Please do a bad job of putting your courses online

Thanks to the many of you who reached out to share that this post helped you through last spring’s sudden transition to emergency remote teaching.

If you are just now coming to this article, note that this was published in March 2020. It’s original audience is for educators, especially college professors, with little or no pedagogical or technological training in online teaching and who, during the early days of the pandemic, were unlikely to be able to get help from overwhelmed course designers or IT departments. As I state clearly at the end, this post is for that moment, when doing what might have felt like a “bad” job (not learning every new piece of technology, not editing your videos to reduce the “umms,” not boning up on 20 years of online pedagogy) allowed us to meet the needs of students best. To learn how to create high-quality online courses even as resources and support continues to be limited in many ways, explore other posts on this blog, including the series Online-by-Design, which offers easy-to-apply suggestions for building online courses informed by compassion for students, respect for content, and sound digital pedagogy.

Rebecca

I’m absolutely serious.

For my colleagues who are now being instructed to put some or all of the remainder of their semester online, now is a time to do a poor job of it. You are NOT building an online class. You are NOT teaching students who can be expected to be ready to learn online. And, most importantly, your class is NOT the highest priority of their OR your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.

If you are getting sucked into the pedagogy of online learning or just now discovering that there are some pretty awesome tools out there to support students online, stop. Stop now. Ask yourself: Do I really care about this? (Probably not, or else you would have explored it earlier.) Or am I trying to prove that I’m a team player? (You are, and don’t let your university exploit that.) Or I am trying to soothe myself in the face of a pandemic by doing something that makes life feel normal? (If you are, stop and instead put your energy to better use, like by protesting in favor of eviction freezes or packing up sacks of groceries for kids who won’t get meals because public schools are closing.)

Remember the following as you move online:

  1. Your students know less about technology than you think. Many of them know less than you. Yes, even if they are digital natives and younger than you.
  2. They will be accessing the internet on their phones. They have limited data. They need to reserve it for things more important than online lectures.
  3. Students who did not sign up for an online course have no obligation to have a computer, high speed wifi, a printer/scanner, or a camera. Do not even survey them to ask if they have it. Even if they do, they are not required to tell you this. And if they do now, that doesn’t mean that they will when something breaks and they can’t afford to fix it because they just lost their job at the ski resort or off-campus bookstore.
  4. Students will be sharing their technology with other household members. They may have LESS time to do their schoolwork, not more.
  5. Many will be working MORE, not fewer, hours. Nurses, prison guards, firefighters, and police officers have to go to work no matter what. As healthcare demand increases but healthcare workers get sick, there will be more and  more stress on those who remain.
  6. Some of your students will get sick. Others will be caring for people who are ill.
  7. Many will be parenting.
  8. Social isolation contributes to mental health problems.
  9. Social isolation contributes to domestic violence.
  10. Students will be losing their jobs, especially those in tourism and hospitality.

All of these factors mean that your students are facing more important battles today than your class–if they are even able to access it.

creative E-learning Concept Book and Laptop 3d render

Photo by NosUA from Getty Images.

As you put your class online:

1. Put your energy into the classes that are required for your major or minor or that are required by other majors or minors. Electives and GE classes are an important part of a good education, but we have already decided that what students learn in any one of those courses is not vital. (The exceptions to this are GE courses that are required for a major.) For some of us, this is every class we teach, but for others, we have the ability to choose to focus our attention.

2. Do not require synchronous work. Students should not need to show up at a specific time for anything. REFUSE to do any synchronous work.

3. Do not record lectures unless you need to. (This is fundamentally different from designing an online course, where recorded information is, I think, really important.) They will be a low priority for students, and they take up a lot of resources on your end and on theirs. You have already built a rapport with them, and they don’t need to hear your voice to remember that.

