What I Think I Know

Over the past five days I have seen a maelstrom of panic from faculty thrust into online classrooms for the first time because of COVID-19. I have been doing online teaching for over ten years now, and have been engaged in a variety of threads on Twitter trying to help. Someone suggested I try to put everything in one place. Here you go. I’ll acknowledge some people I have learned from at the end, which doesn’t mean they agree with my presentation here. Note it’s unlikely all these tips will be useful to you, and people also disagree about online tips. Take what seems useful, dump the rest.

The Basics

Convey You Care

You and your students have been thrust into unfamiliar territory. Showing you care goes a long way. As early as possible, try to convey (a) you know they didn’t sign up for this, (b) it’s going to be a little rocky, © we’re all in this together.

Do Not Strive for Perfection

This is not going to be perfect. You are building a car while it is moving. As long as the car keeps moving, you are fine. This is a tough message for conscientious faculty to hear, but if you and your students have never done this before, this is going to be rocky. Do the best you can.

Have a (Rough) Plan in General

Put together a rough plan, then check in with students about how it is going. I’d say two weeks is a good target. “Here’s what we’re going to do for the next couple of weeks, and then we’ll talk about what’s working and what isn’t, and adjust.”

Convey Expectations in Particular

As best you can, try to set expectations for activities and deliverables. What will discussions and online quizzes look like? How will they be graded? What do students have to do, when? Err on the side of too much detail and handholding. They are new at this. (“You should post at least twice over the two-day discussion window. Posts should be no more than a paragraph or two.”)

Do Not Assume Students Have Fabulous Resources Available

The stereotype of young people is that they are all tech savvy and have great technology. Some are, but some are not. Not all students have the financial means to buy fancy equipment, and further it is likely in this situation that they are on the move or rearranging their lives in a way that may make good wifi challenging. I’ve heard of some students who are using mobile hotspots to access class. Unless they have unlimited data, this will cost them money. Note this applies to textbooks as well. Even if they bought them, depending on where they are they may not have access to them. Consider online supplements or replacements. Publishers may be able to help.

Be Flexible and Generous

Students will may be dealing with multiple logistical, family, and financial matters in addition to school. They may be anxious about their own health or the health of a loved one. You are not the most important thing in their lives right now. Try to accommodate their needs.

· If they need to complain let, them.

· If there is something serious going on, try to put them in touch with someone at your university.

· If something is late, be nicer than you might ordinarily be.

· If students can’t make some meeting or class event, try to set up an alternative.

Will some students take advantage? Probably. But trying to catch the few will be brutal on the many.

Mechanics

Try to Have a Rhythm

Thinking in weeks is helpful. Begin a week with a welcome message, recorded or posted, indicating the activities for the week. An end of week review message can be helpful as well. You can combine these in a “here’s where we’ve been, here’s where we’re going” message.

Try to have activities scheduled and deliverables due at the same time every week. “I’ll hold office hours every Thursday night from 8:30–9:30PM.” “All assignments will be due on Sundays by midnight.” Post a weekly calendar of activities, including due dates.

Simpler is Better

Post similar content online all in the same place. (“Assignments and links to readings will all be posted on X.”) The more different places you make students look for things, the harder it will be for them. I usually use a folder for Syllabus and Assignments and a folder for Course Materials.

Consider covering less material than you ordinarily would — two years from now they’re going to have forgotten a good portion of the details of any class, so focus on the stuff you would really like them to remember. The best online courses are planned. You don’t have that option, but at least try to think through the learning objectives you would like to accomplish in any given week.

Use Technology Your Students Know

This is not a good time to try to make students learn new software and tech. Many universities use Blackboard or Canvas LMS systems to help faculty manage both online and on-ground courses. Even if you’re not very familiar with it, your students probably are. I would recommend leaning on this tool unless your university tells you otherwise.

I’ll note an opposing view: Your LMS may not be able to carry what is probably dramatically increased demand. If not, go outside the University: things like Google Docs and Microsoft Teams are pretty robust, and you may find students use them already. Posting or sharing video to YouTube can be effective. Understand that in the near term, you are likely to be tech support, so keep the technologies to a few, whatever they are.

You may have some in-house technologists seizing the opportunity to tout the latest new learning software. For now, tune them out if you can. If this goes on — my University has just announced we’re taking summer courses online — you can experiment with learning new things. You’re having enough learning right now, thank you very much.

Groups Don’t Solve Everything

A special caution on group work. If you commonly have group work in your on-ground classroom, you may want to take this online. If so, plan to help students initially with getting group sharing technology up and running. They may not know how. Setting up a general, ungraded sharing space for students to talk about anything they want, in class or out, can be a nice gesture. Students in online classes can feel isolated, doubly so in the present circumstances.

