Help! I need to teach my course online and I’ve never done this before

By: Yvonne Lai, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Ray Levy, Mathematical Association of America

This is cross-posted in MathValues and Abbe Herzig has written a companion post. Additional resources and future meetings are also available here:

In times of crisis we need community. With schools, colleges and universities mandating online teaching and learning in response to COVID-19, often with only a week of preparation time, people are scrambling for resources and information. Dr. Ray Levy, aås Deputy Executive Director of the MAA, asked an online group whether they would like a Zoom space to discuss online learning. With only 12 hours of notice, Dr. Jeneva Clark helped co-facilitate, and 36 people gathered. The next day, with only a few hours of notice Dr. Abbe Herzig and Dr. Yvonne Lai joined as co-facilitators, and 86 people gathered. Below is some of what we learned in the second meeting.

You have options

One point worth emphasizing is that online courses can look very different! Courses may have only text, audio, or video. They may be “synchronous” or “asynchronous”. These terms, originally from communications, to refer to how data is transferred. In online courses, this usually means whether everyone is online at the same time (synchronous) or online at different times (asynchronous). Often a course will contain multiple communication approaches.

Because many of us have not taught in these ways before, we discussed logistics and accessibility. Participants noted that FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) impacts sharing.

In this post, we discuss:

  • Logistics of using Zoom for synchronous teaching
  • Accessibility
  • Writing on the board, online
  • Ways to help students stay engaged
  • Asynchronous teaching
  • How to hold office hours
  • Sharing recordings and FERPA
  • Open questions

We are writing this because we believe that other mathematics instructors can benefit from the ideas shared by the participants. However, we are not speaking as experts and these are crowd sourced ideas rather than MAA or AMS recommendations! We are only speaking as peers who have had some experience, and who want to share key things that were helpful to us when we began teaching online.

Logistics of using conferencing software

First, many people talked about running courses on Zoom. This is partly because the MAA uses Zoom and we were using it for the meeting. We don’t know in the coming days how Zoom’s infrastructure will hold up with increased demand. However, if you are able to get Zoom or another platform to work for you, here are some things to consider:

  • There are different grades of platforms, based on how much you pay. For instance, Zoom’s free version only allows for meetings of a maximum of 40 minutes. Their least expensive paid version (Pro) allows for 24 hour meetings, the option to record meetings. Webinars have some nice features for large groups, but it seems like only Meetings have the whiteboard and breakout room features.
  • Make sure that you are in a well-lit room. If you are backlit, the camera software may result in a view of you where your face is completely in the shadows. This means that students who need to read lips won’t be able to. This also means that students will lose nonverbal communication cues.
  • As well, practice keeping your head still. If you move around, the camera software can change what is light and dark, which can be distracting or result in backlighting.
  • Practice logistics like muting microphones, sharing screens, recording, making sure you know how to see all participants, getting used to different “views” available, or grouping people.
  • On Zoom, you can share the window for only one application or share your whole screen. This means that participants may not be able to see your mouse cursor, and it also means that they may or may not see information from any other windows. Watch out for privacy issues with email or pop up notifications.
  • It can be helpful to work with a computer attached to an external monitor to give you more room to organize screens.

Once you are comfortable with a conferencing platform, here are some in-class tips:

  • When starting class, you will need to allot extra time in the beginning as people “enter” the virtual room. Have some things for students to do during this time. For instance, Ray suggested that you can vary from journaling (“How’s the course going?”) to more personal (“What music should I listen to?” “What’s your favorite TV show?”) . It might be even more important in the next few weeks, as we isolate ourselves, to ask personal questions. Georgia Stuart suggested “quiz yourself” prompts, which could lead to students coming up with questions to ask you and help you see where students are. To show these prompts to students right away, you might put the prompt on a PDF or other kind of file, and screen share that file. (This is similar to the function of “warm up” problems that students are expected to do as they enter the room.)
  • On Zoom, the chat box only shows you chats that you were present for! If a student logs in after 10 minutes, they will not see any chats that were sent in the 10 minutes before they arrived. So if there are important links or information to share with the class as a whole, you cannot rely on chat to do this; you need to announce to the class or put an announcement in your course management software.
  • You might prepare some documents ahead of time to share, such as PowerPoint or Beamer slides, a google doc, or images. You can use these documents to have prompts for the class, or equations or diagrams. Test run any slides before using them, so you know what they will look like to you and your students. You might schedule a practice session with some friends where you take turn being the host or participant.

