DAN: Suddenly America finds itself needing to learn how to do online teaching very quickly with almost no notice and almost no preparation. So in that respect everybody needs to pivot very quickly. We’ve been doing it for a while, so I think it’s good for us to talk about some of the things that we know.
I know you’ve identified seven questions that people who are preparing to pivot might ask themselves about changing their courses over and moving their courses from what had been a classroom-based format to an online format or some form of distance education format. And I think that’s great. I think a lot of these faculty are probably wondering, how do I get started? What do I need to know? They don’t even know the questions they need to ask.
You’ve obviously been, both as a teacher and as a program director, dealing with this for a long time. So you’ve got a list of seven questions that you’ve been thinking about that a first time online professor might be asking themselves. The first one is “Who’s got my back?” Right?
KIERAN: Right! And, and just to provide a little context, there’s a lot out on the internet right now and on social media that is very specific to building out a course, how to change from a course that’s being taught on campus to teaching online. And what I’m suggesting is there are some questions someone who’s new to online needs to ask to be prepared to switch their class over.
“Who’s got my back?” has to do with the fact that when you teach on campus, there are other people in the building, usually, and if somebody walks by they see that no one’s standing at the front of the room, or they see that students are leaving a classroom at an odd time, or they notice that you’re not in your office. In an online course, it’s not so easy for a program director, such as myself, to know that you didn’t show up for class this week, or to be able to access your course site on the LMS if you were to fall ill, or be in a car accident, or have a major equipment failure.
And so one of the things that I have asked my faculty to do at the start of every semester is say, “Please add me as a backup instructor on your course roster. Believe me, I do not have the time or the interest to watch over your shoulder as you are teaching.” That’s not the point of this. The point is that if you get in trouble for whatever reason, there’s someone else who can access your class. So one of the first things to think about is you’re a little bit more on your own in that LMS unless you plan ahead by having a backup instructor on the roster.
DAN: I think this is a really good point. I mean the bottom line is we are working remotely from each other and of course the students are remote, so there’s no way of knowing that the light switch is turned on in the classroom unless somebody says, Hey, the light switch is not turned on in the classroom yet. And more importantly, there’s no easy way to get to the classroom and turn the light switch on if you haven’t just set up a couple of simple things ahead of time.
KIERAN: Even if you’re teaching synchronously, it’s not as though I, as a program director, get pinged if you set up a Zoom meeting and then you didn’t log in. It doesn’t ping me for that.
KIERAN: So, yeah, you have to be a little bit proactive about recognizing where some issues might come up and it’s a simple, simple fix that you can put in right at the very beginning and save yourself a lot of headaches later. Hopefully you never need to use it, but if you do it’s a big, big help.
DAN: Well and my sense is you haven’t needed to use it from one year to the next. Maybe very occasionally...
KIERAN: It’s almost always been a tech issue, where the instructor is saying something like, can you take a look and see if there’s something I don’t have switched on or whatever… so, you know, that’s pretty minor, but it’s been helpful.
DAN: Well and in these times where, not to be too morbid about it, but people can get sick very quickly. I think it’s more important.
A second question a professor preparing to pivot might ask is, “Where in the world are my students?”
KIERAN: Right. And this is a question that’s not as pertinent when you know your students are on campus. It’s really about being aware of what time zone they might be in when you’re trying to make a decision about whether or not the course is going to lend itself well to a synchronous delivery.
I think a lot of universities, in their rush to take courses online, in order to be able to continue teaching without having students be on campus, it was a natural default to them to say, just stick with your schedule. If you’ve been teaching at eight o’clock in the morning on campus in a classroom, just do a live stream at eight… eight o’clock in the morning and that might seem like a reasonable thing. I guess there’d be some students who would quibble with whether or not that’s a reasonable thing to ask of them even in a face to face class.
You can’t assume that all of your students are within the same state as you, within the same time zone as you, universities in the past decade or more have been focusing more of their recruitment efforts on international students, and so who knows where your students are? Do you? I mean, I don’t know if that’s something that a classroom instructor asks, as a matter of course, of their students.
