Pictures of computer cables crossing each other

Going Online

The following is a preliminary version of an article (or advice email, or whatever it’ll be) that in a couple of days will probably go out through JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation, my employer. But until then it’ll go through a couple of checks and revisions, and I thought I should circulate this draft a bit sooner, in case people who are currently working on transitioning their in-person classes to online formats. This means I should add the following disclaimer: this version represents my own viewpoint and not that of James Madison University. In particular, the introduction will probably be replaced with something more, ahem, sober. I hope you’ll enjoy it nevertheless.

Oh, and I should mention the amazing and intrepid work of the JMU Libraries, who are creating the backbones support structure to get JMU faculty up to speed about online learning, particularly Christie Liu, Eric Stauffer, and Elaine Kaye. Elaine and my colleague Emily Gravett provided valuable feedback on the piece, (though all errors and foolishnesses are my own fault).

All comments will be appreciated!

So you’ve bought all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, rice, cheesy novels, and gummy bears that you could find and afford and are ready to face any hurricane, snow storm, campaign rally, Justin Bieber concert, or space invasion that may come your way. Oh, and that pandemic.

Gulp. I know. Nothing like reading the news from Italy to get a reminder of your own mortality. A quick check of the calendar and, yup, you are now in the age range in which COVID-19 may create some actual damage.

And like at other institutions, your employer moved basically all classes online. Within one week. That’s the right decision, but also a major stress on top of an already stressful situation. What should you do? Here are some suggestions:

You’ve Got This … and Help

Good online teaching takes time to prepare, and it takes a lot of time to implement. In other words, the bad news for us is that changing from offline to online teaching at short notice and maintaining the same high-quality teaching quality is, er, difficult. In some cases online instruction may be almost impossible (though I try not to underestimate the ingenuity of faculty). Furthermore, creating online learning experience on the fly is unlikely to lead to the best online teaching. But the good news is that JMU faculty—you!—are excellent teachers who know their subjects well and who are experienced and skilled in the classroom. I am confident that in most classes you can create a meaningful online learning experience even on short notice, with some creativity and thoughtfulness, as well as some help. You can get that help in workshops offered by the educational technology specialists in the JMU Libraries ( for a frequently updated list, see here) and consultations with instructional designers in the Libraries and CFI experts. Even if you are working from home, some workshops and all consultations can be conducted online, which as an aside may provide you with an opportunity to try out some of the tools that you can use in your classes as well.

To Be a Good Teacher, Take Care of Your Own Needs

While we tend to focus on student needs first at JMU, you should make sure to consider your own professional and human needs, as well. While you will succeed in creating good online learning experiences, how will you balance your other time commitments, considering the added time required to teach well online? Will the added emphasis on online teaching conform to the performance area weights that you decided on at the beginning of the semester, according to the Faculty Handbook (see section III.E.4.a)? Would you be able to turn some of the learning materials developed now into an online course offered over the summer? Talk to your academic unit head about these matters! Consider sharing resources such as online lectures, quizzes, or other activities with instructors teaching similar classes at JMU or other institutions; in response to COVID-19 concerns, faculty in several disciplines are organizing such exchanges through social media.

You may also want to plan ahead for possible work from home. While JMU is still up and running and faculty and staff are expected to come to work, there may be more occasions where you may have to work remotely. How can you arrange your home so that you have a home office or office corner that is conducive to productive work (and to recording online lectures)? What work hours (and non-work hours!) will be most effective to you, and how will you negotiate them with your partner/family or other community members who may need to know. If you have children that you care for, how will you combine university work with childcare work, for example if schools or day care centers are closed? How will you make sure you focus despite the usual home distractions—and take enough breaks as well? What do you plan on doing to cope with the stress caused by additional work and the health crisis? What do you plan on doing when you get sick yourself (though we all keep our fingers crossed that it won’t happen)—who are the members of your support network that will help you get through? (And do they know?) (Consider a CFI Career Planning consultation if you need ideas, feedback, or bounce off some ideas.)

Take Care of Others as Well

“Be kind to your students” is a recommendation that is valid at any time, but particularly when they face sudden changes and uncertainties. Some students may have left their textbooks at school when they left for spring break and now cannot access them; others may not have the technology (laptops, wifi, etc.) at home that they need to participate in more bandwidth-heavy class activities such as synchronous online lectures. Mental health needs of students are at an all-time high to begin with; the COVID-19 crisis is likely to increase those needs. The JMU Counseling Center remains open, and faculty should familiarize themselves with its resources so that they can point students to them as necessary.

