Clarity, communication, connection: Priorities for our global pivot to online teaching


I’ve been thinking all week about what really matters as teachers everywhere try to reframe their courses in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Honestly, I think it all comes down to clarity, communications and connection. No matter the technologies we use, what really matters is that we do our best to lay out a clear plan, to communicate that plan to students, and that we do what we can to support our learners in ways that reassure them and enable them to stay connected to one another and to us.

I wrote a little thing for my colleagues at the Faculty of Education — it’s part reflection and part list of ideas for how to move to online instruction. If it’s useful, please feel free to share with others.

La version française ici.                                          


I think it is essential to begin by underlining that nothing about our current moment has precedent. We are all figuring out what this means; we are all feeling uneasy.

For this reason, we must acknowledge that any methods we develop as educators to maintain “business as usual” for our students can never truly accomplish this goal. Everything that follows in terms of the tips and recommendations I offer are informed by my beliefs that (a) good teaching is always about relationships, and (b) that in the midst of a global public health crisis that requires us to physically distance ourselves from one another, we should make pedagogical decisions that emphasize our humanity, and our capacity to connect in supportive ways. 

Networked technologies make it possible for us to connect with one another. However, it is also important for us to recognize that tech overwhelm is real, and that providing too many resources, or offering up too many opportunities for our students to connect can be anxiety inducing. In times like this, we might feel compelled to direct students to videos, free resources, and ideas for how to extend their learning from home. I would wager, however, that less of this will actually be more for our learners who need to see the clearest path from this moment of unprecedented upheaval to the accomplishment of their goals, both short-term and longer-term. 

This same sense of overwhelm can have a similar effect on us — the very people charged with creating the right learning conditions for others. Last week, when it became clear that Universities around the world were starting to transition to online instruction, my social media feed blew up with recommendations, resources, tips and tricks for what to do. People were panicked as they hastily worked to move face-to-face courses online. Some of my colleagues in EdTech started offering livestream drop-ins to share promising methods of online instruction and to discuss how to create the right learning conditions for all. These sessions went on for hours and hours, and I found myself wondering whether such approaches might actually contribute to, rather than alleviate, the sense of overwhelm that, as a community, we are feeling. Although the instincts to support, and to offer grounded recommendations are truly heartfelt and well-intentioned, I also know that large-group discussions can lead some people to question their own preparedness, to feel less well equipped than others, to compare their skills to those that others seem to have…and that this really can erode a person’s confidence. For this reason, I decided to simply share a Google Doc (revised into a blog post) with some thoughts for all of you. Nothing fancy.

Together, I know we have a LOT of expertise to share — expertise that might help us to clarify what it means to teach online in our Faculty. For anyone feeling unprepared or overwhelmed as they think about how to pivot to an online modality, please remember that YOU are the most important educational technology in any classroom — online or face-to-face — for your students (Gretter, 2017). The email messages or announcements you write to reassure your students, the provision of a clear plan, the intentional instructional choices you make to ensure they will finish out the semester — these are the things that will matter more than anything else. And so, dear colleagues, take heart! You are already enough!! You know the learning context, you know your students, you know what learning is most essential, you know how to make your learners laugh, and how to reassure them. 

To that end, here are a few ideas that anyone could use as they think through how to (re)design their lessons for the next couple of weeks. 

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Instruction

This is probably the most important decision for you to make — and the right solution for your course (given the quick turn-around time imposed by COVID-19 restrictions) may land somewhere in between these two approaches.

Asynchronous online designs do not require real-time attendance by students or by the professor. This means that students can complete the online work when it works for their schedule and from any Internet connection. Typically, asynchronous units of study can be designed in a learning management system (LMS). At uOttawa, we use Brightspace by D2L as our institutionally supported LMS. Many LMSs exist, however (e.g., Canva, Schoology, Edmodo, BlackBoard, Google Classroom). In my experience, every LMS has strengths and weaknesses — none seem ideal, none do everything a teacher wants, or in ways that seem immediately intuitive. So, if you hate the LMS your institution provides, you’re not alone 🙂 In my view, however, now is not the time to go searching for something better. Do what you can with what your institution provides and accept that a certain amount of satisficing will just be part of what this whole moment involves.To demonstrate my point, a baking story for you: Last night, we ran out of chocolate chips at our house because, well, I have been stress baking for five days (am I the only one who does this?). To keep spirits high around here, I made my kids their favourite banana cake for dessert. Without chocolate chips, I had to substitute with chunks of unsweetened chocolate because, well, it was all we had left in our pantry and, well, social distancing (why go to the store if I don’t absolutely have to?) The results? Well, the chocolate sort of tasted terrible — and yet, the cake is ¾ gone and two members of our family (who shall remain nameless) had it for breakfast.  So, it’s not the very best banana cake I have ever made…but also not entirely inedible. See what I mean?

Do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Synchronous online designs. Synchronous online activities require everyone in the class to connect through an online conferencing system at the same time. This approach typically leverages a digital technology such as Zoom, Adobe Connect, unHangout, Skype, or Google Hangout to create a virtual classroom that everyone can join into using a special code or hyperlink that the teacher generates and then shares with their class. Synchronous sessions usually involve video, audio and a space for chat, where students can type questions, or share links to resources that are germane to the class discussion.

