Two days after I published “8 tips for setting up and teaching online classes during coronavirus closures,” my campus made the decision to transition online due to COVID-19 for the remainder of the semester. After two days of canceled classes and a weekend to prepare (not great, but better than some peer institutions in our state), our first week of online instruction just concluded. Here are some of the lessons I learned to supplement my original tips and give those of you about to begin an idea of what to expect.
1. Explain what’s changing
Students need to know how your course is going to work moving forward. In my original article, I suggested:
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.
After making one and talking to students about their other courses, I’d strongly encourage this as something worth the time investment, even as our time is limited. Not only is the syllabus useful to students, but it may also help with grade disputes that arise from any changes you institute.
I created an “Online Transition Update” syllabus, highlighting (literally, in yellow) parts that were changing (e.g., attendance requirements, scheduling of exams), and removing some of the unchanged boilerplate stuff that makes syllabi eight pages long and unreadable.
I did the same for instruction sheets and rubrics for major assignments that changed, such as a service learning project that can no longer include an in-person pitch to our community partner (☹).
In line with Original Tip #1 (“Make it easy to navigate”), I put all of these new documents in an “Online Transition Info” folder and put it right at the top of our online content so it’d be the first thing students see when they log on. In line with Original Tip #2 (“Make it accessible”), that folder also included a video walkthrough of the Blackboard course and links to all the different ways students could contact me and each other.
2. Communicate early and often
The morning my classes went live, I posted an announcement to my course page on Blackboard, which was also emailed to all students. Four quick points:
1. Here’s how to use the course (direct to the “Online Transition Info” folder)
2. Here’s what we’re learning about this week (direct to the week’s learning module)
3. Here’s what’s due this week (direct to the week’s assignment folder)
4. Here are the opportunities to join us live this week if you’re able (include links to live sessions)
I’ve set aside Wednesdays for optional live sessions (more on that in a moment). On Friday, a reminder email about assignments due by Sunday night (Original Tip #3 – Shift to weekly goals and deadlines). That’s three set-in-stone encounters that will always be there for students.
In between, I’m answering emails. Expect your inbox to get busier. Emails from students tripled in my first week of online instruction, compared to a typical in-class week. Some were questions about assignments. Many were about technical issues (I try to help, but it’s also fine to refer to your institution’s IT helpdesk). Some were about how other parts of campus life were being affected (Are we doing advising online? Do you know if the library is open? Will we have commencement in May?).
If you had a policy about only responding to emails at certain times, make sure that’s still reflective of when work is due. If students are turning in work on Sunday night, but you don’t respond to email on the weekend, something has to change. Regardless, most of us probably need to be more attentive to our inbox than we have been.
I also fielded a surprising number of phone calls from students who didn’t have reliable internet for video conferencing and preferred not to email. Giving students your cell phone number is a personal preference. Many professors I know put it right on the syllabus, whereas it’s a barrier I prefer to leave standing. But seeing as I now have no office phone, it’s necessary. If you’re still uncomfortable with it, you can use a free Google Voice number. I set one up for selling furniture on Craigslist when we last moved. It’s linked to my cell phone, but I can see when people are calling it instead of my personal number and I can silence it entirely when I’ve had enough. Not that your students are internet scammers… but I understand you still wanting some distance from that late night text.
Don’t forget the bigger picture here. You’re a lifeline to your students for more than just the specifics of your class. Don’t lose that just because they can’t come ask you a question before or after class.
3. Give students community
My least favorite thing about teaching purely online is the loss of classroom community. In courses that are online from the start, I find it difficult-to-impossible to reproduce the engagement you get in a traditional classroom. It was not uncommon for me to host video live sessions for a class of 100 only for one or two to show.
This is different. These students have been in the classroom with you and each other for half a semester. They don’t want to lose that. And you have the added advantage of a previously scheduled class time to utilize.
Anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of students attended my optional live sessions the first week (I’m doing one for each class; weekly on Wednesdays). Some asked questions to about content in the textbook, slides, or mini-lecture videos. But most just came to talk about life. In one session, we had a screen full of students with their pets in their laps. It was exactly what we needed.
I recorded these live sessions so that students who had to miss them could watch later for the course-related Q&A… and for the pet parade. I also tried out a live session open to all of my students, current and former, to have a venue to just talk about adjusting to life in this unprecedented time.
