At the time of this writing, colleges and universities around the world are cancelling face-to-face classes to slow the spread of coronavirus. At nearly every institution of higher education, faculty are being asked to prepare for the possibility of teaching courses online. As an experienced online professor, here are my Top 10 Tips to help you transition to teaching online.
Tip #1: Consider Teaching Asynchronously
For the first few weeks of teaching online, it makes a lot of sense to meet synchronously with Zoom or WebEx. Perhaps that’s all we’ll need and then it will be back to normal. However, it is possible that face-to-face learning will be disrupted for longer than just a few weeks. In that case, I encourage you to seriously consider teaching your course asynchronously.
What does that mean? It means that instead of live webinars, you would provide your students with lecture videos, which they can watch at any time of the day or night. There are many advantages to asynchronous learning. It provides greater flexibility for students during a time of crisis and gives them the opportunity to review lectures multiple times. For faculty, developing lecture videos can be a real time savings, especially for those teaching multiple sections of the same course.
Tip #2: Keep Course Navigation Simple and Obvious.
Everything is harder for students online. Communication is slower. Distractions are greater. The greatest gift you can give to your students is to make the learning process simple and clear. When you’re a student taking an online course for the very first time, you’re like an inexperienced traveler who just landed in Jakarta. Where am I? Where’s the syllabus? What’s my first assignment? Imagine all the uncertainty of the first day of class without an instructor there to walk you through it.
Navigation should be stone-cold obvious. In addition, I would suggest you make a brief video labeled “START HERE” that shows students exactly how the course is laid out. Here’s an example of one of my welcome videos.
Tip #3: Build on Existing Content
Professors have been teaching online lecture and lab courses for well over a decade and there’s an enormous number of quality educational resources already available for you to use with your students. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is alive and strong, and you should take full advantage of it. As you search the web you’ll find lecture videos, lab activities, discussion prompts, simulations, etc. This should be your first stop before making lots of content yourself. As my old physics professor used to say, “An afternoon in the library can save you a month in the laboratory.”
If you teach advanced courses, you may be underwhelmed by what you find online. Think creatively about how you can twist an activity to make it work with the resources you find. For example, did you find a great lecture video, but it’s more appropriate for high school students? Ask your students to watch and critique the content, looking for oversimplifications or errors in the presentation.
Tip #4: Keep Your Lecture Videos Short
I know our slide-decks are built for 50 minute lectures, but believe me when I tell you that you’re going to want to split that up into shorter lectures — it will benefit both you and your students. When students work online, they don’t just sit at the computer for 50 minutes and then come back two days later for the next lecture. They consume content at different speeds in different amounts over different intervals of time. Shorter lecture videos are much like shorter chapters in a popular novel — they allow more “break-points” where a student can step away and then come back and pick up where they left off. Shorter videos also make it easier for students to find the content they want to review.
Shorter lecture videos are also a huge benefit to instructors. If you’re not accustomed to recording yourself, you will quickly discover how many more mistakes you make when there’s a microphone or camera recording. Hopefully you can just power through those mistakes, but if you can’t — you will waste hours trying to edit or re-record a 50-minute lecture video. Instead, keep those videos short (5–15 minutes) and you will find it faster and easier to record, edit, and upload your videos. Plus if you ever decide to revise your video lectures in the future, you will be so glad that you can just update a brief video rather than re-record a full lecture.
You can make longer videos, but don’t expect students to watch the whole thing. YouTube analytics will even show you which parts students are skipping (or rewatching).
By the end of this 8-min video, only 40% of my students are still watching. But many students are re-watching the video at the 2 minute mark.
Tip #5: Use Simple Technology
Technology is amazing, but it often causes problems for students. Troubleshooting technology issues remotely for 30 students is a nightmare. If you’re the one causing the issue (with an overly technical assignment), then you should take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if the tools can be simplified. In online classes, we should always strive to use the simplest possible technology that gets the job done — even if that means students are taking cell phone pictures of hand-drawn work and uploading it for you to grade.
The same is also true for the technology that instructors use to create course content. I’ve been teaching online for years and all of my course content was created with Google Docs and a $20 subscription to Screencastify. None of my computers cost more than $300 — I only use Chromebooks. Why? Because it works.
Tip #6: Make It Simpler for Students So It’s Easier for You
I’m a big advocate of making things simpler instead of harder. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a class should be simple as in “everyone gets an A!” I mean it should be “simple” in that students know exactly what’s expected of them (so that I don’t get a hundred emails a day asking questions). I’ve already touched on a few things we can do to simplify our online classes like using simple technology and simple navigation, but there are other things that we can do as well.
For example, let’s say that I have an assignment asking students to write 500 words on examples of symmetry in nature. That’s a fine assignment, but it is a bit tedious (especially the part where I have to read all of these essays). How can I make that assignment simpler? Instead I will ask each student to take ten pictures of symmetry in nature and to share those pictures with the class on a discussion board. The assignment just became way more engaging and enjoyable for students and way easier for me to grade. I call that a win-win.
