Shifting a multi-section course to remote delivery

One of my regular roles is supervising faculty member of a multi-section undergraduate course taught by doctoral students. It’s my job to hire and train the instructors, and I also set the syllabus, assignments, baseline course materials (OER that we have developed), etc. with the feedback and assistance of the instructors. I do the latter because (a) we don’t pay them enough to ask them to design their own courses; (b) it provides consistency across course sections; and (c) it’s useful for mentoring these instructors on course design. They then choose how to address the required topics during each course meeting and add personalization or embellish their courses as they see fit. I’ve done this for a decade, and I love mentoring these course instructors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the four sections of the course being taught this term have had to shift online. I realized immediately that while all of the student instructors had taken online courses (graduate level), and had served as an online TA in our program (assisting a professor in a graduate level online course), teaching online was new to them. Rather than leave them to convert their courses to an alternate format on their own, I stepped in to help out, roll up my sleeves, and be an active part of the course team.

We started with a meeting on zoom, and looked at what remained to be done this term (screenshot included with permission of instructors).

Team2040

We then created a plan. We sent out a survey with a version of these questions tailored specifically for this course. It’s a technology course, so we had some specific concerns about software and computer access. We learned that our students are pretty stressed out. They’re stressed about COVID-19 and family members, about being away from campus and friends, and about taking ALL of their coursework remotely right now. They all have sufficient computers to complete the coursework. Most are pretty well set up in terms of internet and housing, but a few are in unstable situations or in rural areas with sketchy internet access. A few are watching younger siblings, or feel generally distracted in a household full of people. Several are uncertain about their ability to learn right now.

We decided to work as a team for the rest of the term. The task of shifting online felt huge for any one instructor, but manageable when we divide and conquer. We also decided to be there for the students as a team. Each instructor is holding zoom office hours on a different day of the week, and all are welcome.

EME2040 Office Hours

Each instructor (me included!) is monitoring a slack channel where the students can seek text-based help. We’ve adjusted assignment parameters and removed a few minor assignments (this class has A LOT of moving parts). We’re creating weekly checklists to keep the students organized. We’ve split up responsibilities for completing different tasks right now.

In terms of instruction, we’re offering zoom sessions for those who want live interaction while learning, recorded videos for folks who can’t make those sessions (focused tutorials, not zoom recordings), and paper-based tutorials for the folks who don’t have the tech access. Having a team approach really helps!

Finally, we created a video to greet our students upon the return from spring break. Our goal was to introduce the whole team, project a sense of calm, and let the students know that we were making adjustments to the course.

I’m super proud of our team effort, and the response from students so far has been really positive. I decided to share our story because maybe it would inspire others to team up whenever possible. And the social connection has been positive for our instructional team, too — it has provided a sense of normalcy during a decidedly not normal time.

Instructor Identity and Presence in Online Settings

Guess what? If you’ve already been teaching on campus for part of the term, you’ve already established an instructor identity with your students. In other words, they have a good sense of your presence in a room. Now you just need to focus on transferring it to the online setting.

If you’re coming back from spring break to a new term, and you’re starting a class that had been planned for campus delivery, you’re going to need to think about how to establish a sense of instructor identity and presence in the online setting.

Our online presence is based on a combination of where we leave our mark in an online setting and what we communicate about ourselves both directly and indirectly. It is built cumulatively, across all of our course-related communications. For example, I tend to smile a lot when I talk, and I always record course introduction videos in my online classes, which are usually asynchronous. I’ve had students tell me that they can feel my smile and hear my voice when they read my written announcements each week.

Here are some resources I pulled together a few years ago for helping new online instructors think about and establish presence:

Defining presence — a basic overview of the concept Defining Presence

Presence across different media – consideration of presence through text and video

Presence Across Different Media

Don’t forget your online class!

TL;DR — don’t forget your online class in the great COVID-19 mid-semester course redesign challenge of 2020. Online classes may need adjusting too, and (depending on what you teach) you may even find a way to make changes that encourage your students to be on the front lines, helping with crisis response in whatever field you teach.


This semester I’m teaching a campus-based class and an online class.

I bet you’re thinking I have one class that was all systems go, ready to handle COVID-19, and one class that needed reworking. If you are, you’re correct. However, I bet you’ve got the two confused with each other.

