Keep it Simple: Moving Classroom Courses Online during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Gary Hepburn, PhD
Mar 16 · 4 min read
An individual’s hand holding a black smartphone with a laptop open in the foreground.

As the higher education community rushes to put courses online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I encourage everyone to keep it simple. By simple, I mean that we should default to technology solutions that are: 1) well known to both students and instructors, 2) stable and already supported, and 3) unlikely to cause severe challenges for students who lack access to hardware and/or reliable connectivity. That said, in some cases there will be a need to use more advanced solutions, such as videoconferencing or virtual proctoring solutions. We should not take decisions to employ these tools lightly; they require the use of complex technology in ways that most instructors, students and institutions have little experience. In these cases, I urge you to consider the risk-benefit ratio.

Organizing materials

Most instructors and nearly all students have experience with the institution’s Learning Management System (LMS). The single most important initial task would be to consider what the students need to fulfill the course learning objectives. Often classroom-based courses utilize regular items such as notes, PowerPoint presentations, links and articles. These can be uploaded to the LMS and organized in learning modules, with each module containing instructions on what it is you want students to do. Most universities have online guidance on how to complete this step.

In addition to the materials you normally use, you should consider resources that will help fill the void left by the absence of in-person classes. Creating short audio recordings or videos may be an option, or perhaps linking to online resources. Note that most libraries can assist with the curation of online materials and confirm usage rights if you are unsure. Finally, an LMS provides additional tools such as discussion boards, assignment drop boxes and quizzes — all of which may be added to the modules that you create for students. If you are unsure of how to do any of this, you can find help online or within your institution.

For most courses, simply performing the above tasks will provide you with everything you need to support students as they complete their course work. The use of familiar technology also allows students to access the course at their convenience and has minimal hardware, software and connectivity requirements. If students or instructors require assistance, help is available online, at institutions, and from colleagues or other knowledgeable individuals.


Planning assessment is critically important for those who are finishing their classroom courses online. The big challenge is that most courses have a final exam that is typically written in a proctored environment. There is a lot of talk about virtual proctoring solutions that allow exams to be administered online. They provide an important option, but require considerable effort and coordination on the part of students and instructors to successfully administer. Most institutions have little experience using and supporting these systems, especially at scale. If you feel that you definitely need a proctored exam, get started early with training and preparation. If you are not comfortable with the technology, get assistance from your institution. I also urge you to develop contingency plans in case things do not go as planned.

I highly recommend that instructors try to avoid proctored exams where possible. Begin by considering whether you can assess learning outcomes without any exam. Learning objectives can be assessed by other means such as take-home exams, quizzes, discussion boards or a written assignment. In this situation, you can reweight the values of your various assessment activities so that an exam is unnecessary. Given the challenges presented by having an exam during a pandemic, you and your students will have a much better experience if it can be avoided altogether. Information is widely available on alternative assessment options and their associated best practices.

Your presence

Undoubtedly, the migration to online learning will prove stressful for students. Successfully completing their courses will be of high importance to them, and may also be compounded by other complications they are dealing with related to the pandemic. One of the best things you can do is to be present as your course is offered online to ensure communication is clear and that students feel supported and reassured. Above all, be flexible.

You can increase your presence with regular communication via email or any other simple technology you would typically use to connect with students. Consider offering virtual office hours using text, email, phone calls, chat, video conferencing, or any other technology that is available, familiar, and easy to use. You may also wish to be active in the LMS course. There you can make announcements and updates, participate in discussions, or even upload weekly videos outlining what students need to do and upon which learning objectives they should focus. Do not underestimate the importance of your presence to the student experience.

Final word

I reiterate the main theme of this article: the need for simplicity. You will hear plenty of buzz about the latest and greatest technologies during this period. I encourage you to ignore the chatter, unless it offers you a solution to a problem you actually have. In other words, make sure that the benefit justifies the risk. The important thing to concentrate on is getting your students through the course. If you spend too much time wrestling with the implementation of complicated or unfamiliar technology, you will find it difficult to put your focus on where it needs to be: your students. Wishing you a successful completion of your courses and, who knows, you may come to see technology as a powerful teaching and learning tool once we return to less challenging circumstances.

Gary Hepburn, PhD

Written by

Gary Hepburn is Dean of The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.

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