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. Many contingent and adjunct instructors don’t have the luxury of refusing to do what they are told to do by their employers. I wish you would at least acknowledge that here.

  2. I’ve taught online quantitative classes (math and statistics) for the last 20 years. Your points are well stated. I would encourage faculty (who are not used to teaching online) to prepare lecture summaries with links or at least citations back to the textbook. Students do not need to be provided with entire lectures as they would experience in a classroom. If you must, consider posting a podcast and providing a list of questions that they can use to self-assess their own learning. I also prepare data exploration exercises to allow practice, and a solution set so that answers can be checked. Since I know where students will find challenges, I provide a list of tips to help them self-correct and move along in concept mastery. They can still ask questions (and I encourage them to do so) but making mistakes and figuring out how to fix them is empowering and a key to any learning process. And your caution about not getting carried away with building a complex online course is excellent. Especially for students who have not taken online courses, they should not be challenged with multiple layers of technology. Occam’s Razor applies.

  3. I’ve taught online since I retired from teaching Nursing FT 11 tears ago!!. I’ve always enjoyed online “stuff”, but I know many do not. I thought what you had to say Rebecca was great….at first I thought WHAT?? BUT then as I read more and more into different thoughts & concerns….YOU DID GOOD!! Thank you for sharing your ideas/concerns/suggestions!!

  4. Thank you.
    It is brilliant. I feel this same all the way.
    I love my students and I will support them. All of them.

  5. One follow up thought – asking students in an anonymous way about their access to technology can show sensitivity to their current variable predicament. I did an anonymous poll for my students and asked very sympathetically and non-judgementally about access to electronics and software and I have had many students thanking me for even considering they may not have access to what they need.

  6. Good information. Thank you for taking the time to research and post this. I have read it through and did not think about a lot of issues you wrote.

  7. As a professional instructional designer vested in designing, developing, and implementing high quality opportunities for teaching and learning, I say…
    THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS.

  8. Excellent piece, with some generous, helpful advice, Professor Barrett-Fox. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Nice batch of helpful suggestions. Extreme circumstances do require extreme measures. Having been a student who had to work while going to classes has made me aware of the pressures of daily lives and the demands of meeting student needs.

    We’re not teaching under ideal conditions and it’s not reasonable or feasible to impose the same standards we normally employ. Thanks for these great reminders.s

  10. I came to the startling realization last night that I was being asked to do something which I have purposely not gotten involved with for a reason. Your sentiments match my conclusions, so I appreciate your expressing your thoughts on the matter and knowing that you’ve had 14 years of experience on which to reflect. I also so appreciate your reminding us of the condition of the students. Yes, they’re very busy with their families and often without a computer, or a printer, or paper, or ink!

    Thank you

  11. As someone who has taught online for 14 years and knows what it takes to design and deliver such a course, I have been horrified at some of the misinformation being spewed out by colleges, about how they’re going to “just switch” to teaching online courses. No, they’re not! Faculty can only do online, stopgap measures at this point – not full online courses. As I read your highly informed article I kept saying to myself, “Yeah! Yeah!” You totally get it, and you are the voice of reason!

    1. I’m hopeful the experience will help those who don’t teach online start to understand the labor and thought involved.

      I’m glad you found this post encouraging!

  12. Interesting set of comments. I will repeat my earlier recommendation: you are critical for your students right now. You do need to record short videos about the material. It will help them learn, it will connect them to “normality”, and will be a lifesaver. Moving your class online will help your students academically. As noted here they will have multiple life challenges, and having flexibility in when they see a lecture, do a test, or submit an assignment will be a huge benefit for them. And have weekly office hours. It is fine to offer those synchronously. You will get 80% of the students and can catch up to the others at times that work for them.

  13. Rebecca, thank you for the perspective and recommendations! I recall long hours at the library during my undergrad and grad programs because I didn’t have a computer. If I was a student now, I would be forcibly unemployed due to this situation. Now as a young professor, I try to design courses keeping in mind most of the concerns you’ve stated here. You’ve definitely earned a follower!

    Too bad for the haters in the comments section- they could have contributed to creating better solutions rather than knocking someone who’s trying their best to support other faculty and students. That headline certainly got a wide readership, but the target audience, I’m sure, read past the headline and learned from your experience. Thank you again!

