–Rebecca Anderson and Lai-Tze Fan (who are we?)
WHERE DO I START?
- When designing an online course, where do I start?
- Should I teach asynchronously or synchronously? Both?
- How do I encourage a sense of community among students and cohorts?
- What if I’m not tech savvy? What if I’m working with others who aren’t tech savvy?
- What about institutional support?
- What if I’m being asked to do extra unpaid labour? What if my colleagues or students are being asked to do extra unpaid labour?
STUDENT COMMUNICATION & TRANSPARENCY
- What kinds of things should I be transparent with my students about?
- What if different students are e-mailing me with the same questions?
- How do I address class concerns? How do I know whether they are enjoying or struggling with the class?
INTERNET ACCESSIBILITY, SAFETY, & PRIVACY
- What if I’m concerned about Internet privacy and safety, including hacking or personal information theft?
- How can I support learners who can’t access common educational resources because of their geographical location?
- What if my students can’t access specific websites?
ALTERNATIVES TO F2F (face-to-face) CLASSROOM METHODS
- What should I keep of F2F classroom methods?
- What alternatives are there to F2F classroom tools?
- What about group work?
- How about class presentations?
- How about hands-on activities and exercises?
- How do I assign grades for things like participation, group work, etc.?
LEARNING & ACCESSIBILITY
- How can I save my notes for captions, slides, and future lectures?
- Should audio be kept on or off?
- Should video be kept on or off?
- How long should my recorded talks and lectures be?
- How do I get students to stop talking over each other or to stop talking too much?
- How do I get students to start talking in class?
- What are some alternatives for is to communicate via text or video?
- What if they are abusing the text-based chat function?
If you are reading this “how to” guide, it can be assumed that you are have also looked at the resources provided by your own institution or by other educational resources that you’ve found online. What makes this one different?
We prioritize self-care for the teacher. Things are tough enough with finding childcare, lack of personal space, lack of daily structure, mental and physical health scares, and added responsibilities. We are university teachers, but hope that our suggestions may apply to educators in several other areas and age groups.
We prioritize self-care for the student. One of the best things about going to school is a student’s ability to build a community and support network of friends, which comes from informal and spontaneous ways to meet each other and to reach out when things get confusing or lonely. We include in our considerations how teachers can better support students’ mental health—including by believing them when they say they are not feeling well or are overwhelmed, by giving extensions, and by creating opportunities for them to build a community while they #stayathome .
We offer best practices, not perfect answers. We are open to feedback and suggestions, because pedagogy is not an island. We are rooting for you!
Please note that select pieces of information may be repeated below to answer questions in other categories.
Where do I start?
There’s no shortage of design frameworks for online course delivery. And given ample time, choice, and resources, you might decide to redesign and build your course with one of these frameworks. Right now, however, consider assessing what you can keep from the F2F (face-to-face) iteration of the course, what you need to modify, and what you need to remove with respect to learning outcomes, instructional strategies, and summative assessments. And once you’ve determined what outcomes, strategies and assessments to import, consider how they will translate: what infrastructures do you need to effectively implement these elements in a virtual learning environment? What tools do you need to structure course content? What tools do you need to deliver grade assessments?
There are also lots of contexts that require consideration when designing an online course: learner context (i.e. Who are your learners? Why are they taking this course? What do they already know? How do your learners learn? Where are they learning from? etc.); instructor context (i.e. How do you teach? And how can you adapt your approach to teaching in online learning environments? What else is on your plate this term? etc.); course context (i.e. What do you want your learners to learn? What instructional materials and technologies will you use to facilitate this learning? What instructional methods will you use to support this learning? What summative assessments will you design to assess this learning? etc.). This is to say there are many different things to consider, and all the questions, and it is overwhelming. So when designing or adapting your course for remote teaching, keep it simple, make it flexible, design for “good enough.”
A note on flexibility. Flexibility is everything: give your learners the opportunity to choose, whether it’s a choice of which summative assessments to complete (i.e. they must complete four out of 10 assignments); when they’d like to submit the assignment and the corresponding amount of feedback they’ll receive (i.e. submit sooner, rubric comments and written feedback; later, rubric feedback); which assignments to revise and resubmit, etc. They know their schedule and their commitments. Build choice into the course framework and let them direct their own learning. And! Flexibility can also help mitigate your workload.
