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.

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?

 

 

Conducting virtual defenses

University offices may close in the midst of COVID-19, but our graduate students still need to defend their theses and dissertations. I have two doctoral candidates defending dissertations in two weeks, and I’m a committee member on a third defense that week as well.

I’ve done defenses where 1-2 people have been at a distance before, and it works to an extent. However, the event is still very location-specific, and the transactional distance between the people joining virtually and those in the room is palpable. Everyone has to be very conscious of including the virtual attendees.

A fully virtual defense is different. Everyone joins from their own location, and has equal presence in the room. It’s basically a web conference with a presentation followed by a Q&A session, with a few important differences.

Here is the protocol that I’m using:

  1. Set up the defense meeting in zoom. I’m setting as a private meeting, and enabling the waiting room (I’ll explain why later).  I have the settings adjusted so that others can screen share. I want to control the meeting, but to allow the students to control the presentation part.
  2. Send reminder and protocol to committee. I will be sharing the following information and comments with the committee prior to the defense:
    • Link to join session.
    • Please find a quiet location for joining the meeting. I recommend that you use headphones to listen, because that will help reduce any feedback.
    • Please plan to have your webcam on. This is a small meeting and we do not anticipate bandwidth issues. It will be helpful to see each other’s faces, and will make it a more personal experience for the candidate.
    • Remember to be on mute when not speaking.
    • When we reach the Q&A section, we will take turns asking questions as usual. At this time I will recommend that you adjust your screen so you have the gallery view on and can see everyone’s face. Gallery view is the one that looks like the opening of a The Brady Bunch episode. If you need practice using the settings, please just ask. I’m happy to help you.
    • If you have a question or comment and it is not currently your turn, please don’t interrupt the current speaker. We will likely notice via your facial expression/body language, but you might also type “I’d like to add something” into the chat, and we’ll make sure you get to speak next.
  3. Rehearse with student. It’s important to give the candidate a chance to practice presenting and handling Q&A in this format.  I’ve already run a practice session with other graduate students attending. We ran through the presentations, did Q&A, and then debriefed at the end. It was valuable, and we’ll do one more
  4. Day of set-up. I will ask the candidate to log in at least 15 minutes in advance and set up their screen share. I will have to be monitoring so I can let people in from the waiting room. When the committee enters the meeting room, they should see a title slide.
  5. Start the defense. At the appointed hour, welcome everyone and give a reminder of the overall protocol (detailed in #2, above). Allow for social niceties. Then introduce the dissertation and hand over to the candidate. Remind everyone to mute themselves, and turn off the webcam if they wish.
  6. Beginning the Q&A. I will remind everyone to turn webcams on and stay muted unless speaking. We will choose an order for questioning, and invite the first questioner to begin. I want to take notes for my students, so I will use my second laptop or my iPad for that purpose. That way I can have one device fully devoted to the defense. If I didn’t have multiple devices, I’d take notes by hand.
  7. Transitioning to committee discussion. When the Q&A is over, I will place the candidate back into the waiting room. This is why it was important to enable the waiting room and for me to be the meeting host. An alternate approach would be to ask the candidate to leave the meeting and await a message (such as a text message) to rejoin the meeting. That’s doable, but the waiting room is a more elegant option.
  8. Transitioning back to the student. Once the committee deliberation is over, it’s time to invite the candidate in from the waiting room for the results and feedback. Normally this is the time where we all shake hands in celebration, and take photos in front of the title slide. That won’t happen in a virtual defense, but I have a plan. Before I bring the candidate back in, I’ll be screen sharing something like this:
    defensecongratulations
    I’ll also get us to all pose for a screenshot to commemorate the event.
  9. Debriefing. I’ll debrief with the candidate via zoom after the committee leaves — or maybe the next day, even. Two hours is a long time to sit in a virtual meeting.

Guests (a variation): We typically allow guests to attend the public presentation part of the defense. The Q&A is closed. This is still doable. We can allow guests in from the waiting room at the start of the defense, and then ask them to leave after the presentation. If they don’t leave (some people walk away, leaving their computer on), it’s possible for the host to kick them out of the meeting. Because the waiting room option is on, it won’t be a problem if more people have the meeting link. They can’t join if I don’t let them in. I can also shut off their cameras and mute them, if necessary (but I will also send out a protocol for joining and what to expect when sharing the join link).

Oh, and one more VERY IMPORTANT thing: I’m planning a virtual party so my research group can celebrate these new PhDs. Celebrating the accomplishment is pretty darn important. I might even don my cap and gown at the beginning, and offer a little speech in honor of the soon-to-be graduates since they won’t be walking across the stage and getting hooded at the end of the term.

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.

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

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 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.