Tip #7: Think Creatively About Labs
I’ve been teaching online science labs since 2009. And yet I continue to hear from college faculty who believe that science labs cannot be taught online. Well I’m here to tell you that they already are being taught online. Granted, online lab activities look different than those in the traditional laboratory but they’re no less high quality. In my teaching, I generally take three different approaches to lab activities:
There’s an enormous variety of excellent simulations freely available on the web. These simulations were often built to replicate traditional science labs that are already being done in the classroom. Moreover many of these simulations have existing lab write-ups available for faculty and students to use. The most challenging aspect of simulation-based labs is that they often rely on out-of-date technology, Adobe Flash. Flash continues to be supported by Google Chrome (until the end of 2020), but only if it is specifically enabled by the user on the website. (Here are instructions for enabling Flash). At the end of the day, there are always some students who are unable to get Flash simulations to work on their computers. As a workaround I often record a screen capture video of the simulation in action so that students can use the video to collect the necessary data to complete the lab.
This is the category of labs that can be completed with common household items (or something that could reasonably be found at a grocery store). At first it may seem that the list of labs in this category would be extremely small, but when you start to think creatively you can find many interesting lab alternatives that work quite nicely. For example, in my astronomy class I have students create a spectrometer with a CD and a cereal box. They measure the speed of light by melting chocolate in a microwave. And students measure the speed of sound with a cell phone and a car horn. When you combine your expert content knowledge and your creativity, you’ll be surprised with what you come up with. And… never underestimate the value of photographs as a lab assessment tool (it’s impossible to cheat when you have to submit a picture of yourself and the spectrometer you just made out of a cereal box).
Separate Data Collection and Analysis
This third approach separates the data collection process from the data analysis. After all, data analysis can easily be done online. It is the data collection that is difficult. In a traditional science lab, students walk in and find a set of equipment. They are then told precisely how to set it up and precisely how to collect the data.
In an online classroom, we can replicate this data collection process in many different ways. You could record a video (using your own department’s lab equipment) which shows how the experiment is set up as well as the data collection process. You can provide them the data to the students or ask them to record the data from the video themselves (as if they were a lab partner standing right next to you). This approach can actually be an improvement over traditional labs, since you can collect data from anywhere. Imagine taking your students with you via video to collect data from a unique ecosystem or even a professional-grade science lab.
Granted — there’s no substitute for the real thing when it comes to learning how to use scientific equipment. But if we’re honest about our introductory science labs — most of them are focused on data collection for the purpose of understanding scientific concepts. That can definitely be done online.
Tip #8: Leverage the Benefits of Autograding
I think autograding gets a bad rap. Consider the benefits to students of autograded assignments. Students get immediate feedback on their work. That’s huge! It allows the assessment to be part of the instruction because students can immediately see what they understand and what they don’t.
When combined with questions banks, autograded assignments make it easy to give students multiple attempts on homework or quizzes. I use autograded practice assignments with an unlimited number of attempts so that students can try again and again until they earn full credit. After all, why wouldn’t I let my students work harder to demonstrate their mastery of the content? Especially since I’m letting a robot do the grading.
Keep in mind that “autograded” does not necessarily mean “multiple choice.” Every LMS has several autograded question types like numerical response or fill in the blank. For those types of questions, students can’t simply guess their way to full credit.
Tip #9: Answer Student Questions with Course Improvements
Maybe you’ll be back in the face-to-face classroom in just a few weeks. (Here’s hoping, right?) But maybe not. If you find yourself teaching online long-term, then consider this innovation for continuously improving your course: answer the students’ questions directly in the course.
Are you getting emails from students who can’t find the syllabus? Then improve your course navigation. Have several students asked about the same topic that they just don’t understand? Record an additional video to address the topic and post it to the course so that other students don’t get stuck. Taking this approach has the double benefit of helping students before they get confused and reducing the number of emails you receive. Over time, your course will continue to improve and both you and your students will be happier.
Tip #10: Save Time with Chunking
Without the structure of a class schedule to organize their day, online professors must become master time managers. The best time management solution I’ve ever encountered is “chunking your time.” The basic premise is that you set aside larger chunks of time each day or week for your essential tasks rather than simply responding to interruptions when they arise.
For example, I only respond to student emails in the morning between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM. That gives me enough time to answer all of my students’ questions, and since I do it every weekday, I always respond to my students within 24 hours. It also means that I don’t have worry about checking my email and responding to students at any other time during the day. I do the same thing for my grading. Every Wednesday and Friday I set aside time to grade all the student work that has been submitted. Once again by grading on these two days I can be sure that every assignment has been graded within 72 hours. You can chunk other essential tasks like updating your course content or committee work.
You’ve been put in a very difficult position, and hopefully it is just for a little while. Remember that you have colleagues around the country (and around the world) who have walked this path before you. And we are here to help.
If there’s anything I can do to help, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Vanden Heuvel is an online astronomy professor at several community colleges across the country. He was the 2010 Michigan Online Teacher of the Year and a finalist for the National Online Teacher of the Year award.