I recently started teaching my first undergraduate course. Before I had time to finish it, it was derailed by the coronavirus epidemic.
On day 10 of my intensive course in microbial ecology, the first case of COVID-19 at our university was confirmed. Only two course days — the equivalent of 16 hours’ classroom time — and the exam remained. Later that evening, my university cancelled all lectures and events.
After writing to my students, I started to put a plan into action that same day. I read through some online teaching guides and documents about course accessibility. I signed up for a Loom screen-recording account, and started making some test clips on the topic of data analysis with the programming language R, using screen-sharing as well as video.
In the following five days, I managed to adapt the remaining course material and activities. I also adapted the final exam to an online assessment — which my students took at home. With the benefit of this experience, I have a few pieces of advice that might help other lecturers who need to convert an existing course to an online format rapidly.
Investigate online-learning tools and remember your learning objectives
With limited time to adapt my material, I found it tempting to dive straight in and start updating PowerPoint slides and discussion-guide documents as online video lectures.
Instead, taking a step back and familiarizing myself with the tools and strategies that other online lecturers were using helped me better prepare and plan how I would achieve my learning objectives. Just taking what I already had and changing the format wasn’t enough.
Homing in on your learning objectives (particularly for those who are teaching a course for the first time) makes it easier to decide what must go online and what can be cut.
Consider whether students have access to appropriate working space
Students might not be set up with a quiet space to work at home, and might be caring for children or grandparents, or live in a shared space. Some might not have regular high-quality Internet access. Check in with them and make a plan that considers those in the most difficult situations. Enabling them to learn in their own time, and setting longer windows for turning in assignments, will give them a better chance to succeed while they are adapting both the academic and non-academic aspects of their lives.
Engage, with empathy
It takes energy to deal with the emotional consequences of limited social and physical contact, the loss of community and the fear of an uncertain future. Be aware that this will have an impact on you and your students: be gentle with yourself and them to prevent burnout and encourage engagement.
Get feedback from students
Keep in mind that you won’t get the feedback you were accustomed to in the lecture hall; you might not see looks of confusion or get verbal confirmation of understanding in online-learning environments. I didn’t consider this as I made my transition, and that made it hard to know if I was teaching effectively. Try to find new ways — such as one-on-one chat sessions or online polls — to seek feedback on your teaching.
You will need to be able to deliver exams that conform to the rules of your institution, and therefore a different assessment style might be in order online. Setting a short time window for completion might put students who are involved in care work at an unfair disadvantage, for example. A conventional timed multiple-choice-style exam will probably need some reworking to function outside an exam hall: students will be able to access their course notes easily from behind a computer screen at home, and a multiple-choice test might not present the challenge that it should.
Many universities have learning-management systems that can help with online exams (mine uses the Blackboard software). Such systems could, for example, allow flexibility in the exam start time, and provide randomization — to prevent students from easily sharing answers — and time limits for each question. You could also consider open-book and longer-format questions, but do take into account the extra time needed for grading extended written responses.
Give yourself some space to fail
Shifting to online isn’t easy, particularly in a short time frame. I learnt that it takes a very long time to write up everything that I would have said out loud during 4 hours of practical work in the classroom. If you manage to create a lecture or online activity that meets one of your learning objectives, then you’ve succeeded, even if you’ve had to cut material. Some things simply can’t be achieved online, and it’s okay to let them go.
Ultimately, I managed to achieve my learning objectives. I postponed the exam by one day and gave the students 24 hours to submit their responses in a short-essay format. This replaced the exam that I had previously prepared, which used a multiple-choice and short-answer format. In retrospect, I found the replacement to be a better way of testing knowledge of the material. It also helped students to learn skills that they can apply in the future, such as interpreting data and researching and citing peer-reviewed references, although it meant a bigger grading effort.
Even though we might now be physically isolated, we remain part of an academic community. Put your needs and your students’ needs first, and request support from your university for the extra time and resources needed to make the online transition manageable.