Teaching an Online Class You Inherited

Thirty-seven percent of faculty are over age 55. The fact that so many faculty members can shop at their grocery store during hours restricted to those at high risk of serious illness from COVID means that campuses need to prepare now for faculty who use sick leave. Others will be using the Family First portion of the CARES Act to support leave to care for children or others.

This might mean that you end up teaching an online course you didn’t design.

Of course, there are all other kinds of reasons we end up teaching courses not of our own design. Teachers quit at the last minute or mid-semester, fall ill, get fired, or need to take family, medical, or bereavement leave.

If you end up teaching a course you didn’t design, you may be stuck with decisions that someone else made, including the required course materials, assessments, and course design (how the work is chunked into modules or units). You may be forced to teach a class that meets requirements that you didn’t establish, like General Ed requirements. You might feel a little stuck, especially if you are good at teaching students in this class and have success that you fear you can’t replicate in the course as it is designed.

To find a way to teach this that sustains you, identify

  • what elements of the course you can and cannot control
  • which elements you can excel at and enjoy
  • of those things you cannot control, which you can minimize
  • the online teaching threat against intellectual freedom and fee speech
  • the personal dynamics at play in the class

This post will consider the first three items; we’ll return to the others later this week.

What elements of the course you can and cannot control. This depends a bit on how far into the semester you are. Does the course start next week, or are you 3/4 of the way through the semester? It also depends on how much of the course has been established. Did your predecessor leave you with a semester that is laid out in advance, each part of it carefully integrated into a larger arc, made transparent to students from the start? Or did you open the next module and find it empty of content?

General class organization. Unless the class has not yet begun or if it is a total mess, you cannot reorganize it. Especially in an online class, students rely on the rhythm of a class; very quickly, they learn where materials are located online, when things are due, how much work they will be doing each week, etc. Major changes to that are disruptive.

That said, if a course is clearly a disaster when you step into it (and maybe that is even why you are stepping into it!), then a revamp might be warranted. In that case, consider what is most familiar to your students and will be easiest for them to engage. Typically, this is a module-by-module set-up, with all content related to each module within that module’s folder.

Assigned material. Unless you are handed this class months in advance, you aren’t going to be able to change the assigned material, and you shouldn’t try: books are expensive, and online students have to order them in advance to ensure that they arrive on time. You also need to use the materials assigned, or else students will have wasted their money buying it. If, however, the course was designed using open resources, you can select alternative texts. Here, though, I recommend against it if the course is carefully designed; unless you have opened every assignment, reviewed every exam question, and scoured future discussion board prompts, you don’t want to stray from what your predecessor intended. On the other hand, if the remainder of the assigned texts haven’t been determined (a syllabus full of “Readings TBA”), you have some more freedom. Stay within texts students already have (so, other readings from the anthology that they bought for the class) or items they can access for free (which you will then put into the LMS–don’t just direct them to the library or Google Scholar).

Assignments. If the syllabus has already been released to students, then changing the kinds of assignments or their relative value in a class is unfair. However, you can shape any upcoming assignments. My recommendation is to reshape the course so that work already completed contributes to future work. For example, if students have been keeping a reading journal, create a final paper that asks them to polish one of their entries into an essay. This allows them to improve upon their previous performance, which may be especially important if the former instructor left under unpleasant conditions.

Policies. Here, you typically have the most flexibility in making changes. If a course is already in session when you begin teaching it, consider if policy changes would be disruptive or welcome for students. In general, any policy changes should involve a loosening of restrictions, not a tightening of them. If you propose a policy change, consider first proposing it to the class and asking for feedback within 3 days, letting students know that you will ensure that anyone with an objection is accommodated. Rarely does a student object, and if they do, they are typically raising an issue you might not have considered. Ideally, you won’t end up running the class under two different sets of policies, but if you have to carve out exceptions for a few students (such as changing deadlines), it’s manageable. Again, as long as new policies are more, not less, flexible, they are typically welcome.