DAN: I can’t imagine they do. It wasn’t something I used to ask when I was working in a classroom. No.
KIERAN: There are ways to find out. You can look it up, but do you really want to be doing that while you’re scrambling to do other kinds of things.
DAN: Well and their address of record… that doesn’t indicate where they are. We really don’t know. I think the point is very well made. Yeah.
KIERAN: Email the students in your class from your roster on your LMS and just do a poll and say, “I need to know where everybody is so I can make some decisions about how we’re going to run delivery for this course.” And then make a decision about whether or not you still want to continue to do live streaming feed, or make live attendance voluntary, or possibly design the course to be asynchronous so you are more accommodating of a geographically distributed student audience.
DAN: Yeah. So that really is a, is a very important precursor question before you even have made a decision about what the format of your online delivery is going to be. Yeah. Very good.
The third question you would encourage professors preparing to pivot to ask is, “Do they have WiFi?” Not the professor, but rather do all the members of the class have WiFi available?
KIERAN: Exactly. And that’s an easy thing to forget when you are based on campus. If you’re near the university, if it’s in a university town, then chances are you have, probably, better than average throughput speeds. But we can’t say that the same holds true once those students go back home.
We’re finding out this has really become an issue for K through 12 because, especially in more rural areas or economically disadvantaged areas, students don’t necessarily have access to Internet. And of course if you’re in a pandemic, and you are trying to make sure that people keep a certain amount of physical distance, the last thing you want to do is ask those students to go to some kind of public space — a coffee shop, a library — assuming those places are even open.
Given that best practice when you’re teaching online, even for live streaming, you’ve got to record what you’re doing because people lose their Internet connections. Under the best of circumstances people can lose their internet connections. So since you have to record it anyway, you might want to think about shortening your lecture so that they don’t have as large a file to download. Then you need to think about where are you going to make the recording available, and how are they going to access that course.
DAN: So the presumption is that they’re not going to be successful if they have no WiFi at any point because they’re not going to be able to be connected, but many students might have inconsistent WiFi or erratic WiFi or have to make some special motion to get to someplace where there is going to be WiFi.
KIERAN: Well, I would pose the question of whether or not the only option that an instructor has for delivering information is through audio and visuals. You might ask yourself, “If most of my lectures are going over readings, is it more efficient for me to assign the readings and then think about some less data dense way of having students communicate with me, communicate with other students in the class, interact with that content, rather than just listening to me on some kind of a lecture?”
DAN: Question number four that you recommend people ask themselves, “Are the students working off laptops, tablets, or smartphones?”
KIERAN: This is more of a thought experiment… it’s not that you have to ask students, “What are you going to be using?” but just being aware of the fact that there may be very practical reasons why students are trying to access the LMS and your course site through their smartphone or through a tablet than through a laptop. One may be they don’t own a laptop, or the laptop is back in their dorm room… what they brought home with them was their smartphone and their tablet.
The other reason that they might be using a smartphone is because they may not have reliable WiFi but they might have a pretty good cellular connection. They might be, for example, pairing their tablet with their phone in order to be able to get some kind of a connectivity.
But think about the data usage demands that that makes. We’re in a better position right now because most of the major providers have decided to take off the limits in response to an unprecedented situation, but that’s not always the case and there are plenty of other reasons why a student might not be able to be in class, might need to be able to access your course remotely, and they could blow through their data plan for a month in a day.
DAN: Well, and I’ll add from my own experience that I work off of a laptop but I check periodically to see how it looks on a tablet because the LMS that we use has a very different user interface between the tablet and the laptop, and I can’t be sure that just because I built it on a laptop, it’s going to be readable on a tablet or on a smartphone.
Question number five is, “Where is the library?”
KIERAN: Depending on how someone has their course set up, they may have built in readings and various assignments with an eye to what library resources are available and with an expectation that students can easily visit the library, to work with a librarian one-on-one… you know, they might even decide that it’s a really important learning experience to have the students go into the stacks and try to find something or to request a back issue of a journal.