4. Do record lectures if you need to. When information cannot be learned otherwise, include a lecture. Your university already has some kind of tech to record lectures. DO NOT simply record in PowerPoint as the audio quality is low. While many people recommend lectures of only 5 minutes, I find that my students really do listen to longer lectures. Still, remember that your students will be frequently interrupted in their listening, so a good rule is 1 concept per lecture. So, rather than a lecture on ALL of, say, gender inequality in your Intro to Soc course, deliver 5 minutes on pay inequity (or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, if that’s what you need) and then a separate lecture on #MeToo and yet another on domestic violence. Closed caption them using the video recording software your university provides. Note that YouTube also generates closed captions [edited to add: they are not ADA compliant, though]. If you don’t have to include images, skip the video recording and do a podcast instead.

5. Don’t fuss too much about the videos. You don’t need to edit out the “umms” or the postal carrier ringing the doorbell. Editing is a waste of your time right now.

6. Make all work due on the same day and time for the rest of the semester. I recommend Sunday night at 11:59 pm. Students who are now stay-at-home parents will need help from others to get everything done, and that help is more likely to arrive on a weekend. While, in general, I dislike 11:59 due dates because work done that late is typically of lower quality, some people will need to work after the kids go to bed, so setting the deadline at 9 or 10 pm just doesn’t give them enough time.

7. If you use a textbook, your publisher probably has tests that you can download directly into your learning management system (LMS). Now is the time to use them. Despite publishers’ best efforts, these tests quickly float around online, so take a few minutes to add some anti-cheating protections. First, organize questions into test banks and have them fed to students at random. For example, if you want to ask two questions about pay inequity, select 5 of them from the test bank, and have your LMS feed two of them to students at random. This makes it MUCH harder for students to work together, because they will never get the same exact test as a peer. Second, change the wording on the questions so they can’t easily paste them into Google. In example questions, changing the name of the person in the example is one fast way to make the questions harder to locate online.

8. Allow every exam or quiz to be taken at least twice, and tell students that this means that if there is a tech problem on the first attempt, the second attempt is their chance to correct it. This will save you from the work of resetting tests or quizzes when the internet fails or some other tech problem happens. And since it can be very hard to discern when such failures are really failures or students trying to win a second attempt at a quiz or test, you avoid having to deal with cheaters.

9. Do NOT require students to use online proctoring or force them to have themselves recorded during exams or quizzes. This is a fundamental violation of their privacy, and they did NOT sign up for that when they enrolled in your course. Plus, they are in the privacy of their homes, sometimes with children who will interrupt them. It may be impossible for them to take a test without interruption. Circumvent the need for proctoring by making every exam open-notes, open-book, and open-internet. The best way to avoid them taking tests together or sharing answers is to use a large test bank.

10. You have already had some kind of in-class work, I’m guessing, so you do not need to further authenticate their identities on exams. If you are suspicious that a student is cheating–for example, someone was previously performing very poorly on in-class assessments and is now scoring very well, which might make you think that they’ve hired someone else to take the class for them–address that situation individually.

11. Remind them of due dates. It might feel like handholding, but be honest: Don’t you appreciate the text reminder from your dentist that you have an appointment tomorrow? Your LMS has an announcement system that allows you to write an announcement now and post it later. As you put your materials online, write an announcement reminding them of the due date to be released 24 hours before it is due. The morning of, send a note to everyone who has not yet turned it in. (In Canvas and Blackboard, you do this by going into your gradebook and right clicking on the header of the assignment. You’ll see an option to email all students who have not yet completed the work. It takes less than 1 minute if you are already logged in.)

12. Alert them to any material that is not appropriate for children to watch, including minute markers for scenes of violence or nudity. Again, you need to assume that they are doing their work with children in the background.

13. Make everything self-grading if you can (yes, multiple choice and T/F on quizzes and tests) or low-stakes (completed/not completed).

14. Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.

