Surprise! Transitioning to online teaching

 By Abbe Herzig, AMS Director of Education

Many of us are experiencing stress as schools, colleges and universities move instruction out of the classroom. Fortunately, even if distance learning is new to you, it isn’t new, and there is a lot of wisdom to draw on.

This document describes some practical strategies that will hopefully get you started, along with some helpful web-based resources. From there, you can do a deeper dive by accessing the open community on MAA Connect called “Online Teaching and Distance Learning.” MAA members can log in with their member credentials, and anyone who creates a free profile can join this group. This is an extensive platform to exchange ideas with other faculty and to access resources and advice for developing your courses. The STEM faculty blundering through remote teaching in a pandemic FaceBook page is another great place for faculty to share ideas and figure all this out together.

  • In the current situation you don’t need to become an expert in online course delivery. Your course won’t be perfect, and it won’t be the same as it was in the classroom, and that is ok. Give yourself permission to just do the best you can do. Many of your students don’t have much experience learning online, and they are adjusting too. Set realistic expectations for yourself, your course, and your students.
  • Keep flexibility and empathy in the forefront. Some students may not have ideal learning or internet environments—they have family responsibilities, lack privacy or quiet space, have unreliable internet access, are in other time zones, need to be online at a library or other public space, or have any number of distractions or obstacles.
  • To the extent that your institution allows it, be particularly flexible with deadlines, independent study, and extended incompletes. Focus on what your students need in order to learn, rather than on structure or deadlines. We are in an unusual situation and this flexibility will make it easier on all of you.
  • Online learning is one specific means of distance learning, but it is not the only one. Long ago distance learning took place by snail mail. I’m not necessarily advocating that approach, but cite this as a reminder to think outside the box.
  • There are many tools available: Zoom, Skype, Dropbox, Blackboard, Canvas, Slack, VoiceThread, email, online chats, video chats, MS teams, Google docs, and many others. Investigate if there are particular platforms or tools that your institution already uses. Even if you are not familiar with them, your students might be and your institution is more likely to offer support for those platforms. Coordinating with your colleagues to use similar tools will allow you to support one another. Keep it simple.
  • Does your institution have an office that supports online learning? They’ll be overloaded now, but make sure to check their website to see what they have to offer. Remember, even if you haven’t taught online before, others have, and they will hopefully share their expertise.
  • Unless your institution requires it, it is ok to build the course week by week and adjust as you go. You don’t need to have it all figured out in advance.
  • Prioritize the learning goals for your course. What are the most important things for your students to come away with? Focus on those, and build up the rest if you can.
  • As with any teaching, focus on what you want students to learn rather than what you need to teach.
  • Be transparent. Communicate very clearly with students about expectations, and about why you are making decisions and setting priorities. You can also be open about how you’re all in this together. This will reduce anxiety for everyone.
  • Every week, provide a list of deliverables: read this, start this, submit that. What should they be working on, where, and with whom? Where and how should their work be submitted?
  • I always remind students at the start of an online course that even if they are in the course platform frequently, if they don’t speak up and participate, no one knows they’re there. The same applies to instructors—communicate often.
  • Are other faculty teaching sections of the same course? It might help to work together.
  • Be aware of FERPA and accessibility requirements. Your campus may have resources to guide you with this. If needed, there are services online that will caption or transcribe videos.
  • If you use video, use small chunks, no more than about 5 minutes at a time. This allows students to stay focused. Also think about the easy parts of production quality—adjust the lighting to be clear, don’t move around too much, and avoid other distractions that are within your control (until your cat runs across your keyboard or your toddler comes into the room). It might help to use the microphone on your earbuds rather than your computer.
  • Test all technology. Do microphones, electronic whiteboards, video cameras work? Can the online platform handle the number of students who will login? But also remember that technical snafus happen. Communicate with your students with humor and you can all figure it out as you go along.
  • Consider a combination of synchronous (everyone there at the same time) and asynchronous instruction. Synchronous instruction allows for more direct interaction, but it can be challenging for everyone to make timing work in the new normal. There are many ways to engage students asynchronously instead. Asynchronous instruction is easier on everyone. If you decide to ask everyone to be there at the same time, use the same time slot that your class was originally scheduled for.
  • To keep students engaged, have frequent, small assignments with clearly-communicated due dates, and create learning activities that require students to interact at specified intervals. If you are requiring them to engage in collaboration or discussion, communicate clearly about how often you expect them to be online. I usually tell my students that they should be online 2-3 hours per week, on a minimum of 3 separate days.
  • Establish netiquette rules up front. Be clear about expectations for respectful and professional communication. “Tone” can easily be misunderstood online.
  • Encourage your students to compose their work in Word, LaTeX, by hand, or whatever works in your context, before posting it online. Composing responses directly in a chat box leads to less effective communication.