Whether it’s your choice, or your institution has instructed you on which instructional design model you will be using this term/year, we acknowledge that asynchronous and synchronous teaching have pros and cons. Neither can replace the experience of F2F, but we do advise some of the following considerations:
Perhaps we don’t have to say this, but virtual classrooms are not F2F classrooms and can’t be treated as such. We will elaborate, but for now, let’s just say that the factors of eye contact, body language, and “eyes front” attention do not hold. Nor do long speeches, hand raising, and students who prefer to blend into the back of the room.
Even if teaching is asynchronous, holding at least one synchronous meeting at the beginning of the term can help students meet each other. If students are in different time zones, consider whether you could hold a meet-and-greet at a time that works for them. If you enjoy meeting with students, you can also try casual biweekly meetings for which attendance isn’t required. When setting up such a meeting, use a time-based poll such as Doodle.
If you have a choice: classes that are heavy in conversation lend themselves to the synchronous style, including graduate seminars, workshops, and topics that lead students to ask a lot of questions.
If you can choose what times your classes or office hours are held, be mindful of the fact that students may be in different time zones and that there are less than ideal times for them to be trying to learn (3am, for instance).
There are lots of cool ways to encourage interaction and build community with course content via apps separate from the learning management system. You’ll want to consider the purpose of the interactions (i.e. is it linked to a course or assignment outcome?), your learners’ familiarity with additional applications, and your capacity to teach, troubleshoot, and support them with unfamiliar applications.
There’s also a lot of existing ways to encourage interaction and build community within the LMS (learning management systems). For instance:
- • If they meet in groups at the beginning of the term, please arrange this!
• Create a presence and maintain it: pre-record a welcome message that’s a bit of “here’s an introduction to the course”, and a bit of “here’s an introduction to me as a person/your instructor/your professor.” Invite your learners to respond and introduce themselves so you get to know them too.
• And/or, pre-record short, weekly messages, so your learners get the opportunity to see and hear you throughout the term. Doing any sort of group work that’s shared across the class? This pre-recorded message would be a great opportunity to recognize thoughtful group work! Do you have results to share from a formative assessment? This is also a great space to discuss them.
• Connect regularly with your learners so you can identify what’s working for them or where they might require further support, and communicate what you’re able to change or revisit. There are lots of formative assessments that lend themselves well to online contexts, like anonymous polls, Q/As, Start/Stop/Continue, 1-Minute Papers, Muddiest Point/Crystal Clear. The more targeted the formative assessments, the more tailored the feedback will be. And framing these formative assessments with open-ended questions creates space for learners to feel comfortable asking for clarification, and ensures they have an opportunity to think about what they already know, what they might want to pay attention to, and what they might want to reflect on and or revisit and how that might impact their overall grasp of the material. For example, “What more do we need to know about [theory] or [tool]” or “What’s crystal clear about [theory] or [tool]? What’s the muddiest thing about [theory] or [tool]” or “What can I start/stop/continue with respect to [weekly lectures] or [check-in videos] or [discussion boards]”.
• Consider creating spaces for informal [but still professional and respectful] student-student interactions, like a discussion board that’s for non-course related conversations.
• If your students don’t mind signing up for a(nother) new platform, try Slack or Discord, which are community platforms in which people can have group and private conversations, break off into groups (for group work!), post relevant content, and share files. For cohort building in particular, participants in Discord can see when others are “online,” so even during non-class hours, they can write to each other to talk or hang out virtually.
Ok, first of all: no shame here. We both know that age is not a factor when it comes to being averse to technology. But now that we’re all in this together, let’s try to help each other out.
The best tactic is to avoid signing up for or downloading new programs, and to avoid asking others to do the same. We realize that that is not always going to be possible, in which case: the next easiest thing to do is to seek out or offer video guides to using technology. Step-by-step instructions recorded on videos are much easier to follow than text-based instructions (“click which button? Where is it?”) and screenshots (“wait, how did they get to that page?”). YouTube is your friend here, as there are many introductory and step-by-step tutorials on computer programs, and even more have been made since COVID-19 forced us all to stay connected via technology.
If you’re instructing others on technology, turn on your computer’s screen recorder and record the process of what you are trying to explain, whether it’s how to download a browser, how to sign up for Zoom, or where to find this week’s readings.
