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Higher Education Teaching

advice for the unplanned online class

UB, like many universities, is preparing to take all its classes online in short notice. Some schools have already made that choice as you know. Our Spring Break is next week so I imagine we’ll know a lot more before school starts up again on the 23rd. I’m sure everyone is getting tons of advice and messaging from their institutions, but here are few more pedagogically rather than technologically oriented pieces of advice from someone who’s been teaching online for 20+ years.

  1. Stick with your CMS. I am generally not a fan of the course management system and tend not to choose to use it or use it minimally. I won’t go into why right now as my advice here is contrary to what I’d normally suggest. Why? Several reasons. First, you probably are at least a little familiar with your CMS and use it for something (e.g. a grade book), and even if you’re not your students will be. Second, it will be easy to get all your students enrolled in it. And third, and most importantly, your students will be taking all their classes online so this will give them a one-stop way of doing their work and keeping track of it.
  2. Your students are likely inexperienced online learners. Sure, they may have taken a course or two online along the way but this 100% online thing is as new to them as teaching online is to you. In adapting to learning online I think the biggest challenges have to do with time management and engagement, which are related. It’s easy to feel distanced (pun intended) in an online class and to struggle with engagement. As a result, students can struggle with organizing their time to get their work done without the regular pace of the course schedule. My basic advice here is try to stick to your class schedule as much as possible and provide plenty of signposting and detailed instructions. E.g., if your class normally meets Tuesday and Thursday then make your assignments due on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  3. The challenge of class discussion. My typical face-to-face pedagogy includes a lot class discussion. That’s very tough to do online, especially if you’re asynchronous. You’re just not going to get the kind of back-and-forth dialogue you’d have in the classroom. If you can run a live class for discussion that’s probably good. At UB we have WebEx as a platform. I guess we’ll be testing its claims to be ready for the bandwidth demands. Of course, students might have access challenges of their own from home.

    That said, you can do asynchronous discussion. The best I’ve found is to establish clear directions for interaction. You can break students into groups and have them responsible for replying to teach other. I don’t think there’s a magical way to do this, so you can think up your own structures. The good part is that more students will contribute than do in class. The bad part is that it won’t really feel like a real conversation.

    In any case, I think it would be unwise to imagine that class discussion will work for you online like it does in class.
  4. Be more explicit. Maybe you’d be surprised, but maybe not, at how much we rely on feedback from our students in judging how well their understanding what we’re saying. In class, I’m mostly an extemporaneous speaker. I have notes and ideas of what I want to cover but not a firm outline. Online, I’d say it would be best to think out more clearly what you are trying to get across and (again) signpost that. E.g. “This video covers x, y, z material. These are the key things you need to get from it.” With this in mind, keep it short. A 20-30 minute lecture in class might be fine, but I’d divide that into several videos.
  5. Think about different formats. Lastly, you have a number of options for lecture-style material. You could just write a post like this, but I think your students will respond better if there is some more personal engagement from you as well. If you normally use slides then a slide cast is a good idea. Even if you don’t, you might want to think about slides. The “talking head” video can work fine, but you can also consider just doing audio, like a course podcast. Maybe you don’t want to get all set up for a video 2-3 times a week. Maybe you just do one video and then a couple “podcasts.” You can then also post notes or an outline or something. Make sure students have to do something in response to your video or whatever.

I could go on, but those are the key things that strike me right now. To sum up.

  • Keep it simple. Don’t frustrate yourself or your students unnecessarily.
  • Keep it structured. The more organization and signposting you have the easier it will be for yourself and your students to stay on track.
  • Focus on engagement. The hardest part of teaching/learning online for everyone can be staying connected. If we all go online, we probably will have plenty of worries and related distractions. Your class could be a slice of normality and feeling like we’re all still moving forward with our lives.

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