continue the conversation

Here’s an example a discussion prompt that meets these criteria:

TOPIC: Dispelling the Learning Styles Myth
Now that we’ve learned about the learning styles myth, let’s practice dispelling it. First, create a challenge for someone else. Write a brief post from the perspective of someone who believes in the learning styles myth, explaining why you must or cannot learn in a particular style. Then respond to two of your classmates. In your responses, try to break down their beliefs and dispel the myth. Help them understand why such beliefs are neither productive nor empirically supported by using logical arguments and evidence from research. Finally, look at how others have responded. Point out arguments that are particularly effective, and add evidence and arguments in spots where they may be needed.

Note how this prompt has students set up an initial scenario, then respond to each other’s scenarios, and finally evaluate their responses. Throughout the course of this discussion activity, students have to look at both sides of the topic we’ve covered in class (learning styles) and practice developing arguments and using evidence from their readings.

Other options for starting discussions might include asking students to select and interpret a passage from the readings, or to find and share a real-world example of a concept that you’re learning about in the course. From there, the students can find plenty of opportunities to enter the discussion and practice using the key terms, concepts, and skills that you’re learning. There are many variations on this type of discussion activity that you can come up with, all of which push students to dig deep and take ownership of the content.

Alternately, if you have students working on individual projects or papers you might have them use a discussion board to share initial ideas, abstracts, or drafts and then provide each other with peer feedback.

The posts that students produce in response to these prompts may not look anything like a face-to-face class discussion, but that’s okay. As long as the students are working through course material and getting an opportunity to practice applying it, the discussion is serving a useful purpose in the learning process.

Note: There are ways to facilitate asynchronous discussions that more closely resemble natural dialogue, but this really should not be your goal when moving a class online temporarily. Facilitating robust online discussion is a skill that takes time and effort to develop.

Time, tasks, and synchronous learning

You’re teaching a 50-minute class. You arrive in the classroom 8 minutes before class begins, get set up at the front of the room, and greet students as they arrive. The clock strikes the hour, and you begin. Maybe you have an announcement or two. Or maybe you just start with “Today we’ll be learning about …” and dive right in to a lecture or activity. You move smoothly through the day’s lesson plan. You ask questions and students answer them. As the class ending time nears, students give you non-verbal cues about the time. They close notebooks or laptops and put items in their backpacks. Everything runs smoothly.

In a synchronous class, you can do the same things with your students, but time and interactions will work a little differently. To have the smoothest experience possible, it helps to anticipate how time and interactions are different in the synchronous classroom. Here are some thoughts about what to expect and some tips to help manage the experience.

Preparing students. It’s not enough to give your students a time and a link for a synchronous session. Students need to be prepared for what to expect. Things to consider include:

  • Will students be sitting and quietly viewing? Or will they be interacting?
  • What technology do students need to participate? Will a camera and/or microphone be needed?
  • Will you expect students to have webcams on?

Let students know these details in advance. If they will be speaking, they need to be in a quiet location. If they will be on webcam, they should be mindful of what they are wearing (you know these things become tips for a reason), the lighting, and what is in the background. Tell them how to prepare.

Before class begins. Leave yourself enough time to get everything set up for your students. In some tools, like zoom, it’s possible to have students sit in a virtual waiting room until you are able to open up your virtual classroom. You might plan on logging in 15 minutes before class time, so you can get your computer set up, check your camera and microphone, set up slides or screen sharing, and gather all items that you might need into your workspace. If you’ll be doing screen sharing, open all of the necessary screens in the background so you’ll have a smooth transition. Close programs and screens that you won’t be using and turn off any alerts that might interrupt the class. Set up your screen the way you want it (e.g., adjust chat and participant windows so you can see them, if you want).

Once you’re all set up, you can let students join you in the virtual classroom. If you tell students you’ll be online 10 minutes early so you can interact with them and help them get set up, some will join you at that time. Consider it the online equivalent to being available for a few minutes during class, with one key difference: No privacy. That means it’s not a good time to discuss a student’s personal problems or progress in class. It is, however, a great time to ask how your students are doing and get informal feedback on how the class is going.

When class begins. You may plan to start right on time, but expect students to show up during the first minute or two of class. People generally underestimate the amount of time it will take them to get logged in and set up.

Take a moment at the start to make sure everyone is comfortable using the conferencing tool and can hear you and see your slides or whatever other materials you might be sharing.

If you will be recording the session (and you should, because students may want to review it and some students may not be able to attend in real time), let everyone know that you are recording, and then start the recorder.

