Keep Calm and Go Online

First, take a deep breath. With all of the anxiety surrounding the spread of COVID-19, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and panic about how you will make it through the semester. Remember what your goal is: to share your passion about your subject with learners and help them meet your course objectives. You can still do this even with disruptions to your schedule and meeting format and I will share some suggestions with you here to do just that. It all begins with your goals.


Look back at your course objectives and student learning outcomes in your syllabus. What have your students already met? What remains to be addressed? Is there any flexibility with how these are met? Try not to get too hung up on following what you had planned for activities and assignments, as these are means to an end. You want to reach the same end but adjusting to distance learning will require perhaps rethinking the means. For each of those course objectives, you developed a strategy in your syllabus for meeting them by planning instructional activities, assignments, and assessments. Let’s look at how we can tweak that strategy.

In the table below, I have listed some common instructional purposes with traditional activities for meeting these goals in class, as well as some options for meeting these same objectives at a distance. This is not an exhaustive list but is meant to get your creative instructional juices flowing. As you will see, you likely are already doing some of the activities in the distance option columns, so no need to worry about entering a foreign land. Just begin where you are comfortable, and maybe try one or two new things.

Comparing In-Person and Remote Learning Activities

Instructional Need In Class Activities Synchronous Distance Options in Zoom Asynchronous Distance Options
Assessing and/or activating prior knowledge
  • Entrance tickets: Ask students to write down what they already know about the topic
  • Have a conversation about what students may know
  • Review earlier content/connections
  • Screen share a prompt or question while you wait for students to log in
  • Ask about previous knowledge in chat, for students to respond to
  • Create a guiding question or prompt before the content to help student contextualize
  • Create a checklist or a short video or text reminder of what was previously covered
Introduce students to content
  • Lecture
  • Presentation
  • Demonstration or whiteboard work
  • Reading
  • Lecture via Zoom
  • Screen share to present your PowerPoint
  • Use white boarding in Zoom or a document camera, and pen & paper
  • Read a passage over Zoom
  • Record an audio recording in 5-10 minute increments
  • Post written lecture notes
  • Create a presentation video
  • Add worksheets, or create a short video demonstrating a process
  • Assign Reading
Formative assessments and checking for understanding
  • Check faces for understanding
  • Clickers/Student response systems
  • Pop quizzes or quick-writes
  • Live survey
  • Use gallery view see student faces
  • Open “Manage Participants” to allow thumbs up/down for understanding
  • Use the poll tool in Zoom
  • Create a quiz in Google Forms for live results
  • Ask students to submit at least 2 questions they still have
  • Create a quiz in the LMS or in Google Forms
Student ability to engage with instructor and ask clarifying questions
  • Students raise hands
  • Students enter a question in the Chat panel
  • Open “Manage Participants” to allow the Raise Hand feature
  • Create a Q&A discussion forum in the LMS
  • Create a norm for students to reach out via email or messaging tool with questions
  • Give students a # to text with questions
Students exchange ideas with peers, engage in collaboration, reflect on content, and make connections with personal experience
  • Large or small group discussion
  • Pair and Share
  • Collaborative group assignment
  • Written responses or short projects
  • Large group discussion (be sure to review communication norms)Breakout rooms in Zoom
  • Links to collaborative Google docs/slides
  • Assignments submitted online
  • Discussion forum in the LMS
  • Small groups in LMS
  • Collaborative projects with Google Docs, Slides, or Sheets
  • Video-based discussion
  • Assignments submitted online
Students practice skills, with guidance
  • Worksheets
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Drafting
  • Hand-over-hand coaching and feedback
  • Worksheets and graphic organizers, shared in advance
  • Verbal guidance in large or small groups
  • Screen sharing drafts or collaborative Google Docs
  • Instructor coaching and feedback in breakout rooms
  • Digital worksheets and graphic organizers
  • Students share drafts, images, or recordings in LMS Groups or collaborative Google documents for feedback
  • Rubrics and detailed feedback is used, with multiple submissions enabled for revisions
Assessing student understanding and grading (summative assessments)
  • Papers
  • Presentations
  • Projects
  • Reflections
  • Exams
  • Breakout groups can work on Google projects and share out to large groups
  • Presentations
  • Individual projects and exams submitted online
  • Assignments, journals and exams submitted online
  • Group or individual projects and presentations submitted in Discussion forums
Modality Matrix developed by Anne Fensie and Heather Nunez-Olmstead.