In my case, it’s my online class that needs some rethinking. Just because it was already online doesn’t mean that my students aren’t affected by COVID-19.

Let me explain:

My campus class is a PhD seminar. Each Friday morning, 14 of us sit around a seminar table for 2.5 hours and discuss. Invariably we have a few folks who zoom in because they’re not in town or they’re sick. No big deal. We have a meeting owl, we screen share from the instructor station and project that on the screen in the classroom, and it’s pretty seamless. We function well this way. I don’t anticipate any of these students struggling to join a zoom session from home in the upcoming weeks — and we discussed this during our last face to face meeting, on the last Friday that campus was open. In fact, half stayed home and opted to join via zoom that week. And so our “Friday morning coffee club” class will continue as planned, meeting in real time, covering the same material and doing the same assignments. Not a big deal, no real change. Heck, I already set up the weekly zoom link back in January!

EME5250 banner

My online class is full of MS and PhD students who are learning about open educational resources. The class contains a mix of campus and online students. Most of the online students and some of the campus ones work full time, and many of them are educators or instructional designers in the K-12, higher ed, and corporate sectors. I’ve communicated with a few of them this week (it’s spring break) … and they are slammed with work! It’s not surprising. They’re either shifting their own classes to a temporary remote format or helping others make the shift.

It’s clear that some of my online students will struggle to return to class as normal next week. They have other top priorities. It doesn’t matter that they are students who signed up to be online students, and it doesn’t matter that the class was already running online with no real issues. They may have the access, experience, and mindset to be successful online learners, but many of them are experiencing extra job stress and duties right now.

I’m fortunate that the online class relates to instructional design and the on-the-job issues that these students are now facing. With that in mind, I’m making a modified final project option for them which would allow them to apply what we’re learning in class to their job and provide me with a portfolio that documents and explains it. This is in lieu of a similar project on a non-work-related topic. And for the other students, I’ll give them the option to continue as planned or to provide help to others on a volunteer basis right now and build their portfolio accordingly. Win-win, right?

 

 

Online Office Hours

Online office hours can be a lot like campus office hours: Some days you sit, you wait, and no one shows up. Other days (like when there’s an assignment due) you have a line of people waiting to talk to you. And sometimes someone shows up just to chat, with no apparent agenda. In short, online office course can be boring, busy, and … perhaps fun or perhaps a little awkward.

Here are some tips for managing online office hours.

  1. Decide how you want to conduct office hours. You can have an open free-for-all, where you wait for people to show up in a virtual meeting room, or you can schedule individual appointments. It’s all a matter of privacy preferences.
    • Group meeting: Anyone can show up. It can be kind of fun when multiple students show up to hang out and discuss ideas related to the class, but it’s not conducive to conversations of a private nature. If you go with group meetings, you can also offer to set up individual meetings by appointment at mutually convenient times.
    • Individual appointments: Students can sign up for a time slot during the appointed office hours period. I recommend using a tool like signup genius if you want to offer signups. You can set it up so students won’t see anyone else’s name on the signup, just which slots are available and which are already booked.
  2. Set up the tool.
    • I have my zoom-based office hour set up with a recurring meeting link so students can use the same link every week. That keeps things simple. I can post the link once in the LMS and not worry about it again. I can even have zoom generate a calendar invite for the recurring meeting.
      OfficeHours
    • My group meeting is set up with a waiting room. This means that I enter the meeting room first, and I manually invite students to join. I choose this setting because sometimes a single student shows up to chat and the conversation takes a turn for the private. This ensures that no one else can just jump into the middle of that conversation. Instead, I get an alert that there’s someone waiting to come in. That gives me time to wrap up the private conversation and then let the waiting student in.
      waitingroom
    • In group meetings I use the setting that plays a chime when someone enters the room. This would be annoying while teaching, but when you open up office hours and no one shows up, it’s a wonderful thing. I can navigate away to another window and I’ll hear the chime if a student shows up. I usually keep my camera on but webcam cover over it when waiting for students to show up. I may also put the sound on mute if it’s possible that they’ll hear anything other than me typing away at a furious pace upon entry.
    • Be prepared for people who show up and having nothing to say. It happens. Have something in mind that you can discuss with them. They will show up and expect you to lead the conversation.
    • When I do individual meetings, I always set up a one-time private meeting link. This ensures there won’t be any meeting crashers. This means that if I’m scheduling back to back meetings with students, I keep switching zoom rooms. It’s not a big deal. In those instances, I allow the students to join before host and don’t use the waiting room. I also set an alarm so I’ll get an alert 3 minutes before the next meeting begins. That allows me to wrap up and move on.
  3. Be prepared. Anticipate what students might want to talk about. Have appropriate web sites and and/or documents open in the background so you can screen share as needed. For example, if an assignment is due in a week, have the assignment directions open. Do not have anything sensitive open on your computer at that time … just in case you accidentally screen share the wrong thing.
  4. Let students know what to expect.
    • If you’re holding group meetings, remind students that this is not the time to have a personal or private conversation. Give them an alternate means to schedule such conversations.
    • If you’ve set up a waiting room, tell students how that will work.
    • If you’re running individual meetings, let students know you will be watching the time closely and will need to shift from space to space. Tell them to enter the room and if you’re not yet there to wait for you.
    • If you’re running individual meetings, let students know they can screen share things they’re working on so you can look at them and discuss together. It can be handing for walking through a student draft.

