The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way colleges and universities operate. With campuses closing, many instructors are now pivoting to online teaching for the first time.

When it comes to digital learning, Andrea Hendricks, Associate Department Chair, Online Math and Computer Science Department and Associate Professor of Mathematics at Perimeter College at Georgia State University is something of a veteran. Hendricks is currently wrapping up her 19th year teaching online and shares her advice to help those taking the plunge.

Top Hat: Given the speed with which campuses have closed, what’s your advice to educators who are moving quickly to teaching remotely?

AH: It’s important to manage your expectations for both yourself and your students. You might end up doing things that are outside your comfort zone that you would not necessarily do in normal circumstances, but I think that’s okay. It’s important to figure out what makes the most sense for your teaching style.

I would also tell anyone trying this for the first time to lean on others where you can – find a colleague who has experience in online teaching, use resources from your center for teaching and learning, or go online and search for resources to supplement what is already in your syllabus. A teaching buddy is another good option – someone you can collaborate with and share in some of the heavy lifting that a pivot like this often requires.

How should educators think about developing or transitioning courses and materials for a remote teaching environment? Are there steps or a process you follow?

An effective online course is one built with learning in mind. I generally determine my learning objectives first, and then build educational activities to support them to ensure my students always learn with a clear goal in mind.

It’s crucial that each piece of content has a purpose and that this purpose is communicated to students. When a student is learning away from the instructor, it can be difficult for them to understand the meaning or purpose of an assignment. So it’s important to focus on communication and making sure things are clear.  

Courses should also be designed with built-in opportunities for students to get continuous feedback on their performance and progress. There are some organizations that provide frameworks and checklists that I use often in my classes for these purposes (Quality Matters or Open SUNY Course Quality Review Rubric).

Remote teaching involves a combination of synchronous and asynchronous methods. When should educators use a given method? 

I use mostly asynchronous methods for interacting with students. When students choose an online course, they do so primarily because they cannot be at a specific location at the same time each week. 

However, I make every effort for students to know that I am available and willing to meet them in our virtual classroom. I hold my office hours in my virtual classroom so that students can drop by and “see” me. I also hold online test review sessions in our virtual classroom. 

I do not require students to attend these sessions, so I record them and make them available after the fact. I typically survey my student’s availability each semester to know when I should hold these sessions to maximize the number of students who can attend. I try to be as flexible as possible to accommodate those who may work full or part-time, or have other external responsibilities that make their daily schedule somewhat inflexible.

With the pivot to remote teaching, it is natural for face-to-face instructors to want to continue their normal class routine by meeting synchronously with their students at their designated class time. While I wouldn’t require it due to the current situation, I think it is a great idea to connect with students in real-time and to provide a sense of normalcy for those students who can attend

Organization is essential for effective remote learning. How do you go about organizing your content?

I’ve organized my course content in a couple of different ways over the years.

My current approach is to organize my content by units that are aligned to tests. If I have six tests in a semester, I divide the content into six units. Each unit contains an overview for the module, a submodule for each section, a summary/review of the key concepts from the unit, a set of review problems for the unit, and a test. 

For each submodule, I provide an overview of the objectives, activities for students to learn the content like reading assignments, videos, animations, homework problems, and a discussion question. I also make a point of including modules for Getting Started, Technology, and Tutoring Information.

Organizing by course by units rather than weeks makes it easier to transition to a new semester in case the weeks do not exactly line up.

How has your interest in learning science informed your remote teaching practice? Are their certain practices you employ consistently? 

There were some common themes that emerged through my personal research that have transformed the way I conduct my courses and the way students interact with the material. The practices from learning science that I employ include elaboration, generation, spaced practice, retrieval practice, and interleaving. Let me explain what these are.

Elaboration is the process of summarizing concepts in your own words and connecting these concepts to prior knowledge. I end each section with a discussion question that I call Elaborate and Connect where I give students time and space to answer some leading questions about the concepts and to relate how these new concepts build on or connect to prior material. 

Generation is the process of thinking and struggling with a concept prior to being formally introduced to it. I start each section with a real-world problem in which students have to think about a problem and how they could solve it, even if they don’t yet have the tools to do so. 

Spaced practice is the process of returning to a topic periodically over time. I employ this tactic by adding questions on each homework assignment that students missed from earlier tests and/or concepts from earlier sections that are essential to the course.

Retrieval practice is the act of recalling facts from memory. I implement this practice by incorporating quick checks throughout the assigned readings. After students read or watch a video, I require them to answer a simple question about that concept.

Interleaving is the process of mixing up your assignments with similar but related topics. Rather than “block” practice where students work on the same type of problem in the same way, I intersperse a related type of problem that requires students to retrieve information from their brains. 

The goal of these tactics is to lead students to deeper and long-term learning. For learning to take place, it must be effortful. These strategies overcome the illusion of competence which can occur when students are familiar with course concepts.

Administering exams poses a new challenge as educators contend with how to do this remotely. What are some of the options people should consider?

There are several solutions that can be used for testing that cover a wide range of options. Lockdown browsers can be used to prevent students from leaving the test during an exam. Automatic remote proctoring takes this to the next level by recording a student’s audio and video while the student is testing in a lockdown browser. 

Then the highest level of test security comes from using a live, remote proctoring service. Educators can also create test questions that are more conceptual and can also use pooled questions where each item on an exam is pulled from a set of questions, like Top Hat’s proctored tests and exams.

This is a stressful time for students and faculty. If you could give some advice to people taking their first steps into remote teaching, what would it be?

You are not alone. There are a lot of resources and people willing to help make this transition easier for you. Start off small and make a plan. And be easy on yourself. Do not be afraid to ask for help. I would also say to focus on one or two features that you will use for the rest of the semester. It is not practical to think that you can master all the tools in such a short period of time.

And remember, that at the end of the day, it really is all about your students and their learning. More than before, open and effective communication is paramount to their success. Let them know when and how they can reach you. Allow extra time for questions and working with technology, hold virtual office hours, send email reminders when you can, be patient with them – and remember to give it some time. This is an adjustment for everyone but completely doable with some creativity and the right tools. 

Above all, students want to know that you are concerned about their success which can be shown by being accessible, providing guidance and regular communication, providing feedback, and being compassionate.

Andrea Hendricks is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Georgia State University Perimeter College and Associate Department Chair for the Online Mathematics/Computer Science Department. After receiving a Master’s of Science in Pure Mathematics from Florida State University, Andrea has devoted her entire career to higher education, teaching and serving in various leadership roles for over 26 years. She has been teaching mathematics online since 2001. Andrea has published four traditional developmental math textbooks and recently authored a fully online, interactive text with Top Hat, College Algebra with Support.