Teaching on-line in the present crisis (COVID-19): What you need to know now

The last thing our teachers and students need right now, particularly those who haven’t been using technology, is to be told to embrace all the new bells and whistles.

Studying COVID-19

This article first appeared in Campus Morning mail in two parts on the 15th and 16th of March 2020. See: http://bit.ly/2UiC3Gb

Part 1

If institutions are concerned about how the threat of a pandemic shutdown of their campuses and the effect of this on our current semester of study and how much this is going to cost them, there is a want to be planning for way past the next six– eight weeks.

Now is the time to be providing our students with a sense of confidence, that we have their backs in this, particularly as they come to consider what they will study in Semester Two.  With all the doubt that is currently being prompted through different outlets, they will need to feel confident that they can successfully cope with their full study load online, otherwise the financial loses of this semester may pale into insignificance. So really, we have about six weeks to bring ourselves and them up-to-speed in teaching and learning online. This, of course, brings into sharp focus how we can use technology to enact our pedagogy, and this in a scalable way.

Probably the most important thing, in the short term, is that we must embracing the KISS principle in teaching (this takes on a whole new meaning now doesn’t it). The last thing our teachers and students need right now, particularly those who haven’t been using technology, is to be told to embrace all the new bells and whistles. The solution has to be “keep it suitably simple” and to use systems they are familiar with.

We do not have time to think about meta concepts like design thinking, or great user experience (UX) design, rather in the short-term it’s going to need to be crude, efficient and responsive. The great news is, we have some very smart people who have gone before us in this space, which gives me great confidence that we can do this. So much so that we do not have to reinvent the wheel.

Part 2

If you haven’t been teaching online much, then it’s probably not a good idea to just jump in and hope that you get it right. It isn’t rocket science, but it is quite different to teaching in a face-to-face scenario. Here are a few clues to help you:

The alternate teaching and learning space

Your institution’s learning management system (LMS), and we all have them, can be treated as an online version of your physical campus. Just as on the physical campus there are places where students congregate, that can also be the case in the LMS. There can be a place where students can access their lectures (I will return to this) and to find out the context of these, a place where they can find out about their assessments and submit them, and a place where they can ask their lecturer questions about the course/unit, just like during office hours. The good thing about this classroom is that it’s available 24×7, but you do not have to be there any more than you are in your office.

We generally see, in institutions that use an LMS pretty well, that this is where the students will go to first. They get to also access their timetable for lectures and tutorials, have links to extra resources and to the readings they need on the library site. Often, we will see discussion forums set up around the main topics to be addressed in the course/unit. Increasingly some universities are also using Microsoft Teams to do this as it has a much more contemporary look and feel.

Lecturing from off campus

We are now seeing campuses shutting down their face-to-face lectures, which for some is uncharted territory. But most uni’s have tools at their disposal that can allow a lecture to still take place, either from an empty classroom, or better still from home. The newer lecture capture systems, like ECHO 360, Panopto and MediaSite all let you stream live lectures on mass, and have the ability to also capture lectures for playback later.

Many (most) institutions in Australia also have a product called Zoom, which is a video conferencing system. For those that don’t, they generally have an equivalent. Many also have a virtual classroom software such as Blackboard Collaborate or even Microsoft Teams Meeting. These later systems are great for smaller online classes (up to about 30) as they allow a greater sense of social presence and the teacher and others can easily share content with everyone. In these systems students can easily ask questions of the teacher and each other, either in the main teaching space or in what they call breakout rooms (subsets of the larger group). All these systems are easily accessible from campus or at home, so there should be no need to stop lecturing if that is your want.

One thing we have learnt over the years though is if we are going to be pre-recording lecture content it is better to chunk the content up into small segments (up to 12 minutes) focused on more discreet or focused topics, unlike a lecture that deals with many topics over an hour or more. It is simply a matter of making more of these smaller chunks, rather than one long lecture. It also helps student download them. Many also put in short activities or quizzes after these to help reinforce the learning.

We know students studying at home work in smaller chunks than if they were making the effort to come on campus. Interruptions happen and so we allow for this in our design of on-line materials. So, keeping things short and focused allows students to process one or two concepts at a time and not feel they are missing out. This strategy is great also for when students can travel again and they can potentially listen to smaller chunks on public transport or in between other activities. You have seen them all on public transport with those spaghetti things hanging out their ears.

