Photo depicts a modern office work space with two tables and two white boards. Photo via Pixabay.

This article is reposted with edits from an original post made 3/11/2020

Erika Sanborne is a TSP Graduate Board member who has received various awards for teaching and often serves as a teaching & technology consultant for faculty and graduate instructors. Her research interests include the life course, race, and religion. Her favorite course to teach is statistics.

Many of us are a week or two into teaching a suddenly-online course that we had designed to teach in person. Having taught about 50 undergraduate class sections in person, and about 50 undergraduate class sections online, I am duly familiar with both options. To be clear, when I have taught the same subject online and on campus even during the same semester, they are very different courses. Yet here we are with this current situation, so let’s deal with it as best we can. In this write-up, I’m inviting you into “round 2” following all the big changes you have made in the past few weeks to get to this moment.

Before anything else, please hear me that you are probably doing great! If your students are still learning something, and you can still somehow assess that, awesome. You are not aiming for a well-designed online learning experience, because it takes both time and expertise that you probably don’t have in order to develop a quality online course. That’s not your goal, so please lower the bar if you haven’t done so yet. Your goals at this point are teaching for accessible student learning, and your assessment (grading) of student work. Everything else is bonus, and good on you.

A centrally important consideration is students’ mental health. You have probably noticed that your students are somewhat anxious, scared, and unsure, and that’s if they are not also sick or caring for someone who is sick yet. We must take care of their emotional well-being in this unprecedented time of change, and in advance of the numbers of sick people rising.

Are your suddenly-online classes accessible?

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

Accessible means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability. Although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of persons without disabilities, it still must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology.

Even suddenly-online courses should be accessible. Digital accessibility ensures that students can navigate and interact with all of your online content, regardless of ability. For example, you should not use any video that does not have correct closed captioning, which is a full-text transcription. Are you linking to something on YouTube? Cool. Go ahead and double-check if you need to replace that, which you do if it’s not properly captioned. Most institutions will caption any video you legally own for course use, but that’s not going to happen in this short-term crisis mode, so just pick a new video that is already accessible. Also, do not use red or green fonts, because of color-blindness, and describe all images for screen readers, as in the following example.

A small white dog sits on a porch looking out; large text appears across the top: Social Distancing. Image modified by Erika Sanborne and used with permission from Pixabay.

Oh, right. My image caption reminds me of copyright issues, which you need to keep in mind. Photos are copyrighted by the person who took the photo. They may release them with a license or by designating them public domain. Pixabay is a good site to find released images that you can use. There are other sites. And, conversely, anything you create right now that moves your in-person course into an online course will likely become the copyrighted property of your employer. Please check on that, but I suspect it to be true in all or most instances. Sorry to bring it up, but some of us value our intellectual property rights and this is a thing. You’re doing this labor because of your current employment, and that probably makes whatever you create “work product” in terms of who owns it.

My concern is that this crisis is going to create a lot of low-quality online courses which are totally fine for this short-term crisis but should not become something thought of as a complete library of online learning experiences. You don’t need to think about that right now, but please remember it down the road. It might also help you reclaim rights to content, by pointing out to your institution that it’s not great and should not be reused. Ideally, you would be creating something much better than whatever you’re piecing together right now if or when you create your first proper online course.

Continuing with accessibility, be sure to use a san serif font such as Arial because it is easier to read. Use black “ink” on white “paper” meaning black font on a white website. I agree that it looks cooler to have white font on dark background, but that’s not ADA-compliant because it’s not accessible. Also, don’t use any scans of text that are not text-searchable and thus text-readable to screen readers, and never underline words in an online course unless they are links. Yes, really.

For more information on ADA Compliance within your suddenly-online courses, you can visit a good article on accessibility, and the website for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What about assessments – i.e. grading?

Regarding your current-semester, suddenly-online course, think of the major course assignments that remain. Come up with a way to sustain them if you can. A course syllabus is a legal contract between students and the university, through you, so the fewer changes you have to make to your syllabus, the better. If you can keep remaining major course assignments, emphasize to students that your remaining major course assignments remain unchanged. We are past midterms, so presumably you have already talked to them about these major course assignments. If they involve students presenting in class? Keep those but allow various means – i.e. they can make a video with their cell phone propped up, of them “presenting” to the camera. I don’t advise insisting they create something else, a PowerPoint presentation for example, if the initial requirement was that they stand in front of class and talk through something.

A brown and tan puppy lies on the floor with wide eyes looking up. Photo by Pixabay used with permission.

