Please do a bad job of putting your courses online

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.

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

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    1. What an odd assumption, that all my personal time should be spent on my teaching.

      But, yes. When I think carefully about teaching, my students benefit.

  1. Excellent points about the expectations one should not have of students and the struggles they may be facing at this point in their academic career. I used to work for Jenzabar.com back in the early days of online portals. Wish we had you on our marketing team back then!

  2. This also makes sense from a labor/management struggle surely to come. What if we do an excellent job of conversion during this time? Are we not giving management the ammunition to justify the Walmartization of higher education? So “good enough” is enough and may be more than they get a lot of the time when there isn’t a viral crisis.

  3. Right. This needs to be streamlined to keep everyone from wasting time. Until I read this I was considering a synchronous activity but see the futility of it. The class will now be different. The in-class oral quiz will now be a carmen quiz graded one at a time (which can contribute to close mentoring in a way group work cannot).

  4. Thank you for this piece. Since our university was forced to close– because the Governor took the decision out of the university’s idle hands– we’ve been in a scramble to figure this all out. I’m an adjunct in CUNY– a massive system with 26 campuses & more than a quarter million enrolled students (forget about staff, faculty, and others who use the campus resources). Last week when our college president mentioned the possibility of having to go online– I notified my students so we could address the issue immediately in what turned out to be our last face-to-face class. I was accused, by colleagues and others, of being too reactionary.

    Then since I am a contingent member of the faculty, our union started pressing for a guarantee that part-timers would be paid and I applauded our union’s efforts while expressing concern that the monumental task before us just that– monumental. I spend on average 10 hours a week in class and office hours. I spend about 30 hours a week already doing unpaid prep and grading time. I’m familiar with some of the basics of online learning, but I’m not trained in this. Then I was accused of trying to take advantage of an emergency.

    I teach writing– so a requirement. But I have students who are exactly as Rebecca describes– caregivers, parents, working class folks who will have their lives and livelihoods upended. NYC’s Mayor just noted that many New Yorkers– working class and lower income– can expect to lose up to half a year’s salary. Those are my students.

    If you read the advice instead of get on your soapbox– the advice isn’t just about the teacher, but the student. And then consider that many of your colleagues are like me: contingents. I have the luxury of a union to speak for me. Many of your colleagues don’t have that luxury.

    This piece isn’t about a license to “not to our job” as some folks in these comments have accused. It’s the exact advice I needed so I can take a breath and figure this all out– as realistically and reasonably as possible.

    This article is one of the best I’ve read and has some of the best advice. Thank you.
    ~Jessica

  5. Clearly meant to encourage teachers to reflect on their expectations of both their students and themselves in this crazy and unusual situation. It is an excellent list of things to seriously consider when scrambling to design your course to work online in this emergency circumstance. Teachers are totally stressing out over what to do. (I teach high school, but a lot of this list applies.) Breathe and realize you are not alone.

  6. As my school switched to online with only one day of “training”, this was EXACTLY what I needed to hear. Thank you.

  7. This is fabulous!

    I’ve done online summer teaching, and use Canvas regularly.

    I’m tenured and teach Sociology/GWS and this is some great advice.

  8. I disagree with this. We’re lucky enough to be able to do the job distance, can do so and are still being paid to do so. Some people aren’t so lucky to be able to keep on working through this. Structure is important – the synchronous element is structure giving, which helps enormously with mental health and we can live stream through Twitch – no need to record lectures and worry about IP. If normal society is on pause for a bit, keeping this sense of presence which isn’t as hard as i see some people making out is actually a community giving thing, surely that’s what we’re here for? Everything isn’t cancelled and this thing is going to carry on for a while. Don’t just down tools, what else have we got?

    1. I didn’t say we should do our jobs.

      You know your students best, but synchronous meetings as a course requirement are impossible for students who 1) may be quarantined with children, 2) may be in a time zone that is not yours, 3) lack access to high speed WiFi, a laptop, or a camera.

      If you insist on synchronous meetings, you are leaving those students out. I think there are ways you can effectively teach that so not leave those students out, and in this blog, I am encouraging you to choose them instead.

  9. “Please do a bad job of telling people how to teach an online course”

    This is clearly written by someone who is not actually a teacher. It seems like she has a degree in the philosophy of teaching but never spent a day inside of the classroom. Sure, she might have students. But they are philosophy of education college students. None of what she said applies to the real world…and certainly not to a real classroom. Throw books away and sign up for a canned soup drive… Girl, bye.