15. Listen for them asking for help. They may be anxious. They may be tired. Many students are returning to their parents’ home where they may not be welcome. Others will be at home with partners who are violent. School has been a safe place for them, and now it’s not available to them. Your class may matter to them a lot when they are able to focus on it, but it may not matter much now, in contrast to all the other things they have to deal with. Don’t let that hurt your feelings, and don’t hold it against them in future semesters or when they come back to ask for a letter of recommendation.

****

This advice is very different from that which I would share if you were designing an online course. I hope it’s helpful, and for those of you moving your courses online, I hope it helps you understand the labor that is required in building an online course a bit better.

Like what you read? Support it.

494 thoughts on “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online

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  1. Interesting take. I’m not completely sold on the major vs non major courses note, but I think the other points are great! The only point that you might consider is using the time you feed up to make yourself more available for individual chat time about class or life.

    — engineering prof with 2 small kids

  2. I am sharing this as an educator with others. I work with very young children. if this directive is for college students, you can imagine the stress of trying to teach them remotely. Thanks for giving permission to keep it REAL at this time.

    1. God bless the early childhood educators among us! You all are doing amazing work, and my wish for you all is a world of support, recognition, and fair pay. Thank you for your work!

    2. Odd that you’d take the time to post something nasty but not read something.

      This blog post is FULL of love for students. It says that we should choose our tech carefully so that we can teach them, rather than rushing to adopt all the newest tech that we aren’t trained to use and they don’t have access to and leave them behind.

      If you aren’t going to read, don’t comment.

  3. Pro tip: If you can’t be bothered to finish reading something, don’t comment on it. You just embarrass yourself when you admit to being too lazy to do so.

    I can tell you didn’t finish the piece. I’d encourage you to try it again. Here is the tldr version, though, in case you don’t get around to it:

    During the switch to remote emergency teaching that occurred in March 2020, faculty time was better spent connecting with and supporting students than it was trying to learn a bunch of new technology that students were often not going to have access to anyway.

  4. After reading through your article I can confidently say that I agree with a lot of what was said. I think many people are going to jump to conlusions with the title as well, but I actually thing the title is perfectly blunt for the situation. As a student myself, I found that rushing courses online in a synchronous format was atrocious and difficult to keep up with. I felt as though many schools were looking to normalize these classes into online formats even though this is supposed to be temporary (pandemic willing). I prefer asynchronous because it gives me the opportunity to learn at my own pace and not have to face stupid gotcha’s like tardies or being absent. I also like how you pointed out that many people will have LESS time than more despite being at home. This is a common misconception I feel, and I have expereienced it first-hand. I am working more hours and finding it difficult to have to show up at the exact perfect time for a lecture.

  5. I am not a teacher, i am a parent. I like this post. I have a college student who has an undiagnosed mental/ emotional illness which she tried to get help for right before she was forced into lockdown on her campus and then compelled ti go online this year.( seeking help at the campus counseling center was to no avail because she had to chase down the counselor by calling repeatedly and emailing only to be forced to wait a month between her first session and her second. Which happened only right before I had to get her from campus. Anyway the BEST thing you had to say was “don’t do too much. I can’t say enough what a living hell of a semester my daughter has with the insane amount of work and self teaching she has to do. One professor gave the class a both a500 word and 1,200 analysis of marketing case study to be completed in FOUR days. HOW for the live of Pete is this beneficial?? Add this to four more classes requiring discussion boards, of w page papers twice a week, 80 page reading assignments twice a week multiplied by two, and NO means to get a reasonable accommodation without contact with the now impossible to reach counseling service. My daughter is a Deans List student, perfectly intelligent and capable of competing the work if given additional time. Is this amount of work normal?? And have ANY professors taken into account that everyone is cooped up without the resources of a study hall or interaction with peers to unravel the mind. ??
    Jeez, STOP DOING SO MUCH!! Is there NO dictum of quality in the online coursework? Or is quantity the only measure that a student has learned the material.? Jesus guys just BREATHE and then maybe your students can too and than perhaps BOTH will be more successful.

