With all of the concern the past few weeks about getting courses online, many people are collecting or creating resources for how to get courses online in case of a last minute emergency switch to online teaching. Some are debating whether to call it “emergency remote teaching” (or some variation of that) instead of actual “online teaching.” I agree with the difference, but don’t think that the academic definitions of either one really brings about much change in the practical work of getting online.
There are many problematic issues to address that many are not talking about. Accessibility, student support, and social support structures that schools provide don’t always switch online so well. Some students are even being kicked off of campus, with little mention being made of finding out where they will go if they don’t have a place to go this early, if they can afford to get where they need to go if so, and if the environment they go to can even allow for them learning from online. On top of all of that, few are talking about the difficulty and chaos that going online will create.
Of course, a lot can be said about if closing schools or going online instead of canceling is a good idea. All are good questions to ask. But a lot of people out there have already been forced to go online whether they agree or not, and many more will be forced to do so in the coming weeks. So we have to talk practical steps for those that are in this predicament.
There are many okay to good guides out there for switching online. I see most of them will tell faculty to examine their syllabus to see what can and can’t go online. This is a good first step, but it often ends up being the last step mentioned in this process. There needs to be some quick and blunt guides for what that means to examine your syllabus. So I am going to dive into that here.
Most Instructional Designers will be able to put a week’s worth of a class online in a very short amount of time IF given free reign to apply effective practices focused on the bare minimum needed and a complete set of content based on those principles. Once IDs start getting away from that – adding in time consuming online options that faculty love but that are not absolutely necessary, or waiting for faulty to get them content – the time to create a class increases quickly. However, if you are willing to focus on the bare bones of good online course design, there are many things you can learn from IDs in a pinch.
As I go through this, I will be addressing accessibility issues along the way. The main thing to keep in mind is that media (mainly video, but also images) is easy to make accessible (due to built in alt tags and captioning features), but also the most time consuming. Auto captioning usually doesn’t cut it. You will still need to manually read through and correct any mistakes by hand. The more you can get away from relying on video or video services, the less time it will take to prepare course work (in general).
The first step in going online is to talk with your students about what that would mean before you are forced to make the switch. Talk with them about what it takes to learn online. Have them go through your syllabus and brainstorm ideas for how to transition your objectives to online. Give them the freedom to suggest changes to objectives, or to even think of different activities to meet objectives. Ask them to talk to you privately if they don’t have Internet access at home, of they need other support services. Make sure they all have a way to check in with you (just so you know they are okay), and a back-up method or two in case the main communication method is not working well (or goes down).
If you have already been forced online, or there will be no class meetings between now and when the switch happens, you will need to think through this yourself. Of course, thinking through this yourself might help you guide the discussion with your students – so do it either way.
The first thing to ask yourself is how new information/content/etc will be communicated to students:
- One-Way Communication: Typical lecture method, where you share the new information that students learn. Easiest communication to make accessible, but captions could still be time consuming if you are relying on video (especially longer ones). If your goal is one way communication, you don’t need synchronous video tools, even for questions (students can contact you for that, email them, comment if you use a blog, etc). Also, note that this type of communication can be made to work on mobile devices easier.
- Discussion Between Instructor and Students: If you really want the ability to interact, and not just answer questions, you do need to look at tools for interaction. Discussion forums are the most accessible (but a little less human), while video conferencing tools are more problematic in regards to accessibility. For example, people with various hearing issues report that Zoom’s accessibility tools start to fall way short of ideal once four people get on a session. So if you really need this, you might want to consider using small group structures that can use a variety of tools (even a phone). Which would bleed over into another communication modality:
- Students Communicating With Each Other: Yes, this would include small group discussion. However, also consider how you can encourage students to use your class as a support network. Don’t just lock-down class tools to only be used for class activities. Help students get that human connection they will start to miss once social distancing sets in. This communication modality can be very effective for mobile devices and accessibility needs if you can be flexible about tools and structures.