To turn on your computer’s screen recorder, try these keyboard commands:
- • Mac: shift + command (⌘) + “5”
• Windows: Windows key (⊞) + alt + “R”
• Linux/Ubuntu: ctrl + alt + shift + “R”
If you’re wondering what institutional licences are available for particular apps, programs, software; who to contact to purchase institutional licences; what to do when your request is denied; if your department has funding for teaching and learning aids; if your request to purchase an institutional license is denied, what other app, program, software can you use; if there is an open-source option …
Consider connecting with the formal support offered by academic partners at your institution to develop the course. For example, a teaching centre, extended/distance/online learning centre, accessibility services, the library, IT services, media services, etc. might offer self-paced learning, workshops, and or 1-on-1 support resources to help you design and deliver your online course.
While much of the labour that goes into online teaching (and, let’s face it, teaching in general) is unseen, those of us in contingent positions, or who are juggling teaching with other responsibilities in graduate school, may really get the short end of the stick. And often you will not even be asked to do this extra labour, it’s just assumed or implied you will do it because you accepted the assignment. Read your contract, particularly if you’re paid for a set number of hours per week, and track how many hours you spend on course-related activities, including training, course prep, answering emails, facilitating, grading, etc. If you’re exceeding what’s outlined in your contract, connect with your union or association to identify your options, reflect on how you might streamline and minimize your workload, and know you might already be doing everything you can to streamline and minimize your workload and it’s still too much.
If you have job security, consider how you might highlight the exploitation of contingent instructors and leverage whatever power you possess in your position to dismantle this exploitation. Employers should inquire how they can better support their contingent faculty in particular. What kinds of support would be helpful, including collecting and sharing resources, having a chat group, arranging formal training in a timely fashion, giving as much notice as possible to contingent faculty for teaching assignments, and even looking to compensate for extra unpaid labour? The best scenario is to pay people for extra work that they do, period.
Student Communication & Transparency
With assignments and exams, be very clear about deadlines as well as your expectations. More detail about expectations is needed than usual (they can’t ask you on the spot, so some anticipation must occur), put the expectations somewhere that students can return to over and over).
State the submission times and submission methods for assignments. Tell students to include their names or some other kind of identification in the name of the submitted document
If grades will be docked, tell them how much and give them examples. If you are open to extensions (oh, please be open to them during this time), be transparent about how much notice you need and when it’s too late to ask (e.g. the day before).
If there is an option to take pass/fail instead of a numerical or letter grade, let them know as soon as possible.
Once a term or more, gather all of their questions and make an FAQ document or video to share with the class, especially since students often have the same question.
Create an anonymous questionnaire midway through the term to allow them to ask for things to start/stop/continue: what would they like the instructor to start doing more of? What kind of requests and exercises would they prefer to stop? What should the instructor continue to do that is working well?
Internet Accessibility, Safety, and Privacy
Use a VPN (virtual private network), which allows you to mask your device’s IP address with a fake IP address in another location (including other countries!), to protect your computer’s privacy and security. VPNs work like a P.O. box: you can receive the content but hide your home address.
Please be sensitive and sympathetic to the learning environment of international students as well as to the content laws of the countries in which they are living. Some of these countries may enforce firewalls and content regulations, and you should not make any classwork obligatory that may get them into any kind of legal trouble. Remember: a lot of students use shared devices with family members, or access the Internet in public spaces where their screens can be seen. But to answer that question more specifically …
Consider using some software alternatives, including open-source options for students worldwide who can’t access certain parts of the Internet websites, or who just don’t want to support monopoly company programs.
- • Switching.software is a website that offers alternatives to many popular online resources.
• Jitsi is a free and open-source video conferencing site. It is open-source, free, and global Internet-accessible. Jitsi has screen sharing, chat, and recording functions. There is no time limit. Make a Jitsi “room” with a unique name and send the link to your students. Nothing to download; all they have to do is click.
• Github (higher learning curve) allows for open-source software sharing and development
Alternatives to F2F (face to face) Classroom Methods
Some things should be ok to maintain, including the natural time it takes to move around a classroom. It always takes time to set up presentations, shuffle through notes, take a sip of water, sneeze, and so forth. It’s ok. Take your time and let others take theirs.