  • Students can solve problems on paper, scan or take a picture of the solution, and upload it somewhere. Let them know that you can’t grade it if the image is unclear. Avoid using email for submitting assignments—it gets messy quickly—but provide a clear alternative.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Discussion happens when there is struggle or debate, which doesn’t happen easily with yes-no questions. Ask students to interact about how or why, not what or whether.
  • Some universities offer online tutoring, writing, or other forms of support. Check what is available to your students. You can also refer students to websites like Virtual Nerd, Math is Fun, Khan Academy, or Math Forum. If you hold virtual office hours or offer extra help, try to work with several students at a time so they can support one another and you can use your time effectively.
  • There are applets available online for students to create and manipulate graphs. One of my favorites is Desmos, but there are many others.
  • Some textbook publishers have online test banks. Google forms has a feature for creating tests and quizzes in an easy-to-use form, and for multiple-choice and fill-in responses, the quizzes can self-grade. In addition, some companies and organizations are providing access to resources during this current crisis. Even if these are not your ideal choice for assessment, you may be able to make them work for you in order to complete this semester. As my advisor would tell me when I was writing my dissertation, “‘Better’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’ .”
  • Let your students know that many internet providers are offering free internet service for a fixed period. That does not mean it will be easy for everyone, but it should help many students. Some students will still need to be online in a library or other public space.
  • Many group and interactive activities can be adapted to an online setting. For group work, develop ways that all students are held accountable to their group. Assigning group grades is one option (this also reduces your grading load). Some instructors require students to make individual submissions of assignments, and then assign everyone in the group the lowest grade; this is great motivation for them to make sure their group-mates understand what they’re doing.
  • No matter what you do to defeat cheating, someone will find a way to work around it. One option is to require students to find a proctor of their own (often a librarian or local teacher) who will attest to their independent work, but this may be challenging for those who are self-isolating or maintaining the recommended social distancing. You could also assume that all work is open book and open notes and design assignments accordingly.
  • Talk openly with your students about what they need to know in order to be ready for next semester’s courses. If they don’t do the work honestly, they are really cheating themselves. One contributor to a discussion about online learning hosted by MAA’s Rachael Levy suggested, “I think it’s worth asking what kind of deception we’re trying to prevent. Do we want to keep our students from deceiving us on assessments, or themselves? Because I think the second one is the real danger, and might be better to address directly.”
  • Here are a few activities that have worked well with my online students:
  • Students write or type the solution to a problem (or problems) using words and sentences and a minimum of mathematical notation. This is challenging! But it also requires a different level of understanding of the mathematics. Communicating about mathematics deepens understanding.
  • Students solve a problem and share it online with a partner, a group, or the rest of the class. They provide feedback on a specific number of others’ solutions (for example, if they are in groups of 6, I might require them to comment on 2 other solutions) within a few days. Then they submit a written solution to the problem, using someone else’s strategy. This requires them to communicate with their classmates enough to understand someone else’s reasoning.
  • Give them personalized problems to solve. For example, in one assignment about compound interest with regular savings contributions, each student submitted calculations for their personal retirement savings plan. They identified how many years they had until retirement, how much money they wanted to have access to each month, and then calculated their required monthly contributions. This way, everyone could help one another because they were working on the same task, but each had to do independent calculations.

These resources provide solid guidance to help you get started online:

Stanford University Teach Anywhere

The Chronicle of Higher Education: Move Online Now

Get Up and Running with Temporary Remote Teaching: A Plan for Instructors who Lecture

Get Up and Running with Temporary Remote Teaching: A Plan for Instructors who Use Interactions in Class

Move Your Course to Remote Delivery

Seven Practices for the Online Classroom

A mathematician describing his experience teaching online

Here you can find ideas for specific online learning activities

You might want to share this one with your students: Tips for students to participate in online group work and projects

YouTube playlist: Ideas for new online faculty

And everyone’s big concern, online assessment:

Assessing student learning

Authentic Assessments

Self-grading quizzes in Google Forms

And make use of the two excellent resources cited at the top of this blog, MAA Connect and the STEM faculty blundering through remote teaching in a pandemic Facebook page.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of what to do or how to do it. There are as many ways to teach online as there are online instructors (maybe more). Feel free to share your ideas and questions in the comments so we can all help each other manage this transition and provide our students with quality learning opportunities.

Some of these ideas are drawn from resources developed by Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching Excellence of the State University of New York, and the Institute for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Leadership at the University at Albany.


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