Teaching Online in a Hurry: 7 Tips for Success

Adam J. Mills | Last updated: 3/20/2020

These are certainly crazy times for all of us. I hope everyone who lands here is safe, healthy, and is using their hand sanitizer regularly! Most of us have been mandated to push our existing classes online about two-thirds of the way through the semester. Needless to say this is unprecedented and certainly something most of us never planned for, let alone considered. It’s easy to get overwhelmed because we’ve got too many options and too little time to make decisions. But teaching online brings strength rather than weakness and doing it well is easier than you might think.

I am by no means an expert on these matters, but I’ve got some experience and I try to stay friends with people who know more than me. So here are some quick tips to help you get set up for success in a hurry, particularly for those who have little online teaching experience.

1. Teach the class you would want to take

The golden rule of course design applies just as much to online delivery as it does to a face-to-face class. In these fluid and turbulent times, this is worth keeping in mind. Our students don’t expect a course that’s been turned on its head two-thirds of the way through the semester to be polished and flawless, especially while we’re all focused on whether we have groceries and keeping our families safe. What they do expect is compassion and respect for doing the best we can with what we have in the circumstances. Transparency, effort and accessibility will go a long way here.

2. Contact Hours

If you have two 75-minute classes per week, that does not mean you need to record two 75-minute lectures every week to be successful. Remember that we need contact hours not content hours. If the students are interacting with your LMS – reading/watching content, participating in discussion boards, interacting with others, working on assignments – that counts as contact.

Most LMS systems keep records of all of this for you: how often each student logs in, when they log in, and how much time they spend inside your course. It’s handy to be aware of this not just for accreditation bookkeeping, but it’s also a great resource for knowing who might be at risk of falling behind and in need of some personal outreach.

3. ROI

In a live class, it’s very easy for a student sitting in the back row to spend half the class on social media, tuned out of the class around them. In an online class, it’s even easier for this to happen. Remember in Field of Dreams the saying, “Build it and they will come”? Well, that’s not the case with online classes. For asynchronous online classes, it’s easier to tune out than tune in. So, it’s extremely important for us to remember Rule #1 above and deliver content and practice that’s worth tuning in for. If the students don’t see the ROI for their time, particularly now, they won’t show up.

4. Synchronous vs Asynchronous

There’s a great deal of debate about the pros and cons of teaching online using synchronous and/or asynchronous methods. The synchronous model most closely emulates the “live” classroom experience: everyone logs into the course at a specific time and class is delivered via videoconference. (These are usually recorded and logged so students who couldn’t make it can watch them later. They won’t, but they can.) The asynchronous model is not real-time delivery, rather it’s using interactive methods like discussion forums to allow students to engage with the professor and one another without the constraints of being in a specific place at a specific time with specific technology. A hybrid model leverages both approaches: usually one synchronous session each week followed by forum discussions or individual assignments.

At the end of the day, do what works best for you and your students, and be flexible. Keeping in mind that students will be juggling priorities in the immediate future, and likely sharing computer time with family members at home, it may be prudent to use a more flexible asynchronous approach with some introductory videos from you for the first few weeks. Try introducing some synchronous sessions once you’ve had a few weeks to learn the technology and the world has settled into some semblance of rhythm.

5. Content

Remember that point above about contact hours? Here’s where we get to explore the breadth of content available to you. In a live setting, you’re usually responsible for covering it all. Online, you’re relieved of that burden. Why? Because there’s simply no need to reinvent the wheel… the internet is dripping with amazing content from brilliant people. I like to mix up my content each week in a portfolio that looks something like this:

  • 1 introductory video from me (3-5 minutes) introducing the weekly subject matter, process, updates and administration as necessary.
  • 1-3 video lectures or narrated PowerPoints on the weekly material, about 5-7 minutes each.
  • 2-4 readings on the weekly material, usually a mix of textbook material, academic articles, popular management press, theory and current events. Depth and quantity here will depend on course level.
  • 1-2 videos from YouTube (usually professors from other institutions giving better lectures than I possibly could on the relevant subject matter)
  • 1 TED talk
  • Then, move to discussion forum, group activity and/or individual assignments and quizzes.

