Emergency Online Teaching: An Introduction

Some of you know me, and some of you may not. Among other duties, I work with Academic Services here in Vancouver to provide faculty support for teaching online. While we generally provide guidance either one-on-one or in workshop settings, the current situation is unique enough that over the next weeks I will be writing a number of posts providing guidance to faculty on how to teach online in the sort of emergency we find ourselves facing.

These are not directives, but they are based on over two decades experience with online and hybrid instructional design, working with institutions from Columbia and MIT to state institutions of various sizes. I hope they are helpful to you as you figure out how best to deliver your course.

Care at the Core

A friend of mine has a lovely phrase about teaching. Teaching, she says, is a profession with “care at the core.” Successful teachers realize that their students are whole people, of which we only see the tiniest sliver. That doesn’t mean we have to be the student’s therapist or life-coach. But it does mean we must structure our instruction around the complex lives of our students.

Never has that been so important. Consider the shocks to our student’s lives in the past week alone:

  • Primary and secondary schools have closed, and many of our students are now acting as caregivers to children, siblings, cousins. Their schedules and availability have changed.
  • As of this morning, tens of thousands of Washington workers in the service industry are out of work. Their financial futures are uncertain. They may be looking for other work to make ends meet, and are almost certainly spending time navigating the bureaucracy to get unemployment pay (often navigating child care concerns at the same time).
  • People’s houses and apartments, which may have provided a sufficient place to study in the past, are now filled with parents working remotely (who may need the family computer to do so), children home from school, other siblings home from college.
  • We are seeing reports in the media that many people with mild anxiety disorders (a very common disorder) find anxiety rising to unmanageable levels in the current environment, making it difficult to focus or function.

This is just a selection of current concerns. And it’s likely to get worse the further into the semester we get, with a significant portion of our students dealing with the illness or death of someone in their family or social circle.

I mention these things not as an expert on the pandemic, but because a fundamental principle of instructional design is it must take into account the situation of the students we wish to instruct. And once we see this situation clearly, a number of design principles become clear as well.

Focus on the Five Year Goal

Many faculty realize they are going to have to streamline their courses. But where do you start? How do you know what to remove or change and what to keep? I’d suggest you start with the Five Year Goal.

What it the Five Year Goal? The late educational theorist Grant Wiggins had an exercise to begin design of a class. “Imagine two students,” he said, “one has had your class, and one hasn’t. They both encounter a situation five years after you taught this class that is relevant to your course. How does the student that has had your class approach the situation differently? What insights or skills do they bring that the other student does not?”

Whatever that thing is? That’s the core of your course. That’s what you need to deliver on.

This is admittedly harder in highly sequenced material such as math, or many sciences (and more on that in a bit). But for many courses, focusing on that Five Year Goal, and not necessarily content sequences, can be clarifying and a bit reassuring.

As an example, I had an introductory sociology professor tell me once her five year goal was that students understand that “looking at a social problem structurally reveals things that can’t be revealed by looking at individual action and motivations alone.” In an ideal world, she would teach that through Baldwin, Benjamin, and Weber. But we are not in an ideal world. If the mandated outcomes of your course allow, consider alternate ways you might teach and assess that objective. You might choose, for example, to have your students apply their skills and disciplinary insights to questions around this current pandemic, and assess them via discussion board contributions or weekly writing rather than subject matter tests.

As I mentioned, many subjects make this harder because of necessary skill sequences, but if you have this flexibility, consider utilizing it. Metaphorically, our courses are in the emergency room with a broken leg, and we’re not going to run that marathon next month. But if we can focus on what’s most important, we might be up and about by semester’s end.

Provide Flexibility

As mentioned above, our student’s lives have changed dramatically in the past few weeks, and the commitments they made at the beginning of the semester in terms of availability and study environment may be impossible for them to honor.

For this reason, it’s important to provide flexibility in instruction. As an example, requiring that students view a particular lecture at a given time is likely to doom our most vulnerable students to failure. That doesn’t mean you have to give up presenting at a certain time on Zoom. But it does mean you want to make sure students know how to view the recording, and that students are not disadvantaged by not attending the lecture online at a certain time.

In fact, if possible, we’d encourage you to think outside of lecture video altogether, especially if this is not an area in which you already have skill. In instructional design, we sometimes talk about the KISS Principle: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” The idea here is because we’re never as smart as we think we are (and never have as much time as we think we do), when possible choose the simplest option. And the simplest option is often the most flexible.

For example, you can make a Word document that students can download that asks them to read or view certain content, then fill in answers to questions on the document, applying course concepts to new material. You can then supplement that with small and short Zoom discussions with students (10 mins, 5 students at time, done during segments of normal class time can get you talking to over 50 students a week), but also allow students who can’t make those times to submit additional writing as an alternative. To reduce burden on your grading, you can move as much of the grading as possible to an “honest effort” grading – do the work best you can, get the grade.

Rethink Assessment

While an “honest effort” approach can work for much of the classes activities, professors will need to assess student knowledge of the course’s objectives in what we call “summative” ways. At some point, you’ll need to move beyond participation and to the question of whether students are grasping course content.

Again, subjects can be very different in their needs (and again, I’ll mention math and math-based courses which present particular difficulties). But if you can consider replacing an scheduled online exam that has to be taken at a specific time (we call this “synchronous testing”) with something the student can do on their own schedule, maybe even offline, please do. Outside the considerations we have mentioned above, we should anticipate that the sudden load on systems from Blackboard to proctoring services will result in periodic outages and glitches. Trust me, it will be far better to structure your exam as a Word document that students fill out and then submit (through email if it comes to that) than deal with an exam day server crash or Comcast outage at test time.

Again, the usefulness of these alternatives varies by discipline and course, and is also impacted by the number of students enrolled. If you need to do synchronous testing, that may be unavoidable. But think of such testing as a scarce resource we should be apportioning to the classes that truly need it.

Incidentally, this does not apply to low stakes non-synchronous testing. Meaning, if you have multiple little quizzes that students can take on their own schedule that don’t heavily impact their grade, that can be useful (and we can even help you with that). But I can guarantee given upcoming infrastructure demands, student life changes, and unexpected local and national events that tying any substantial grade to a student taking an online test at a specific time is likely to result in assessing a student’s life situation more than their competence in a given domain. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that each week brings us to a situation unimaginable a week ago. In such a climate, providing as much flexibility as possible is key.

More to Come (and an Invitation)

This first post has been a long one, and I apologize for that. I know how hard everyone is working, and I hesitate to add more reading to an already too-busy day. At the same time, if you work at WSU Vancouver and are interested in the ideas in this post, I invite you to email me at and we’ll set up a Zoom meeting to go over how you might redesign your course to be more flexible and responsive to the current situation. And future posts will be shorter, I promise.

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