    1. Thanks for the encouraging words!

      As for critics, they’ll always be there. What’s been encouraging is seeing how many people are working hard to see a fuller picture of their students’ lives. I’m hopeful about what we’re doing together!

  14. Regarding “ Online instruction can be a very enriching experience. And only those who haven’t participated in it fully think otherwise.”

    The point Rebecca is trying to make is that it’s impossible for students to participate fully if this health emergency creates stresses leading to family issues, childcare issues, health problems, housing pressures, financial stresses, and lack of preparation for an online class.

  15. It’s interesting to read the comments from those who think this is a commentary about online learning in general and those who understand this is in response to the rapid emergency switch because of COVID-19. Two very different conversation threads merged into one. Hmmmm….

    1. Especially since I am a big advocate of online learning!

      I think some folks are illustrating the challenge of online teaching: getting folks to read before they talk.

  16. I remember when the Slide Rule Manufacturers railed against the threats by the unproven and potentially stultifying technology called the “pocket calculator”. Progress often advances in fits and starts. (What you are having is a fit.)

  17. I’ll echo the advice you’re giving here about length of online video lectures, based on my own experience teaching online for 8 years and producing YouTube lectures, and what Quality Matters has to say about it.

    VIDEO LECTURES DO NOT HAVE TO BE 5 MINUTES OR LESS TO BE EFFECTIVE. The 5-minute rule got established as a talking point over a decade ago, and then just repeated. It never was universally applicable. And it’s usually unhelpful. So just ignore it.

    Students will actually watch video lectures over an hour IF the content and delivery are engaging. You probably don’t want to push it to that extreme, but 10-20 minute lectures are fine and appropriate for most classes and subjects. Quality Matters doesn’t give an actual time-length for video lectures. Instead, lectures should be an appropriate length for conveying the information.

    Voice-over powerpoint (and right – use Camptasia, or better yet, drop your slides into video editing software, and do voice-over in there (I use iMovie) is ok. In fact, for some disciplines it might be just what you need. Having a face of human figure is usually more engaging.

    Your video lectures don’t need to be anywhere close to perfect to be effective. If your content is good, production values aren’t that vital. Don’t worry about whether you have “ums” or “ahs” in your video lectures – students are ok with that.

  18. Okay but like…I paid a shit ton of money for an education and I expect my professors to put in some effort to provide that for me despite what is going on. I’m not without sympathy for them and I don’t expect a miracle given these circumstances, obviously, but I also don’t think this “oh yay now I have an excuse to ghost all of my responsibilities as a student but still ‘earn’ my degree” approach is helpful, either. Extenuating circumstances should be made on a case by case basis; you don’t lower a standard for everyone just because one person has legitimate problems; you work with that person and figure something out.

    1. I list more than a dozen ways to teach well in these circumstances.

      I recommend channeling your frustration into efforts to lower tuition and cancel student debt.

  19. At times, some faculty members piss me off. As an Academic Advisor, I am told and expected to constantly do more with less, pull rabbits out of hats and squeeze a dime out of a damn nickel. We ask a faculty member to do an online class for two weeks so students can continue their education and they are ready to revolt. #ShuttheHellUp

    1. If you don’t want to engage—which is what telling others to shut up is—then don’t post.

      Labor solitary across the university is going to be the only thing that saves higher ed, so I share your frustration at austerity.

      But this post isn’t about refusing to teach—it’s about doing it with a focus on students right now. Go ahead and read it and then decide if it aligns with what you do as an AA. I bet it does.

  20. Bravo! This virus is a godsend to upper administration and state legislatures who would love to see Higher Ed reduced to an online experience. Big Brother Learning is coming.

  21. Found this piece really helpful, but Rebecca’s responses to the trolling/sealioning amongst the commentariat made her my hero.

  22. Much greater thought should have been put into the title of this article. I don’t think (and I hope) you aren’t implying that instructors put very little thought into the educational experience their students have as we move forward in this crises. These students have paid for instruction, believing they would receive the very best their chosen university has to offer. Watering down instruction cheapens everyone. Yes, it will be more work for faculty, yes it will be a pain in the neck for the time being, but so what? Man up everyone. Online instruction can be a very enriching experience. And only those who haven’t participated in it fully think otherwise. I don’t think anyone is advocating instructors ignore the needs of their family during this time. But we can all do our jobs effectively AND take care of our personal lives. It isn’t either/or. And please, please, don’t read the title to this article and think it is a get out of jail free pass to do as little as possible.