Here is the thing that will save you the most time: If it were up to me for a class I was teaching, I would not try to schedule meetings for online lectures or even record videos of my lectures to get those online. It is possible to do that well when going online, but time consuming and problematic in regards to accessibility. Even typing out my lecture for the week can take a while. I would go straight to the Internet:
- With so much out there, you can probably find articles, blogs, websites, etc that contain the content you need in a 15-30 minute search (or less if you already know of some sources).
- Then use this link to see how to set up a really fast accessibility check tool in your browser. Use this tool on each source you find.
- Be careful of video sources – make sure they have accurate captions.
- Then take another 15-30 minutes to create a content page or blog post that lists each source and adds any core concepts you couldn’t find. This will be the most accessible form of content to make, as well as mobile friendly, as long as the services you use are accessible and mobile friendly.
- This is a great way to get a wider array of perspectives on course topics than a textbook usually provides. But check to make sure you have diverse perspectives – if your list relies heavily on white Western heterosexual cis males, then you will need to change the parameters of your search to be more inclusive.
- If needed, you can print articles out on paper for those without Internet access (and just hope there is a way to get it to them still functioning).
Obviously, if you have a textbook that you base your lectures on, they you already have a source of content that you can write up some notes on. This won’t necessarily be the most diverse perspective, but it will be quick. Just be sure to think through issues like students that couldn’t afford the textbook (ahem – OER?), if they can access the eBook texts at home, and so on.
Even more advanced quick method: Turn to some student-centered design methodologies to make the course more engaging:
- Spend the 15-30 minutes creating an activity for your students to go find the content for the week (online, at a library, etc).
- Towards the end of the week, create a page or blog post collecting those sources with your commentary.
- Put some time into creating something more than just “go find content!”
- Think through how to address accessibility issues, as well as how students that don’t have Internet will find content. Be flexible on that last one – not every student can just go to the local library when they want (and what if libraries close?).
Be ready to have to use the mail service for some students if you have to, and don’t worry too much about deadlines if so.
If you really need to use video, you will need to have well-edited captions, This can take a while. There are really three main options you have:
- Option 1: Record your video, upload for auto-captioning, and then edit the captions for errors. Not all video upload services allow all of this, so check before time. This will probably sound the most natural, but you will also probably be surprised at how much time you waste going “ummm…” or “let me start over….”
- Option 2: Type out your content and read from the page, without worrying about the way it makes you look “stiff.” You don’t usually write the way you talk, so it will just have to come out that way in crunch. But you will probably focus without too many side tracks. If you keep the video length to about 2-3 minutes, you can probably write and record it in 30 minutes, depending on how fast you write.
- Option 3: Record your video, upload to YouTube or something else that has auto captioning, download the auto captions, edit for mistakes (not style), and re-record the video reading this script. The fact that it was based on your natural speech will make it sound more natural. Plus you had a built in practice run. A better end result (not perfect), but also more time consuming.
This part of the course could possibly be the easiest part to create, or the hardest part, depending on your topic. If you have extensive lab requirements that can’t or aren’t simulated online, you will need to get together as a department and figure out how to translate that into the online space. Unfortunately, there is no quick way around that.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to come up with a project or test every week. Sometimes projects take more than one week. Sometimes it is good to just relax and learn. Plus, tests are a problematic concept to begin with, and proctoring solutions will be hard to implement when a lot of people start staying home in the same house. So as much as you can move away from high stakes big tests, the better the online experience will be for you and your learners.
Here is the thing that will save you the most time: One thing that is very cliche but effective is to use your LMS test tool to create a low stakes understanding check:
- 5-10 questions that covers the core things students should have learned for the week.
- Give students unlimited attempts so that learners can take them over as needed to get all the questions right.
- This is not the coolest online design method, but it does give students some relief to know they are on the right track.
- It should only take 20-30 minutes to create 5-10 questions… if your focus is on making sure students have had some contact with core concepts, and not on trick questions or “gotcha!” fake answers.
