Remote, Not Distant

by Daniel J. Marcucci, PhD

COVID-19 has unexpectedly forced thousands of college instructors to pivot from classroom to cloud.  Perhaps you’re one of the thousands of educators who has years of experience teaching face-to-face but limited or no experience with online instruction. If so, we offer three broad considerations as you re-frame your course for online delivery.

1. Lean into LMS

Your learning management system (LMS) is the online software platform that is now your classroom, your dropbox, your gradebook, your office hours, your telephone, and your FERPA guarantor. Many instructors have used one of your institutionally supported LMS for some aspect of your on-campus delivery. Now is the time to give yourself a crash course for full immersion. Your instructional technology office will help, as will the help desk at the software developer.

All institutions have at least one supported LMS. Many places may have several to choose from. For example, we have used Scholar, Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle over the years. The LMS may be augmented by a separate webcasting service such as Zoom. The LMS is the primary point of contact with your students. It’s where you will schedule and post lesson plans, and the repository of course resources. Lectures may be delivered via web-conferencing software but the lecture recordings will be posted on the LMS. Examinations and quizzes may be administered through the LMS, and if you have a large roster of students, sections and teaching assistants (TAs) will be organized in the LMS. The first requirement in pivoting to online education is to become familiar with the technology that is your new teaching space.

2. Change Your Outlook

It’s possible to put a facsimile of your brick-box course online by lecturing into a camera with students at the other end of the wire. We would argue this may not be the most effective use of your time and energy. Any migration of a course to online delivery, by default, requires new instructional design, even those clones of on-campus courses. Online learning has many dimensions, some of which are only possible through Internet-enabled tools. You should consider taking advantage of these.

Over the last fifteen years, considerable emphasis has been placed on instructional design of courses delivered online through national standards organizations such as NC-SARA (National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, https://nc-sara.org/) and Quality Matters (https://www.qualitymatters.org/why-quality-matters/about-qm). Institutions’ distance learning offices are staffed to help guide this design.

The important question to ask yourself is: what form of instructional design is going to deliver the learning outcomes you seek? The answers will vary with the types of courses, subjects, and the learning outcomes. The first question will be how much synchronous engagement is appropriate? If lectures are appropriate, i.e. there are no other resources that cover the material, then they could be prerecorded with greater energy placed on activities such as discussions.

There are many resources that could reduce the need for lectures. Online education is a multimedia environment. Textbooks, articles, videos, individual activities, collaborative projects can all be effective in achieving learning outcomes. You may find increased reliance on existing and new resources you pull into the course. In addition, how you engage with library or laboratory resources will change. University libraries today have sophisticated avenues for online study and remote research. If you become familiar with them you can build it into your instructional design. The important thing to remember is that as you pivot to online learning, you will want to assess your course design.

3. Nowhere to Hide

Creation of a course-centric learning community is something that is only occasionally done intentionally in on-campus courses. There is often an assumption, right or wrong, that the mere presence in the same physical space is causative of a social learning community. We suspect that is a faulty assumption, but leave the detailed argument for another day. It is even possible that creating a learning community is not a goal of an individual course.

As Covid-19 imposes social distancing in the physical space, we need to reinforce the value of social association in the online space. We should not neglect the value of creating intentional learning communities in our online courses. It is also important to note that online courses by their very nature rely on explicit, intentional social interaction–there are no nonverbal clues in an online course. How this happens will depend on the size of the roster, whether the course is organized into sections, and the amount of small group work that is built into the course design. In any case, some opportunity for personal introductions are appropriate. Ironically this is something that may never occur in an on-campus classroom.

Another good tactic is to include activities which are more social in nature as opposed to didactic. This calls for your creativity. One method that we have used effectively is to solicit musical selections that are appropriate to the theme of the lessons. Or another, in a lesson on the role of chickpeas in global food systems, is to prepare and document a meal including chickpeas.  Because the LMS can take an unlimited amount of engagement from every member of a course, it is possible for everyone to have active participation. There is no place to hide in an online course and there is no running the clock out. The student either participated or did not. There is no middle ground. While there are many techniques you can deploy, an important aspect of your online course is to create intentional learning communities.

4. Put a Bow On It

As you make the big pivot to online learning, 1) work explicitly on moving into your learning management system, 2) re-envisioning your instructional design, and 3) building your intentional learning community.

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