    1. Thanks for weighing in with this perspective–and for advocating for your child.

      I’ll add to this that ANY student might discover a new barrier to learning that didn’t exist pre-pandemic/remote teaching/online teaching. Even students with already-existing accommodations might find that they aren’t the right accommodations in this situation. Overwhelmed DS offices, no matter how hard they are working, need more help to help students–and that includes faculty adopting universal design principles and also basic empathy–the ability to see from the perspective of students. As you say, everyone is more successful when we are using better measures of learning than “how much work?”

  6. “I can confidently say that this article is rubbish.” Then accuse me of not citing any research (not an insult to me, since this isn’t a lit review) while drawing only from only your own limited experience to tell me that my ideas are wrong? Your level of hostility is bizarre. I can’t image being as nasty as you are about a blog post that didn’t line up with my own experiences.

    I hope, for their sakes, your students can read better than you do and that you are kinder to them than you are to your colleagues.

    Stay away from the comments section, okay? I hate to delete comments, but your disrespect—not just of me but of those who here who have expressed gratitude for the work I’ve done on this blog—shouldn’t have to deal with your ego.

    1. It’s not difficult to distinguish between the style of a blog post and the generic demands of a peer-reviewers article. When men like Nathan insist that I shouldn’t speak authoritatively because my lengthy experiences and expertise don’t validate their narrow experiences, they aren’t offering a critique of my writing or ideas: they are being sexist.

      I’m fine with the title, and the reality is that it wouldn’t have been so widely read and therefore applied if the title wasn’t challenging.

      But your disagreement with that choice is noted.

    2. You agree with the OP that his one and a half semester of teaching online makes him an expert and that I should not speak authoritatively from my much more extensive training and experience?

      That’s the sexism.

      Oh, and claiming that I’m writing for a place of “emotion” and “fear”—as if emotion is bad or that concern for student safety is bad? That is also sexist.

      Or as if I’m invoking ONLY “emotion,” not years of thoughtfully engaging students as an online teacher? The invalidation of my professional experience in favor of a lesser-experienced man’s words? That is also sexist.

      Now, as to your last comment, why would I share your comments with my students? Is that a dare of some kind? Your comments aren’t even coherent. (What “audience” is reciprocating? This post has hundreds of positive comments and even more positive shares. So, some readers get it. And I write extensively about higher ed and politics, if you bother to read.)

      That’s the weirdest part of this for me: I can’t imagine reading something I disagree with from A YEAR AGO, seeing that it has almost 500 comments, most appreciative, and thinking I had anything more to add to the conversation, especially when what I was going to add is such an insult to the many people who said, “Thank you. This helped me so much when I was struggling transition to remote emergency teaching.”

      My guess is that sexism is part of the motivation for that behavior, but maybe you all are just really lonely during this pandemic and any engagement is better than none for you?

  7. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for the engagement.

    Note that this post is from March 2020, we were moving very quickly to remote emergency teaching. In that moment, we better served our students by streamlining the workload and keeping the tech simple, especially since students didn’t start the semester prepared with the tech to learn online.

    As you will see if you poke around on the blog more broadly, I offer ample support for teaching well online (which I’ve always argued for—even when, a year ago, I said we should keep it simple.) For example, you’ll find a mini series in here about designing thoughtful online courses.

  8. I understand where you are coming from in this article but my worry is that for many years educaters, particularly in the UK have used every excuse possible to avoid providing learning materials online to support their learners. As a teacher I been providing online resources for the last 20 years and have seen the massive way in which it can allow teachers to meet the needs of students across the whole ability range, providing extra support for weaker learners, more engagement for middle learners and stretch material for the more able. Some UK schools have now recognised that Covid has changed the education environment for good and that technology is here to stay. Others are still in denial and are convinced that once the crisis is over they can go back to the old ways rather than accepting they they need to embrace this brave new world.

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