6. Technology

A Google search will give you far more helpful information than I could compile here, but I’ll share with you some tips from personal experience. For synchronous delivery, Zoom and Collaborate are excellent tools that offer an amalgamation of videoconferencing, chatroom, screensharing and virtual whiteboarding simultaneously. Managing all of these elements, plus fiddling with technology, plus trying to track participation, plus trying to actually run the course content is a lot – make use of a TA or tech support person if you have access to one.

As far as equipment goes, the most important tool you can buy for teaching online is a quality microphone. I’ve had great experiences with this desktop microphone and this lavalier microphone, both reasonably priced. Next up you’ll probably want a slightly better quality camera than the one on your laptop and this Logitech will fit the bill. Make sure you’re well-lit using the three-point lighting method, if possible.

If you’re in a pinch to get content posted quickly, a narrated PowerPoint is a wonderful option. It’s basically a quick and easy way to record your own speaking voice over a set of slides, then programming them with transition timings. Essentially, this means your students can watch your “lecture” without you needing to be there or even recording a video. There’s an excellent tutorial video here.

A tip from the great Bill Schiano is to always record your videos and conduct your synchronous sessions standing up. It conveys an energy that’s difficult to replicate while sitting.

Also, it’s very easy and an incredible gesture to put your office hours online for students. You can use a drop-in session on Collaborate or schedule individual Zoom/Skype/Facetime or regular phone calls with your students. I use Calendly for scheduling. I’ve also started letting students text me, since it’s less formal and quicker than emails. And before you think I’ve lost my mind, NO I don’t give them my personal number… I set up a Google Voice account for calls and texts so I can be “authentic” (and anonymous).

Here are some technology tips that are coming in from readers:

  • If you’re a Mac user, you can sync up your iPad via bluetooth to work as a virtual whiteboard in Zoom. Click here for instructions.
  • For more advanced video recording software, both Camtasia (PC/Mac) and Screenflow (Mac only) come highly recommended. I personally use and love Screenflow. Both have education pricing as well: For Camtasia education pricing ($169), click here. For Screenflow education pricing ($116) enter discount code SA2019EDU at checkout.
  • You can use an iPad as a make-shift teleprompter when recording videos using a tripod-mounted tablet holder like this.

7. Discussion Forums

Most online classes use some form of discussion forum. Your LMS will vary but most have layers of forums (broad, usually weekly, subject areas) with threads (specific lines of discussion) within them. From talking to dozens of other faculty and attending a plethora of conference sessions on the subject, here are some of the best practices I’ve picked up:

  • One forum per week using 2-4 “threads” of quality starter questions from the professor
  • Require about 3-4 posts per week from students, which usually takes a form resembling something like, “First post due by __________ with at least two responses to others’ posts by ______________.” (I use Wednesday and Friday, but it’s personal preference.)
  • Remind students that this is a discussion not a blog. A drive-by-shooting approach, where they log in, answer your opener, then disappear simply won’t cut it.
  • Be present. YOU need to participate in the forums so they know you’re there. This is critical in the first two weeks to set the standards, then you can take your foot off the gas a bit. Jump on every day for about 20 minutes Thurs/Fri/Sat/Sun to probe, follow-up, encourage and train.
  • Use your weekly intro videos to continue training (what works well, what to improve, etc.).
  • Grade with a rubric. You can set up grading rubrics for each forum to make your life easier. Consider including items like: first post on time, follow-up posts on time, added value and momentum to discussion, incorporated weekly content and material, incorporated current events, legible and professional, etc.
  • After the first two weeks of norming and adjusting, if you find that there’s just way too much content with your class size, break the class up into smaller discussion groups of 6-10 students. This will be LMS specific, but it’s usually done by assigning students into groups then allocating a discussion forum to each group. (You can copy/paste questions across the groups when setting this up.)

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This is being put together quickly in a challenging time. If you have input, tips, advice, or can add something I’ve missed here, please reach out by email or post in the comments section below. I’ll keep this document updated with your feedback and we can collaborate to create a resource that serves as many of our colleagues as possible.

Lastly, since we could all use a relaxing chuckle, here’s this month’s anthem from Michael Bruening of Missouri S&T:

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