8 tips for setting up and teaching online classes during coronavirus closures

Suddenly teaching online because of COVID-19? Learn from me, a Blackboard certified online instructor – or perhaps more relevant – a guy who suddenly got thrown into online teaching with no idea what to do.

Update: Since this post, I’ve transitioned my classes for online delivery, and shared 5 more tips from the first week of working from home.

Universities are closing campuses and moving classes online to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19. Positive cases are on the rise, both because of spread and increased availability of testing.

On that trajectory, it’s likely that many of us will be doing some online teaching in the very near future. And while universities act like this is the simplest transition in the world, it’s not. Online instruction is an entirely different animal, and throwing professors who haven’t done it before into the fire is not going to work.

My first job after completing my doctorate was as a full-time online lecturer, something I had never done before. It was a ton of work, but in the end I found a groove of teaching courses that students enjoyed and I felt like were meeting the course objectives I would have set in a traditional classroom.

So, learn from me, a Blackboard certified online instructor… or, if you prefer… learn from me, a guy who suddenly got thrown into online teaching with no idea what to do.

1. Make it easy to navigate

Even if you haven’t taught online, you’ve probably still used your campus online learning management system (LMS) like Blackboard or Moodle to post slides, study guides, or grades. But teaching online is more than that. It’s important to understand how to make your content easy to find and navigate. Content folders or “modules” in your LMS allow you to group and label content clearly.

Here’s my module layout for a typical week:

1. Welcome Video – Setting the table for what we’re going to be learning. Reminders about due dates. Bad jokes.

2. Overview Text – Learning objectives, required readings/resources, and assignment due dates. Like the video, minus the bad jokes.

3. Content Subfolder – Video lectures, along with accompanying slides and readings.

4. Assignments Subfolder – Instructions and the dropbox to turn them in.

It might also be helpful to draft a temporary syllabus, explaining how existing class policies, schedules, and assignments will change during the period of online instruction. In everything, clarity will help.

2. Make it accessible

Students learn in different ways. We know this in our traditional classrooms, which is why we blend lectures, handouts, discussions, activities, and all sorts of other techniques. We have to do the same online. So while my welcome video and weekly overview text announcement may have lots of informational overlap, they appeal to students who receive and retain knowledge differently.

Multiple modes of delivery also assist students with disabilities. Even designing a course in a pinch, there are a few simple things you can do:

1. Caption your videos – Check to see if your university has a professional tool. Otherwise, for a simple (albeit imperfect) solution, upload your videos to YouTube, where they will be automatically captioned.

2. Use alt-text to describe your images – If you use photos of illustrations in your course, use the “alt-text” feature when placing the image in your course to provide a text description for students who are visually impaired or on a poor internet connection that isn’t loading your multimedia content.

3. Attach and accept document versions of your assignments – I have found that sometimes screen readers don’t get along the best with LMS platforms, and the built-in text editors used to enter responses have big problems with speech-to-text dictation. Having downloadable document versions of your assignment instructions not only helps these students, but anyone else in your class who likes to print out a physical copy.

4. Send emails – Email clients are better equipped to work with accessibility tools than just about anything (especially for mobile). I also like to send an email announcement at the beginning of the week as a reminder to students who aren’t in the habit of checking the online course that they need to do so. Not everyone will pay attention to your LMS notification. They’ll see your email.

3. Shift to weekly goals and deadlines

An emergency changeover to online is different – you actually have a set meeting time when you know your students should be available. But I’m telling you, for your students’ sanity and your own, plan out your online content by the week, not the class period. Activate new content on Monday morning. Set assignment deadlines for the end of the week (I like to use 11:59 p.m. on either Friday or Sunday).

4. Real-time is real hard

In a purely online class, I tried synchronous content a dozen different ways. But it just didn’t happen. Work schedules, class schedules, family commitments, a million other conflicts. In my case, I had significant numbers of military students based in time zones all over the world. You’re going to be on your computer 24/7 if you try to engage synchronously with all of those students.

On the other hand, optional synchronous experiences can really benefit the students who choose to participate in them. Virtual office hours or a live study session, for instance, can allow students to interact with you and each other. For a small number of students, something like Google Hangouts can work. For larger audiences, or more complex features, see if your university has a license with a professional platform like Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate.

Again, in the case of an emergency shift to online, you may be tempted to use your traditional class time for required real-time online engagement. Don’t. Things will go wrong – you threw this stuff online a few days ago. Your students probably haven’t gone through a proper tutorial on how to do any of this. And depending on where the university decided to put students during the closing, some may not have access to reliable internet connections, or face circumstances that interrupt their normal schedule when they were living on campus and attending traditional classes.

Recording a lecture in front of my degrees, press passes… and bobbleheads.