    How about advising face to face teachers to research “differentiated instruction” and learn to teach kids the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century classroom? Sure, a lot is happening around us in the world right now, but life—and education—must go on. In the real world, we don’t get to pick and choose when and how we do our jobs in the face of adversity. Children should be taught the same life lessons. In the end, they will have gained much more than a peek into the world of online education: they will have learned adaptability! Don’t sell children short. Give them more credit. They are much savvier than what you limit their intellect to be. And teachers—like myself—who have taught in Title I schools virtually the entirety of my teaching career will tell war stories of teaching children in a school that didn’t even have books. Teachers, like students, adapt. Give teachers more credit. This isn’t a sociology lesson on the psyche of disenfranchised children facing the coronavirus. Switch to a growth mindset…and please, start by changing that awful title.

    1. You might have taken just a second to do your research before you offered these criticisms.
      You might have taken 10 seconds to research my background before stating these (very incorrect) assumptions. I won’t correct them here—you can check out my CV or just google me. It’s not hard.

      What interests me more is the cruelty of your remark that “we don’t get to pick and choose how and when we do our jobs in the face of adversity. Children should be taught the same life lessons.”

      What a cruel way of thinking about the relationship between work and health. And what a terrible way to think about children.

  10. Ah, and I was thinking synchronous class sessions (video conferencing software) would be the answer….Not on their smart phones with data limitations. I need to reflect on all that was said here.

    1. Also, you’d have to make sure that your students are in the same time zone. You can’t ask people in California to show up to an 8 am session in New York.

  11. My 11th point:

    Don’t cave into your department’s suggestions of buying a $100 document camera or a $500 iPad… I am a graduate student and it was seriously suggested for me to purchase technology to benefit my online teaching.

  12. I’ve been an instructional designer, supervisor of other instructional designers, and a trainer-of-trainers. Been through the loops of heavily overdeveloped material etc.

    Over time I’ve come to just about all the same conclusions you described but, in some cases, maybe from slightly different directions.

    Online course work with no instructor has a place. That place is one where institutions sell heavily standardized and researched material to people who can’t or won’t come to classrooms (assuming they have a choice). Ostensibly, that serves as rationale for awarding certificates, diploma, etc.

    Seems to me that learning from LMS lessons work best when the content actually reflects what the professor/instructor thinks (vice what a non-participating instructional designer thinks about the content) and may also reflect the professor’s approach in face-to-face classes.

    Keeping the administrivia low and the number of alternative routes to completion high is a good way to deal with the “stuff” of students’ lives. Building something that demands several hours a day of reading online, answering the ubiquitous check-on-learning questions, doing exercises, ad nauseum is a sure way to repel all but the most dedicated (or frightened for the grade) and technologically astute students.

    New learning software has advanced to a point where it may very well help students who are learning fairly narrow technical subjects. Anything that can simulate thinking and actions in life accurately may also be useful to them.

    Ultimately, the challenge with technology-based learning is to go in knowing that the actual learning is up to the student. The professor (if there is one) takes on a somewhat modified role as guide and assessor of the students’ work.

    Professors, instructional designers, et al need to work together on building presentation items, exercises, tests, and whatever else the professor believes will enhance learning. Teachers and instructional designers living in different towers brought us to a place where “professional turf” is an issue that doesn’t contribute to learning.

  13. AbFab. You’ve done a great job. It seems to me we already do enough work when we teach in person but to redesign our courses now to make them online is way beyond what we are paid for. Let us do the best we can and help our students do the best they can. If students have questions, we’re always there to answer them. I know I am.

  14. I don’t think people understand: you can be “low tech asynchronous” and still be highly accessible to students.I’d rather spend my time in emails and phone contact than in technology overload.

  15. This is all very good advice. The biggest thing I’d change is the “11:59 Sunday” deadline. I’d say, especially the first couple of assignments, give them a nice bonus for getting it in by 11pm Thursday. If they run into tech issues, they can contact you Friday during business hours. Not-as-nice bonus for getting it by Monday at 9am (or whenever you sit down to tackle grading/evals, especially of long-answer material). Deadline COB Monday. This gives them two business days to deal with not just you, but also the institution’s IT department and its inevitable hiccoughs … and gives you the heads-up when it actually is an issue and not the dog eating somebody’s homework.

    Sunday nights for parents are, as often as not, full of “oh I need a couple dozen cupcakes/costume/science project for school tomorrow …”, as well as busy for your aforementioned service and public safety workers. They may have a co-parent to cover, but they also may not.

  16. Thank you for this specific helpful advice. But could you change the headline? I would love to share with colleagues but it’s too inflammatory and disrespectful of their Herculean efforts to serve students. I posted on Facebook and my friend commented:
    There are good points. And good tips. But, I have to say, the headline made my chest hurt after a long and painful day of reassuring students who were crying with grief at having to pivot hard away from their educational expectations. I would have been so much happier to see a headline that said “Please be responsive to your students’ realities when putting your courses online” even though it would be a much unsexier title.

