Kevin Gannon

Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning and Professor of History at Grand View University

How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal

Full vitae coronavirus teaching online advice

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Well, this is not the semester I ordered.

My university, like dozens of others, has decided to enact a "social distancing" policy, effective after spring break. Starting March 23, our campus will remain open, but any gathering over a handful of people is discouraged, or has been canceled. All of our face-to-face and blended classes will be moved into a fully online environment. I knew we were heading to this point, but I’m not sure what I expected. Honestly, I’d silently been preparing myself for something like the parade stampede scene at the end of Animal House, with me and my teaching center collectively serving as the Kevin Bacon character screaming, "ALL IS WELL," before getting trampled.

In actuality, there’s a sense of calm determination on my campus — that, while this is a crappy hand we’ve been dealt, we’ll play it the best we can for our students and their learning. The stark reality is there’s not really a blueprint for any of this: "moving online" at such a scale, with breakneck speed, and often with merely hours’ worth of advance notice. (Maybe that’s why that movie scene was playing in my head.)

So what do we do? How do we "pivot online" and — to put it bluntly — not have it suck? How do we ensure that our students are getting at least a modicum of the learning experiences that our institutions promised them? And how do we do so as a faculty which, in many quarters, has little to no experience teaching in a fully online environment?

I wish I had easy answers. Yet it’s not impossible (really). From my perspective, as both a faculty developer and an online teacher at a university making this pivot, here are some suggestions for navigating this new, very weird, normal:

It’s OK to not know what you’re doing. Because, honestly, none of us fully do. When you think about moving your courses online in this particular context, it’s easy for your thought process to go straight to "I can’t even keep up with email; how the hell am I supposed to teach online now?"

But you’re not alone in this endeavor, and there is much collective wisdom in places like Twitter and other social media as members of the higher-ed community have offered to share resources, communication plans, and a variety of tips and tricks.

Particularly useful is the "Keep Teaching" community hosted by Katie Linder, executive director for program development at Kansas State University, and her colleagues at the university’s Global Campus. You can "follow" several groups within the community, including a faculty group that is already a lively exchange of ideas and support. On the local level, if your institution has a teaching-and-learning center, that should be your first stop as you begin to transition your course.

Good teaching is good teaching. I don’t mean to be flippant, but that is a general truth, regardless of the mode of instruction.

There is a nearly infinite number of ways in which a course can be moved from an in-person to an online experience, and what works for you will be the product of your own pedagogy, choices, experiences, and proficiencies. There will be tons of ed-tech vendors marketing themselves as the "solution" to our suddenly online instruction. There will be well-meaning colleagues (and Chronicle columnists like me) who deluge you with advice — Zoom! YouTube! Discussion boards! Facebook Live! Semaphore! — and it will begin to feel overwhelming. Don’t overload your own capacity, as this is hard work that we’re doing right now.

Good pedagogy requires:

  • Regular, effective, and compassionate communication with students.
  • Flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Transparency in course materials, like tests, assignments, and activities.

All three serve you well in your regular teaching, and all the more so now. As you pivot to an online learning space, those principles should guide your specific decisions about course materials, assignments, activities, and other nuts-and-bolts aspects of the course.

Keep it as simple, and accessible, as you can. A sudden move from in-person to distance learning is disruptive enough — there’s no need to add to it by introducing complicated, unnecessary tools and procedures.

Start with what you’ve already been doing online as a regular part of your course: email, maybe various functions of your campus learning-management system (such as Canvas), and perhaps Zoom or Skype video-chatting. Those are your foundation for going forward. If you add new digital tools, be sure to provide your students with guidance (detailed screenshot instructions, brief tutorial videos) as to how to use them.

But what if you don’t even regularly use your institution’s LMS? You probably will have to start. Your students will likely expect the LMS to be the "location" for this new incarnation of your course.

So start by contacting your campus LMS administrator, and see what you need to do to at least get going with the basics. If your institution is anything like mine, the LMS works with your student-information software to automatically create and populate sites for each course section offered. So you may already have a course site ready to go. Then it’s a matter of working with colleagues who have online-teaching experience (or teaching-center staff and instructional designers) to decide on the best way for you to proceed.

Whatever the case, be mindful that not all of your students will have access to high-speed internet if they’re not on the campus, and some will likely be using their phones as their primary digital device. At the very least, ensure that what you’re doing is mobile-friendly.

As the variance in internet availability demonstrates, accessibility becomes an even more crucial consideration when we move courses fully online. Captions, transcripts, and descriptive text should accompany media materials as much as possible, for example. The campus teaching center and disability-services office are go-to sources for advice and support in this area, and have a crucial role to play in any online pivot.

Expect turbulence, change your flight plan accordingly. These are not the circumstances any of us imagined teaching in when the year began, and it’s useful to acknowledge that to both yourself and your students. Recognize that it’s not a matter of if, but rather when, you will need to rethink things like grading, due dates, assignment design, and class participation. For a lot of us, a re-examination of what we think we mean by "rigor" is also in order.

As the variance in internet availability demonstrates, accessibility becomes an even more crucial consideration when we move courses fully online. Captions, transcripts, and descriptive text should accompany media materials as much as possible, for example. The campus teaching center and disability-services office are go-to sources for advice and support in this area, and have a crucial role to play in any online pivot.

Expect turbulence, change your flight plan accordingly. These are not the circumstances any of us imagined teaching in when the year began, and it’s useful to acknowledge that to both yourself and your students. Recognize that it’s not a matter of if, but rather when, you will need to rethink things like grading, due dates, assignment design, and class participation. For a lot of us, a re-examination of what we think we mean by "rigor" is also in order.

Online learning does not mean dumbing-down material. But it does mean that your course material — as well as the ways your students engage with it and learn from it — will look different. Some courses will become primarily asynchronous, for example, while others may preserve an element of synchronicity via video-conferencing tools.

There’s no uniformity to what all this will look like. You will have to improvise and adjust on the fly, as will your students. Be patient with yourself, your colleagues, and your students. Your newly online courses will be most successful if you acknowledge and work within this reality.

Online doesn’t have to mean impersonal. Most important, remember that teaching and learning are inherently social acts, that this is an eminently human enterprise. As Sean Michael Morris, a senior instructor in learning, design, and technology at the University of Colorado at Denver, has said: When it comes to online education, teach through the screen, not to the screen.

Technology doesn’t teach; teachers teach. There are lots of tech tools out there, and they can do some pretty cool things — but they’re still just tools. Ask yourself: How can you use those tools to remain present with your students within the course?

The best tool for a particular task isn’t always the newest, flashiest, or most elaborate one. Maybe email is the best tool for you and students to chat. Maybe it’s a WordPress blog or the discussion board on your college’s LMS. Maybe it’s videoconferencing.

Your own experiences and proficiencies will figure into your decisions, but so, too, should the tech capabilities of your students. Because the best tool is the one everyone can use. Regardless of medium, remembering to be human and allowing your students to do the same is essential.

I hope that the above principles provide some useful guideposts for your efforts in these unusual and trying circumstances. It may be inaccurate to claim, as Kevin Bacon did so frantically, that "all is well," but if we commit to the important principles behind our work, perhaps it will be soon.

Kevin Gannon is a professor of history at Grand View University and director of its Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. His Twitter handle is @TheTattooedProf.

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