It’s important when you’re switching to an online delivery to go back over your remaining content in your course, look at the assignments, see if that’s the case, and then check with the library at your institution to find out what kinds of services and support are available for virtual students, and then maybe adjust your syllabus accordingly. You’re helping yourself as well, right? Because if you don’t do this you are going to get a bunch of emails from students saying, “I don’t understand how to do this.”
There’s so many different things that university libraries are doing now to be supportive of virtual students. There’s just tons of journal articles that are already available in digital form and can be downloaded as PDFs. Often university library staff will be able to scan short publications that aren’t digitized and send them to a student as an email attachment. Even entire books can be mailed with postage paid return packaging so it doesn’t cost the student anything, but you have to find out what specific services are available from your university.
If you happen to find out that those services are only available to students who have paid some kind of special virtual student fee, you might want to talk to your administrators and say, “Hey, we might need to lift that.”
DAN: Mmmhmm. Or at least to be able to know what the current policy of the library is so you can tell your students what to expect. Almost every college within a university has a liaison at the library and that would be an excellent person, obviously, to be talking to about these.
I’m impressed, actually, every year there are more and more digital resources. And I have found in my experience that there have been documentaries that had been interested in the students seeing, which they could go out possibly and buy on a streaming service, but the library has a copy, they don’t necessarily have a digital copy. And I said, “Well, this is, I’m in teaching in an online class so you know, is there any way for students to access this?” And they’ve been able to digitize or get the digital rights to the documentary, post it. So basically it’s the reference desk for the class and there’s just a link that the students can use to access the material and it’s excellent.
KIERAN: This brings up another resource I didn’t include in my original seven but something to think about — does your university have a unit that is charged with making sure students can receive content and materials in forms that are accessible to them? At Virginia Tech we have Services for Students with Disabilities. They will do things like create transcripts of your lectures so that they can be read instead of listened to for students who are hearing impaired.
That’s great. It’s a wonderful resource. It’s also something that you might think about if you want to address data usage, internet access, those kinds of things… because maybe a transcript of your lecture is a way to get around a problem for a student who doesn’t have appropriate internet access but doesn’t limit what you want to do in the class. So thinking strategically about what other resources are available at the university to make your content more accessible to a broad group of students in a wide variety of situations.
DAN: Excellent. Question six that you can ask yourself if you’re thinking about teaching online perhaps for the first time or maybe not even the first time: “Have I tidied up?
KIERAN: This is your Marie Kondo moment.
DAN: And we all need them from time to time.
KIERAN: We all need them from time to time.
So the question that I will ask new faculty when they asked me to look at their first draft of a, a course site on the LMS is, “If you were going to teach this class in person, would you hand out all of the readings and all of the lecture notes and all of the announcements and discussion prompts and graded assignments all at the same time on the first day of class?” I can hear the pause in their voice on the phone and they say, “Well, no.” And so then I have to say, “Well, then, why are you doing it in your LMS site? Because the whole semester is here and I don’t know where to start, and it’s a little, more than a little bit, overwhelming.
It’s really easy to forget when you’re used to teaching on campus that you are giving students materials over time. Almost every LMS, everyone that I know of, has a scheduling feature, so when you start to lay out, say, modules based on each week of the class, it should allow you to decide when you want that folder to become visible.
It’s a way to keep students from getting overwhelmed, especially if they’re new to online and they’re trying to find their way in the LMS that’s being used for something other than a grade book and a drop box for their assignments. It makes it easier for them and it’s going to ease the instructor’s load because they’re not going to have to be dealing with a bunch of emails from students saying, I can’t find this. Where did you put this? Which week are we in now?
I’m actually really curious, Dan, to know how you handle this.
DAN: Well, I handle it as a response to training courses I’ve had to take in various aspects of my life that were online training courses that were not tidied up.
KIERAN: Desperately in need of Marie…
DAN: Yeah, for me the tidy up and the navigation are parts of the same train. It’s like I can’t, I’d have no idea how to get from point A to point B, or the only way I can get to this page I need is to start at the very beginning and click through page, after page, after page to get there. So I do think it’s very important to keep the navigation in a way that’s readable.
