By Ian Wereley, Contract Instructor, Department of History

With the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak and the closure of universities across Canada, many of Carleton’s professors and instructors will be transferring their course material to an online environment. This unprecedented shift will create a host of new challenges and points of frustration, but also presents new opportunities for enhancing our teaching and learning.

I created my first online course at a time of significant uncertainty and crisis. In January 2018, I started work on a second-year course entitled “A History of Oil – Science, Technology, Culture, and Conflict.” From the outset, my learning curve seemed impossibly steep, as I had never taken an online course as a student and had never taught a university-level course as an instructor. I was green in every respect.

Mid-way through the project, Carleton support staff, members of CUPE 2424, found themselves on the picket lines for over a month. I therefore had no access to the invaluable support of the skilled technologists at the Educational Development Centre (EDC), or the Media Production Centre’s (MPC) recording studio. At the same time, I was juggling the final drafts of my PhD dissertation and preparing for my defence. Forty-eight hours before I recorded my first video lecture for “A History of Oil,” I welcomed my firstborn child into the world (and my students told me it showed).

Despite these challenges, “A History of Oil” was eventually completed in time for the Summer 2018 semester. Developing and teaching the course has been a wonderful experience and, looking back, it’s clear that in the process I discovered a lot about myself, my teaching and my students. In the current transition to online teaching, instructors will be faced with uncertainty, pressure and seemingly impossibly steep learning curves. Here are five things that I learned during my own moment of crisis:

Lesson 1: There are vast differences between the online and in-class learning environments.

There are, of course, significant differences between “real” and “online” versions: watching a baseball game in a stadium versus watching it on a television screen; playing poker in a casino versus playing on a computer; reading a physical copy of a book versus turning on a Kindle; gathering at a meeting table versus using Skype or Zoom from your living room – all of these online versions require learning, adjustment and adaptation. Online courses are no different, and this should be kept in mind when converting in-class lecture content: posting lecture notes or converting class content into Word documents will not always create an effective online course. It is essential that students engage with and reflect upon course materials in meaningful ways.

Perhaps most importantly, teaching online courses requires constant engagement from the instructor. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that students can feel isolated in the online environment, cut off from their peers and their campus. It is the instructor’s job to build community and belonging among students, and for them to feel like their online instructor is interested in and committed to their success. This includes tracking email conversations, answering questions promptly and responding to technical malfunctions.

Monitoring student progress throughout the course is essential, and reaching out to those who appear to be falling behind can do much to alleviate the feeling of isolation. In my course, I included an anonymous feedback poll every two weeks to help identify commonly held difficulties, and two BigBlueButton sessions in which students could pose questions and build community among their peers in a virtual setting.

One of the most effective means for creating a sense of connection with your students are short, pre-recorded video lectures. Tools like Kaltura Capture – a screen recording app provided to all instructors and students at Carleton – can be used to easily produce your own video, delivering lecture content right from your computer. These types of simple, short videos can go a long way in making your lectures interactive and engaging.

Lesson 2: Start at the end – define your learning objectives and outcomes first.

I learned this lesson early on, and it helped me to reduce my workload and shorten the time I spent on each lecture. Defining clear and measurable learning outcomes at the start of the process actually made planning and designing the rest of my course much easier.

Before building your content, think about what students need to get out of the video, activity, or assignment they are completing. What do they need to know by the time they are finished? Do they need any readings or other resources to achieve this goal? Is this content contributing directly to a graded activity or assignment? Once you have defined exactly what the students need to accomplish, it becomes much easier to make decisions about what content truly needs to be delivered in your course.

For my course, I created a list of eight core learning outcomes for students, which were supported by three specific learning outcomes for each lecture, activity and assignment. I then used this inventory of learning outcomes as a type of rubric for evaluating the pedagogical value of the content I was inputting into my course. I found that having clear learning outcomes significantly reduced student anxiety, confusion and frustration.

Lesson 3: Teaching in the online environment requires you to think like a student.

Most students will have an infinitely better understanding of digital tools than their instructors, but the vast majority of students will have never taken an online course either. This creates an interesting dynamic that can be leveraged to your advantage.

