A Digital Survival Kit for Teaching Online Classes

Mohammad Keyhani
Mar 17 · 14 min read

A quick, easy, and free toolkit for the digital academic in a time of crisis.

Update: I have written a follow-up to this article titled “Essential Gadgets for Working from Home


We are at a pivotal moment in history with the COVID-19 pandemic prompting the most large-scale global emergency response and disruption to routine that many of us have seen in our entire lives. In order to flatten the curve, everyone is urged to practice social distancing. Many organizations around the world are now quickly transitioning to virtual collaboration, remote work and devising work-from-home policies. Schools and universities are likewise transitioning to online classes.

However, this is not the same kind of online education as has been practiced regularly in times of calm. This time we are talking about quick and mid-way transition to online for instructors that have no previous experience with online teaching, courses that have not been taught online before and therefore do not have pre-existing material customized for online instruction, nor an established technological infrastructure. We are also talking about online classes that are to be taught by instructors and attended by students who are all experiencing disruptions to their routines, and having to participate in class under difficult circumstances, psychological distress, and typically while staying at home and caring for children and other family members.

This post is written for the academic who finds themselves in this stressful situation, and is looking for suggestions on how to get through it. My suggested survivor’s kit involves three aspects: psychological, organizational, and technological. While my focus will be mainly on the last one (i.e. digital tools), I begin with a few words on the first two. Note that your particular institution is likely to have subscriptions to specific tools not mentioned here or premium plans on other tools that will make life easier for you. Also, your institution’s Learning Management System (LMS) whether it be Desire2Learn, Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, or other platform will be an invaluable resource for you. Play around with them and explore all their features you haven’t been using.

The Psychology: You Got This

If you are stressed about how you’re going to get your material online and manage the class virtually, stop worrying. The tools to take care of this are there, are free and easy to use. It may take up to a couple of hours to learn to work with tools you are unfamiliar with, but they are easy to learn if you just play around with them. If you are worried about not being able to hold a class at the right time or otherwise having to do things out of routine, stop worrying. Everybody is in the same boat and everybody understands that things are not going to be normal for a while until we find a new routine. Many of the events and miscellaneous projects that are taking up your cognitive capacity are being cancelled or likely to be cancelled soon. Most likely, you can even cancel one session of class to give yourself time to get set and ready. Besides, with digital tools it is easy to handle asynchronous teaching and learning, which gives you and your students flexibility around timing. In fact, like Nasser Shahrasbi has recommended here, it’s best to try and pre-record your lectures and do as much of your course delivery as you can asynchronously to give everyone, including yourself, more time flexibility.

If you urgently need to just hold a session of class and you don’t have time to pre-record, that’s OK too and you can just use Zoom or Microsoft Teams for large classes (if you don’t have the premium version of Zoom, limit the meeting time to under 40 minutes) and email the meeting link to everyone. For small classes (under 10 people) many more options are available such as Skype and Google Hangouts. These tools all have screen sharing so you can present your slides. Overall, if the main in-person component of your job is teaching classes, this is going to be pretty easy to take care of online. We are lucky to have the kind of job that can transition to online relatively easily.

The Organization: You’re the Boss

Part of what feels psychologically distressing to many of us in transitioning to online is the sense of not being in control. If you can’t see the students all sitting in front of you, then you don’t feel in control, and may be left with a nagging sense of constant disarray. There is nothing to worry about. Just make sure that you’ve got the right communication channels open, a working organizational structure in place, and that the incentive system makes sense. More specifically, some things you could do are:

Communication Channels

Organizational Structure

Incentive System

The Technology: You’ve Got the Tools

To be honest, I think a combination of a good video conferencing tool for large groups like Zoom and the Google suite of tools (Google Sheets, Forms, Docs, Drive, Slides, Groups, Hangouts, etc.) will have everything you need to cover all the essentials. But let’s get into some more details on a few categories of tools just in case. In making these recommendations, I have in mind that we are all looking for solutions that are easy, reliable, and preferably free.

Video Conferencing

For small groups of up to 10 people or so, perhaps the easiest tools to use are Skype and Google Hangouts. WhatsApp is also an option if everyone in the group is comfortable sharing phone numbers.

