Across the nation, educators must face the extraordinary challenge of rapidly moving traditional in-person classes to an online environment. A top-notch online program can take months to develop. However, for many colleges and universities, there’s no longer time to spare in setting up an online course environment.
The current public health crisis has forced schools to ramp up online learning plans in weeks or even days. Students and educators need to resume classes and finish out the academic session with as little downtime as possible. Even if your local area hasn’t been affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic, it’s wise to think ahead and develop a continuity plan that can be set into motion quickly if needed.
With so little time to prepare, some educators are concerned that it will be challenging to deliver the same levels of course quality.
Fortunately, there are many resources available to help set you up for success. Whether you’re just considering switching to online learning or are currently in the middle of a transition to online education platforms, here are five key strategies to help you decide how to set up an online course and ensure you stay on track as you design and implement your online classes.
1. Decide on your online course structure and design.
Course design is important for the success of any class. However, the importance of course structure and design is greatly magnified when you move online.
Common online course structures to consider include:
• Synchronous course structure: You designate specific times to meet online with your students for lecture and facilitate scheduled tutorial or discussion sections using internet chat and video software. This course structure follows a fairly rigid day-to-day class schedule, helps with maintaining a school routine, and ensures everyone works on the same material at roughly the same time.
• Asynchronous course structure: You provide assignments or resources such as video tutorials and readings in bulk on a periodic basis. This course structure affords students greater flexibility and allows them to work at their own pace. While students might work on different material at different times, you can use a week-to-week or monthly study guide to make sure students stay on top of their assignments.
• Hybrid course structure: Most online courses fall somewhere in between purely synchronous and purely asynchronous. You might host video lessons or forums at specific times, but post recordings so the materials remain open afterward. You might also mix in self-paced activities with scheduled lessons.
Your choice of course structure depends on the type of material you teach as well as your students’ circumstances. For instance, if a number of your students have had their lives considerably disrupted by the pandemic or are spread out across multiple time zones, a more asynchronous class structure would be the best choice to accommodate their circumstances.
Whatever your overarching structure, be sure to present materials in a way that offers students clarity. Ensure that the materials you provide help students better engage with your course content, and communicate with your institution to provide students with a clear, consistent, and accessible learning experience.
It is also very helpful to use a template if available. Working to customize a frame with course content is much more manageable and efficient than implementing an online course from scratch.
2. Consider online tools to boost student engagement.
It’s difficult enough as it is in traditional classrooms to get student engagement. Moving your courses online makes this challenge even more difficult, but it’s not an insurmountable task.
In a traditional classroom setting, there are some observable behaviors that may be perceived as engagement:
- 1. Students participate when you facilitate class discussions or forums.
- 2. Students listen attentively to you and to their peers.
- 3. Students work together during in-class group activities.
How will you encourage and measure student engagement in an online setting?
When moving a course curriculum online, the right tools will make the transition smoother. For your initial lessons, it’s best to begin with the bread and butter online course tool: shared video sessions. Shared video sessions help simulate a “normal” classroom environment by replicating aspects of the traditional classroom, such as lectures and face-to-face discussions.
Online tools also allow for creative alternatives to traditional strategies:
• Convert your slideshows or PowerPoint lectures into virtual lessons. Instead of waiting for students to raise their hands, take advantage of your institute’s learning management system (LMS) and have all students participate and directly engage with your lecture slides.
• Facilitate conversations and tutorials using online discussion forums. Many online courses make posting in online forums graded assignments to incentivize student responses and encourage student engagement with course material. Students will not only have a platform to ask questions and read others’ responses, but also have opportunities to provide their own insight.
• Use your institution’s online learning platform to track student progress and provide personalized feedback as students work through your course.
The tools you choose will vary depending on your course content. For instance,
• Interactive 3D content helps serve as alternatives to in-person health science labs. Using 3D models and animations, students can study biological structures and even perform virtual dissections. Tools like these help transform online anatomy and physiology courses into true “hands on” experiences.
• Virtual whiteboard software is useful for teaching courses that involve diagrams or mathematics, such as engineering, physics, and statistics classes.
3. Decide how you will administer exams, graded assignments, or other assessments.
The challenge of administering exams online is among the top concerns for many educators transitioning to distance learning.
For many courses, large portions of students’ grades are based on assessments like exams. And while you may have a semester’s worth of assignments planned out, you’ll have to deal with the challenge of maintaining academic integrity online. Many online courses require students to take in-person proctored exams to reduce the risk of cheating or impersonation, but given the situation with COVID-19, that’s not an option.
Some solutions that provide valuable reassurance are:
• A virtual proctoring service. Monitor students using webcams as they take their exams remotely. Facial recognition technology helps verify the identities of students that take exams, and webcams help ensure students don’t use unauthorized materials during tests. These services are effective and can be applied with minimal time constraints.
• Pass or fail grading. Given current extenuating circumstances, it’s fair to offer students the option of a more lenient pass or fail grading system. This solution can reduce the incentive for students to cheat, is more accommodating for students going through tough situations, and still allows students to complete their required coursework.
• Plagiarism detection software. If your course involves substantial amounts of writing, make students submit their assignments digitally via plagiarism detection services. These services not only help maintain academic integrity and deter cheating, but also often include convenient grading and feedback tools.
Measures such as these help educators feel confident that no cheating will occur during graded assessments. Use any combination of the suggested tools above to ensure students complete your course without degrading academic integrity.
4. Leverage technology to your advantage rather than letting it become an obstacle.
If you’re rushing to get your course content online, it’s tempting to stick to whatever old technology platform you may already be familiar with. However, new technologies are better suited to handling scalability challenges, quality-control issues, and student confusion.
When selecting a suitable LMS, institutions and educators should focus on maintaining consistency in course structure:
- 1. Create online course templates that can be used across multiple courses.
- 2. Centralize and standardize as much as possible. This helps maintain consistency within and across classes, so students do not get confused.
Research new and available technologies instead of defaulting to old ones to make the most of your course material online.
5. Prep for the future by establishing a long-term strategy for online course instruction.
Institutions and instructors who move forward with level heads and implement an online learning strategy will succeed in emergencies or other unforeseen circumstances. However, institutions that plan ahead and develop transition strategies beforehand will undoubtedly be best equipped to thrive in extenuating circumstances. These colleges and universities will be able to move their students to online versions of their courses and deliver the same top-notch education without any delay.
If you are able to develop a continuity plan before your area is affected, be sure to communicate your long-term strategy for online instruction to your campus community. Knowing there’s a continuity plan in place will help manage the community’s anxieties and show that your institution is in action mode, not panic mode.
More and more schools are moving their courses online in response to the nation’s public health crisis. This situation serves as a rude but valuable wakeup call for institutions.
Just as companies develop continuity plans to keep business going in the event of a disaster or service disruption, learning institutions should create continuity plans to ensure that courses carry on and that students aren’t interrupted in their education pathways.
By taking advantage of tools available online and using the tips we described in this article, you will be prepared to handle unforeseen circumstances and your institution will be positioned for a more resilient, technology-enhanced future.