I personally build redundancy into navigation so there’s multiple ways of getting to a page. And I don’t really know which ones students prefer. I, I assume some students get to it this way and some students get to it this way. People figure out software on their own, in ways that suit them. So that’s why I like to have redundant ways of getting to a page. If they really know where things are, then they can just shortcut right to, you know, the page… so I think that those become important things.
LMSs are designed to have a powerful calendar. They turn things off and on when you tell them they could go off and on. Just keep in mind what time zone you’re in and what time zone your students are in — going back to one of our earlier questions. That is exactly what they’re designed to do. So it’s good for you to have it lined up in an orderly way — have the whole course lined up in an orderly way.
But absolutely. If you turn too much on at one time, the students just become overwhelmed. They don’t know, they don’t know where they’re supposed to start. If everything is turned on, my experience is, then they think everything is supposed to be done right away, even if you turn it on and say, this is for three weeks from now… they won’t hear that last part. They’ll think I have to do this this week. So it’s very important to pace it properly. If you want to let them know where they’re going, a high-level roadmap in the form of a syllabus or an outline works well. But you definitely don’t want to inundate them at all.
KIERAN: No, it’s disorienting and it’s completely unnecessary, too. It’s not like this is hard to do. My experience with LMS platforms is that once you see how to do it, it’s easy to remember. It’s not a lot of steps you can go through and do it.
One other consideration when you are thinking about navigation and tidying up is, however you set up your site is going to make sense to you because if it didn’t you wouldn’t have set it up that way. This is why software developers use beta testers, so that somebody other than them is going through it and saying, “Yes, that makes sense; Yes, that was intuitive; Yes, I found it easy to do.”
Most LMS do allow you to create a sandbox course that lets you set up the structure of it. You could have a colleague take a look at that if they are willing, and you might trade services to do this, have them step through it and make sure that it makes sense, that they can get to where they need to go. That there’s nothing that leaves them thinking, okay, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how I got here, and I don’t know why. That would be a helpful thing, and then you can just port that sandbox version over into the official course site. Having somebody else run through it as a beta tester is really helpful.
DAN: A couple of thoughts about that. One is, most of the LMSs, actually all of the LMSs that I’ve ever used have something like a student-view. So you see everything, but your user interface is not the student’s user interface. So it’s very good, periodically,
to click on the student view and see what they’re seeing. Literally what they’re seeing.
A second thing is, I think it’s very important to be receptive and inviting of the students to be your beta testers and say, listen, if you get confused or if you’re not sure what’s going on, shout out.
KIERAN: Yeah. It may not be you.
DAN: Right. And shout out publicly. That’s why their open discussion is there. It’s, it’s if you’re confused, the odds are one of your classmates is also confused. Without that kind of feedback as an instructor, there’s no way I have to make the course better to make the navigation better or to remove points that are confusing in the navigation.
And the third thing is this is a place where a good course designer that works at your university can help you out. A good course designer can, can be your beta-tester.
KIERAN: They can flag access or accessibility issues. You may not know it’s important to use headings and subheadings
in a very formal way so an automated reader knows how to organize the content on the page and read it out loud in a way that somebody who can’t see the content can then understand.
DAN: Perfect example of, of things you’re not going to think about until you get into it a little bit or ask the questions. But a tidy course site is very important both for your being able to manage it and for the students to be able to navigate it. So that’s an excellent question you should ask yourself.
Question number seven, “Can I save face?”
KIERAN: Yeah. Video chews through bandwidth and data plans. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re asking students to live stream or download. And this is kind of a reference to something that I mentioned earlier, but I’ll get into it a little bit more deeply.
When I first started teaching online, I did what almost everybody did at that point. We didn’t have the same kind of levels of throughput on Internet, so I built out PowerPoints and I lectured over them. I also started to realize at that point the voice on its own can be a powerful form of information transfer. So I challenge instructors to ask themselves if they’re thinking about doing recordings, video recordings, what do students really need to see? Chances are it’s not your face. Nothing against your face, it’s just, that’s not the point of the course.