I have experienced our students to be curious, interested in learning new things, and eager to do good work. Let them know that you appreciate their willingness to explore new ways of learning. Tell them clearly what you are doing and why. Ask them for feedback about how the learning experience looks like from their end, and how they would change it.

If you are a department chair, center director, or otherwise in positions in which you can support faculty, consider how you can support faculty as they are teaching in less-charted waters.  In particular, though not only, pay attention to the needs of part-time faculty who may not have the resources to seamlessly move their classes online. Are there departmental laptops that faculty can use? Are there departmental faculty development funds that can be used to purchase software, microphones, or other technological needs? What ways are there to compensate faculty who put in extra work into their teaching? Is there cause to review and possibly adjust Faculty Anticipated Activity Plans (FAAPs) to reflect the increased emphasis on teaching?

Be Prepared!

Do the readings: Grab yourself a cup of something hot and dive into the variety of advice written up by your colleagues around the world. Among my favorites are Michelle Miller’s widely-shared Chronicle piece, Donna Lanclos’s reminder of Being Human OnlineMaha Bali and Mia Zamora’s crowd-sourced Google doc, and Sean Michael Morris’s meditation on the ethical foundations of online teaching. These pieces contain plenty of hands-on resources but also keep the big picture in view. Obviously, the JMU Libraries’ Temporary Remote/Online Teaching and Learning Guide is necessary reading as well.

Go over what you need to teach online. What are your technological needs? Do you have a microphone that lets you record your voice clearly? Do you have a camera that actually works well? Do you know what software you are going to use and how it works? Do you have access to it? Do you know who can provide you with assistance on how to use it? (Library Tech Support, that’s who can do this.) Do you have all the class materials in a format that can be used online? Do you have the emails of your students, so that you can reach them even if they don’t have wifi at home and can’t make Canvas work on their phones? What am I missing?

Accessibility Is Important

While online classes can be made accessible to students with disabilities—in fact, in some respects they can be more readily made accessible than in-person classes—this requires some planning (subtitling video lectures takes time, for example!). Added to this, online classes may come with additional hurdles for students who do not have the resources to obtain some of the technology that instructors may want to use. Do not assume students have access to WiFi or even laptops at home. Do not assume that students’ cell phones have sufficient cellular internet to watch long video lectures. Classes that are advertised as online or blended classes can require students to own necessary technologies; if we move classes online in an emergency, we cannot do so.

Besides following Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines, instructors may want to collect information from students before embarking on online classes. An anonymous survey, for example, could be used to collect information on what accommodations students usually employ online (e.g., subtitles, written scripts, increased fonts, etc.) and what resources they have at their disposal (laptop? camera and microphone? iPhone or iPad? WiFi at home?) In addition, such a survey could identify what technological skills students have and what support they will need to fully participate.

Some of the practical recommendations that I found important in my own online teaching: 

  • Make content available to download and in file sizes that are as small as possible. 
  • Provide text-based alternatives to visual content.
  • Prioritize asynchronous over synchronous activities, so that students who do not have WiFi at home can participate whenever they can connect (even if it’s in the parking lot of a public library or a McDonald’s).
  • Let students write responses by hand and send a picture of it. 
  • Check the recommendations provided by JMU’s Office of Disability Services, particularly regarding accessible media and technology.

Pedagogical Needs Should Determine Technology

Before jumping head-first into moving classes online, think about what you want students to learn and what they have to do to learn. Online education requires careful, long-term planning (for example through the programs provided by  the JMU Libraries’ Online, Blended, and Distance Learning) just as in-person classes require careful, long-term planning. Even if we have to change an in-person class to an online class, our technology choices should be pedagogical choices, guided by learning goals and objectives and clear strategies towards achieving those objectives. Remember: simple  is okay. We don’t need to be high-tech about everything in an emergency.