  17. Well intentioned! However i don’t think a “ghost classroom” where the instructor isn’t present will serve anyone well. Yes, i took a masters online like that. And yes I have taught online for over a decade. Please remember that the most important part of a class is the human connection you have to your students. Your students will desperately need that human contact. Record those short lectures. Offer up plentiful “office hours”, by phone is fine. And keep that link, this will be an enormous help for them.

  18. Love this! I am going low tech asynchronous. Being not tenured, not sure if I will survive this approach; but, I have to be there for my students. It is time we stop assuming they can handle anything tech we throw at them. They cannot and it is absolutely not fair. This is not equitable.

  19. This is great advice! I worked for 20+ years in online graduate education. This is completely the direction that I have been thinking in response to the need for classes to go online. I fear that instructional designers and ed tech teams will not be able to loosen up their vision of online ed and let these initiatives be something different–a skunk works, if you will.

    Brilliant article. Thanks.

  20. Great article, thanks. By the way your quote is actually not by William Penn but by Etienne de Grellet, who also was a Quaker.

  21. Are you kidding me? NO! No, no, no, no, no. This is not about you, your compensation, or even the job the school is doing with its response. This is about your students. Your students, who paid a LOT of money to take that course. Your students, who cannot get a refund at this point in the semester. Your students, who still need to graduate on time due to financial aid restrictions, job obligations post-graduation, etc. Your students, who need to be kept safe from this pandemic by staying away from the nation’s largest and most densely packed public institutions. Your students, who still need some sense of structure and normalcy to keep them moving forward during this stressful time. I taught college for three years and I am working hard to get back in. I loved it and would have done anything for my students. You can’t predict what the university will do to help students with financial aid and job considerations, but there’s a lot you can do to help them right now. Let the ones who have other obligations finish the course later, and focus on doing all you can to help those who can continue learning. When you signed up to teach, when you let the institution that hired you take your students’ tuition, you made a pact with the school and the students to deliver the information in that syllabus to those students. Now hook up your webcam and do your job. This is not. About. YOU.

    1. Sarah, I strongly believe that the advice I share here—all focused not on the burden to faculty but on the material needs of students—will produce good outcomes for students. I’m not advocating not educating them; I’m arguing that we must keep the barriers they will face in mind as we figure out how to keep being their teachers.

  22. Common sense and real talk; thank you.
    I shared with our faculty at my community college and I hope it reminds us all that grace is what we need a large dose of right now… 🙂
    Thanks again for putting this out in the world.

  23. Really appreciate this advice. No one can learn if they are stressed out, and it’s important that we do not let institutions use this crisis moment as an excuse to break up our communities of learning together in favor of some dystopian online “education” forever. Education is achieved with other people in the room and in real time. Be careful about posting your lectures and notes and slides on university sites because you don’t want to have the Uni claim them as institutional property too. Take care of yourself and the people in your community. There are not enough respirators for vulnerable people to let us behave otherwise.

    Off to look at Larry Udell’s “rate my professor” page now 😀

  24. Yes, I too think I overstated it, but you can’t edit on here. I was reacting to the downplaying the importance of certain courses. (I doubt that the author included her courses here!) But as it goes on some is good, although most is pretty obvious. In fact, a large portion of what is going up online can be summed in one simple directive: be reasonable.

  25. Good advice. Those of us who teach online all the time anyway will be OK, but lots of our colleagues will really struggle–as will students. Great information to pass along to people upon whom online instruction is suddenly being foisted.

    1. Thanks! I’d add that even those of us who are already online will have to recognize that our students’ lives are changing. They might be used to being online—but not to having kids home from school or being out of work.

  26. I think Larry, above, overstates things a bit. I really appreciate your post! Since most professors are overachievers when it comes to student learning and many love the material they teach (because=professor) there is stress about getting through the awesome material and making sure students get the education they are in college to get. This makes going online rough because we know so much of the classroom experience can’t be translated to the online (and also because the timeframe is so tight.) Your post does a great job pushing back against these feelings to get to what’s important. I assume everyone will try to do more than they can manage because they care about their students, so I appreciate the firm push back your post articulates if only as a useful countermeasure.

  27. Absolutely the worst advice I have yet received, although mixed it with a lot of truth. You seem to think we should just write the semester off. I don’t do that sort of thing.

    1. Not at all!

      I think that good teaching can only happen when we recognize the material condition under which our student learn. All the high tech stuff doesn’t work for students not ready or able to learn online. So my advice is: Don’t waste your time with it; devote yourself instead to teaching them in ways that you will reach them.

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