If you’ve never taught online before but now have to with almost no prep time, here are a couple of big things to keep in mind that will make it easier on you and your students.

As the Coronavirus pandemic spreads, universities are moving to online remote instruction and professors are being asked to move on-the-ground classes designed for face-to-face delivery online, sometimes with as little as a day’s notice, most often with a week or two to work things out. If you have never taught online before, here are a few bigger picture concerns you might not even think to consider, because they typically come up only when you are teaching online (or are cropping up as a result of the pandemic):

Make as much of the course as you can asynchronous. If campus is closed and students have been asked to return home, you’re no longer able to count on everyone being available during the regularly scheduled class time. Your students may live in different time zones from you, they may live in countries with scheduled internet outages or where you can only access the internet at an internet cafe during operating hours, and if daycares, schools, and other facilities are closing as well, they will be contending with childcare and other family responsibilities. It’s a good idea to give at least 24 hours to complete any given assignment; for my online courses I give students from Monday morning to Sunday evening to complete the work of a given week, and 24 hours to sit the final exam. If you want to give a live lecture during normal class meeting time that’s fine, but you’ll want to record it as well and post it online for students who can’t be online during the class time. Groupwork, peer review, etc. can still be assigned, but you need to give students a good chunk of time in which to complete them to allow them to arrange virtual meeting times that work for their particular situations. Keep synchronous events to a minimum, and make sure there are options for students who cannot make them. This will all frustrate professors who want their students to interact “in real time” and to try to preserve as much of the community spirit and class schedule as possible, but you simply cannot translate face-to-face classes directly to online environments without making concessions and expect it to be successful.

Explain everything, even if you don’t think you should have to. Not all students have taken online or hybrid courses, and for those who have never done so this is going to be as steep a learning curve as it is for instructors who’ve never taught online–the difference being that for the student it’s high stakes because their grade in the course is involved. Don’t assume your students know how to use your university’s LMS (Learning Management System) beyond basic assignment uploads. When my school sent the “we’re moving online” email, I sent my face-to-face students this survey to find out what their particular situations are, so I can be proactive about redesigning the class to accommodate as much as possible:


It covers everything I need for them to be able to do to teach my courses the way I hope to moving them online. Their answers will dictate how much support by way of explanation and links to how-to videos I need to offer them, and whether I need to rethink assignments because too many won’t be able to complete them with the resources available to them.

Figure out what kinds of documents and images you can access, download programs to access the ones you can’t, or make students aware of your limitations. I don’t have a Mac, so opening .pages documents required me to download a conversion program. I don’t have an iphone, so downloading HEIC images required me to download a conversion program. If your computer is institutionally-issued, you may not be able to install programs on it without IT and IT may not be available. Telling students upfront what formats you can accept their work in will help them, and you, tremendously.

Have a plan B and a plan C. Servers are going to fail at some point. Some students may not have Internet access. Some programs you want to use might not work or work out. Students may not be able to access course reserves in your library. Things can and probably will go wrong at some point–have a plan for that. I intend simply to move my classes onto Canvas, but if Canvas goes down we’ll move to Slack, and if Slack goes down we’ll move to Onedrive/ Sharepoint, which our university has a subscription to. Students can email their work to me if they can’t upload it to the platform we are using for some reason. If the Internet goes down or they do not have access, I will post my students work by snail mail on a weekly basis, giving them a week to complete and return it–the good old-fashioned correspondence course. Better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

Keep it simple. Yes there are so many exciting online and digital pedagogical resources out there, and you may just be learning about a lot of them for the first time. They sound AMAZING! But do you, and your students, have the time and ability to learn new tools while trying to translate a course from face-to-face to online? Some students will be doing all they can do just to figure out how to navigate Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, etc. from an entirely online perspective. They were taking Introduction to Literature, or Studio art, or Chemistry, and now suddenly it’s a crash course in using digital tools to complete assignments. Go easy on them and on yourself! Stick to your university’s learning platform as much as possible, with the understanding that there may be external programs or resources that could work better for your given course, but that anything extra you want to throw in will need to be explained with step-by-step instructions and you need to be available for troubleshooting and to offer options for students who can’t figure out a new digital tool on their own. The simpler, the better.

Do lots of videos. Keep them short. You may be reluctant to do videos. You may not like how you look, or how you sound, or you might be worried about the light or the angles or whatever you worry about when you are making and posting videos of yourself–now is the time to let go of your fears, concerns, vanity, etc. regarding you on video. Post videos for your students regularly–short explanations or clarifications, updates, brief lectures, instructions, prompts for discussion or writing. These videos should be brief–typically, a video that is more than 7 minutes long is going to lose student interest. I try for between 2-5 minutes, with a few slightly longer. Uploading videos to Youtube will enable you to use the editing tool to include captioning, an important accessibility element in online instruction. You can keep your videos unlisted and share the link just with your students. If you want to add a quiz or set of questions to a video, you can use Edpuzzle: https://edpuzzle.com/ That’s the only online tool I’m going to link to in this post; if I started sharing all of the resources, it would get overwhelming, and this is just about triage.

Give them low-stakes assessment practice before a high-stakes situation. If students have not been taking quizzes or tests online for your class, give them a practice quiz with each type of question they can expect to encounter before you give them a formal one that counts toward their grade. If students have not conducted peer review online for your course but now you need for them to, give them a completion grade and feedback for how to improve after the first session, then introduce a rubric to be used with other peer review sessions. If students will need to record a presentation or give one via Zoom or Skype or Facetime or etc., give them the option of uploading a short video or logging in to test things out before they’re delivering the formally assessed version. Anything you can do to help your students become familiarized with the digital versions of your initially on the ground assessment will be important for them.

There are a lot of resources being shared online, and a lot of extremely knowledgeable people are using social media to answer questions and help others troubleshoot. In fact, so much so that it is downright overwhelming for people who have limited experience with online teaching and learning. Make use of those resources as much as you can, but cut yourself some slack if you don’t have time to dig into the research now; triaging your classes already in progress is more important right now than educating yourself about the many aspects and theories and resources for digital learning. It’s an entire field of scholarship with thirty-plus years of material to sift through. You need to get through the next two, four, six, eight weeks. Bookmark things you think you’d like to look at later and move on to things that you can immediately use for your particular situation.

Above all, remember that this is a learning experience for all of us. Flexibility, accommodation, cooperation, and community-building through online venues are going to matter a lot in terms of how things go for us and for our students. Be willing to rethink if things are going badly, and be open and honest with your students that this is an experiment. Be willing to be vulnerable, and remember they are also vulnerable. Practice radical empathy and be kind.



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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