You can still engage with your students, including by asking them questions and starting conversations. Maybe one of the better parts of virtual learning is that users’ names are included in many video conferencing platforms, so use their names when you are talking to them.
See the University Design for Learning guidelines on how to adapt for both F2F and virtual best practices. However and wherever you’re teaching, provide your learners with multiple modes of representation, engagement, action, and expression.
Arrange students into smaller groups (if they know each other, you could also let them arrange themselves). If they are comfortable with it and if the group work allows it, consider asking them to change groups each time so that they can meet new people.
With class presentations, students will have to learn some of the same tricks as the teachers to adapt to virtual teaching and learning. One suggestion that may be helpful to them is to be transparent about sections of talks and lectures: ask them to start the presentation with a visual + verbal table of contents (Part 1, Part 2 of talk). Whether they want to keep things as a conversation or read straight off of a paper (which is very difficult to pay attention to even F2F), suggest that they offer visual aids: images, videos, slides, and so forth.
Integrating learner-centred, interactive instructional activities into online teaching spaces is possible, it just requires a bit more time. Learners require clear directions for the activity, clear expectations, and clear links to course objectives. Collaboration is amazing and learners need to know how collaborating with their colleagues is going to prepare them for a summative assessment, or help them meet the intended learning outcome for this particular unit in the course.
Seek out accessible and affordable ways to do hands-on activities at home, even if the project has to change slightly. Usually, Lai-Tze teaches her graduate classes out of a technological lab with lots of equipment for “critical making.” In March 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown began, her “Critical Media Infrastructures” class turned to making face masks. Instead of using lab supplies and machines, they used spare cloth, vacuum cleaner bags (non-HEPA/fibreglass), old shoe laces, elastics from the dollar store–whatever they had at home. To put their masks together, they used sewing machines, needle and thread, or hot glue guns!
Find ways for them to participate in their own time. For example, ask a weekly question in a forum (either through your home institution or use an accessible chat group like Slack), which can give them the chance to respond in text + via links (many of them are already used to sharing content).
Consider using a rubric so learners have something concrete to reference regarding what’s expecting of them, and so you have something concrete to consult when grading more nebulous course elements like participation. Rubrics take time to draft, revise, and tweak, but once you have them, you have them!
For group work, consider implementing a rubric and/or group contract. Provide all groups with a template they can discuss and modify according to their group’s dynamics. Again, both of these documents give learners something concrete to reference re: expectations, and you something concrete to consult re: grading, and all parties a pathway to recourse should there be any sort of implosion because of group work (it happens.)
Reflective exercises can come in handy too for both participation and group work! For example, “What did you learn through X? How might you apply this to future Y?” Learners often feel comfortable communicating in this mode because it’s metacognitive, they can be honest, and they don’t have to verbalize face to face.
Learning & Accessibility
If you’re recording video lectures and talks, try turning on a dictation program to capture the text while you ramble! While the text isn’t always perfect, you can copy + paste the final product into presentation slides and documents for current and future lectures!
The dictated notes can be used for captions and accessibility. Captions are helpful for students who are hard of hearing, who don’t retain information as strongly over verbal communication, and/or who aren’t fluent in the language of instruction.
To turn on dictation …
- • Mac: “fn” two times (to dictate in any program) OR turn on Speech Recognition (System Preferences -> Accessibility -> Voice Control -> Enable Voice Control). If your computer runs slowly with Voice Control on, be sure to turn it off when you’re done dictating
• PCs: Windows key (⊞) + “H”
• Linux: see here
Individual participants should be able to choose what makes them comfortable–as long as they are not distracting others. If select speakers are talking, it’s a good idea for everyone who is not speaking to keep audio off. This is useful if a participant’s mic is producing a lot of background noise or feedback/echo. If there is no extra noise and an open conversation amongst all participants is happening, audio can be kept on so that participants aren’t muting and unmuting constantly.
Individual participants should be able to choose what makes them comfortable–as long as they are not distracting others. Students should not be punished if they look like they are not paying attention. Even in F2F lectures, they don’t have their eyes at the front the whole time. Also, students should not be forced to keep their videos on. Their homes are private spaces, just like your home, and they may not want to show everyone their bedrooms, their family members, their roommates, and/or their pets.
