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Advice for College Teachers Moving Online Quickly

Steel Wagstaff
Mar 14 · 4 min read
Capybara at Madison zoo
Capybara at Madison zoo
Capybara at Madison zoo

A lot of teachers I know and love (including one I live with) are scrambling right now to rapidly transition their in progress face to face classes to online instruction. I don’t teach college classes anymore, but I’ve spent more than a decade helping college teachers improve the learning experience for their students and currently spend most of my work time thinking about how to help reduce barriers to education and make learning accessible to more people around the world. Here’s my advice:

Choose the simplest possible tools and simplest possible processes, wherever possible. For example, if you have content you want to make sure that learners engage with, begin by asking: can this content be shared as simple text? If it can, use simple text: find written content by others, make written content for learners, ask learners to respond in writing. There are lots of low-tech ways to share text with learners, many of which don’t require constant internet access. Use your LMS, use simple publishing tools like Pressbooks, WordPress, Google Docs, or Etherpad to make web versions of content you want to share (and where ever possible, export formats that can be read offline, like EPUB or PDF — this is where Pressbooks excels). Ask your students to use asynchronous social annotation tools — like the comments function in Google Docs or Hypothesis (a free, open source annotation tool) for anything else on the web. More ideas about using Hypothesis as part of an instructional continuity plan here. Erik Simpson is right, I think:

If your subject matter/planned learning can’t be conveyed through text, the next question to ask should be “Can I find simple images to help learners?” and then “Can I record and share simple audio?” Video, including live streaming of lecture/class sessions would be my last resort. Why? Video is hard to make/edit, expensive to store and stream, and very difficult to make fully accessible. If you’re trying go online quickly in a situation where you’re unsure about your learner’s access to reliable internet, video should be your last choice. Great advice from Kyle Denlinger and Jonathan Senchyne here:

You don’t have to make everything yourself! All of us already know this, as evidenced by the syllabi and reading lists that accompany most courses. There are already generous fair use exceptions to copyright for nonprofit educational purposes, which means that you should be able to share a lot of copyrighted material with your students, provided that you don’t make copies freely available on the open web. The LMS is helpful in this regard. Wherever possible, find good material for your class and add context/commentary, rather than rewriting yourself.

This is a great opportunity to consider textual material that’s already openly licensed, since you have even more freedoms to adapt and use for teaching than you do with all rights reserved materials. You can save so much time by simply adapting (editing, remixing, or revising) existing material published with permissive licenses (like those maintained by Creative Commons). If you do end up feeling like you need to make new textual material to meet your learner’s needs, please consider releasing it under a Creative Commons license which would grant others the same permissions to revise, remix, and redistribute to their learners. Here’s an intro to CC licenses and here’s a guide to picking the right one for your original content.

Whether you’re trying to find already existing material for a class you teach, trying to find open educational resources in particular, trying to better understanding open licenses, there are no better resources than librarians at your local institution. They’ll likely have a lot going on themselves, so be empathetic in your requests for help, but that’s who’d I’d ask about finding good replacement content for a course I was teaching. If you want to search for open content on your own, I’d recommend the Open Textbook Library, The Mason OER Metafinder, SUNY’s OASIS search engine, or large standalone repositories like OER Commons and LibreTexts.

If you want help thinking about course design, you may have a center for teaching and learning or similar organization on your campus providing resources and support. If not, consider reaching out to something like the Instructional Design Emergency Response Network or perusing this terrific collaborative list of resources from different schools maintained by DePaul’s Daniel Stanford. Two other readings I’d recommend are Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s “Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online” and Michelle Miller’s “Going Onine in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start.”

Finally, my biggest piece of advice is to do what you can to reduce your own anxiety and that of your students. This includes communicating with compassion and empathy, recognizing that learning processes and learning communities can be important sources of strength, support, and resilience, especially in times of fear and crisis, and remembering that your class is not the most important thing in your students’ lives. This is a time for taking and giving care (see Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell for an “investigation of the moments of altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity that arise amid disaster’s grief and disruption and considers their implications for everyday life”). If something you’ve read here resonates with you and you’d like to discuss it more or ask questions, feel free to send me a message at steelwagstaff [at] and I’ll try to reply within a reasonable amount of time.

Steel Wagstaff

Written by

Educational Product Owner at Pressbooks. Dedicated to open education. Trying to make good decisions for good reasons.

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