From a technical aspect, I used Google Meet with a standard high-speed internet connection and had no problems at all. Similarly, students joining on all manner of devices had little to no issues. Click the link (or dial the teleconferencing phone number) and you’re in. I used Zoom over the weekend for a now-virtual conference and it similarly handled the load and provided a straightforward user interface.
Video conferencing has come a long way in recent years, and while I still recommend making as much of your course asynchronous as possible (Original Tip #4 – Real-time is real hard), synchronous learning isn’t the technical obstacle it once was.
4. Allot plenty of time for setup; even if you know what you’re doing
All these revisions and lecture videos and live sessions didn’t come together overnight. Well, they kind of did, but it was a really long night (again, I was only given a few days. Some of you have more time; some less. Adjust your expectations according to the time you were given). Initial setup will take the most time. If this isn’t your expertise, enlist the help of your institution’s instructional design professionals to show you how, or even to arrange your content for you.
Setup is going to continue to be a weekly thing. You’ll have new units to fill with quizzes, assignments, slides, videos and announcements. Designing as you go is not the ideal way to prepare an online course, but it’s our reality in this moment. Set aside time for it – and if you’re particularly savvy, design as much of it as possible in a way that you can reuse to teach the course online in the future (full disclosure, I attempted this Week 1, and quickly bailed. It was impossible for our unique circumstances not to pop up in virtually every material I created.)
5. Make a home office schedule
Hopefully you’re starting to get the idea of how much time good online instruction takes, at least initially. And most of us are now doing this from home, which presents an entirely new set of challenges.
This is the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do part of the advice – I am terrible at sticking to a schedule at home, and at communicating that schedule to my family. Failed spectacularly at it in my first week. But regardless of who you are, you need structure to work from home:
For the over-workers: Your office being in your home means it’s there all the time. Which leads to work at weird hours. Which leads to work more hours than not. Which leads to burnout for you and the people you care about. Hustle culture is dangerous, destructive and ever-present in academia. Before any of this, I actually was preparing a whole piece about how the hustle over winter “break” absolutely wrecked me in exchange for a few CV lines. And yet, the first thing I thought of when I learned I’d be working from home is all the research I should churn out. Never mind that we’re still teaching, grading, advising, serving on committees… and much of it in new ways we’re creating on the fly. Never mind disruptions in the things that ground us, like our support groups and places of worship. Never mind that just figuring out how to safely get groceries is newly stress inducing.
See yourself? Make a schedule. Be reasonable about expectations. Stop working when it’s time to stop working. Bonus tip? Weekdays and weekends blend together when you’re stuck at home. Treat Saturday like Saturday.
For the procrastinators: Your office being in your home means it’s next to all the other things in your home. Which leads to Netflix. Which leads to Nintendo. Which leads to cleaning (in a group text with some of my colleagues, I learned we’re all behind on grading, but all of our houses are spotless). The lack of structure that comes from working at home requires serious motivation (but not so much you become the over-worker!). It’s a fine balance.
See yourself? Make a schedule. Be serious about expectations. Start working when it’s time to start working. Bonus tip? Wear work clothes. Get ready like it’s a normal day at the office. Trust me.
For your family: Your office being in your home means it’s accessible to everyone else in your home. Which leads to misunderstandings about your availability during those work times. Which leads to frustration on all sides. Which could possibly lead to this:
My wife and I do not have children. So I’m not even going to pretend to have anything resembling expertise there. But I do think sharing your home with anyone else means that schedule-making becomes a collaborative process. Particularly in this time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, your family are about the only people you can have face-to-face contact with. We’re social creatures. Don’t neglect the importance of that human connection. It may be the most important thing you can give to or receive from the people you love most.
See yourself? Make a schedule together. Be considerate about expectations. Work, but don’t lose sight of what the people closest to you need.
Have more tips from your transition to online or work-at-home? Share them in the comments.
Finally, a personal note of gratitude to everyone who read or shared my original tips for preparing for this online transition. I’ve been overwhelmed by your kind words and the sheer number of universities, schools and education associations that are utilizing the tips, largely because you shared them first. Thank you.
Cover illustration based on an image by PagDev on Pixabay.