Finally, be sure you’re available to students in other ways and articulate when and how you’ll manage that. Sometimes students will expect you to be available via phone or email during office hours. However, those activities are not compatible with sitting in a virtual room interacting with students. Help student understand expectations for communication in each of the ways that you are available.

Participation in asynchronous discussion

Here is an article I wrote in 2005 about participation in online discussion. The article reports findings from a multiple case study (nine online classes), looking at how the discussion activities were designed, facilitated, and graded, and what happened in terms of quality, quantity, nature, and timing of student posts.

Dennen, V. P. (2005). From message posting to learning dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education, 26(1), 125-146.

TL;DR —

  • Students will follow whatever guidelines you give them, so give specific guidelines.
  • Deadlines drive interaction for most students. Incremental deadlines can help support interaction.
  • If the instructor participates too much, the discussion becomes instructor-centered and students won’t interact with each other.
  • If the instructor is absent, with no clear indicators that they are even reading the discussion, students may get off topic, stop participating, and even talk about the instructor in the third person.
  • Students want feedback on their discuss performance. It can occur in various ways: privately when grading, en masse through announcements or messages to the class, or directly through instructor interaction on the discussion forum.

Checklists: Keeping everyone organized in an asynchronous class

When courses are taught in a face-to-face setting, we all tend to settle into a familiar rhythm:

  • Students show up to class, (hopefully) with homework completed.
  • The instructor leads class, and students follow along with whatever the instructor has planned.
  • The instructor concludes class by reminding students of homework for next time and/or students know to look on a syllabus to figure out what is due during the next class.
  • Students and instructors prep individually for the next class meeting, as needed.
  • Repeat.

The key part of this scenario from the student perspective is that students just show up at an appointed time and then follow their instructor’s directions in the classroom. It’s a reactive relationship for students. They show up, and participate. They aren’t making decisions about what to do and when to do it.

When classes move to an asynchronous format, the burden of planning activities and time shifts to the students. Even when the workload is comparable to a classroom format, the number of moving parts can make coursework feel a little overwhelming.

I’ve found that students benefit from checklists in their asynchronous classes. Assuming the course activities are organized around a week, the checklists then help students identify each small task for the week. Yes, I know, the information is probably all on the syllabus — but it’s all so much easier to see on a checklist. Now that I have the checklists for my classes, I find that they help me, too. I even put on there when students should start looking ahead to particular assignments, and remind them about due dates.

I’ve included two samples below. The first is from a checklist created in MS Word and then shared with students as a PDF. I used this format pretty heavily when our LMS was Blackboard, and students reported printing them out and checking items off. The second example is from a checklist created as a Canvas page. It has direct links items whenever possible. The readings link goes to a page with links to all of the readings for the weeks, and the discussion link goes directly to the week’s discussion forum.

If you make checklists, I recommend presenting each task in a logical order, with consistency from week to week. Students have told me that having clear verbs as headings (e.g., READ, DUE) is an effective way to cuing weekly expectations, and that being provided with additional information like running times on videos also helps them manage their time effectively.

Sample Checklist

Sample Weekly Checklist for Online Course

 

 

modulechecklist

Sample Weekly Checklist Page in Canvas

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.