We have been given all kinds of advice when it comes to how long/short recorded videos should be, and the answer to this question is that it depends on how long you expect them to either look at the screen or to listen. We strongly suggest breaking up long videos into smaller videos, with the consideration that watching a two-hour lecture can equate to watching a two-hour movie. Longer videos should also be avoided, as they take more time to load and can be difficult to navigate if a student has to refresh the video or if they try to look for “that one part where the Professor defined osmosis.” Have you spent a long time trying to find “that one part” in a movie? Be kind!
If you need more information (about tools as well), look no further than this amazing Tweet on video lectures by Hook & Eye’s Editrix Aimée Morrison:
Individual videos should be approximately ten minutes if there is a lot to look at on the screen, and 20-30 minutes if there is not much to look at. Students are used to intently watching five- to ten-minute YouTube videos, but they are also used to listening to hour-long podcasts so long as they can cook, clean, drive, or do other activities while listening. It also helps with their navigation if videos are titled in the same way as a table of contents. So, not “Week 4, Part 3.” Instead, try “4.3: The Principles of New Media.” You can also try including time stamps so that the videos are easier to navigate.
Apply the principles of universal design to your instructional materials and assessments, so learners have a few different formats to engage with course content. Bonus! Many learning platforms now feature built-in accessibility checkers, so you can double-check the way you’ve designed course elements is accessible (i.e. text size and type; alt text for images; page hierarchy etc.).
Without resorting to enforcing Robert’s Rules of Order, there still needs to be a little structure. In classrooms, some students like to raise their hands, so is there an equivalent? Hand-raising is a built-in option for many video conferencing tools, but the order of who gets to speak next is sometimes up for debate. We recommend having students put an emoji (a hand or perhaps a rainbow, but not a conch!) in the text-based group chat, which denotes that they would like to speak next and in a first come, first served order. For those who have thoughts and questions but would not like to speak, they may type into the chat alongside the conversation.
If a few students are in fact talking too much, remind them to put their emoji in the chat. You can also start to respond to or read out some of the typed comments in the chat, asking if students who haven’t spoken yet would like to elaborate or give an example. If the conversation is clearly dominated by a select few students, it’s time to try getting the rest to speak up more. In which case …
How do I get students to start talking in class?
Try out a class exercise called “free writing,” recommended to us by creative writer Sean Braune. In this method, the instructor poses a question (usually open-ended) and gives the students a few minutes to jot down responses, preferably on paper. When the time is up, no one has to speak and none of the responses are collected or marked. Students can either read aloud, say anything that has come to their minds, or type their feedback and thoughts in the text-based group chat. The “free write” method had been very effective at getting quiet students to participate in class because their notes serve as a safety net.
If your students don’t mind signing up for a(nother) new platform, try Slack or Discord, which are community platforms in which people can have group and private conversations, break off into groups (for group work!), post relevant content, and share files. For cohort building in particular, participants in Discord can see when others are “online,” so even during non-class hours, they can write to each other to talk or hang out virtually.
If you don’t have to use your institution’s video conferencing platform, consider switching to the open-source, free, and global Internet-accessible Jitsi. Jitsi has screen sharing, chat, and recording functions. There is no time limit. Make a Jitsi “room” with a unique name and send the link to your students. Nothing to download; all they have to do is click.
Unfortunately, as with F2F classes, students can abuse their devices and class time by messaging each other. But as teachers would also do in class, if they are distracting you and other students, you have the right to ask them to stop. If they don’t stop, you have the right to ask them to leave. If they are extremely disruptive and also won’t leave, you have the right to end the class and end the online session. Students have the right to feel safe in their classroom, whether virtual or F2F.
Lai-Tze Fan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo in Canada, as well as a Faculty Researcher of the Critical Media Lab and Games Institute. She researches digital storytelling and communication, media theory and infrastructure, research-creation or critical making, and gendered tech/AI/labour. Fan has written for Hook & Eye before, including a guide on “How to Write an Academic Cover Letter.” Learn more at laitzefan.com.
Becky Anderson is a Career Advisor in the Centre for Career Action at the University of Waterloo. She supports the career development of individuals in the undergraduate community pursuing further education. She’s also a doctoral candidate with the Department of English Language and Literature, concurrently pursuing a Graduate Diploma in Cognitive Science. Her research considers methods of immersion across storytelling media.