Writing on the board, online

Across the group, we had experience with:

  • Zoom white board
  • Wacom tablet
  • iPad with apps Notability, ExplainEverything, or Doceri
  • Surface Pro tablet using PowerPoint annotation or Microsoft Whiteboard
  • Webcam pointed at paper

Among these, none stood out as a crowd favorite; different instructors had different preferences based on what was easier personally or more familiar.


For students who need to read lips, you will want to make sure that you are in a room with good lighting, and to keep your head relatively still. As discussed above, this is a function of how Zoom and camera software operate together. Appropriate lighting serves everyone well since it can reduce eye strain.

For students who need captioning, options include using transcription services such as (free), ($0.25/minute), or captioning services on YouTube. With all these solutions, you will need to edit the transcript manually, especially for correct technical language use; and you will also want to make sure to share video so as to be FERPA compliant. Because this was new territory to many of us, we were not as a group sure of what is FERPA compliant or not. In general, the more private, the better; and you may want to check with your institution. (If you do so, please share what you find with us!) Video captioning can also be helpful, even in a mathematics course, for students who are language-learners.

We did not talk about students with visual or other accessibility needs, but of course these are important considerations.

Learn about carrying out ADA requirements through your institution. Many institutions have support staff to help building and conducting online courses. The ADA’s website also has guidance, for instance on website accessibility.

Students who have been sent home may not have the same kind of time or space or bandwidth that they previously had. For instance, they may have additional household responsibilities, or they may not have reliable internet access. Here is a questionnaire for students, adapted from one developed by Christina Weaver:

  • Where do you expect to be from now through [end of the semester]? (City, State, and time zone). If you expect to be in more than one city/state, please list that too.
  • On a scale of 1 (really slow/unreliable) to 5 (really fast/reliable), how would you rate the internet connection that you expect to have while away?
  • Do you expect to be available during all of our usual class times (keep in mind time zone)?
  • Are there any online meeting software / video sharing apps (other than Canvas/Google) that you use and recommend? If so, tell me about them!
  • What else do you want me to know? (You can tell me logistics here, or additional responsibilities, or anything you might be feeling right now.) I will not share this information with anyone else [at our college] without your permission. [Note from Ray: please be aware if you are a mandatory reporter that you may be obligated to report certain things.]

Ways to help students stay engaged

To help students stay engaged, Georgia recommended:

  • Have regular due dates.
  • Check in with individual students over the semester.
  • Have a platform for students to talk to each other and answer each others? questions.
  • Create learning activities that require students to interact at specified intervals. Be explicit with due dates.

These serve to help students’ executive functioning, the skills needed to plan, prioritize, focus, remember instructions, and handle multiple tasks. Georgia found this resource very helpful for thinking about teaching strategies: Universal Design for Learning’s resource on Executive Functioning in Online Environments.

For student chat platforms, Georgia has used Microsoft Teams and the paid version of Slack, and allows for picture sharing and video conversations. Ray recommended Piazza. Teams were provided through Georgia’s university, and Slack (paid) were deemed FERPA compliant by her university, but other universities may decide differently. You may need to consult with your university before using a new online tool that may expose your roster information.

You want to be careful in public spaces such as chats, to be kind and constructive. Ray and Georgia both shared stories of comments they thought were gentle, but chilled chat discussion to the point that students did not use it anymore. Both strongly urged us to stay away from language such as, “You forgot to ____” or “You didn’t _____”.But even comments such as “Did you remember to ___?” have chilled chat rooms.

A method that Georgia has found helpful is to chat with a student privately about it, and then ask that student they would be okay for her to respond publicly, or to delete the comment. When students are responding to each other’s questions (which can be a huge time-saver), setting expectations about kindness can be key.

