This post is not going to be long, or super detailed. You’ve got 1, 2, maybe 3 days of notice to convert your in-person college class to an online format thanks to COVID-19. Or let’s just leave the reason evergreen due to the next pandemic as we descend into a cyberpunk novel.
I’ve been teaching online for 15 years now. I’m comfortable with tech and this kind of teaching environment. I know when to be experimental and when to go meat-and-potatoes.
Maybe you are comfortable in this format, maybe you’re not. But if you’re getting started, here’s how I’m approaching a quick online conversion. You’ve got to start quickly and scale up quickly!
1. ASSESS STUDENT ACCESS: You absolutely have to do this first. We take for granted that students can show up to class if we provide the space. Moving online means understanding their access to the internet and devices (not every student has a computer!). You can’t hold class if they can’t attend. Access could look like internet access, device ownership, disability needs, or family situations that get particularly sensitive during a crisis. Or it could be something you don’t know to ask. So you should ask, and leave it open-ended.
How I am doing this: I always try to survey my students to get a feel for their needs and challenges. Here’s a survey I’m using for my course that is having to move online. Here is a good checklist for creating accessible materials online for students with disabilities; don’t force them into the uncomfortable position of asking. Design as if there is someone in need.
2. START WITH WHAT YOU KNOW: With time, yes you can learn a new tool. But start with the tech you use a lot and feel comfortable with. More importantly, start with tech your students will feel comfortable with. If it requires a lot of installation, you’re inviting a class full of tech issues that require you to do support on top of teaching. Work the software in gently and gradually. Just prioritize getting everyone there first. Also! Be aware of your own limitations. A closure might mean you need to care for kids and loved ones too. Don’t commit to a format you can’t keep.
How I am doing this: In converting the in-person part of class, I’m thinking through what we do and then what tools I have in my tool kit right now that would be good analogs. Google docs, message boards, chat tools in your schools course management system will work fine. But some of this is about knowing what you don’t know. Trying to learn a video conferencing tool the first week of your class is the wrong time. Yes, it’s not the same to use simple tools. But start small. You can always try something more radical later.
3. EXPERIMENT AFTER YOU’RE SETTLED: In my classes, I always try to keep an eye on some experimental technology tool that I might use in the next version of the class, and I save it for the final weeks of the current class. Why? Because if it fails, I didn’t build the course around it. It also gives me time to get some of the tech setup pieces in place, to make sure everyone has the software and log on first. And if it succeeds? Your students will love it, and you’ll have road-tested a new teaching innovation.
How I am doing this: I have my eyes on a couple things this semester, such as using Second Life for one class meeting. But to do that, I’m going to ask them to install the software beforehand and create an account, then check in with me there so I know they have access. I want to try and clear the board of tech issues beforehand. It’s less about the software and more about having a process for getting them onboarded. Class time should be devoted to class time.
4. PRIORITIZE INTERACTION: Every online class I teach, I try to make it an experience that somewhat mimics why students are there in the first place. They’re there for interaction with you and with other students. So whether you use a low-tech tool or something fancier, interaction is critical. Believe it or not, even a video lecture can be quasi-interactive because they can see you, hear your words. If possible, try not to hide behind email and one-on-one exchanges. Our interaction with students is public, and conducting class in a way that feels public helps a lot. You are trying to build a community, much like you’re doing in an in-person class. It looks different online, but it has some of the same principles.
How I am doing this: I am starting with bulletin boards with a requirement that students reply to one another. That’s a good start. But professors should jump in too. Chat apps in your course management software could allow for real-time collaboration — your class has a meeting time, so use it! If you don’t have a real-time chat tool, consider other options such as Slack or even let your students suggest a chat app they like.
5. SET THE TONE: In a sudden upheaval, this is important. You’re probably concerned about how this is going to go with a sudden switch to online. So are they; they’re your students and they want to be successful. Everyone professor their own way of dealing with this. Mine is humor:
How I am doing this: I’m trying to give them a sense up front that I don’t expect this to go perfectly. We’re going to try our best and make this a grand experiment in online learning. My emails to them stress my flexibility and that we’re figuring this out together. It’s asking for their ideas, asking them to suggest ways of doing this that would appeal to them. I want them to be stakeholders in what we’re (temporarily) building. Having a sense of humor about it isn’t necessary, but giving them a cue that you are understanding of difficulties during a sudden switch will go a long way toward easing their worries and helping you build that online rapport you need in a new format.
Best of luck, everyone!