It’s also a good idea to begin the class session (EVERY class session) with a reminder of the rules of engagement in the online class. These are some good ones to follow:

  • Leave your microphone on mute unless you are speaking.
  • Do not unmute your microphone until you are called on.
  • If you want to be called on, indicate that by (typing in the chat / raising your virtual hand).
  • Feel free to type questions and comments in the chat, but make sure they are on topic and remember that it is a public chat.
  • If tech problems arise and you cannot hear or see me, type in the chat.
  • Questions typed in chat may not be answered immediately, but there will be time to review and answer them.

I have a slide with these rules on them, and regularly ask students if there are other rules they would like to add. I also modify the rules as needed based on the class and the activity.

Expect that the “getting started” part of class may take anywhere from two to five minutes.

During class. If you’re lecturing online, it will feel strange at first because you won’t have the same feedback you get in the classroom. You won’t be able to easily scan the room and see who is paying attention and who looks confused. You won’t be easily able to tell who has a question or a contribution. It may feel like you are staring at the screen talking to yourself.

Sitting still and watching someone talk online is nowhere near as interesting as watching someone lecture in a classroom. You should expect that attention will wane after 10 minutes (if not earlier) unless you’ve been able to engage student attention in some other way. To help students maintain focus or attention, consider some of the following options:

  • Plan to invite students to participate at regular intervals. This may not be the time to get fancy and learn how to use polling tools. Just pause and ask a question or invite student contributions. If you’re using slides, display the question on a slide. Invite students to post their response in the chat, or to speak. To indicate that they want to speak, invite students to raise their virtual hands or, if that’s too much to deal with technologically speaking (and it may be), ask them to type something like “raising hand” in the chat, so you can call on them.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and make comments along the way. Tell them that every so often you will pause to review the chat and catch up with any questions. The change of pace will help break things up enough so students can refocus when you dive back in too content. You can read the chat conversation and respond to it. Invite student to interact with you more while you do that. It might start an interesting class conversation.
  • Offer a 7th inning stretch. Take a short break and invite everyone to get up, get a glass of water, and return in X minutes.

When you invite student to participate, it will take time for them to formulate a response and the type it into the chat. This radio silence can be a little anxiety-inducing if you’re not used to it, and it can be tempting to just keep moving forward. One strategy that can help is to tell students that you will give them a set amount of time (90 seconds?) to formulate or answer questions and submit to the chat. Having a defined purpose for and period of silence makes that silence more comfortable. Sit back and time the break. Have a drink of water and turn your webcam off for a moment if you would like. Return after the appointed time and start responding to what your students have posted.

If you invite students to speak, it will take a moment for them to unmute themselves. That’s normal. Try to get into the habit of saying providing the reminder to unmute, and making everyone comfortable with the silence. “I see Mike’s hand raised. Please unmute yourself and share with us, Mike. Speak whenever you are ready.”

Beware of lag time. Sometimes the audio and visual channels of conferencing tools do not move at the same speed. If you change slides on your computer or share a new document, it may take a moment before everyone else’s screen catches up. Be patient.

At the end of class. If you finish your planned agenda early, that’s fine. Open the session up to Q&A or discussion, and if no one has anything to say, bring the session to a close.

If the allotted time is almost over and you haven’t finished everything you had planned, that’s okay. You can make the decision to go on and finish, inviting people log off if they need to leave, or to wrap up wherever you are.  The latter is probably preferable, because students who have to leave will feel some anxiety about that. If you keep going, remind everyone that you are recording and be sure to share the recording after it is done.

When you wrap up, stop recording. You may wish to stay online for a few minutes (with the recording turned off) for any students who want to interact informally.

Evaluating the session. After the session, take a few moments to reflect. What worked well for you? What could you improve? Did you feel in control of time? If you had too much planned, remember to scale back the next time.

Invite students to offer you feedback, too. What worked for them? What could you do differently the next time?

Finally, don’t forget to share the recording with your class.

Don’t forget or penalize the students who couldn’t join or fully participate in the session. We’re moving online under emergency circumstances. Just because students had been able to show up in a physical classroom at a set time doesn’t mean that they will be able to do the same in a virtual space under their current conditions. Some may not have Internet access at home, or sufficient devices to participate actively (or at all). Under the current circumstances, it’s not reasonable to ask them to go out and find a wifi hotspot or a public library with available computers. In other cases, students may be able to watch but not fully participate. They may have small children at home, or be in a noisy environment that they cannot control. Invite them to participate in whatever ways they can, but also to not feel pressured or upset about what they cannot do. Be sure to have an alternate plan for these students and reassure them that they will not fall behind or be penalized.