What you can enjoy. To a certain extent, you cannot be responsible for some of the outcomes of a class not of your own design. Consider that permission to enjoy the parts of it that you think are well designed or that you can redesign well and not worry too much about the parts you cannot improve (which you can explain in your annual review). Typically, restrictions on course design that you may be given will set minimums, not maximums, so you are often able to add more content to a course, provided it does not create more work for students. For example, consider if adding a discussion board where students can (but are not required to) share study aids will help boost morale or if a weekly optional synchronous tutoring session that is recorded and made available for students later will help. Or an “Ask Me Anything” discussion board where students can ask specific questions about a topic and you respond in real time; again, this would remain available for students throughout the semester, so those who didn’t login during the live session could still review it.

For your own sake, think about what makes a class pleasurable to teach and how you can add your own little stamp on it. This might be something as small as including an favorite quotation from the week’s reading in each reminder announcement you send about the upcoming deadlines.

What you can minimize. You likely cannot cancel major assignments and shouldn’t re-weight assignments. However, you can offer an alternative weighting, which I’ve found helpful especially if I am teaching a course midsemester in which students have been treated unfairly–for example, if there was no teaching but lots of exams or where papers haven’t been returned in enough time for students to learn from feedback before the next assignment is due. In cases like this, I have offered students the current weighting or the opportunity to select a different weighting, typically one that reduces the value of the work they have already done and increases the value of what is ahead. This allows students who have been doing well so far to keep with the current scheme but also gives students who haven’t been scoring well the chance to really change their grade. If you think that an assignment isn’t redeemable, consider making it extra credit or allow it to be step 1 of a larger, more meaning project.

I have found that if I’m honest with students about the situation (I am required to include assign this textbook. I want you to know that I see its weaknesses and share your frustrations with it. We will supplement it with additional readings and online lectures, none of which are required but that you might find helpful in explaining key concepts.), they are typically gracious. I avoid blaming a predecessor (though in cases of egregious misconduct that was visible to the students, I also think it’s okay to recognize that they were not treated respectfully–and that I’m here to right that) and work hard to assure students that they have learned more than they think already (if I’m coming in midsemester) and that we will get the chance to do good work together.

Above, Titian’s Repentant Mary Magdalene seems to ask the same question you may be asking yourself when you open the LMS of a class you didn’t design: Is there some way for this agony to be lifted from me? In the painting, her clothes fall off her as long blonde curls cascade over her shoulders. An open book rests on front of her, propped up on a skull. She lift her tear-filled eyes to heaven. 


2 thoughts on “Teaching an Online Class You Inherited

Add yours

  1. I absolutely hate having to teach other online courses. I don’t even like it when courses are strongly coordinated. (I am something of a maverick.)

    A few years back, I “taught” a purely online course that had been set up badly. It has actually been redesigned since then, but the class in general is the last one that I would think of putting online. (It includes an introduction to writing mathematical proofs, a topic which needs a lot of human feedback. An analogy in literature would be a poetry-writing class.)

    [I say “taught” because for online courses, especially where lectures are pre-recorded, I spend the vast majority of the time doing administrative work.]

    Another pet peeve is that I usually can’t get started until about a week before the semester begins, which means I have to do all of this and get things ready for day one.

    “Consider that permission to enjoy the parts of it that you think are well designed or that you can redesign well and not worry too much about the parts you cannot improve.”

    And borrow/steal parts that you find particularly useful. 😎

    “Or an ‘Ask Me Anything’ discussion board where students can ask specific questions about a topic and you respond in real time; again, this would remain available for students throughout the semester, so those who didn’t login during the live session could still review it.”

    This might be a good idea to use for the format for a class in general, if there are lots of videos already made up about the material. That is, let them watch informative videos on their own time, and then once a week, answer questions about the material. This also reduces the amount of time you devote to synchronize lectures.

    When reading through this, the question occurred to me: How do you set up your course so that someone who teaches your class will have as few difficulties as possible? That looks like the subject for a future post …


    1. I really appreciate your comments here! (And I’ll start working on a post about how to set up a class that can be taught by others easily)


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