Practice Something Before You Try It

Check that posting and downloading works on whatever system you are using. Show up early for live sessions to check sound, video, etc. If you’re not using email for submissions, let students practice submitting something to whatever system you are using. For online tests, let students try a sample test before the real thing.

Don’t Try to Livestream Everything

Simply putting a camera in front of a whiteboard and expecting students to all show up at the scheduled time is almost certainly not going to work. Everyone’s lives are in transition at the moment. Further, neither your university, nor your school, nor students may have the bandwidth to handle this. I usually do only one or two hours live in a week. The rest is “asynchronous”: see next point.

Asynchronous Activities Are Your Friend

Online can be delivered two ways: synchronously (“we’re all going to meet on Tuesday at 3PM”) or asynchronously (“we’ll have a discussion on the discussion board from Friday at 7PM to Sunday at 7PM”). Asynchronous activities take the pressure off you and your students to be in a certain place at a certain time, and also lowers the bandwidth requirement at any given moment. I find two-day discussion windows work pretty well.

If you have a lot of lectures, record them and post them. Don’t worry about the ums and ahs — you do that in class anyway! — just get them up in a place where students can review them as they can.

Audio is Often Enough

Video of you talking, even recorded, is exhausting to prepare and eats bandwidth. Audio, on the other hand, gets you 90% of the way there. The sound of your voice is much more important than seeing you in the flesh. Narrated PowerPoints are very 2010, but work surprisingly well. Further, students can download the presentations to their computers so that they don’t even have to be online to watch them.

In live discussions, you may find students do not share video of themselves for either bandwidth or privacy reasons. Do not require them to. (You, on the other hand, should show your face if possible!)

If You Do Something Live, Record It

Most LMS and meeting software has the option of recording a live meeting. Recording is very helpful to students in two ways: (a) they can study from the recording, and (b) the recording is a godsend for the students who don’t make your session for some reason.

Consider the Size of Your Class

If you have less than 15 students, you may well be able to run more live discussions, even using something like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Beyond this size, it starts getting hard to manage live (I tried this once with 35. Never again.) Go more for asynchronous discussions and activities. If you are running a large class, consider setting up small groups (15 or less) to discuss some material, just as you might have discussion sections of a large class on-ground. For smaller classes, I would lean towards writing deliverables rather than tests.

Use Multiple Short Deliverables

This is particularly true for online tests. These can be tricky to set up for you and tricky for students to take. If you usually have one big final, consider breaking it up into weekly review quizzes. This minimizes the likelihood of catastrophic internet failure taking down a large portion of a student’s grade. Similarly, rather than one big paper, maybe a few short summaries. This also lets you give students feedback with which to improve.

Think about making your own deliverables short as well. Rather than one long presentation, break it up into 5–10 minute bites. 20 minutes max: there’s a reason Ted talks are 18 minutes long. This is less exhausting for both you and students.

Remind Students of the Details

Yes, it’s infuriating to remind students something is due when you have told them that already, but in an unfamiliar system, students are going to need prompts. Put assignment details in multiple places, e.g., the due date goes on the assignment, the calendar, & a weekly reminders announcement. Err on the side of more detailed assignments, as it will be harder for students to ask you quick questions in the way they do in class. I often begin my live sessions by walking through the details of any deliverable in a given week. (Then they ask questions.)

Have Some Fun

As appropriate, ask students to be creative. They may be able to do really interesting things with video and audio. A simple exercise I have used: “Summarize this article with one picture.” They have to find (or create) a picture and then post it to the class.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Your University may have resources you can link to that will help both you and students. Put up a “university info” page with links. Publishers have been madly trying to provide supplemental resources to help with this event (and attract new customers). Don’t worry about whether you are using one of their textbooks — just see what’s out there. For those of you who use labs, look for simulations or demonstration videos that can cover some of the same material. Periodically consult (virtually) with one or a few fellow faculty to share ideas on how to handle on the situation you’re in. This is particularly helpful if you are teaching multiple sections of the same course. (Remember, even “don’t do this” is advice.”) This is where you get to complain. At the least, you’ll feel better.

You can probably find more than you want to know at the following Twitter hashtags: #covidcampus, #covidclassroom, #onlineteaching, #onlineteachingtips. Remember, it’s not going to be perfect. I hope some of the ideas presented here help.

Though they were not consulted on this article and might not agree with its contents, I want to acknowledge some good Twitter folks I learned from in the last few days: @KarenRussell, @mikamckinnon, @searchlight5, @jaapgrollemann. Good luck to all of us!

Bruce Clark is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University (https://damore-mckim.northeastern.edu/). He researches, writes, speaks, and consults on managerial decision-making, especially regarding marketing and branding strategy, customer insight, and how managers learn about their markets. He may be found on Twitter @bruceclarkprof and on LinkedIN at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruceclarkprof/

A practical business professor musing on marketing and management from his not quite ivory tower. Writings do not represent the views of Northeastern University