3 Tips for Teaching Online (when you weren’t planning to)

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 yet in my college town near the Idaho border, but the virus is here in Washington state. Several other universities on the West Coast decided to move to online classes for at least the next few weeks. Our campus in Everett closed this past week, and faculty at all campuses were told to prepare for moving all coursework online.

This is disappointing but fine with me, because I have quite a bit of experience converting in-person classes to online classes, designing skills-based online classes from scratch, and running improvised hybrid models during the semesters when my kids were born. So, here are my top practical tips if you find yourself similarly converting your classes in a rush.

1. Frame tech frustrations and remote communication as valuable skills.

Inevitably something about the online format isn’t going to work well. A lecture video won’t play, students won’t be able to download the software you want them to use, an assignment that was supposedly submitted never appears, etc. Tell students up front to expect troubleshooting and problem-solving. It’s actually great to have an opportunity to teach these skills! Pretty much every student will be doing video interviews, conference calls and group chats professionally, and being able to learn a new skill by following a step-by-step tutorial is helpful in any industry. It’s also a good reason to teach or emphasize accessibility practices. Other students will struggle to stay focused or motivated while working alone, but this is also a real challenge for many professionals, and it’s useful to remind them of that.

2. Build in frequent student feedback.

By far the most disorienting part of switching from classroom teaching to online teaching is the loss of immediate student feedback. There’s no nodding or confused looks, no students asking for quick clarification or lingering after class to tell you about a concern. Plan for this in advance by building in student feedback in the form of short surveys, open-ended questions and one-on-one checkins. In online classes with weekly quizzes, I add a question at the end about what topic or skill they found most difficult or confusing that week. Since there’s no wrong answer, it gives students a little credit for their feedback and helps me tremendously to identify common problems.

3. Stay focused on the learning outcomes rather than exact replication.

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of transferring in-class activities to the learning management system, or feeling like online “just isn’t the same.” It’s not, so let that go. In almost all cases students can still learn what you want them to learn, so focus on that and design backward to figure out what they can do to get there. If you’re short on time, make this an assignment or a class discussion: Ask the students to design an activity to learn or practice a particular skill. Online education is an opportunity to make coursework more customized and flexible. As long as you clearly set expectations for the destination, it’s OK to let students take different routes to get there.

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