As in the previous section, I use our own experiences for some examples: 

  • In a class that used lectures, quizzes, Q&A, and short discussion questions to help students understand and use class concepts, short recorded lectures (up to 10 minutes) were combined with online quizzes and various discussion boards. Lectures can be recorded through TechSmith Relay (available through the Libraries) or through video conferencing tools (such as Zoom or WebEx) that enable screen sharing and recording, or directly in PowerPoint. Quizzes and discussion boards can be run through Canvas. 
  • In a large class, small-group and plenary class discussions were used to help students practice analyzing and criticizing current political questions. Students were split into groups of 5-6 students, had to watch a video, and then engage in Canvas discussion boards in their individual groups, based on a set of specific discussion questions. After the small-group discussion, one member of each small group represented the group in a plenary discussion about the same questions on Canvas. 
  • Another class helped students identify different sides of a controversial topic in a debate activity through WebEx; two students at a time conducted the debate via live video while the other students watched, listened, and contributed questions through the chat box that were discussed
  • To help students read critically, another class used the collaborative annotation tool

Technology does not have to be complicated or techie: A lecture can be delivered as a lecture script that students have to read; their reading can be checked through a short response paper that they send via email. Online discussion can be conducted through email and reply-all. Small group work can take the form of student peer review that is delivered in the through a review form created in Microsoft Word. To brainstorm ideas and get feedback, we encourage faculty to sign up for a consultation with members of the CFI team or the Libraries.

One particularly tricky pedagogical issue in online education is assignments. We are used to giving high-stakes exams that are in-class, closed-book, and proctored by the instructor, in large classes often with the help of teaching assistants. This is difficult to do in online classes, though the JMU Libraries have some recommendations on how to do this (with up to 25 students) via WebEx. Maybe it is worth taking the criticisms of high-stakes “objective” exams at heart and embracing take-home assignments that give students the opportunity to demonstrate higher-level learning outcomes such as analyzing, criticizing, or creating content.

Online, Everything Has to Be More Explicit (No, Not That Way!)

In the classroom, we can (and do) improvise at the spur of the moment, based on how students respond. If they don’t understand a discussion prompt, for example, we can explain, and if responses are not forthcoming, we can reframe the question. Online, that’s more difficult. We have to think more carefully ahead and be very explicit about what we want students to do. To do so, it may be helpful to follow an explicit framework, such as Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT). In practice, this can mean fairly simple things, such as discussion board prompts that clearly explain what students should and should not do (posts should be 150 words or more; “I agree” responses don’t count; and the like), ideally supported by a (simple) rubric that can be used to quickly provide feedback. Students have to be told clearly what they should do first (“watch this video lecture”), what comes next (“click here and take this quiz”), and what follows it (“find a scholarly article about something that exemplifies what the lecture is about, post the reference and short summary on the discussion board”) and how it will be evaluated. It’s worth learning how to use Canvas to guide students through these steps. In addition to explaining what students have to do in the class, it is helpful to tell them how much time they should spend. In class, time is very clearly compartmentalized; that’s much more difficult to do online.

Community is also something that has to be created explicitly in an online environment. This is something that requires quite a bit of preparation and work. Students will have to interact with the instructor and with each other repeatedly, in a variety of ways. Video recordings help students and instructor create more personal presences in the virtual classroom; examples are regular mini-lectures in which the instructor explains what’s involved in a particular virtual class meeting, or student video responses on discussion boards (which can be easily done in Canvas). Build student-to-student interactions of various sorts into the class activities. And hold online office hours, for example through WebEx; in my experience, it is important at first to invite individual students to office hours, as many find it odd to connect with their professor via video messaging. Technology seems to create a hurdle that is more difficult to overcome than an open office door.

Finally, it is important to clearly communicate changes to how students are graded that are necessitated by moving the class online. Explain the reasons and how the grading is connected to what students learn! Communicate with students online, but also revise the course syllabus accordingly and communicate these changes with your academic unit head. This way, grade appeals are minimized and you make sure that you unit head is aware of why you do what you do if there is an appeal.

One Last Thing

I know that the current situation is stressful in many ways. As noted above, we all have to take care of ourselves and make sure we stay healthy (to the extent we can influence this) and balanced. Moving online in a hurry is not a good way to create effective online learning, but in the current situation it is the right thing to do. Having acknowledged this, though, I hope that you will experience some of the wonderful moments that can occur in online teaching, for example when an otherwise quiet and seemingly detached student suddenly becomes more involved in a discussion board, or when the quality and depth of student contributions increases as the class has more time to think about their responses than what is available in a short class meeting.

(Image credit: Kabelsalat by Wolfgang Stief AKA stiefkind – creative commons licensed,

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