By Marley Duckett, University of Saskatchewan
Two days before I was scheduled to teach a graduate class on campus, I received a message from my colleague and the primary teacher for the course. He had been sent home to quarantine. I read the message, incredulous. Yet he might have the novel coronavirus I had recently learned to call COVID-19. Schools across the country closed a short time later, and many universities (mine included) restricted classes to online only.
What was a typical semester rapidly morphed into a completely new teaching experience. Two stressors summarize what I’ve experienced and observed with the transition to teaching remotely so far. First, the pressure to adjust to online classes quickly and efficiently has been difficult to manage. Second, suddenly creating online learning forums can be intimidating, especially for instructors who are already nervous to use technology in the classroom.
Having my co-teacher in quarantine didn’t immediately affect our class; I was already scheduled to teach that week’s lecture. In the days following, however, we had to scramble to adjust guest lecturers so they could deliver their presentations virtually. We altered assignment deadlines and modified content for classes heavily focused on group activity. Participatory learning can be hard to do when the person next to you isn’t physically there!
At first, I understood “teaching remotely” to simply consist in taking my existing lectures and somehow “putting them online.” I pictured Mr. DNA, from the Jurassic Park franchise, popping up on student laptops and explaining to them how dinosaurs were created. Nothing would have to change; my lectures would just be online now. Easy, right?
But in actuality, I scrambled to research online teaching forums that would magically capture the sentiments, stories, and nuances of my lectures and make them digital. I read about how other instructors use one or another program to remaster computer codes into trendy video-collabs wherein instructors grouped together to give virtual seminars in style. Eventually, we set up a virtual seminar on the WebEx platform specific to our university. In addition, our final project was to be delivered online and we could provide summative feedback through email.
Over the following week, I came to accept that teaching remotely, and using online teaching forums, is a different kind of teaching. Online teaching forums should be used as tools to enhance your content, rather than as a make-shift raft for your current materials to cling to while you hope your content is delivered. Through your course’s online platform, you can provide substantial resources to supplement the content you might have otherwise delivered in a traditional lecture. Most importantly, structure your classes so that your materials follow a pattern, and create routine in your online class environment.
One of the easiest ways to establish routine is to break up your lesson materials into smaller chunks. “Chunking” is effective in creating manageable teaching tasks, especially for instructors who need to create online lesson content quickly. Say, for example, that I am delivering a lecture on fieldwork methodology. First, I might post fifteen relevant terms and definitions. Next, an article discussing the theory about ethnography. I might also include a short video of myself telling a story from the field. Finally, I will include a discussion question or reflection prompt that students will post to an online discussion board.
These chunks represent a variety of teaching strategies that most instructors already use in their lesson planning—memorization, reading, media materials, and group discussion or writing with critical thinking. Breaking the lesson into smaller chunks allows for students to follow the course material more easily. The instructor can build lessons quickly by using the main threads of their original lectures for each chunk, and students can anticipate the work they will need to accomplish by learning the pattern of the online course.
While shifting to online teaching can be daunting in itself, there is the additional pressure to continue to teach well. As in the standard university classroom, there is a risk of hour-long lecture videos falling flat with your audience. Students may become disengaged because online delivery often lacks the rapport that is often the outcome of in-person learning. While students would normally make the effort to attend lectures in person, digital learning requires a different set of expectations. Students might balk at having to sit through long, pre-recorded lectures where they are expected to passively receive waves of information.
Consider also that just as instructors are scrambling to adjust to teaching remotely, many students may also be new to online learning. Many of us are struggling to work effectively and efficiently in the delicate context of a global pandemic, and students are no different. It’s reasonable to acknowledge these new stresses as you build your courses for the spring and summer terms. Consider adjusting your course expectations, as this is a difficult time to learn new things. Tell your students that you are willing to be flexible, and that you need that same give-and-take as well.
The suggestions I’ve provided here I have either used myself, or they were shared with me by fellow instructors who found the tools useful for digitizing their lectures on short notice. Programs such as Google Classroom, Padlet, Draw Board, Panopto, Zoom, TopHat, and Remind are excellent tools for remote course delivery. They all use varying degrees of discussion forums, group study building, video uploads, or conference calling technology. Your university will likely provide similar technologies. These additional tools may be alternatives when high volumes of use render university platforms unreliable.
Some additional resources are posted at the bottom of this article. Just like in any other classroom, it might take a while to find your stride as you navigate these new experiences, so be kind to yourself—and dare I say, have some fun!
COVID-19: updates for Canada’s universities (University Affairs)
COVID-19: nouvelles des universités canadiennes (Affaires universitaires)
Doing an OK job: navigating teaching in the age of COVID-19 (University Affairs)
Faire le nécessaire : enseigner au temps de la COVID-19 (Affaires universitaires)
A digital survival kit for transitioning your course online (University Affairs)
Bulletin du Laboratoire d’histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal (UQAM)
COVID-19 and the Academic Workplace: Questions & Answers (CAUT)
La COVID-19 et le travail académique : questions et réponses (ACPPU)
Resources for researchers and clinicians fighting COVID-19 in Canada (COVID-19 Resources Canada)
Ressources pour les chercheurs et les cliniciens luttant contre le COVID-19 au Canada (COVID-19 Resources Canada)