Benefits of synchronous instruction include the ability of the prof to deliver an online lecture of sorts — keeping in mind that attention spans may be a little shorter even than they are in face-to-face sessions. Students can also see the prof, and see one another in synchronous sessions. Break-out sessions for small groups can be designed with some video-conferencing platforms, which can support student engagement and knowledge construction. Significant limitations of this approach, particularly when we have had to transition so quickly, include access and Internet speeds. We cannot necessarily assume that all of our learners will have ready access to Internet connections from their homes, or that they have laptop computers that have webcams. Most university students do seem to have smart phones, and most videoconferencing platforms do have mobile apps for iOS or Android devices that can be downloaded free of charge. For synchronous sessions, we should expect that many of our students will be connecting via Mobile device and that this will mean their ability to toggle between screens or to participate in some aspects of a synchronous session could be limited. 

Design Tips for Asynchronous Learning

Keep the structure of your lesson or unit of study simple. If you are designing more than one lesson or unit of study, be sure that you use the SAME structure every time. This helps learners to navigate the environment with confidence, which decreases their stress. Here is a quick screencast that shows you the structure that I have used in a hybrid course that I am currently teaching. Notice that I always begin with an Introduction to the topic and provide links to other resources, materials or activities that students will need.

Consider recording a brief screencast using a technology such as Screencast-o-Matic to show students how to navigate the online resources you have created for them. Explain and show them where they can find essential documents. Place this introduction at the top of your online unit…or in the Overview to your new online course environment so that students know to click on this resource first. Here is an example of a screencast that I have created in past to help students understand how to navigate their online course.

I would recommend keeping your introduction a bit shorter than this one. I should have broken this up into two separate videos…but you can get the gist of what I mean by watching the first couple of minutes.

To discuss or not to discuss : That is the question. Discussion boards can be the best and the worst of asynchronous learning. Given that there are only a few weeks remaining in our semester, you might consider asking students to post up resources, or discuss key ideas — but do keep in mind that the more you impose rules on how discussions should proceed, the more restrictive and inauthentic the discussion begins to feel for students. You might ask that everyone respond to a particular topic, or share an idea…but this might not be the ideal time to ask everyone to post and then respond to two other colleagues. Consider too, whether you want to spend your limited time reading and responding to all of those posts? Maybe you could encourage students to read a few posts and respond when it feels authentic for them. I find it is usually a good use of my time to read through the points shared in discussion and write up a synthesis of the ideas expressed for the class.

Connect with your students via email, and through feedback on their assignments. This may actually be the way to connect best with your students. Send them all messages that help them to stay updated on what is happening in your course. And maybe even take a little extra time when you’re grading their assignments. Given them a few extra bits of feedback that will help them to know you are invested in their development as a learner. In the fully online courses I teach, time and time again, students tell me that beyond anything else, feedback on their work is what they truly appreciate most. 

Should I record a voice over of a powerpoint lecture? Maybe. But if you can support the voice-over recording with a transcript of what you say, it will be more accessible for more students…and allow them to go back to review what you said as needed. Consider breaking up your lecture into smaller chunks. Shorter (like in chunks of 5-7 minutes per video) typically works better for more learners online. 

Design Tips for Synchronous Sessions

If you’re running a synchronous session, be sure to send out an agenda to your students for the synchronous course session in advance. Ensure that all of the links needed to join in, plus your plan for how things will be organized are outlined for students in advance.

A few norms for hosting successful synchronous meetings include:

    • Everyone who is able wears headphones to minimize echos in the online platform;
    • Anyone who is not talking puts their microphone on mute so that pets, children, doorbell etc. in the background do not disrupt the online meeting;
    • Before starting the online class session, check that everyone in the class can hear you. If you’re videoconferencing, you can easily ask learners to give you a thumbs up if they can hear you. That way, you can see who hears you…without everyone talking over one another; 
    • Questions from students go into the chat — and whoever is leading the discussion (professor or another student) refers to the chat on regular intervals so that questions are addressed. For large groups, you might even want to assign a student to monitor the chat and interrupt you when important questions come up; 
    • Expect technical difficulties. At the start of the session, tell students what to expect if things go sideways (as they often do). If the platform crashes, tell students where they can find the materials you have presented (maybe you will email it to them, or you will put it up in a Google Drive, or you will post it in Brightspace for them). If students lose their connection, tell them to leave and try logging back in as possible. It is unrealistic to teach and solve technical issues at the same time. Unfortunately, this will be one of the downsides of synchronous approaches — but there may be asynchronous ways for students to access the materials. Plan for these situations in advance, and let people know what to do so nobody feels stressed out when things don’t go exactly as planned. 
    • Consider hosting open “office hours” so that students who have questions can just drop in to the VideoConferencing environment to talk with you about their assignment, or about a course concept. 

If you have additional ideas, please feel free to add them in the comments section below. We’re in it together, doing our best with the time and resources we have to provide the best possible experience for our learners.

Stay healthy and stay connected, everyone.