For larger groups, Zoom is possibly the best free option that can handle up to 100 participants on a video call, although the free version limits such calls to 40 minutes. Zoom also has all the necessary features like recording and screen sharing, and some very helpful bonuses like breakout rooms, polling, and whiteboards. I think this is why Zoom is taking the market by storm during this pandemic crisis. Teams at Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple and Cisco should be sitting down and having a deep reflection on how they missed this opportunity and lost so much market share to a much smaller company.

Facebook also has amazing group video technology, is free, and pretty much everyone is already a user. Many people don’t know that a Facebook group video chat can host up to 50 people! But it is not a great option for classes since many people, especially in North America, use Facebook as a personal “friends and family” social network and prefer not to connect with professional contacts (work or school) on there. It is possible to organize group interactions without “friending” each other, but many people prefer to keep their Facebook profile hidden from professional circles altogether. So students may feel uncomfortable if you start sending out Facebook group chat links.

Other options include Microsoft Teams which is currently claiming up to 300 users on its free plan (although this may be a temporary offer because of the coronavirus crisis), and Cisco WebEx which is currently claiming “up to 100 participants” on its free plan (again may be a temporary offer). Lifesize can host up to 25 participants on its free plan.

If you’re worried about students not having installed a video conferencing app that you want to use and all the hassle of getting them to install it, don’t worry. Most of these tools allow you to send a link to everyone through which they can join the video call using a browser (i.e. web version) even if they don’t have the app installed. The good tools also let people join a call with their phone by calling a certain number and entering a meeting code.

If you’re worried about your own ability to learn how to use a new video conferencing app, again don’t worry! It is pretty simple and all you have to do is play around with it for a few minutes. The most common hurdle will be to figure out the audio and video settings sometimes. Just try out the various buttons and explore all the menus to get yourself familiar with the software you are using. Try it out with a friend first who can patiently wait while you play around with the tool.

Screen Recording and Screen Casting

Another important feature is recording. Ideally, you want to pre-record as much of your teaching as possible. Even for live sessions, you want to record the session and make it available to people who were not able to attend, or were able to attend but would like to be able to review and study the presentation. It is especially useful if the tool provides “local recording” (like Zoom does) meaning that you don’t have to use any paid cloud storage and can just keep the recording on your own computer and upload later to free sites like YouTube.

Note: be careful if you are recording sessions that involve interactions with people other than yourself, and putting them online. Try to avoid making the videos publicly available. If you are making them public, please ensure that you have the permission of all participants in the recording, and to be ethical, ensure that such permission was not given under undue pressure or influence.

If your online video conferencing tool does not have a recording function, or if the recording function is too limited (e.g. storage limits) you can use screen video capture tools. I recommend the free and open-source OBS studio software, but make sure to test it out and get all the settings for audio and video devices set up correctly. Also play around with the file format options for saving, and try to strike a balance that avoids low video quality without making the file size overly large, and is also a format that is accepted by the website you want to upload it on.

Another good tool to try is Screencast-o-matic, which is also one of the options suggested by this Stanford guide. In general, screen recording and casting tools can be used not only by the instructor but also for student presentations. Some more tool recommendations for this category can be found here.

A very simple alternative is to just use the recording function in Microsoft Powerpoint itself, which allows you to record audio on your slides. You can then upload your powerpoint slides to the class file repository, and whoever opens them can listen to you speaking as they go through the slides. Beware of large file sizes though.

Google Tools

The Google suite of tools (Google Sheets, Forms, Docs, Drive, Slides, Groups, Hangouts, etc.) are all free, reliable and easy to use. The fact that they are all cloud-based and do not depend on any files on your personal computer make them ideal for reliability, sharing and virtual collaboration. They let you create live documents and multiple people can edit and comment on them at the same time. Here are some examples for how you can use Google tools to help you with various tasks to support instruction:

