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Moving Online: How to Stay Afloat During Rapid and Unplanned Change

A Few Tips from Someone who Gets It

Written by Lauren Barr, Western University

March 15, 2020

 

I am not sure how you are doing during this massive and incredibly fast shift, but I know that my mind is racing, I have more questions than answers and I have over 400 students anxiously waiting to hear how they are going to finish their school year in a way that allows them to be successful. There is a lot of information floating around, education supports at every campus are working overtime to try to help instructors’ figure this out and I am sure that each of you is feeling slightly to very overwhelmed.

I was asked to share some thoughts or tips from my experience of teaching online on how to make online learning fun, engaging and interactive without adding a lot of burden to your already full plate. So, I am going to share some very simple and effective things that I do that might calm some of your worries and help finish your term with a positive experience, despite the chaos of the moment.

Keep it simple:

 

 

My first and most important note to you is to keep things simple. Do not try to learn complicated new software if you can avoid it. It will make your and your students lives more difficult. I am all for exploring new technology when you have time to practice and play first. But this is not the time. If you can avoid it, I would.

If you already use PowerPoint slides for your lectures (or some other version of this), then keep doing that. You can expand them out a bit more and add your ‘voice’ in various ways. Some instructors record an actual audio file, short podcast or a video to put at the beginning to guide the slides. Some put audio on each slide – but honestly, this is complicated if you do not know how and it will add work. I use text (font style, colour, text boxes that have my thoughts in them). I also use images, videos and interactive links to online material that show examples of what is being described. I post these lectures in our LMS in a weekly online lecture, trying to keep the pattern consistent and predictable each week.

image of old school

For example: The image above is a slide from my Sociology of Education class, students can see the material and then explore the websites to learn more about each school and their approach to education.

Along with keeping it simple, reduce your plan. If you cannot cover all of the content, focus on the most important things. If you only have so much time, don’t add work for yourself, your TA’s or your students. Can you combine materials? Cut down on what is left? Simplify your remaining assignments or the final exam? For one class I had my students writing weekly journals (over 100 students) plus there is an exam that I need to figure out. So, I think I am going to combine them and have them write a take home exam that builds on their journals and allows me to only mark once for each student. It will make life easier for everyone, without reducing the depth of thought I have been teaching them to practice.

Use multiple forms of information to reach your audience: Differentiated instruction is important for any inclusive education environment, but it is especially important online. You cannot read your students as well. You don’t see their faces to see whether an idea needs more explanation. Luckily, you don’t have to create everything. There is so much information available in today’s world, you can link ideas, you can embed videos, you can share information in graphs created by other people. You do not have to do everything yourself!! Most of our textbooks come with instructor resources, even if you have never used them before … now is the time! Do not reinvent the wheel. You have enough to do. Use what you have and make sure you communicate information in a variety of ways so that each student can understand and play with your material.

image of old school

Student watching an online video

Use multiple forms of information to reach your audience: Differentiated instruction is important for any inclusive education environment, but it is especially important online. You cannot read your students as well. You don’t see their faces to see whether an idea needs more explanation. Luckily, you don’t have to create everything. There is so much information available in today’s world, you can link ideas, you can embed videos, you can share information in graphs created by other people. You do not have to do everything yourself!! Most of our textbooks come with instructor resources, even if you have never used them before … now is the time! Do not reinvent the wheel. You have enough to do. Use what you have and make sure you communicate information in a variety of ways so that each student can understand and play with your material.

Communicate: Often, Authentically and with Intentional Language The key to the best online courses is communication. Students cannot see you, but they need to feel you are there. In our LMS we have an announcement function that also emails students. I use the email function when it is essential that everyone receive the message immediately. My recent messages have recognized the current situation, provided links to information about what is open on campus and I have taken the time to tell them that I am working on a plan for how we will move forward. I give them a sense of what is happening in my world and recognize what I know is happening in theirs. When I communicate online, I always use terms that indicate that this is a shared experience. It is not their class or mine, it is ours. Every place I write I am very conscious about indicating that “we are going to ….”, or “we all need to think about …” This language builds a community quickly and places ownership of the experience on everyone.

Let Go of Some Control: Let the Students Take Some of the Load Students are amazing if you let them be. If you have an online discussion tool in your LMS, use it! Let students engage in the material. Let them share what they have learned, the connections they have made, the questions they have asked as they reviewed the material. I long ago realized if I provide questions to answer, I get the same answer over and over. They don’t ask the questions; they wait for me to direct them. However, if I encourage them to tell me what they were thinking. Ask them about the thing that caught their attention and why, they blow my mind every time! So, let them take some control. Open up the discussion and encourage them to share their experience, the information that relates, the way they interpreted an idea. Encourage them to expand on each others’ thoughts, add something new, challenge each other.

image of old school

Student interacting with other students via discussion forms.

For online forums, less is more. Tell them to write short posts. Think twitter. No more than 200ish words (I don’t count, just encourage it). Tell them to post short, meaningful, critical ideas. Ask them for links to related information. Encourage them to connect the course to the world. They can do it and it takes the pressure off of you to direct it. It is an amazing experience!

On that final thought, I will end my note. I hope that you move forward feeling a little more confident or at the very least not alone. This is not something we are prepared for; this is not something that has a rule book. So break them, bend them, focus on everyone’s mental health and the success of your students and let the rest of it go. That is really all that matters in the end.

Warmest wishes,
Lauren