Unlike in the tightly controlled classroom environment, students absorb online content in a variety of different ways. Lectures are not attended but rather watched and, more often than you might expect, on a student’s cell phone during times that suit their busy schedules. I was shocked to learn that many students listened to my videos at 1.5 or even 2.0 times the normal playback speed. Course content that is delivered through web text or a Word document is skimmed even faster.

Fortunately, students enjoy watching videos, and the online environment is ideal for sharing this type of content. It has been my experience that students will watch a seemingly unlimited number of short videos without complaint, when they might balk when asked to read a 20-page journal article. Using Kaltura Capture is a great way to make simple videos of your lecture content – whether it’s a shot of you speaking to the webcam while reading your notes; an annotated walkthrough of a PowerPoint slide show; or perhaps even an appearance by your child, cat or dog.

Online content, however, must be efficiently delivered and direct to the point. No one can stay focused for a three-hour or even a one-hour video lecture. In fact, research shows that an adult attention span for online content is between 6-10 minutes. Making a series of short videos will have a much larger impact on your students than producing one long video. In my experience, having several small activities and assignments has proven to be more effective than assigning one long-form essay.

If you plan on using Kaltura Capture, I highly recommend writing a script beforehand. Once the script is written, you simply have to read it out aloud while recording, allowing you to focus on the delivery of your content rather than the content itself. A script can also be attached as a word document to a lecture video, which provides all students – and especially those with disabilities or whose first language is not English – with an accessible version of the lecture content.

Lesson 4: Be prepared for things to go wrong, because they will.

I will admit that when I first started working on my course, I was under the impression that things were easier in the online world. I was wrong. Even with the aid of a team of EDC experts, and multiple phases of testing, there were numerous technical issues that came up in my course. Considering the current challenges posed by COVID-19, be prepared for things to go wrong, because they will.

They key for me in surviving the problems that did arise was to view my role as that of a shepherd – guiding students through the course and ensuring that they felt supported and encouraged along the way. In these challenging times, inevitably there will be administrative hiccups and technical malfunctions. In my experience, I have found that students are actually quite flexible and patient when these issues arise, especially if they feel that the instructor is right there with them.

One of the most effective ways to navigate technical difficulties and other problems is to have extremely clear instructions for students throughout the course. Although time consuming, I created step-by-step instructions for each lecture, activity and assignment – where to look for information, how to download and submit files, what to do if problems were encountered, how to ask for an extension, etc. Many emails from frustrated students were avoided in doing so, and overall students felt more confident, supported and engaged.

Lesson 5: Developing and teaching online course content is exciting and rewarding work. You will enjoy yourself!

Despite these unprecedented and uncertain times, the shift to an online learning environment provides endless opportunities for pedagogical innovation and experimentation. I was amazed at the power and sophistication of the online learning tools available to today’s instructors. From the delivery of lecture content to the types of collaborative activities that can be done virtually, everything is new and exciting!

Perhaps most importantly, the online learning environment creates new opportunities for engaging students with disabilities. For my course, I designed modules that were compatible with a screen reader, and included transcripts for each video and alt-text descriptions for each image. Seemingly little things can make a huge difference in the learning experience of all students – attaching an accessible Word document or PDF, ensuring there is enough colour contrast on screen, making font size large enough to be easily read, or setting due dates at 11:55 p.m. to accommodate students who work or take care of family members during the day.

Many of the barriers to learning that confront students with disabilities can be removed in the online realm, providing a level of equity, diversity and inclusion that is difficult to match in a traditional classroom environment. For many students, and especially those with disabilities, online courses are essential to their academic experience. However, it is also possible to create even more barriers for students with disabilities in the online domain. Simply transferring a course online will not make it more accessible automatically. It is essential, therefore, that instructors incorporate the principles of Universal Design for Learning in their courses, offering students multiple ways to engage, represent and express themselves. I discovered that to empower students in this way is some of the most rewarding work one can do as an educator.

Creating an online course for the first time during a crisis is no easy task. Both students and instructors will be forced to adapt to new environments and unexpected challenges. In this moment of transition, I hope that my reflections will help you create your own online course.