In general, don’t ask yes/no questions nor instruct; ask open ended questions. Why did you do it like that? Can you explain to me why that works?

Ray recommended reading through chats at least before quizzes or exams, to see whether there are comments or concepts that you want to address. Although you want to read through the chats regularly, there isn’t a need to check it every second. Perhaps let students know that you will aim to check at particular times. You can think of this as part of your ‘office hours.’ Some people may prefer to disable this function because of the extra time consideration.

Asynchronous teaching

All the following advice comes from Georgia who has taught a completely asynchronous course, where students learned to program in R and learned concepts of statistics.

She recommends developing videos, no longer than 12-15 minutes long. This is really important, so that students can focus on only one major idea per video.

In her experience, students in asynchronous courses can get behind easily if assignments are too big. To help with this, she uses the strategies listed above for course engagement. Small chunks of work with very explicit deadlines can especially help.

Online courses can blur any work-life boundary, especially for instructors that aren’t used to teaching online. With Microsoft Teams, students may send questions at all hours of the day. They may be working on their homework at 2am. You want to be careful to set boundaries, say giving yourself 24 hours to respond, especially because it’s a chat platform where usually we expect responses right away.

Holding office hours

You can hold office hours on Zoom using a personal meeting room. Dianna Torres and others said that they have times that students know that they will be on. Dianna’s students share their computer screens with her to ask questions about homework. Some have students hold their work up to the camera.

Yvonne has held office hours by appointment on Skype, trying to schedule at least two students at a time so they can have each other to talk. Something she has found useful is to have a movable webcam. She uses this to point at paper that she writes on, and also to give “privacy”. For instance, if she wanted to give a student time to work out an idea, she has found it helpful to ask: “Do you want some time to think about this by yourself?” Usually, students say that they do. She then asks, “Would it be helpful for me to face away?” Students usually say that it would be helpful. She then says, “I will leave the audio on to help me follow up, but otherwise I will give you this time.” She then turns the webcam to point to the keyboard and listens for a lull in conversation and also for points that she wants to probe.

Sharing recordings and FERPA

Briefly, and to over simplify, FERPA means that you cannot share students’ identities, assessments, or grades with anyone but the student. When teaching online, you may be recording sessions that include student talk. Sharing these sessions may violate FERPA.

According to Zoom’s website, “Zoom enables FERPA/HIPAA compliance and provides end-to-end 256-bit encryption.” To share Zoom videos, use course management software (e.g., Canvas, Blackboard). Check with your institution about FERPA requirements, ADA, and resources available to you and to students. Some universities have online tutoring available, for example.

Open questions

  • Assessment at scale: How do we minimize cheating on exams, especially for large courses?
  • Math resource centers: How do we convert tutoring centers to online platforms?
  • Group work: How do we do group work and keep students engaged?
  • FERPA: What are all the implications? Legal ramifications of incidental disclosure of information are still unfolding. Instructors should probably contact their University legal department for their institution’s guidelines.

A few words on assessment. This was perhaps one of the most sobering moments of discussion. Several people asked, “Are we setting up students for failure if we allow cheating?”

We realized people are ready to have thoughtful conversations about why we test, who is harmed by issues with academic integrity, and where things should be on the scale of “let it go” to “strict” in this unusual time.

In some large lecture courses, some instructors have seen students ace online homework while failing proctored exams. While there are many reasons for this, including test-induced anxiety and impostor syndrome, there is unfortunately also the reason that students have a friend next to them who answers online homework questions for them.

On the other hand, Yvonne has had the experience of homework grades predicting both midterm and final exam grades, even when homework allowed collaboration, the midterms were proctored, and the final exam was take-home.

Challenges and Opportunities

We hope you find at least some of this helpful. We also hope the act of gathering, sharing ideas and concerns, and struggling together will be constructive. May you find the community and support you need as we work through these next months.

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1 Response to Help! I need to teach my course online and I’ve never done this before

  1. Traci Putnam says:

    Thank you. This information has been extremely helpful as I will be using Zoom for the first time.

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