Switching from ‘on to off’ – when schools close…

Educators worldwide are facing a significant challenge with the COVID-19 outbreak: with unplanned and/or extended school closures, many of us have to suspend on-site (or brick) teaching… and switch to online (or click) in a matter of days…
Switching from ‘on to off’ – when schools close…

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The challenging period that the world is going through has its unprecedented impact on education as well. ‘Social distancing’, one of the most helpful solutions to limit the pandemic, demands educators to get familiar with and utilize alternative teaching and learning tools, almost all of which are online. 

Although a number of universities and organizations have been using Classroom (or Learning) Management Systems (CMS or LMS), such as Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, or have had integrated Massive Online Courses (MOOC’s) in their curricula for many years, for the rest the case is not so. If your school has not yet implemented such virtual learning systems,teaching online may sound somewhat daunting and challenging. A good online course requires a blend of teaching and learning tools like videos, discussion boards, chat forums, polls, etc. and takes good planning with some time to prepare. If you don’t have the time, then you may be tempted just to put the lecture slides and a few assignments online. However, this will be an ‘online lecture classroom’ but not an ‘online learning classroom’. At another point, if you don’t have the familiarity, you might jump in the Internet and easily get lost in the world of free social media and online tools which could have been useful if implemented in the right way. 

As neither putting lecture slides online nor surfing on the internet for digital educational tools are the best ways to start effective online teaching, let’s make some starting suggestions:

1)    Be flexible!

Transforming to digital learning requires one to be patient and flexible. It will take longer to do things virtually than in person. Allowing yourself enough time to be ready for your digital teaching is important. At another point, this patience and flexibility is also needed for your students. For example, not all of your students will have a consistent access to high-speed internet at home. With that in mind, you need to be more flexible and consider giving students multiple ways to access and submit assignments. Don’t forget: virtual learning provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate mastery in different ways. 

2)    Improvise!

Effective online teaching happens with an engaging and interactive learning environment. Your goal is to create outcome-driven, student-centered, and media-rich course content and to think in creative ways to bring this content to your students. The best way to do this is to consider chunking the information and presenting it in 10 minute chunks through a variety of audio, visual and digital tools (brief video lectures, video and audio clips, discussions, polls, feedback, and hands-on exercises with text). This will let you organize each piece purposefully and at the same time will make it more likely that students will remain engaged and on-track. 

3)   Simplify!

Keep lessons as simple and clear as possible. This will not only let you create your online course easily but also enable your students to smoothly navigate and find their way through the course. One mistake that teachers often make at this point is to try to use new exciting tools that they have never used before. This might be a recipe for disaster as not only they but also their students will confront problems throughout the course. When building digital lessons, it’s important to reduce the number of external links on the online learning platform. For example, if you want students to watch a video from YouTube, it is much better to download the video using a free app (like 4K Video Downloader), and then upload it to your shared platform (like OneDrive or Google Drive). Similarly, when you assign them to read an article from sites like Newsela or CommonLit, it’s safer to upload a PDF, rather than providing a link to an external site. This will prevent distraction as well as problems related with links not working. 

4)   Be present!

It is very important that the instructor has a ‘social presence’ in virtual learning. This doesn’t mean simply having your voice complementing your slides or responding to questions that students post online. ‘Social presence’ means that you interact with them frequently in different ways – you can post a photo of you reading at home or open a discussion on a social event or send a brief message about experiences in these days or provide a voice-recorded feedback. This kind of close interaction compels students to log in to the course frequently, which in turn will keep them engaged with the course and with their peers and stay on track. The ultimate goal is that the students feel they are part of a collaborative learning environment with the instructor as well as other students

While the above suggestions are for an educator who will fully transform his/her course in digital learning in time, the current worldwide situation might demand for a faster start. For a newbie, a suitable quick way for online teaching may be starting with live streamed video sessions (with Youtube, or Zoom) where students can watch in real-time (and even participate if the tech-structure permits). Sometimes an online class will only have a PowerPoint presentation on-screen (with the help of tools like Screenflow, Screencast-O-Matic, or Screencastify) and audio commentary (added with tools like VoiceThread). In the beginning, this might not be highly refined – but it is good to take action and to accept that mistakes can be made at this point. Don’t forget that perfection is the enemy of good. Some elements may not be satisfactory but you can gradually enrich your sessions with live Q&A, discussions, exercises, etc. so that it evolves to an ‘active online learning classroom’. 

It is important to note that nowadays there is an enormous amount of resources, guides, materials and lessons that are shared openly across the educational community. For educators who have not yet dived deep into online teaching, it is a challenging but at the same time great opportunity to take some steps. It is not a period to stay in our comfort zones but to connect with others and to help one another out. With technology and support from each other, we can reach out and touch our students. As FEBS Education Committee, we believe that every educator has the capacity to meet this challenge with cooperation, collaboration, and communication!


Amid COVID-19 Concerns, Planning for Learning As Schools Close, Noah Dougherty on March 4th, 2020: https://www.edelements.com/blo...

Effective Teaching Online, Sharon O'Malleyon July 12, 2017: https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/07/12/7-guidelines-effective-teaching-online

Prepare to Move Online (in a Hurry), Nathan Greeno on March 10, 2020: https://www.insidehighered.com... 

***The poster image is by Fred Kuipers from FreeImages

***The figure in the text is designed with presentationgo.com

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Go to the profile of Angel Herráez
over 4 years ago

Thanks, Ferhan, for this inspiring and encouraging piece. I was made aware of a post in similar terms by Andrew Vanden Heuvel, an online astronomy professor and the 2010 Michigan Online Teacher of the Year. It's titled 10 Tips for First-Time Online Faculty… Suddenly Forced to Teach Online Due to a Global Pandemic. His 10 points are:

Consider teaching asynchronously.
Keep course navigation simple and obvious.
Build on existing content.
Keep your lecture videos short.
Use simple technology.
Make it simpler for students so it’s easier for you.
Think creatively about labs.
Leverage the benefits of autograding.
Answer student questions with course improvements.
Save time with chunking.

An interesting read!