#CovidCampus: Tips for Better Online Teaching

Dear Colleagues,

This is a short post summarizing some of the research I have done over the past few days in preparation to move my UBC classes online. I owe a debt of gratitude to all of the generous scholars who have posted materials on Twitter and elsewhere–most specifically Jacqueline Wernimont and Cathy N. Davidson for their Teaching in the context of COVID-19 document.

First, I think the most important thing to do is to work with what you know. This is not a time to learn new technology or pedagogy and you shouldn’t feel guilty because you don’t have the capacity to learn Blackboard. Luke Waltzer has a great thread on minimal viable course transition that you can find here. He focuses on email assignments, virtual office hours and basic human compassion. To that end, Rebecca Barrett-Fox has also written a very helpful piece (with the wonderful title, Please do a bad job of putting your courses online), which prioritizes student health over digital pedagogies.

Asynchronous learning has been the biggest takeaway for me in my weekend’s research. Part of being compassionate means being flexible with learning schedules–and our own capacities to record and publish materials. We have students whose parents want them to come home (or who are parents themselves), who have devices or wifi connections that can’t handle large packets of data (or they access the internet on their phone and have limited data), and who are very likely struggling to keep up with digital demands in their other classes. Further to that, recording even just a 30min lecture can be a ton of work and most of us just don’t have the training to do it without running ourselves ragged.

The research shows that, even in the best of times, asynchronous learning works best in digital formats. That is to say that you don’t need to deliver material at a scheduled time; in fact, it might even be better not to do so. Asynchronous learning basically means that you can record short lectures giving context (5-10min), or slide decks, and post them online for on-demand access. Students can engage with content using wikis, blogs, and email according to the schedule that works best for them (here’s some info from Femtech on generous peer engagement). As instructors, we can check in on the materials periodically over the week and record for participation and if students have questions they can book an online appointment (I’m using youcanbookme for scheduling). Ultimately, building an asynchronous digital classroom will give everyone a little more room to breathe, you included.

You may also, rightly, have concerns about proprietary software and the collection of student data. @touchfaith has an anxiety-provoking thread on Zoom and surveillance If you’re using Google docs or Facebook groups, you should be mindful of their data policies. UBC has its own policies about Google, but that’s mostly related to FIPPA and storage of personal information. That all said, as Jaqueline Wernimont has argued, this is emergency-management, so if you feel comfortable with proprietary tools, I don’t think you need to rule them out.

Commit to accessible teaching because it is criptechnoscience and disabled ingenuity that has made remote participation possible.”

-Aimi Hamrai, “Accessible Teaching In The Time Of Covid-19

The below resources emphasize accessibility in online teaching. By “accessible,” I mean low-bandwidth lectures, assignments, and discussions, that teach towards the challenges that students are currently facing. I draw heavily on the disabled ingenuity that provided for accessible online teaching far before Covid-19. Emphasis is on asynchronous learning and community building.

Going online is stressful for students and instructors. Here are some strategies to slow things down while facilitating community.

i) Know your Students: Survey your class to determine challenges. Do your students have machines that will handle synchronous lectures? Do they have broadband connections? Do they have accessibility requests? (e.g. transcription requests, image descriptions, etc.). What do they like about online teaching? What doesn’t work for them? 

Danya Glabau has a readymade survey you can use or adapt here.

ii) Rethink Synchronicity: synchronous learning doesn’t have to be a 3-hour Zoom lecture. Host informal gatherings in Collab Ultra; conduct live, text-based activities in Google docs, annotate a text collectively using  hypothes.is

Sophie Nicholls has put together a primer on using Google docs to teach here

iii) Chunking: think about how you can break your lecture down into smaller, “bite-sized” pieces, for instance in 5minblocks. Post these chunks individually or, if you are teaching synchronously, schedule in breaks between chunks and leave ample space for questions, comments, or bathroom breaks. 

If you are new to recording lectures, here is a great primer. 

iv) Shared note taking: Google docs is a simple answer to this. If your class is small and motivated have them take themtogether in a shared google doc. In a larger class, have the notetakers rotate.

Shared Annotation: You can also post your slides to hypothes.is and have your students annotate them together.

v) Easy to access slides: Share your slides, as a pdf or a URL,on a platform other than Collab Ultra (email, Canvas, or UBC blogs). 

Foreground Accessibility: Release your lecture notes as an accessible pdf or consider using a transcription service like www.otter.ai, include image descriptions when possible.

vi) Asynchronous discussion groups: If you want to do small group work that you introduce in your synchronous lecture, use Google docs, Canvas discussion groups. Discussions do nothave to happen in the space of the class. Leave them open for the day, or even the week. Don’t grade for grammar/typos inthese assignments. 

Text-based break out groups: You can also organize google docs into text-based break out rooms and have students report back. Prepare 4-5 URLs before class and email them out to selected students.

Here’s a few of the other resources I’ve found useful:

I hope some of this is of use to folks. Please share tips, links, and questions below.

Take care of yourselves and your students during this challenging time.

In solidarity.



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