If that something was a PowerPoint, though, then try to keep it as is. You can ask them to add the voiceover in PowerPoint. Note: ADA compliance doesn’t waver, so this, like all video, would need to be captioned. Consider whether you want to add that burden or not, then either scale back the assignment (i.e. to allow PowerPoint to stand on its own, and it just goes to you instead of the whole class) or take out something else, so the captioning can happen. Captioning is needed for the voiceover, and captions are needed below graphics, for a video presentation to be accessible and shared within the course.

Please remember that, for some students, their access to technology is related to their access to the campus. Where are they staying if told to vacate? Do they still have access to software that allows creation of PowerPoint presentations, for example? Consider this, and allow for alternatives such as this: Students can create something on ordinary paper, with a pen, and take a photo of it with their phone, and email it to you.

Also please consider reducing expectations altogether – i.e. tossing out complicated assignments. Feel empowered to do this, as it’s your course and thus within your power to make their lives easier right now. With all that you cannot change or control in this world, work with what is in your power to change, and do it.

Do you have smaller assessments – i.e. little weekly writing tasks that students complete? Try to keep all of those. Use whatever course management system (CMS) your institution has – i.e. Blackboard, Canvas, etc. Create an assignment for each week, name it something obvious, and invite creativity amidst your aims at consistency.

As you can see, thinking through assessments shouldn’t be too bad, which means you should have stuff to grade, right? Cool. Now on to lecture content delivery (teaching).

Okay. How are you going to teach now?

If possible, try to have weekly interactive time set by video. Your CMS should have this capability, and most institutions have Zoom, GoToMeeting, and other solutions you can use too. Be mindful to not use anything that students are unlikely to now have access to. If most courses from your institution are using a certain platform, please use the same one, even if you don’t think it’s the best. Students shouldn’t need to spend extra time learning a platform just because you have to have things your way. This isn’t about you right now; it’s about them. Please keep it simple.

If you already lecture using PowerPoints, this is great. You should add that voiceover to your PowerPoints (which you should caption, because accessibility should not be optional) and now you will have decent online learning content. If you don’t have PowerPoints for your lectures? You should write some things out, but write them like I am writing this article you are reading right now. Do you notice how reading this feels different? It is an acquired style, almost conversational, and it invites students to read when written lectures are in front of their eyes. Keep that in mind. For the love of all things holy, do not write like you’re writing a textbook. Write like I am writing for you here.

You should definitely have online time that is synchronous, meaning the whole class is online at the same time. This should be your regularly scheduled time, and this is, at minimum, for Q&A and clarifying things. It’s exactly for the non-lecture parts of your class time each week! You might also have the entire lecture time synchronously, but an asynchronous lecture delivery could be good too. Ideally, you offer some of both: some live online interactive time, and some asynchronous stuff. Having them together at some shared time and space is good, but maybe not three hours a week of it.

Also be sure you maintain online office hours. This should be able to be scheduled with you, or make a range of hours on different days, like you normally would, and have them be drop-in, and then allow students to privately chat with you – like in your office, with other students standing in the hall – it’s a thing, and they will understand. Use video chat if at all possible – both for having the most efficient communication, and to remind them with your face and your voice that they are not alone.

A 3-credit, undergraduate course is supposed to meet in person for 3 hours, and students are expected to complete about 6 hours of work outside class time. That’s standard. When you move online, you are replacing the 3 hours of contact. I’m going to be honest, you are not going to create anywhere near three hours of asynchronous online content. And that’s because a lot of in-person class time is interruptions, announcements, tangents, and other things that are truly useful to student learning, right? As much as that can lead you in the classroom, let it continue to do so. For this, you should offer synchronous online time.

A wooden table holds a laptop and a coffee cup; a handshake happens with one arm extending out of a laptop screen shaking hands with the person sitting in front of the laptop. Image from Pixabay used with permission.

 And look. You’re probably anxious about this whole process. Your students are too, and some of them additionally aren’t sure where they are going to find food for the longer term. I’m sure you are on their team, and this is a great time to demonstrate that with your accompaniment. Start class by offering resources you know of – i.e. local food banks still operating, for example, for those still near your campus. Make sure your students know that you are aware that this is probably hard for them. People don’t fear change (they fear loss) and for some this will be realized as they will have lost access to not only technology but their social support. As best as you can, foster a supportive environment online, by showing true solidarity with your students. Be kind through it all. You can do this.