The COVID-19 pandemic has put pressure on how the modern workforce operates. At the vast majority of universities and colleges, classes have either moved online or have been suspended altogether.

If you’re a professor who teaches hundreds (or even dozens) of students at an institution of tens of thousands, this can present new challenges—especially if you’re being asked to teach an online course for the first time. Thankfully, the move to online teaching can be relatively painless, even in times of significant disruption.

Read on to learn about what you can expect—and what to watch out for—if you’re transitioning to online teaching at short notice.

1. Be clear on your priorities

Before you plunge in, it’s good to cover the basics. Take a moment to go over your course materials. Are students able to easily find information on assignments and any instructions online? The same goes for assigned readings. Ensure you have a good foundation in place and take time to communicate this to students in case they need reminding.

Next, consider how you normally use your class time. Are there elements that are essential for you to deliver “live”? Are there components that can be recorded for students to view on their own schedule? This may be a good time to ‘flip’ your classroom and put more emphasis on assignments, readings and discussion threads. This way you can use any live remote communications to clarify issues and address any challenges students may have. The key, of course, is to be clear on your priorities and let this guide your use of online teaching resources.

2. Communicate and ensure students remain engaged in their learning

Make sure you take time to reach out to students to set the right expectations, including any limitations that come with technology or the challenges of having to move quickly to an online environment. The key is to get everyone on the same page and keep them there.

For many people, it’s hard to communicate if you’re not right in front of somebody. And it can be even harder to gauge a student’s level of engagement when you’re not seeing them every week.

Many online courses are set up on learning management systems such as Moodle or Blackboard, or on all-in-one teaching platforms like Top Hat. Adding a discussion forum is one way to help students connect with each other and the material. It may also be wise to add incentives for students to participate in discussions, especially if they’re not familiar with online learning environments. For example, consider giving extra grade points for meaningful participation and use the discussion forum as an opportunity to identify which topics are proving difficult for students.

3. Facilitate remote collaboration

Interaction among students may be the single most important element of successful online education. This is especially important at a time when ‘social-distancing’ has quickly become a part of our everyday vocabulary. There are other benefits as well. Collaborative engagement motivates learning and promotes a deeper and more critically aware approach to subject matter. Unfortunately, collaboration is one of the most difficult things to achieve when students are not physically together.

To encourage collaborative problem-solving, consider giving students a more specific task than simply commenting on each other’s ideas. Ask directly for constructive feedback about their classmates’ submissions, for example: “Focus on one claim in a colleague’s response that you think deserves to be developed in more depth. Suggest how that claim could be further developed and supported with evidence.”

4. Keep students actively working

Students have to be active participants in the quality, breadth and depth of their learning. As an instructor, you can help students by disciplining them in their own research. That’s “discipline” in the traditional sense, as in training. Solid independent research is a valuable skill for any student to develop

One way to do this: hook course evaluation into staged process work. Allot marks for the research and development phases—even towards the end of the semester—that you expect your students to be doing. If there’s no grade attached to this process work, they’ll suspect it’s not as important as you say it is and they may put in less effort.

5. Learn to manage your time

With the move to online learning, students will be left to interact with course material outside the confines (and comfort) of the physical classroom. This means they’ll likely have plenty of questions—and you won’t have physical office hours to assuage their concerns.

Depending on the size of your class, you may be inundated with emails—something that can become a serious time management problem. But it’s all in how you look at it. Consider it an opportunity to maintain a personal connection with your students and something that replaces office hours. To reduce student confusion and needless questioning, populate your online portal with plenty of explicit instructional guidelines and frequently asked questions.

If you find a question keeps cropping up in email exchanges, it may be worth sending out a group email or posting an announcement that heads off any further confusion.

6. Set yourself up for success

There are plenty of resources and people out there who can help you get started on the right foot. Reach out to your Center for Teaching and Learning, which likely has staff who can assist you with technology as well as instructional designers acquainted with online and remote learning pedagogies.

This may also be a good time to find a mentor. Connecting with someone who already thrives in an online teaching environment can save you time and unnecessary missteps, while offering up best practices that come with experience. Twitter in particular is a great way to connect with experts and gain access to a trove of helpful information. Follow these hashtags to get started: #remoteteaching and #instructionalcontinuity. And be sure to ask what your colleagues are doing. You may be surprised at what you can pick up.

7. Embrace a learner’s mindset

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially if you’re moving quickly to a new style of teaching. If you’re not already tech savvy, the reality is that you’ll have to do some amount of self-directed learning. Figuring out what works, dealing with technical issues and engaging students effectively is more of a marathon than a sprint. Be prepared for both successes and misfires and cut yourself some slack. The key is to learn as you go and get better over time.

On that note, as a professor, remember that your primary goal is to be a teacher and educator to your students. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have wreaked havoc on your lesson plans at a critical time in the semester, have peace of mind knowing your students and colleagues—and their counterparts across the country—are in the same boat. Ultimately, the more empathy that this situation is met with, the better.

To learn more about Top Hat’s suite of tools designed to engage students wherever learning takes place, click here.

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