Moving Face to Face Courses Online as An Emergency Initiative

For any institution of higher education who would like to discuss their current efforts and challenges to quickly move instruction online, you can reach the author at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

As colleges and universities across the country race to make wholesale shifts in a week or two from face to face to online educational delivery, many are discovering the challenges of such initiatives in the absence of adequate infrastructure, trained faculty, digital content, tech support, etc. What is happening today in many schools is a process that normally takes years and substantial resources. It is probably better to think of this new educational delivery as “remote,” rather than “online.”

I have personally built out online capacity, in some cases from scratch, four times in four different institutions going back to the mid 1990s through the mid 2010s. What I know from that experience is that while it is possible to create “band aids” in order to salvage a semester, it is not possible to create anything approximating a best practice online education operation in such a short time frame. Even in institutions with existing capacity for fully online delivery, unless most of the content delivered is already online, scaling up in a couple of weeks is basically impossible without substantial compromises to what their fully planned online education normally looks like.

In short, under the circumstances, there are extremely limited opportunities to leverage the powerful tools present in learning management systems. On the other hand, as a last resort response, it is possible to create a bridge that keeps students enrolled through the end of the term. In most cases, this bridge will be pedagogically weak (so weak as to be indefensible under normal circumstances), but as mentioned previously, the objective is not a best practice learning experience, it is short-term survival.

What to focus on if you only have a week or two to create an online course?

Principles

  1. Accept that the bridge to the end of the semester will not meet normal standards or even requirements for things such as attendance, contact hours, student identification, pedagogy, or even learning objectives.
  2. Focus on the lowest common denominator in terms of technology and process. Keep it simple. This is for students (who may have poor internet access of campus) as well as for instructors.
  3. Use anything that already exists and start from there: syllabus, publisher content, test bank, online discussion board, etc.
  4. Prioritize: communications, engagement with course content, and basic assessment and let the rest go.
  5. Accept low-tech and/or offline methods to achieve the minimum necessary and go with whatever hodgepodge combination of strategies get the job done.

This minimalist approach is critical not just because there is inadequate time and training, but because in most cases there will also be minimal or non-existent tech support, so all participants, students and faculty, will have to navigate their online learning mostly on their own.

Importantly, a course could be delivered online even without a learning management system (LMS) if necessary. See the information below for how that could work.

Communications

The most important issue for students and faculty will be communication. Most LMSs have basic, user-friendly systems for announcements, email (using existing email addresses) and discussion boards. Some have chat tools as well. In this emergency situation, a course could be delivered with only these tools. Faculty can share information and lead discussions using offline content such as an old fashioned textbook. Instructors can also link to external content on YouTube, Wikipedia, and to publisher content via the LMS communication tools. This is not the time to be elitist about where content comes from.

Course Content

This is the time to ask publishers for everything they have related to the course being taught. In many cases, such digital content already exists connected to a textbook, and often can be accessed via the publisher’s online platform. It is also a wonderful opportunity to engage students in finding and even creating content related to the course subject—in other words, the current emergency is a good reason to look at ad hoc online courses as “wikis” for students as well as instructors.

Although most online course content in an LMS is usually posted in folders designed for that purpose, often sequentially by week or unit, an instructor can also post a PowerPoint, Word doc, spreadsheet, other file or link within a typical discussion board post as well or can even send such information via group email as an attachment. One can even scan a hard copy document and upload that. Another option is for the instructor and students to sign up for a free “Dropbox” account where documents can be made available to the group. For brief lectures or demonstrations, any instructor can create a YouTube account and upload videos recorded with your computer or smart phone. The site can be open or password protected, with access provided only to students. Remember, this will not be polished, edited video content. It’s a way to quickly provide acceptable content under pressing circumstances.

If you do have access to an LMS, and you have the time/expertise, you can populate course content folders with any digital content available, but that is not necessary in the current situation. The same can be done via Dropbox.

Lastly, as a short-term survival strategy, this type of online learning requires a minimalist approach to the volume of content as well. It is an opportunity to prioritize what content and assignments are most essential to the course’s core learning objectives. Students will actually appreciate that. A way to think about it is if you were still teaching on campus, but only had half the normal contact hours available, what would you teach?

Assessment

Under the circumstances, any online course that didn’t exist two weeks ago, being taught by an instructor without the normal training, will be a bare-bones exercise across the board. Although all LMSs have assessment tools, it takes time to learn how they work and more time to populate the assessments themselves. Unless you have an option for a publisher assessment that can be automatically loaded or accessed on a publisher platform, a simple Word document will suffice, disseminated by email or the discussion board. Students can send completed assessments back to the instructor either individually or in groups if that is the nature of the assessment /project. Track Changes can be used to comment on the student work. For instructors with a little time and curiosity, you can create multiple choice and short answer “exams” through Survey Monkey and it’s free. Small assessments covering limited amounts of content are preferable to large, comprehensive tests, as are pass/fail approaches.

Nice to Haves

Institutions that can provide their instructors and students access to an LMS can also utilize tools such as gradebooks, “whiteboards,” embedded multi-media functions, course management functions, customized assessments, etc. However, in the absence of training and tech support, it is not a good idea to get distracted by the steep learning curve required, particularly without institutional support. Simple is better for now, so use familiar applications.

Third Party Tools

Fortunately, we are in a time in which many video conferencing and other communication tools are available and most can be used free for limited amounts of time and/or users. Tools such at GoToMeeting, WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Team*, etc. facilitate real time communication during which an instructor can deliver a lecture, with screen share, or a student can make a presentation, and students can also communicate multi-directionally. Even old-fashioned phone conference calls can facilitate basic, real-time communications. And remember, even though your on campus class would have been “synchronous,” your online version doesn’t have to be.

*Microsoft recently announced that their tool is available to any organization for free.

Other options include Facebook and Instagram groups, Google “Teach from Home,” G-Suite and GoogleDocs, etc.

Other Ways to Put Courses Online

Borrowing existing online courses, even if they were developed for other topics, is an option that can provide a developed template that can be adapted more quickly. However, if previous content cannot be easily removed or hidden, it will cause confusion. Another possibility is for a course that was taught on campus to join another section of the course that is taught online, even at another institution, or through consortia such as Acadeum Solutions, ClassCentral, Coursera, or even Udemy, which offers roughly 100,000 non-credit, online courses. Some helpful tutorials from KeyPath Education can be found here. It is also a good idea to pair “mentor” instructors who have experience with online education with colleagues for whom this is new.

What about courses that don’t work well online?

The fact is that some courses (theater, labs, dance, clinical courses, auto mechanics, etc.) are less amenable to online delivery, particularly when there hasn’t been time to plan or find simulation tools or local practical/internship opportunities. However, we are not operating in normal times and if we hold ourselves to normal standards/practices, we will simply have to cancel a large number of courses in the middle of the term. This article doesn’t provide the space for a full discussion on these types of courses, but there are ways of using recordable media, for example, that allow students to practice and demonstrate some physical and even clinical skills. While not ideal, instructor or other demonstrations may have to suffice for what hands-on student engagement.

As noted earlier, we cannot worry about secure identification of online students or fully meeting “contact hour” requirements or using the highest quality assessments. We are in uncharted territory and the reason the US Department of Education gave IHEs blanket approval to move instruction online is because this is an emergency situation and much of what ends up online will not meet normal DoE or accreditation requirements. The point is to salvage an academic term for millions of students while battling a public health crisis. The harm to students (and institutions) from losing the entire term is far greater than the harm of a temporary, suboptimal learning experience.

For any institution of higher education who would like to discuss their current efforts and challenges to quickly move instruction online, you can reach the author at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

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