Accessing resources

When working from home it is not possible to get to a physical library, but if you are not on campus many resources sit behind paywalls, so wherever possible try and use resources that students can access for free. The trick here is not to overcompensate. Give them what is needed, don’t overload them with lots of stuff they may not really need to get the task done. Engaging with a variety of resources is just as important as the lecture (some might say more important), but this means we need to allow them time to fully engage with these materials. There is no rush.

Getting students to find and share resources with the teaching team and with each other is also a neat way of engaging them in their studies. Even getting them to run the lecture. This works better in their later years of study, but can be started earlier if scaffolded properly – it’s worth a try.

Giving them a sense of how long they should be spending on studying each course/subject will help them pace their time. In general terms, a full-time student should be spending about the same amount of time studying four subjects as they would working a full-time job. This equates to about 10 hours workload per subject per week, that’s to listen to the recordings, do the activities, read the material and do the assignments.

Assessment

Assessment of course is probably the most critical thing of all, and certainly the thing students are most concerned about. At the Australasian Council of Open, Distance and e-Learning meeting late last week in Canberra, there was a special focus on online e-assessment and exams, in light of the current crisis. This meeting came forward with the following recommendations:

  • Instead of in person exams, or employing expensive proctoring software solutions, you could use the quiz tool in the LMS in conjunction with Zoom (or its equivalent) so tutors/teachers can at least watch the face of the students undertaking these quizzes. Realistically, this could be done with classes of up to 16, or if multiple staff were watching, up to 30 at one time.
  • Run alternate assessments meeting the same learning outcomes, of smaller multiple stakes assessments, to meet the same ends. For example, where they might be a 60% exam these could become three assessments of 20% each run over successive weeks.
  • Randomise and tightly timed questions in the LMS quiz tool, limiting the opportunity for students to refer to other students or resources. One would need to be realistic in the timings and warn students beforehand.
  • The use of proctoring tools is problematic at scale for both the service itself and for the university. We recommend caution. As many universities will be moving to this option over the next few weeks, it would be unlikely that proctoring solutions will be able to meet demand globally.
  • Alternate assessments for work integrated learning (WIL) could consider freely available simulation labs that can be downloaded and run from their own sites or through the LMS. Asking students to reflect on the activities in these simulations could provide an adequate approach in the short term.
  • Another approach to this could be to ask students to reflect on the situation they (we) now find themselves in, that is, having to work remotely. For example, if a student was to do a work placement in an accountancy firm, they could reflect on how they might, as an accountant, have to work remotely and provide potential solutions to this scenario.
  • All students have mobile devices, where they may not all have laptops with cameras in them. A possible solution to this is to use the audio capability of their mobile devices, in relation to assessment. For example, students could be asked to respond to long-form answers via audio or video recording that could then be submit through the institutions LMS.
  • With many professional bodies relaxing their strict requirements for proctored exams, take home, or open book exams could be considered. If this is the case it would be suggested that instead of providing just one scenario, multiple scenarios could be deployed.
  • At the end of assessment, instead of face to face moderation of assessment meetings, this moderation could be run in a product such as O365 Teams, or equivalent, In this environment team members will be able to communicate both synchronously and asynchronously to reach agreement.
  • Where nothing can transfer then we need to consider the possible deferment of assessment, however this should only be necessary in a minority of cases. This will most likely be planned, invigilated paper -based exams
  • Practical assessments, or practicums could be bundled into a supplementary unit which can be offered in the following semester.
  • ACODE will establish, over the next week, discipline focused CoPs for more nuanced discussion that will provide more discipline-based examples of alternate assessment practice.
  • Ideally where changes to assessment like the above are proposed to be used it would be suggested to gain some Institutional agreement across the faculties or academic groups

Additional resources to consider

At Griffith University we have developed up a suite of support resources designed to help our staff teach online. These are open to everyone and can be accessed here

Michael Sankey is Professor & Deputy Director in Learning Futures @ Griffith University. He is President of the Australian Council on Open, Distance and e-Learning and Director ACODE Learning Technologies Leadership Institute m.sankey@griffith.edu.au

One thought on “Teaching on-line in the present crisis (COVID-19): What you need to know now

  1. Well considered, detailed and timely advice! For secondary teachers switching for the first time to online, it’s going to be a mountainous learning curve…and for their students. Hope they see what you have written

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