5. You have to use video

I keep mentioning video. You need it in your online course. I’d argue it’s even more important in a course that’s been meeting traditionally but has suddenly been shifted online. Students are used to seeing your face and hearing your voice. And depending on your lecture style, they may not be used to relying heavily on readings to understand concepts. To suddenly adopt a “just read the book” approach is going to disrupt their study strategies.

A few quick tips:

1. Break it up – We know just lecturing for an hour doesn’t work in the classroom. It doesn’t work online either. Try recording separate clips for each major component of a unit. Keep them under 15 minutes each. This will also help if you’re not going to be doing any video editing and trying to nail a clip in one take.

2. Setting matters – Most importantly, make sure you can be seen and heard. Find a place with plentiful lighting and minimal noise. I like to add some flavor to my setting with décor on the walls. I also have a bookshelf behind me that houses a rotation of keepsakes and knick-knacks that change every few videos. If you have video editing software and experience, you can add variety to the setting by periodically transitioning between slides and your face. I like to show slides full-screen when I’m covering terminology; myself full-screen when I’m giving examples or illustrations.

3. Equipment matters – Should your university close its doors, it’s going to save a ton on electricity and other upkeep. Surely they’ll pass that along to you, dear faculty, to buy some halfway decent gear for this sudden online experience. Okay… of course they won’t. But recording equipment can make or break a video lecture.

Audio is more important than video. Ask your students about the Snapchats and TikToks they enjoy most. The camera can be shaky; the lighting can be too dark. Bad video might be a little distracting, but if the speaker is too quiet to hear, or so loud the mic is peaking, that can make the lecture useless.

Test out what you’ve already got. Your smartphone might outperform your computer (just remember to position the phone horizontally to record in landscape!). Most of you doing this online thing temporarily will stop here.

If you are planning to develop fully online courses and want to record from home, equip your smartphone with a mini-tripod and an external lapel mic (assuming your phone still has a headphone jack). If you’re upgrading your computer, you’ll likely want a better webcam. The Logitech C920 is a popular choice even for professional streamers… and it’s under $50. Toss in a USB mic and you’ll sound amazing. I use the Blue Yeti because I also stream and do voiceover work. A Blue Snowball is cheaper and will be more than enough for recording lectures. There may be some even cheaper options available; feel free to leave a note in the comments.

6. Check to see what students see

Once you’ve got everything up and running, use the student view in your LMS to see the course exactly as they do. Sometimes faculty view looks much different than what students will experience. Open modules, watch videos, try to submit an assignment. See if it satisfies the navigation and accessibility goals we established earlier.

7. Be prepared to help students who have access problems

I mentioned this earlier, but it deserves its own point. You’re not the only one disrupted by a campus shutdown. Whereas you have a nearby home with a bed, food, and an internet connection at the ready, your students might not. As frustrating as it is for us as faculty that administrators think we can turn everything we teach into an online class by flipping a switch, creating a homeless population of students is the much more significant impact universities are overlooking.

Remember, these students didn’t choose an online course, potentially because they knew they didn’t have the tools to participate in one. Help them locate resources from a local library or McDonald’s (don’t laugh; the prevalence of the Golden Arches and their free Wi-Fi practically make them a civic institution).

8. Be empathetic and flexible

We’re embarking on something that’s unprecedented for most of us. And while we’re trying to minimize the degree to which we are flying by the seat of our pants, some improvisation is unavoidable.

Now’s not the time to try to force that assignment that you love, but just isn’t going to work in an online format. It’s not the time to rigidly enforce due dates if students have not already been turning in work digitally. Throughout the communication described in the tips above, express empathy and create a welcoming environment for students to express difficulties or concerns.

Ready? Neither am I! But here we go…

Update: Since this post, I’ve transitioned my classes for online delivery, and shared 5 more tips from the first week of working from home.

Cover illustration courtesy kreatikar on Pixabay


6 thoughts on “8 tips for setting up and teaching online classes during coronavirus closures”

  1. We have found that our students ignore their email but open mail that comes from the LMS. I’m wondering if I can do my classes in real time, since the students have already made that time in their schedules. Not sure what I’ll do, but as of now, we are on spring break and don’t know what happens next. Thanks for the tips!

  2. I’m not a teacher but, as a person who makes things for the web, these are some solid tips—particularly the ones regarding multimedia and making content available in different formats.

    One accessibility tip I can add: when creating links, make the text descriptive. Don’t use “Click here.” Instead say, for example, “Download the PDF syllabus.” This will improve the experience for anyone using a screen reader (and everyone else, really).

    Regarding microphones… I work remotely so all meetings are conducted via Google Hangouts, Slack, etc. I’m not always able to control the background noise so I went for a cardioid microphone that doesn’t pick up sound from all directions. This one came highly recommended people I follow: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004QJOZS4

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