Best Practices

The following are suggested ways to accomplish key tasks and address common challenges when delivering content to students online.

Communicate with students

Keeping in touch with students is vital during any changes to your class(es)—whether a viral outbreak of any kind, a planned absence on your part, or a crisis impacting all or part of campus. You’ll want to let students know about changes in schedules, assignments, procedures, and broader course expectations.

Keep these principles in mind:

Communicate early and often: Early and frequent communication can ease student anxiety, and save you from dealing with individual questions. Let students know about changes or disruptions as early as possible, even if all the details aren’t in place yet, and let them know when they can expect more specific information. Don’t overload them with email, but consider matching the frequency of your messages with that of changes in class activities and/or updates to the broader situation at hand. For example, if the campus closure is extended for two more days, what will students need to know related to your course?

Set expectations: Let students know how you plan to communicate with them, and how often. Tell students both how often you expect them to check their email, and how quickly they can expect your response. Let them know, too, if you are using the Canvas Inbox tool, since they may need to update their notification preferences.

Manage your communications load: You will likely receive some individual requests for information that could be useful to all of your students, so consider telling students that you will keep track of frequently asked questions and send those replies out to everyone. This way, students will know they might get a group reply in a day versus a personal reply within an hour. Also, consider creating an information page in Canvas, and then encourage students to check there first for answers before emailing you. Another option is to use the Announcement feature of Canvas, as it will keep all communications in one place that students can reference. 

Distribute course materials and readings

You will likely need to provide additional course materials to support your changing plans, from updated schedules to readings that allow you to shift more instruction online. In a pinch, providing some new readings and related assignments may be your best bet for maintaining the intellectual momentum of the course.

Considerations when posting new course materials:

Make sure students know when new materials are posted: If you post new materials in Canvas or Box, be sure to let students know what you posted and where. You might even ask that they change their Canvas or Box notification preferences to alert them when new materials are posted. Refer them to How do I set my Canvas notification preferences as a student?

Keep things phone-friendly: In a crisis, many students may only have a phone available, so make sure you are using mobile-friendly formats, PDFs being the most common. Consider saving other files (for example, PowerPoint presentations) as PDFs, which are easier to read on phones and tablets, and keep the file size small. It is fairly easy to reduce the size of PDFs using Adobe Acrobat, and there are online tools that do the same thing (for example, search Google for “PDF file size”). Videos take up lots of bandwidth, so only require them if you are confident students will have access to them during a crisis.

Deliver lectures

Students and faculty might also find it necessary and helpful to record their screens with voice-over comments or talking points. This approach could be used for a lecture format, or just to show a project and talk about it while using the mouse to guide the viewer’s eye to certain parts of the project. There are many tools to accomplish this.

If you are using Canvas, you are encouraged to use Kaltura, the video tool that is integrated with Canvas. To create and publish videos, you can review the instructions from the Teaching Center at this link

Other local options include QuickTime, which is available on all Mac computers. Here are two tutorials for how to create a screen recording. 

  1. With your voice recorded while the screen is recording: 
  2. With the audio from the computer recorded while the screen is recording: 

For PC/Windows users, there is a pre-installed app on Windows 10 called xBox App. Here is a tutorial for how to access and use that app.

Foster communication and collaboration among students

By fostering communication and collaboration among students, you can build and maintain a sense of community, which will help keep them motivated to participate and learn. 

Consider these suggestions when planning activities:

Use asynchronous tools when possible: Having students participate in live Zoom conversations can be useful, but scheduling can be a problem, and only a few students will actively participate (just like in your classroom). In such cases, using asynchronous tools like Canvas Discussions allows students to participate on their own schedules. In addition, bandwidth requirements for discussion boards are far lower than for live video tools.

Link to clear goals and outcomes: Make sure there are clear purposes and outcomes for any student-to-student interaction. Define how this activity helps students meet course outcomes or prepare for other assignments.

Build in simple accountability: Find ways to make sure students are accountable for the work they do in any online discussions or collaborations. Assigning points for online discussion posts can be tedious, so some instructors ask for reflective statements where students detail their contributions and reflect on what they learned from the conversation. 

Collect assignments

Collecting assignments during a campus closure is fairly straightforward, since many instructors already collect work electronically. The main challenge during a campus disruption is whether students have access to computers, as anyone needing a campus computer lab may be unable to access necessary technologies. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Avoid email for assignment collection: It may be easy to collect assignments in small classes via email, but larger classes might swamp your email inbox. Consider using Box or Canvas Assignments instead. Balance what is simplest for students with what is easiest for you to manage.

State expectations, but be ready to allow extensions: In the case of a campus closure or other crisis, some students will undoubtedly have difficulties meeting deadlines. Make expectations clear, but be ready to provide more flexibility than you normally would in your class.

Require specific filenames: It may sound trivial, but anyone who collects assignments electronically knows the pain of getting 20 files named image1.jpg. Give your students a simple file naming convention— for example, FirstnameLastname-Image1.pdf. Also specify any special information, such as requirements for file sizes or resolution. 

Test your plan

Be sure to test your plan. For example, if you plan to hold online lectures using Zoom, make sure you can initiate a meeting from your home and that you have the proper equipment (microphone, webcam on your computer). Prior to trying out new strategies in your class, consider doing a trial run with a colleague or with support staff to make sure all your equipment is working.