Teaching online can initially feel like herding cats if you haven’t planned carefully and accounted for some unique aspects of distance learning. Important things to consider include the digital divide, communicating expectations, tools, logistics, and videoconference etiquette. Let me share some advice as an experienced cat herder.

Technology Accessibility

Technology can be both a bridge and a barrier to access for people, and this is an important concern when providing instruction at a distance. Not only do you want to ensure that you are not creating additional barriers to your course content, but this is now an opportunity to create additional access that might not have been available before. Electronic text is a fairly universal medium that can be read on a screen, printed out, or read aloud via a screen reader. It can be accessed on a computer, on a mobile device, through Wi-Fi, or SMS. Whenever possible, provide electronic text equivalents of your course content and try to ensure that everything can be downloaded at one go for students who have limited access to Wi-Fi.

Make the Implicit Explicit

Teaching online requires explicit communication. People new to distance education often do not realize how much is implied in our everyday interactions that can easily get lost in the translation online. Be specific about what you want your students to do each week. Include activities that are graded and those that you expect them to do even though they are not graded. Many students really appreciate checklists to follow so they know they are meeting your expectations. If you want them to submit something, be sure to tell them where to send it and when it is due, including the date and time.

Start Small

You don’t need to learn a lot of new technologies to make this temporary transition to distance learning. Faculty who have been teaching online for years and have a toolkit full of resources have spent years learning and compiling those resources. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a week. If you only know how to use email, begin there by sending out course materials and asking students to email you assignments. If you are comfortable with your school’s LMS, post your materials there, create assignment drop boxes, and places for students to interact and ask questions.

Don’t make too much work for yourself. When you ask a question in class, only a small percentage of your students respond. When you ask a question online, every single one of your students will respond which will vastly increase your workload. Plan carefully for what you want students to submit to you so you can make the time to review it and provide feedback. Prompt feedback is especially important for students at a distance as they can feel disconnected and concerned about their performance.

Web Conference Etiquette

One new technology you might be interested in experimenting with is Zoom, or another web conferencing platform like Skype or Google Hangouts. If you plan to conduct your class synchronously, this will be a must. If you plan to conduct your class asynchronously, this can be helpful for office hours, study groups, and providing one-on-one support to students. Here are a couple of quick tips for participating in a web conference that you can share with your students:

  • Test your equipment and connection in advance. Make sure your microphone (and video, if desired) is working.
  • Use a headset or earbuds if possible. This will reduce the amount of audio feedback.
  • Practice using the app before the first meeting. Find out where the mute button and chat are.
  • Stay muted unless you are speaking. The software will automatically switch to your video feed if you make a noise, like cough or if your dog barks.
  • If you are on camera, remember that you are on camera. Please turn off your camera if you are eating, blowing your nose, or walking around the house. This can be very distracting.
  • Follow a protocol for joining the conversation. For example, use the Raise Hand tool in the Participants window, unmute and wait for people to stop talking, or type, “Next, please” in the chat. There may be a time delay so you can interrupt someone without realizing it if you just start talking.
  • Be present. Try not to be distracted by other windows, applications, or your surroundings.
  • Let others in your environment know that you are joining a web conference, so they do not interrupt, keep noise to a minimum, and stay off camera.

The Bottom Line

You can do this! What is the experience you want your learners to have? How do you want them to feel about your course content? How do you want them to think about it? What do you want them to be able to do? Maintaining academic continuity requires us to go back to the essential purpose of our instruction. You can lead your students to the same destination, but you will take a different path to get there. Reach out to the knowledgeable guides on your campus to help you plan the journey and be flexible about this expedition. Keep your focus on the destination—the learning outcomes. It may take longer to get there, some students might stumble along the way, and the experience will be different. Just keep calm and go online!

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