Online in a Hurry

It seems to me that there are two kinds of universities in the U.S. right now: those that have suspended face-to-face teaching and those that will suspend it soon. I’m guessing that UND will suspend face-to-face instruction after spring break and they’re already nudging us politely to get our course materials online.

In the social media world, there are already a good bit of buzz and helpful advice on how to get your class online and ensure that it will be a quality learning experience for students. The Chronicle has posted this and NYU in Shanghai has posted this

There are legitimate concerns that students without good internet access at home will suffer. As someone who has taught a good bit online and taught students who don’t always have the best internet and home technologies, I thought that I would post some of the best advice that I’ve received over the past ten years.

1. Dogma vs. Doctrine. One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever received is to consider course learning goals to be like doctrine rather than like dogma. In other words, retain a bit flexibility in what you want your students to learn and realized that learning goals sometimes change over the course of a semester. This is fine. My online courses often have different course goals than my face-to-face classes and moving a face-to-face class online makes a change to course goals almost inevitable. 

2. Remember Bandwidth. There are a number of potential bottlenecks that can really frustrate student learning especially those who are not familiar with online classes. When I first started teaching online, I wanted to use all the latest bells and whistles, but I found that not only were these time consuming to develop, but that students found them difficult to use especially when they had irregular internet access. Since many of my first online students were deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq or worked jobs that kept them from high speed internet access, I developed modules that could be easily downloaded for use away from the internet. For example, I used podcasts, downloadable readings, and downloadable assignments and made them available so that students could grab them all with on click (in a zip file). This made it easier for them to, say, download a module to process while deployed at a frontline base or to download parts of the class at a truck stop to listen to on a long haul drive.

2. Text is still king! One thing that I rapidly discovered is that some students struggled to process podcasts for various reasons. I was fortunate to have hearing impaired student in one of my first online classes who requested that my podcast lectures be transcribed. I used these transcriptions for years (despite the mediocre quality of the transcribed text). As I developed the course away from my podcast lectures, I took more time to make sure that anything that I did in video or audio (and I rarely use video) also had some text associated with it. In most cases when I didn’t have a full transcription, this was a well-developed outline that I also made available. 

3. PDFs and their Discontents. I love PDFs and read them regularly, but I also have access to a full-size iPad and a laptop which makes it easy enough to read them at my desk or on the go. Today, many students have phones or smaller tablets as their primary mobile computing devices. These don’t always play well with PDFs because it is hard to reflow text for smaller screens (although, I have to admit my students appear willing to read tiny fonts on their small high-resolution screens!). My students have found it helpful to provide the text from the PDF as a txt or other simple file. Adobe Acrobat features a perfectly serviceable OCR function for most higher quality PDFs downloaded from, say, Jstor. I tend to use ABBYY’s FineReader because it is slightly better at creating easily reflowable texts. 

4. Skip the Gimmicks. Learning management systems have become increasingly bogged down with various gimmicks designed presumably to hold students’ attention and to make learning more fun and dynamic. I don’t doubt that many of these gimmicks work, but for the students who I teach familiarity with interfaces trumps bells and whistles. My courses rely on three tried-and-true interfaces: simple online “multiple guess” quizzes, discussion boards, and wikis. Each of these interfaces are familiar to students. All but the multiple guess quizzes can be also be approached with intermittent or low-bandwidth  internet access and updated when it a good connection is possible. More than that, these familiar interfaces eliminate frustration among students who might not be as comfortable doing online work as you would expect.

5. Be Asynchronous. If there is a disruption to teaching, anticipate that students will respond to this in different ways. Some will hunker down, develop a routine quickly, and attack the course with a regular rhythm. Others will become lost in the wilderness for a time. Unless you relish the plaintive emails begging for extra time, explaining late work, and explaining poor planning, I’ve found it best to keep due dates and synchronous work to a minimum. Allowing students to find their own level during a period of disruption demonstrates a trust in your students that is often rewarded with better work, fewer excuses, and mutual respect. I make most assignments due on the final day of classes. It has been a game changer both in my quality of life as a teacher and in the quality of work from my students. 

6. Develop a Routine. Finally, I’ve found that developing a routine, even a schedule of regular reminders, announcements, and updates, helps students feel confident that they know what’s going on. It’s pretty easy for students used to daily interaction to feel the radio silence associated with many online courses as disconcerting. Regularly scheduled updates, encouragement, and reminders will let students struggling to adapt know that things are going as they should be! 


As you probably understand, I don’t offer these tips as some kind of orthodoxy or even as best practices, but in the hope that someone might find them useful as they have to move their class online in a hurry and in a crisis. If there are other things that you might want to add, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.

One Comment

  1. This is helpful. Thanks.


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