  • Use the “Randomize Range” feature in Google Sheets to create random pairings of students. Just paste the list of student names into two columns, then select the names in one of the columns, right-click and choose “Randomize Range” from the menu. Now each student in the first column is randomly paired with another student’s name in the second column. Just double check to make sure no student was assigned to themselves by accident. In this blog post Alice Keeler demonstrates how to use this function to assign peer evaluations randomly. Another way to use this function is for discussion activities where you want students to discuss a topic with a partner. Just create an additional column for Skype IDs and tell students they have 10 minutes to Skype with the person next to their name. To collect Skype IDs, you can use Google Forms.
  • Use the random number generator function in Google Sheets to organize students into groups. All you have to do is choose the number of groups you want to create (let’s call it N), paste the student name list in one column, and in the column next to it write “=RANDBETWEEN(1,N)” and then drag the resulting cell to the bottom of the column. Remember to replace “N” with the number of groups you want. Others have created templates and tools to generate groups with Google Sheets.
  • You can use collaborative note taking as a learning tool. Create a spreadsheet on Google Sheets that lists all the topics for collaboration, each with a link to a live Google Doc for collaborative editing. An example of how someone implemented this for a conference is here.
  • Create, distribute, and grade a quiz with Google Forms.
  • Use Google Sheets to keep track of student participation, assignment completion, and grading.
  • Use Google Slides to put your presentation slides on the cloud.
  • If any component of your lesson could benefit from a tour of different geographical locations, take advantage of the Tour Builder tool that uses Google Maps.

The Opportunity: Level-Up on Your Digital Skills

These times of working at home may actually provide a good opportunity for us to explore and experiment with new digital tools that can improve the quality of our teaching and learning. So I will also tell you about a few nuggets and gems of lesser known technology you could play around with or employ. I will divide this section into two categories: focused tools that provide a relatively narrow but useful functionality, and generative technologies, which are general platforms that let you do an infinite number of things, and the limit is your own imagination.

Focused Tools

Kahoot: A nifty tool to create fun, online games and quizzes for your students.

Perusall: If your content involves close reading and commenting on text, then this is the tool for you and your students. Upload your text and start collaborative commenting and highlighting with your students.

VoiceThread: A way to provide audio and video comments on recorded video. Excellent way to collectively discuss a presentation or other media. VoiceThread does not have a free option unfortunately, but prices are reasonable.

Ottr.ai: Possibly the most advanced automated transcription (voice-to-text) software available and also most generous in terms of free options. You can use this to transcribe the text of your recorded lectures.

Microsoft Immersive Reader: An excellent text-to-voice technology to get your computer to read text aloud for you. This is great if you need to study or read a text while doing house chores!

Generative Technologies

Zapier: This is one of my favorite companies and tools on the planet right now. Zapier is the pipeline of the internet. It links every app, software, or website that has an Application Programming Interface (API) with everything else that has an API. You can use it to automate many tasks using if-then functions put together using menus and without any coding skills. For example, you can use it to:

  • Automatically send an email to someone after they have filled out a Google Form.
  • Automatically enter a row in a spreadsheet after someone sends an email to a specific email address
  • Automatically put a document on your Dropbox when it is added to your Google Drive.

And many, many more things. Zapier also has a huge knowledge base with very valuable learning resources.

Airtable: It’s like a cloud spreadsheet (like Google Sheets) but with the added power of a relational database. I once built an entire peer evaluation system with it in conjunction with Zapier, where each student was automatically emailed their peer review assignments, and was then able to submit their assignments using an Airtable form. Each student also got automatic notification when someone else had reviewed their work. See more examples of the education applications of Airtable here. Airtable is so flexible and powerful that many entrepreneurial ideas for apps and software can first be tested out as a prototype using Airtable, sometimes referred to as a Minimum Viable Airtable. UPDATE: Airtable has announced free, 2 year subscriptions to Airtable Pro for all University students!

Coda.io: I have been following this company for a couple of years now, and they are getting things right with their approach to live dynamic documents that can be shared or published online. Coda can be used as an effective managerial tool to organize and coordinate a team or project. It can also be used for a variety of tasks in an online class. You can use it to take votes from your students, organize your lesson plans and to-do lists, get students to work on shared documents or submit assignments with it, or use it in your presentations. Here are some templates for using Coda in an education setting. The possibilities are endless!

Other Resources to Keep at Hand

For reference, here is a list of other useful resources to keep handy if you are a teacher, instructor, academic, researcher or scholar:

(If you know of any more reference resources that would be useful for academics these days, please let me know in the comments or by email, and I will include them here.)

Please Share!

If you found this article helpful, please share it with your colleagues and anyone else who may benefit.

Mohammad Keyhani

Written by

Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary

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