Tips, tricks, thoughts and support for colleagues transitioning to an online space

Here at the Centre for Science in Society, we’ve been teaching online and blended courses for several years. Our courses have high completion rates and receive really positive student evaluations. We know many of our colleagues in and beyond Aotearoa are currently trying to adapt face-to-face courses to online formats amidst the upheavals of Covid-19. Here are some ideas for making this as smooth and painless as possible.

This advice is for transitioning to online teaching in an emergency situation, based on our experience of the day-to-day running of online courses. A lot more is involved in creating a customised and sustainable online learning environment. Our University uses Blackboard, so you’ll see some references here to features of that interface (e.g. the Discussion Forum, Private Journal).

The ‘Modules’ tab of SCIS101, our fully online, 100-level course. Each module contains an introductory page, a series of lectures (10-30 minutes long), a tab for readings, and a page detailing the assessment related to that module (in this course, a quiz and a blog).

I. Staying sane

Don’t try and turn your course into a perfect online course overnight

Return to your learning objectives and think about how you can best achieve them, online, in the short term. It won’t create the ideal course, but it will create a manageable and sustainable one.

You don’t have to do it all yourself

Are there alternative readings, YouTube clips, documentaries, news articles etc that could introduce students to the topic in place of a lecture that you usually present? If so, consider setting that as homework and using class time (if you’re staying synchronous) or the discussion fora to discuss content and generally support the mental well-being of your students. Some people have set up lecture banks for sharing resources, like these anthropologists.

Ask a colleague, tutor or class rep to go through your online course to check for coherence, oversights, agreement in dates, etc. At least two sets of eyes (and often three) go over each of our courses before they’re made live.

If you have tutors, their role will change. You might have a tutor take control of managing the discussion space or monitoring messages and passing on anything they can’t respond to onto the course coordinator.

Use recordings from past years

If you’ve recorded lectures in the past and are delivering essentially the same lecture this year – give yourself a break and give them the link to that video instead. They can watch it in their own time and you can then discuss it with them.

This isn’t going to work for an entire course, but might tide you for the first week or two while you’re transitioning to online teaching. Only use lectures you presented and avoid using lectures with students in the recording.

If you are going to reuse recordings, you’ll need to check with your University what copyright and consent approvals are needed.

Consider asynchronous teaching

Save real-time connection (e.g. through Zoom) for the really amazing interactive discussions – everything else can be made asynchronous, allowing you to prepare that lecture in advance and upload it, and allowing students to either download it or watch at a time that is convenient for them in their new situations.

This is a screenshot of our core 100-level course, from the student view. The sidebar broadly maps onto the key parts of a syllabus, with the addition of online features like the Discussion Forum and Private Journal. All of our online courses are set up similarly so that students who take one can easily navigate others.

II. Keeping students engaged

Online courses don’t run by themselves. Students need to know that teaching staff are present in the course and care about their progress. Consider flexibility around deadlines and be compassionate in your messages. Your messages become their main point of contact with you, and their experience of the course is affected by their interactions with you.

Set up private journals (rather than emails) and check them daily

If your University uses Blackboard, the private journal feature allows you to create a safe, private, space for a conversation between the lecturer and a student. It’s the online version of having a chat before or after class. It is also easier to follow the conversation than wading through lots of emails. It’s a great way for students to know they can contact you easily, and for you to respond in a timely manner. This is a space that a tutor can monitor.

Use discussion fora

We use Blackboard’s discussion fora a lot, and even if students don’t appear to engage, many do read those conversations and find them helpful (an analogy is the quiet student at the back of a chatty class who still benefits from the chat). Consider setting up separate fora, e.g., for different components of your course (content related), for technical questions, for administrative questions (deadlines, assignment clarification) and other issues that students wish to discuss. Most of our courses have a forum just for students to share fun links, articles, and course-related internet miscellanea.

For large classes that have tutor support, consider asking tutors to spend some time in the discussion fora as a “chatter” – to respond to student questions in the discussion forum, to post questions and comments to get the discussion moving and generally help stimulate discussion and make students feel supported and listened to.

Make regular announcements

Use the “Create Announcement” function to post regular updates to students, starting with a regular Monday announcement about what they should be focusing on that week, and also with reminders about deadlines, check-ins to see how they’re doing, etc .

These are some of the basics that might help you make the transition to online teaching. If you have your own tips, or links to useful resources, feel free to share them in the comments below.

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