Advice to those about to teach online because of the corona-virus

By: Tony Bates @

Original article shared from:

With the reports of more and more institutions closing campuses because of the corona-virus, and even those not closing advising their instructors to move their classes online, I am wondering what advice or help these instructors are getting from their administrations. So what would I advise? 

1. Get professional advice and help before you start

Before you do anything, talk to someone responsible for online learning in your institution. (You might be put on hold – I’m told they are unusually busy at the moment – but it will be worth the wait). It is NOT a good idea just to jump into it and hope to wing it. Teaching online is not rocket science but it does need a different approach from classroom teaching. Get advice from a professional first. Even if there is no current requirement to move online, it is still a good idea to be prepared well in advance, so start talking NOW to the people responsible for online learning. (This is not quite straightforward, I realise. For some, your help will be someone in the local department or faculty responsible for online learning; for others it may mean contacting the Centre for Online and Distance Education, which may in Continuing Studies, or the Centre for Teaching and Learning, or the Centre for Learning Technologies.) Listen to whatever they say, especially if it is different from the advice I give below!

2. Get the right technology

This advice will depend to some extent to how late the decision has been made to go online. If you are asked to move immediately online without any warning or preparation, doing lectures online may be all you can do. Nevertheless, still ask whoever is responsible for online learning what technology to use for delivering your lectures.

You may already have lecture capture installed which will enable you to record and stream (much more convenient for students than streaming the lecture live). You will then have the weird experience of lecturing to an empty lecture hall. You will then understand why LeBron James refuses to play to an empty basketball arena. You though may not have that option.

However, it may be better to use an institution-supported video-conferencing system such as ZOOM from your desk-top. This will make the lecture feel more intimate, as if you are talking to an individual student, and this will also allow a certain level of direct interaction with the students, as they can either use the type-in chat facility, or if the numbers are relatively small (below 30), direct audio and video communication. ZOOM even allows you to use virtual break-out rooms, where students can be grouped together online to discuss and come back with a group answer. You can use the ‘share screen’ facility to switch between your head and shoulders through the computer camera, to slides, and back again.

It’s easy for students to access ZOOM. Your online or IT department can set up – or teach you how to set up – a ZOOM url for a specific lesson and then you send the students the url by email, which they just click on to connect. (They will need first to download the ZOOM app to their home computer, but just once, and it’s easy to do).

ZOOM is just one of many such systems; don’t argue about which one but go with the one your institution supports so you can always get help if you need it. For instance the size of the class matters here – some systems work really well for numbers under 30 but not as well as others for numbers over 200.

3. Get organised

However, even for this most simple form of online lecturing, you need advance organization and preparation. First you need, if you have not already done this, to set up a space for your course within the institutional learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard, Canvas or D2L. There are several reasons for this:

  • You need to let students know when you are lecturing, what work they need to do before or after a lecture, when assignments are due, and how to submit them online. This is much better done within the LMS, which is editable (by you), permanent and accessible to students 24×7, than within the lecture itself; it also avoids innumerable class administration emails, as all students have access 24×7 to the LMS
  • This is where you can not only present a regular timetable for the lectures, but also provide extra resources, such as links to articles related to the lectures, further reading, etc.;
  • You can also provide links to your recorded lectures within the LMS, so students can go back and listen and watch as many times as they need;
  • Students can link directly to all the resources in the institution’s Library;
  • You can set up online discussion forums, with questions that you set for discussion around your lecture, so that best use of the lectures are made (see below about keeping your lectures short).

The LMS is where the students should go first; envision your lectures not as the main or even only source of content in the course, but just one of several learning resources within a more complete online learning environment. This is where the online professionals can be of particular value in helping you design and create that overall online learning environment. The LMS is the online equivalent of your physical campus.

4. Avoid long lectures

Keep online lectures to no more than 20 minutes – or break them into 15 minute self-standing chunks with activities for students immediately after each chunk. The presentation should cover the outline of the main topics, or the key points in an extended argument, allowing the student to do further research on the details, through further reading or video examples available over the web. Look for open educational resources that already exist and are free for educational use, so you do not have to present everything yourself. (Yes, even you can get boring after 20 minutes).

There are several reasons for keeping online (indeed, any) lectures short:

  • Research on attention span and cognitive overload (see University of British Columbia’s Design Principles for Multimedia).
  • Students studying online tend to work in short chunks of less than one hour’s study without a break. For instance, they may study while on a bus or train, or if studying at home they are likely to be interrupted by spouse, children, flat mates or meal times.
  • Students learn better if they are active. This means building in short exercises, opportunities for online discussion, small unassessed projects, that online can be integrated within a longer recorded lecture.

5. Watch the student workload

Another reason for keeping the formal lecture component short is to give students time to do other learning activities that build on the basic lecture. The danger though is that you can then easily overload students with extra work.

It is useful to make an estimate of how much time per week an average student should spend studying on your course (taking into consideration that they could be taking up to another four courses at the same time). I usually assume a maximum of between 8-10 hours study time a week per three-credit course, including assignments. If more than three hours of that per week is taken up just watching video lectures, it leaves little time for other activities, such as further reading, online discussions, and assignments.

Ask yourself the question: what is the best way students should use that 8-10 hours a week, if they are studying online? How much of that must be through a lecture? How much could they do for themselves? How can I make sure they are connecting with other students online, so they do not feel socially isolated, and how best can they use that connection to further their learning?

This is why if at all possible you should spend some time thinking about and planning a course before going online, even if you are planning to base the course on your classroom lectures.

6. Avoid lectures altogether

When we do a lecture, we are doing most of the work. We decide what is important to learn, where to go to find the necessary information, how to select and organise the content, how to build an argument or a model of thinking about the topic, and we do the actual presentation. But would it not be better to teach students themselves how to do this?

Once students are online, they can find, analyse, evaluate and present content if they are properly guided. Why not train your students to give the lectures for the course? Or better, create an e-portfolio that shows how they went about the task which can form the basis for their assessment. Just a thought.

There are many better ways to use video than for direct lectures (see UBC’s Faculty of Arts Ideas and Strategies for Using Video in the Classroom or my pedagogical affordances of video for some examples). There is now a huge amount of existing video material available for free around which you may be able to build a course without much direct lecturing. Check with your online advisor, Library, or Centre for Learning Technologies about available open educational resource videos in your field.

7. Do the best you can in the circumstances

Well, all teachers do this, don’t they? However, if you are to follow general best practice in online learning, and avoid lectures, you need more than a few days’ preparation time. You also need to work with professional online developers who can help you rethink your teaching. Or you could read my free, online book, Teaching in a Digital Age.

In the meantime, while the panic around the corona-virus lasts, good luck with moving your lectures online. But also when the panic has passed, think about doing online learning properly.

8. Further resources

If you have time, here are some further resources that could help:

What's next?

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