DAN: And by video, just to underscore, you’re meaning video capture of a lecture.
KIERAN: Yeah. If we think about why the lecture became the go-to way to transmit information in an educational setting, we have to think back to the 19th Century, and earlier, we have to think about how expensive books were and how rare they were. And in that context, lecturing to a group of people all together in the same room, it was the most efficient way to get information from one person who had it to other people who didn’t.
But we’re in the 21st Century now. It’s never been cheaper and easier and faster to transmit information in digital forms. So maybe we need to reconsider whether or not a video is the best way for us to have students engage with content. I think there’s no question that it’s a pretty passive approach to teaching and to learning.
DAN: This is such an important point. I mean we have so many colleagues right now who are switching during this pandemic to teaching online. And the emails that I’m getting from various places and the articles that I’m seeing are really starting with the assumption of a synchronous, real time class that’s being simulcast and recorded. And I understand that, it’s the quickest switch you can make.
KIERAN: It’s our default.
DAN: Exactly. We’re going to use technology and we’re going to do exactly what we were doing before. And, I mean, I have great empathy with folks who have to change their class in the middle of a term that weren’t planning on it. You know, I’ve been teaching classes online for years now and all of a sudden if you told me next week you’ve got to go start lecturing, you’ve got to take this class into a classroom. Well, it’s not designed to be in a classroom. I’ve done that for years. I know how to do that. But this design was not that way.
But I think the point that you make is really good, which is, okay that is one thing you can do is lecture in the classroom, but there are a lot of ways of organizing information and structuring activities that are directed towards learning outcomes.
KIERAN: Often students are more accepting of something new and innovative in an online class than they are in the physical classroom. I’m not a human behavior specialist, heaven knows, but my hypothesis is that after a lifetime of being in a physical classroom, students are often the ones that are pushing back when an instructor tries to do something different in class. They feel like too much is at stake. I need to get a good grade in this class.
What I’ve observed is that students don’t really know what to expect in an online class, and so what you do in an online class — that’s online teaching! So they accept it. And then if, over the course of having several different classes, they’re exposed to some really diverse approaches to teaching, they’re open to even more diversity in delivery of their course content going forward.
Ironically, sometimes when they go back into the physical classroom, they don’t bring that, that behavioral flexibility with them.
DAN: The students don’t, you mean.
KIERAN: Mmmhmm, mmmhmm.
DAN: They get locked into old habits.
KIERAN: I think that’s one of the reasons why online instruction has been such a lovely place for innovation in higher education. It’s not because the instructors who have been willing to go into the online space are so much more creative. In part, there’s less push back from students when they try something new and interesting. That’s my hypothesis anyway.
DAN: Well, you’re a wildlife biologist. You’re perfectly qualified to make hypotheses about what goes on in a classroom.
KIERAN: Mammals generally, but I’m not as good with humans as I am with just about every other species.
DAN: How ironic.
KIERAN: Can I offer a quick bonus?
DAN: Oh yes, we love bonuses!
KIERAN: Alright, here’s the bonus. If you’ve never been recorded while lecturing, that you know of (‘cause chances are you have) on video or audio, I want to prepare you for some ego deflation. You’re likely to discover that you’re not the orator you imagined yourself to be.
And that’s when the temptation to spend a lot of time editing out every verbal tick and applying all kinds of filters to augmented reality is going to strike. It’s that desire to polish out the imperfections that really feeds this widely held perception of online instruction is more time consuming than classroom instruction. And that’s true, to some extent, because you don’t get to spend any time editing your face to face lectures after you give them, so I just want to remind everybody that, 1) prepare for that and, 2) your students already know how you look and sound. You’re the only one who’s going to be surprised by that recording.
DAN: Yes, I think that is probably wise advice.
Well, there you have seven questions you can ask if you have suddenly found yourself teaching online or if you are preparing to teach online, even before you put the first lesson in your LMS.
For those who find themselves in strange new waters, we empathize and offer encouragement. We hope you and your households all stay safe and secure.