This blog post was adapted from “Online Teaching 101” at my personal blog. I have included examples of emails, rubrics, and assignments there.
In the second week of March, many of us in higher education received emails about either taking our classes online immediately or preparing to do so. If you’re anxious about the next several weeks, imagine how your students are feeling! Many of them have avoided online classes or have had a negative experience with one in the past — and now they are suddenly forced into an uncomfortable and unfamiliar situation, exacerbated by the stress of social distancing and the fear of the unknown. I teach hybrid, face-to-face, and online classes in an open-access community college where many of my students are already at risk, and last week, I could smell the fear.
As a teacher, you are likely well aware that current research about online education suggests that distance learning is not as effective as face-to-face classes and that the retention and persistence rates for students are poor. You should also be aware upfront that developing and teaching an online course, in my experience, typically takes more time than teaching a face-to-face class, though it comes with added perks like flexibility and the ability to offer classes during a pandemic.
With those caveats, I want you to know how much I personally love teaching and learning online. As an instructor who began teaching online and hybrid classes in 2010 and completed my organizational leadership doctorate in a fully online program in 2016, I have seen firsthand that online teachers can create effective, active learning opportunities. With intentional planning and deliberate outreach, an online class can provide a robust learning environment for your students — and your class can also help them to cope with the inevitable stress of sudden change in all areas of their lives.
Here are a few suggestions I have for teachers who are new to the online environment. I have focused my suggestions on relatively simple and quick ways to transfer your existing face-to-face class to an online environment while reassuring students that they can and will succeed.
Communicate Early and Often
One of the most important ways to build engagement and soothe anxiety with online students is to communicate early and often. Communication should take a variety of forms, and make sure you let your students know what your preferred style of communication is. Here’s how I communicate with my classes:
- Weekly course announcements about assignments, sometimes including a short video I record on my phone and upload to YouTube.
- Regular and frequent emails, including a weekly email wrap up of the work we covered. Note: it’s important to make sure that students are checking their student email. Including a tutorial about how to forward their student emails to their phones can be a great way to make sure that they are checking their messages. It’s also really important that you respond to emails as quickly as possible, but definitely within 24 hours. I check for student emails before I go to bed every evening and when I wake up in the morning.
- “Ask Your Instructor” open forum in your learning management system discussion board. Students can post questions that the whole class may have. Subscribe to this board so that you can get back to students quickly.
- Weekly online office hours. Some of my friends use these office hours for emails and DMs with students, which is fine. I also host a weekly live session using Blackboard Collaborate. Usually, between 2–6 students attend. Students have reported that just knowing they have this option makes them feel less anxious about our online classes. If you don’t have Bb Collaborate, you could do the same thing through Google Hangouts or even a live chat through a Discord server.
- Phone calls or live video chats. Sometimes it’s just easier to work with a student individually over the phone or through a video conference.
- A “resources” or “FAQ” link where students can look for commonly asked questions, including important information like how to contact the IT help desk and access online tutoring.
- Student feedback. Treat your students as collaborators in your course. I use Google Forms to ask my students for their preferences about short stories or potential assignments or to assess how well a particular assignment worked. This helps the students to feel like their voices are heard.
Keep It Simple
If you’ve created your own online informational interface or plan to do so for your students, make sure it’s easy to use. Keeping your online resources as accessible and as simple as possible will reassure your students and set them up for success. Here’s how I do this:
- Start by looking at your existing syllabus and lesson plans. You probably already have discussions and assignments scheduled for each week. For each of these discussions and assignments, you can develop an online equivalent. Stay focused on the most important student learning outcomes.
- Think about how to organize your course as clearly as possible. I use weekly modules, open during the week we are working on them. These modules include links to the course documents, discussions, and assignments that students should focus on each week. All of my assignments are available under an “assignments” link, and all of my course documents are available under a “course documents” link, organized in folders by type of assignment.
- Use discussion boards. Right now, we are all craving social connections. By creating a space where students can connect, interact, and focus on their shared learning, you can give your students a sense of empowerment.
- In general, one discussion board assignment and one other assignment (such as homework, a lab report, or other assignment) should be enough to replicate what you did in a face-to-face class. Keep due dates regular and consistent so that students can plan ahead.
Be Creative and Use Your Resources
Again, using your existing syllabus and lesson plans as a guide, think about how you can meet the same outcomes in an online environment. Do you currently have group projects? So do I, and the online students really have fun with them. In the real world, many students will work on distributed teams, and giving an online group project, such as creating a website is a great way to help them practice.
Do your students give speeches or presentations? Consider using Voice Thread or Flip Grid. You can also use Flip Grid for discussions. I ask my students for their advice about tools — while I have not used this yet, for example, I would not be at all averse to having students create a TikTok video assignment. For lectures, I’ve seen many of my colleagues use tools like Screencast-O-Matic or Powtoon. But I am more old school. I use PowerPoints that I created for my face-to-face classes and record narrative in PowerPoint 2016. I then export the presentation to video, upload it to YouTube, and voila!
If you have access to Office 365, you have a wonderful presentation tool in Microsoft Sway. A colleague showed me how to use Sway to create multimedia online lectures that are optimized for mobile phones. Adobe Spark is a similar program. You could also assign your students this technology tool. Sometimes focusing on an interesting project can help us to manage stress and anxiety. Here’s an example of a presentation I created on the Maya for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology class (it took me about three hours): https://sway.office.com/339N9zZbInrbloyO
Finally, the website Amazing School Resources is collecting a wide range of free educational resources to use in online classrooms. You can access the list here: http://www.amazingeducationalresources.com/.
The last bit of advice I have comes from research on growth mindset, something that we all can now model for our students. Many of us may have negative ideas about online teaching. But this modality has undeniable benefits, especially in these uncertain times. Without online education, I could not have earned my doctorate as a working single mother of four children. Online education means access. It means opportunity. And when done intentionally and with students at the center, online education can definitely mean success. The future of education is now — and it doesn’t have to be dystopian, for teachers or for our students.