Tips for moving a class online quickly

Older man at home working on laptop

Are you moving your traditional class online and need to do so quickly? You might be feeling a little overwhelmed and not sure where to begin. Take solace in the fact that many have done this before you and there is a plethora of information available to assist you.

If you start by answering these few questions, it will put you on a pathway to success as you design and implement your online course. Don’t forget that you should always start by talking to your institution, or search their website, for information about any specific requirements they have for teaching online courses.

How will you teach?

You’ve got to start with this fundamental question. Will your class be an online course that will still meet via video/chat at a certain time (synchronous), or will it be a work-at-your-own-pace type course (asynchronous)? Keep in mind that students’ lives may also be disrupted by changes due to COVID-19 (kids now home from school, etc.), so you may want to consider an asynchronous course.

If you will be meeting synchronously by chat/video, make sure you have an account with, or access to, software that will facilitate this. Your institution may already have agreements with online web conferencing software that will enable your meetings. Or, there are some companies that provide free licenses online (If doing this, be sure to check the fine print! Some free offers limit the length of the conference and/or the number of attendees.)

If your students will be working at their own pace, but you will be recording videos for them to watch, make sure you have video recording software and reliable space on a school server to host the videos. Additionally, think about the length of your videos. No one really wants to sit and watch a 90-minute lecture on video. Consider breaking them into bite size chunks that are topically based and less than 15 minutes in length.

How will students engage?

It’s easy to tell if students are engaged while you’re in a classroom. You’re interacting with them face-to-face, engaging them in meaningful discussions, and posing questions on the fly. How do you get this same level of engagement in an online course? Whether or not your course is synchronous, how can you generate an interactive atmosphere in your virtual classroom? Consider using discussion forums, self-directed learning, and small group work to assist you with increasing engagement.

Self-directed learning can take many forms, all of which encourage the learner to formulate investigative questions around your learning outcomes and test their hypotheses. You could offer a variety of bite sized assignments and videos around various outcomes and allow the students to pick and choose which assignments work best for their learning modalities. Another option might be to have them develop a project incorporating several learning outcomes, or even come up with their own critical thinking questions around your course content and then providing answers.

Discussion forums are highly interactive and truly facilitate participation. You could start a discussion and ask students to post thoughtful, meaningful insights in response (and if you make it for a grade, they’ll definitely interact!) Your topic question should be open ended, meaning it can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, nor does it have a single “right” answer. You should encourage students to post questions, comments, and insight, to which you can provide feedback, and advocate for other students to provide input as well. One piece of advice here, set out guidelines for posting in the forum, such as the number of responses required as well as behavior expectations. Make sure they are clearly communicated ahead of time.

Small group work provides a more collaborative type environment that students typically enjoy. They get to work together to solve problems, share ideas, and discuss content. A truly interactive way to engage the class (and take a bit of the workload off of you), would be to give each group a different topic and have them create a short video and a few assessments around that topic tin which the other students in the course would be required to participate. Most students have ways to gather virtually in smaller settings, but you might want to make some suggestions on free tools that allow for group chats and interactions.

How to Prepare for Online Teaching

How will you communicate?

Communication methods are abundant in this day and age, but you need to figure out what will be your main form(s) of conveying important pieces of information like assignments and deadlines. A few ideas for communication strategies are using email, creating announcements in your learning management system (or other online learning platform), and holding virtual office hours. Just remember, whatever you choose needs to be clearly communicated to the students on your first day of teaching online (or as close to it as you can get). It’s okay to be redundant and deliver important messages via several routes to make sure it is seen.

With e-mail, it’s always best to use your school email account to bulk email the students as a class. It’s secure, quick, and gives you an easy way to archive all correspondence. Be warned, it can be a bit overwhelming if you use e-mail as your primary means of communication for an online course (imagine ALL of your students emailing you question after question). Perhaps you consider just using email for individual communication that is more private in nature (illness, grades, etc.), and encourage the students to post content questions to a discussion forum. Don’t forget, you don’t like it when people don’t respond to your questions, and students feel the same. Try to get them answers and responses in about 24 hours (or 48 on weekends), or whatever the set response times are per your institution.

Announcements in your learning management software are a fantastic way to get out important dates, new assignments, suggested readings, and anything else you feel warrants the whole class knowing. Plus, many systems will automatically email the students when an announcement gets posted, so there is already built in redundancy (no complaints of never seeing the announcement for a due date then). Try to limit these announcements to 1 – 3 per week so you don’t inundate the students with excessive emails, and keep them short, sweet, and to the point.

Virtual office hours are a great way for students to drop in and see your smiling face. You can set up 1 – 3 office hours per week or more and keep a virtual video meeting software open for the whole time you’ve allotted. Students can then drop in, like they would into your office, and ask you questions. Remind them though that this is not the place for personal or grade related questions if you hold group office hours. If you prefer a more individual approach, have the students sign up on a live document for specific 15-minute time slots.

How will you assess learning?

This is the ultimate question. You’ve had your assignments laid out for weeks, you know what they were supposed to achieve in your face-to-face course. Now, you need to really analyze if those means of assessment will work in an online environment, or if you are going to need to pull together some assessments of a different type. You also need to consider the timeframe for assignments. Are you still going to have them do the same number or are you going to increase the number? How many assignments per week should there be? Consider these options for graded assignments for your course: discussion forums, group work, and online learning assessments.

As mentioned previously, discussion forums are a great way to give out some points. One possible way for grading them would be twice a week – once midway through that looks at questions or comments they have posed, and once at the end for their replies to other posts. This method corresponds to your discussion participation guidelines that lay out the number of posts and when they should be made. One tip here would be to ask students to post on more than one day. This helps build the discussion and avoids a last minute “pile on” of posts that leave no opportunity for interaction. You can go so far as to make a rubric for how you will be grading the discussions, and maybe even consider bonus points for really insightful posts!

We discussed small group work earlier, and you may have some projects you already use for your class that you could adapt to an online course, or maybe you do a quick search of the web to gather some ideas for projects. Group work assignments truly do engage the students and stimulate them to learn from each other. We all know that the best way to really learn something is to be tasked with teaching it to someone else, and that’s what we’d like to think is going on in the groups of our class. Sometimes it is, but sometimes one person is doing all of the work while the others kick back and enjoy the grade. To mitigate situations like these, have the students assess each other at the end of a project, and take their assessments into account when providing final project grades.

Online learning assessments can include directed reading assignments followed by a quick reading quiz, watching videos (yes, there are ways to track who has watched and who hasn’t), typical homework assignments (that can even be automatically graded for you), and yes, even tests. Some learning management systems allow you to build these assessments directly into an assessment management tool, but there are also numerous online programs (or publisher provided software) that can make the creation and grading of these assignments quick, easy, and ready for launch!

Right now, it may seem like this is an impossible feat to accomplish in a short window of time, but you can do this! Seek help from colleagues, publishers, and the web. There are many more resources out there to help you weather through this change, and who knows, you may see a positive outcome in the form of higher grades, positive student feedback, and increased engagement as a result!

About the author
Dr. Stephanie Tacquard

Dr. Stephanie Tacquard

Dr. Stephanie Tacquard is a former community college instructor in the physical and life sciences, who now works as a Customer Success Manager for Pearson.