- The goal with this kind of activity is not to catch cheaters, but to help students know what you think is important.
Even more advanced quick method: Really what I would focus on is creating authentic / experiential / etc projects that allows learners to engage more deeply with what they are learning:
- Think of something that would allow learners to apply the course content to their real lives.
- Think of something that would also let them apply course knowledge to a real world situation.
- Let students think of how they will communicate what they have learned. Don’t limit them to just what you think they should produce (like a paper).
- If you are spending more than 15-20 minutes writing out the instructions to this, you are over-thinking it.
- If you spend less than 5 minutes writing instructions, you are probably not giving students that are possibly new to this level of agency enough guidelines on how to do the project. Remember the students that are new to all of this.
- Provide 3-4 example ideas of how students could complete the assignment. Don’t worry too much of several students use your idea. Think of some outside the box ideas, like skits, graphics, etc.
- Remember flexibility and accessibility. If you have to accept a hand-written project sent through the mail – or maybe even one transcribed by a sibling or a spouse – then no problem. Just be glad they are learning.
- Its best to grade these in more of a general way. Don’t get bogged down in exact point totals for every mistake. Consider ungrading if possible in your institutional structure.
- For larger classes, have students self-organize into groups based on interests and/or desired artifact to create. Don’t forget that students might need help self-organizing online or at a distance. Again, remember those with accessibility issues, or internet access issues.
At this point, I would have spent about an hour creating my class for the week. This would have been 30 minutes researching and writing a blog post containing the week’s content (FYI – this blog post is waaaay too long for that, so don’t follow my example :) ), and 30 minutes creating a student-centered authentic open-ended project. And this project would take students 3-4 weeks to complete. If you are new to creating classes this way, your first time or two at doing this might take longer (especially if you are new to the tools you will use). Also, if you need other things like video or labs, that will take more time that this. But there is something else to plan for as well.
I have been touching on communication issues through out this post, so I will try not to repeat what I have already stated here. You will need to communicate other things like class norms and online etiquette outside of content and activities. While it may seem like I am against synchronous communication methods here, that is not the case. You can use both. You will just need to consider how to use synchronous tools in ways that addresses accessibility and internet access issues, as well as make sure the tools works well on mobile devices (which is hard to do for all, since a lot of that is personal preference).
Like I mentioned in a previous post, scheduling synchronous sessions can be tricky at best in shutdown / quarantine situations. Yes, you can do the “we will record it and you can watch later if you miss” thing, but that is also problematic. Some of the reasons that cause people to miss – like overwhelmed internet service – will prevent the same people from watching the recorded video. They will also feel a bit left out.
But here is what I would do for communication in a sudden switch to online:
- Talk to students before hand if possible. Create a plan.
- Use synchronous tools for open communal office hours.
- Set-up alternate options for communication – phone, email, even mail if needed.
- Send out an email, text, mass phone call, or something weekly. This is a good way to humanize your online learning – stick with those principles as much as possible.
- Don’t totally avoid video if you don’t want to. Sometimes, a quick 1-2 minute “welcome to the remote version of class” can help. Just get the captions right first!
- Students might be new to learning online. If your school has a Code of Conduct for online interactions, make sure to follow that and make your students aware of it. If your school doesn’t have one, or has one that you feel is not adequate enough, consider creating your own Code of Conduct for your class.
Every time I edit this post, I add a bunch of new sentences all over the place. There is a lot more that could be said, but I will stop here. I hope that this post gives faculty the idea that they can focus their classes on what works in online learning, not just re-creating the face to face class. Also, I hope this empowers you to save some time in the process, without sacrificing effective practices in the name of an emergency. If you have access to an Instructional Designer to help, please talk to that person even if you have read this post. They can give you even more specific advice related to your unique course needs than this post can.
Matt is currently an Instructional Designer II at Orbis Education and a Part-Time Instructor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Previously he worked as a Learning Innovation Researcher with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His work focuses on learning theory, Heutagogy, and learner agency. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.