By: Gina Riley (Special Education) & Shiao-Chuan Kung (Center for Online Learning)
The COVID crisis has created an “emergency” online teaching situation for faculty. This post contains insights gained by Gina Riley (SOE) in her many years teaching online courses and by Shiao-Chuan Kung (Center for Online Learning) in her many years helping Hunter professors design online courses.
Clarity, consistency, and communication
When transitioning to an online learning environment, think about clarity, consistency, and communication. Clarity and clear communication are key. In an online environment, we need to be clear regarding what we are asking our students to do and when we are asking them to do it. We need to set expectations in terms of method, frequency and etiquette in communication. We also need to be consistent regarding class times, deadlines, and due dates. Writing instructions in step-by-step bullet points and stating the same ideas in different ways can help students better understand what you mean.
Use one tool at a time
When using online technology for the first time to teach, it is important that we think about the “one tool at a time” rule. This is your students’ new classroom space, so we (as faculty) want to have some expertise in that online space before we introduce students to another new space. Whether you pick Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, Zoom, or WebEx, it is essential that you know the online environment well before you welcome your students into that environment (ACERT programs can help!). Then, once you and the students are comfortable with the use of one tool, you can introduce a new online tool.
Synchronous tools may feel easier, but in the long run, students get much more out of well–planned asynchronous online modules (via Blackboard or another learning management system). Online modules are guided learning experiences that you design for your students. They are more convenient for students with hectic work schedules or family responsibilities and can be completed by the deadlines you assign. Synchronous real-time sessions can then be used as an addition to the asynchronous class.
Your online presence
Remember that a fully online class is different from an in–person class, so the first thing you want to do when planning an online class is to adjust your syllabus. If teaching asynchronously via Blackboard, what does your online week look like? Gina always puts up new modules for her students on Sunday afternoon, and all assignments are due on Saturday evening. (That way students have one full week to absorb the content and complete the required assignments). In terms of participation online, students know she is on Blackboard every day except Saturday, and that they should expect feedback on their work within 24 hours of submission. In this way, Gina utilizes Mondays for grading; therefore, students know to look in the gradebook Monday afternoon to review their progress in class. Your online week may look differently. It’s important to communicate what your participation online may look like to your students. On Blackboard, you can do this within the Announcements tab.
If you are teaching synchronously via Zoom, your online week should also have consistency. You should be meeting at the same time each week. Recording your meetings is best practice, so those students who can’t attend can still access content. Gina has “ground rules” for Zoom participation, including the requirement of having video on at all times so that she can see students are fully present. Meetings should have structure and an agenda which should be communicated to students. For example, she takes attendance early on in meetings, which provides students a chance to say “Hi!” as well as to check their mic/audio. Then, she usually does a mini lecture, and all students know that during this time, their mics should be off. They then proceed with a class-wide Q & A session, and then breakout groups. As you can see, ground rules, consistency, and structure are as important in an asynchronous classroom as they are in an in-person classroom.
Thinking about how your office hours look in an online environment is another consideration. Gina does office hours via Zoom. Although some faculty utilize the waiting room feature on Zoom so they can have private conversations with students, she tends to have an “open door” policy in her Zoom room (just as she has in her office). Students come, hang out and learn from each other. If they need privacy, Gina asks that students make an appointment to talk via phone, or make an appointment for a private one-on-one Zoom conference. The nice thing is that she always gets more students in an online office hour space than in the actual physical office!
Multisensory online teaching
Online learning should never be one dimensional. It should be as rich as an in-class session! One way to make online modules fun and enjoyable is to add multisensory elements to them. For example, after creating a weekly online module, Gina always asks the following questions. Does the module has audio, visual, and kinesthetic components? Have I included images within the module? What about screencasts or podcasts? Have I given students a kinesthetic or field-based activity to do outside of the online realm, and have them reflect on it within the online classroom? Have I created multi-tiered, multi-leveled discussion questions? Have I asked students to create multisensory projects instead of the standard semester paper? Online learning can be dynamic and interactive, but it does take some extra effort. A multisensory online class makes things more accessible and adheres to UDL (Universal Design for Learning) standards.
As a special educator, Gina is always aware that online materials must be ADA compliant and accessible to students with disabilities. Video captioning is available within Zoom, YouTube, and Screencast-o-matic to accommodate those with hearing impairments. VoiceThread allows students to hear our voices and see our faces instead of just reading text, as online classes sometimes get very text heavy and extra challenging to students with learning disabilities. YouTube and VoiceThread generate automatic captions that can be easily edited for accuracy later. When she uses visuals, she also always adds alternative text so that screen readers can access a description of the visual for students with visual impairments.
Enjoying the journey
These extraordinary times challenge us to be creative. It is our hope that you take this time to really enjoy and utilize new online tools you have learned about during this time of transition. Being exposed to online learning will make you a better professor, both within your traditional classroom space and online. ACERT and the Center for Online Learning will always be there to provide you with the support and encouragement you need to teach effectively in every classroom situation. 🙂