    1. Go ahead and read the article and then decide if the advice is helpful in creating a student-centered approach to the situation.

  23. Also, keep in mind that many students need to maintain a certain GPA for scholarships. As you assign final grades, adding context to your calculations so that anyone on the fence lands on the right side of the grading scale.

  24. Pingback: SBAI Writing Group
  25. “Social isolation contributes to domestic violence.”

    Meaning what? If your students are home they will abuse people?

    citation?

    1. Meaning that when men are home for extended periods of time, especially if they become unemployed, they are more likely to abuse.

      I’ll let you find the citations. Should be easy enough.

  26. As someone who has helped thousands of professors incorporate online learning tools over the last decade, I think there are some great points here, but I also believe this is a stellar opportunity for educators to provide a sense of normalcy and purpose to students whose lives are in flux right now. Do your absolute best to bring your style into your online forum and use this as a spring board to continue with technology once face-to-face instruction resumes. Your students’ futures will thank you!

    Most publishers (Pearson, MHE, Cengage – Cengage also partners with OpenStax to offer online tools with OER content, et al) are offering their online platforms for free for the remainder of this semester. And if you would like help accomplishing your goals with these tools, I’m happy to do a consult. It’s truly a passion of mine and I’ve seen instructors have great success without being totally overwhelmed.

  27. I don’t know… Most of my students are traditionally aged — and disoriented by having their lives turned upside down, as are we all. I had a synchronous class In text and context (a GE course but also the gateway course into the English major) yesterday – and I warned them in advance that I am largely a technological idiot and that glitches would happen. But it was a very human and gratifying encounter — with five minutes at the beginning so they could say where they were in time and space—They were in Arizona, Illinois, California, etc. I told themI was in my kitchen and pointed to the microwave in back of my head and lifted my coffee cup to them in a salute .
    At the end I told them there would be more asynchronous writing with responses from me but that I was willing to continue to hold class synchronously at least weekly. They all said this would be convenient for them and this is what they preferred since so much of life felt abnormal to them right now. I will continue to hold “office hours” online and have put up a sign-up sheet on google docs. During this time I will do 15 minute one to one Conferences about their writing — and will no longer use in class time for writing workshops, but instead will use it to concentrate on the literature we are reading. That’s my story for today — and I was gratified that I was able to learn blackboard collaborate well enough in 48 hours to stumble through. As I said, it was a very human experience — at the end they all thanked me – via chat comment – which doesn’t happen Every day.

  28. Thanks for this, helps to confirm I’m not crazy in thinking that a lot of the recommendations from above about how to deliver content to students in the next few weeks was unrealistic/stupid/ineffective.

    You don’t mention it specifically here, but I’m going to really limit testing and instead do more creative projects connected to the material. For example, I’m teaching learning theory to a lot of psych 101 students, I’m going to have them create a behavior modification plan for themselves or a family member. Its low-tech, can be done across a week when they have availability, and should produce something potentially useful for the student. It should be harder to cheat on this as well.

  29. I get it. I do. There are good points in this blog post and most I agree with. My issue is that more than likely 80% of the people who see this post shared on social media will not read it. They will go from the sensational headline and will make a snap decision and judgment before even clicking the link.

    What perception are we giving others about public education and teachers when we share these types of sensationalist headlines? What good does this do when those in power are not advocating for public education? Is this not just giving them another reason to try and decimate public education? That our teachers are saying they are not going to do the best job they can for students in a crisis?

    I don’t believe you are helping public education in sharing this type of mentality. We do what is best for our students in whatever the situation. Again, I agree with many points in this post and believe having students in school is the best for all, but if it comes down to any school having to close the doors due to situations, please do your best for your students….your kids…..my kids….

  30. Eight years ago I taught my first online course, caught students cheating on homework 2nd week. They challenged their F by saying they should get credit for the initiative of locating the instructor’s manual online.

  31. “Did the time spent on writing this article help your students learn?”

    No doubt it helped many students learn by helping their teachers not completely exclude them from class!

  32. “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. ”

    Let me guess, you were raised on a steady diet of “don’t care what other people think, just study study study then ???? then success!!!” and now you’re too busy not caring what other people think to care about what low-income adult students know (and therefore think) about their circumstances…

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