 

Time, tasks, and asynchronous learning

When is class? And what am I supposed to do? These are questions that students who are new to asynchronous learning tend to wonder. Without guidance from their instructor, students tend to treat asynchronous experiences as “anytime, anywhere” learning, in which anytime maybe be earlier, later, or less frequently than you had anticipated. Thus, it’s important to set and share your expectations about asynchronous learning with your students.

Setting weekly boundaries

In an asynchronous course, most instructors use a week as the unit of time that defines instructional activities. Ideally you pick a day when the instructional week starts, and a day when it ends. It’s common to use Sun-Sat or Mon-Sun, although I have seen some people try abbreviated weeks with designated days off.

It helps to be precise with time. I might tell my students that the instructional week runs from Monday at 12 am EDT through Sunday at 11:59 pm EDT. Yes, I even specify the time zone because online students may not share the time zone where the institution is located. Also, if you don’t specify it from the start, someone is sure to ask.

Note that there is no perfect choice here. No matter what you choose as the end of the week or deadline/due date for an activity or assignment, someone is bound to complain about it, or at least express a desire for a different time. It goes something like this:

Person 1: Assignments are due by Sunday at 11:59? But my Internet at home isn’t great. I need to have until Monday morning to turn it in, so I can use the Internet at work.

Person 2: It’s due on Monday at noon? That’s no fair! I work on Mondays. How can you expect me to be finishing my assignment while I’m at work? It should be due Monday evening.

Pick a day and time. Be clear about it. Stick to it.

Time and activities

When I teach on campus, I have three contact hours per week. During those three hours, I might do five or six brief, hands-on learning activities with my students.

When I teach asynchronously online, my goal is to have students engaged for a similar amount of time, but not a similar number of activities. It gets complicated to run multiple concurrent activities with students who are participating at distributed times, and it also doesn’t work to try to spread the activities out (e.g., have a Monday activity, a Tuesday activity, and so on).

I recommend streamlining activities as much as possible, so students perceive only one or two interactive tasks for the week. For example, I might ask students to participate on a discussion forum. Within the forum, I may post multiple discussion prompts and give the students a choice of where to respond or ask them to respond to each one. In the end, they may effectively be working through the same learning objectives and content that we would have done across four in-class activities, but because it is all tied together in a single forum and listed as one type of activity, students are less likely to feel overwhelmed.

Set weekly interaction expectations

Knowing when and how to interact on campus is pretty simple for students. They show up to class at the appointed time and follow the directions provided by their instructor. Knowing when and how to interact online is not as easy for students, but the success of your asynchronous activities will be dependent on what students do.

You need to tell students things like how many times per week you expect them to log in to the class, and how many posts you want them to make in a discussion. Getting even more granular, it helps to tell students how many discussion forum posts you expect them to write, what or who they should be responding to in their posts, and what the deadlines are for posting. As nice as it is to think that students will naturally want to discuss, and that they will read and respond to each other’s posts in the forum, this probably won’t happen without clear instructor direction. Remember, this is a new way of learning for these students and they will look to their instructor to set the expectations.

If you want all students to respond to your prompt, tell them. Similarly, if you want students to respond to each other’s messages, tell them. Help them pace those responses and try to stimulate something approximating discussion by giving some deadlines. For example, you might say:

By Thursday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.*

By Sunday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

If you want to push a little more interaction, you could break it up with more incremental deadlines:

By Wednesday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.

By Friday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

By Sunday at 11;59 pm, return to the discussion and reply to at least two more classmates. If anyone has responded to your earlier posts, reply to them.

These are really basic guidelines, and there are certainly more sophisticated ones that you can set up, but if this is your first time doing it, start simple. The end result may not be fully fluid or resemble what you typically think of as discussion, but that’s okay. The mere act of composing one’s initial thoughts in a written message and then reacting to what others have posted is valuable practice and will help your students learn.

Students will display a range of participation behaviors related to time. Some will strive to post early in the week, and may want to get everything done well before the weekend. Others will be deadline huggers, posting right as the clock strikes midnight, or even a few minutes later.

*In many discussion tools, there’s an option to require students to post before they can see everyone else’s posts. You may wish to turn that on if you are concerned about students trying to copy others rather than formulate their own initial posts.

Help students manage their time and weekly tasks

I recommend using checklists for each week you are online. On the checklist you can put the tasks in an appropriate order, and specify and link to each item students are expected to do. This helps students see the week at a glance and feel confident that they are not missing anything. It also helps them manage their time when they can see how many things they need to do.

Here is an example of how I set up weekly module checklists in Canvas. I preface each category of items with the expected activity type (e.g., READ or DISCUSS) and use the same order and format each week to make things as easy as possible for my students.

modulechecklist

Sample of a Module Checklist

 

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.