What’s your biggest worry about possibly having to teach all your courses online in the fall?

There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, but it at least seems possible that many colleges and universities will be teaching entirely online in the fall. How should profs prepare for that possibility?

Here is one suggestion: universities should collaborate to develop online resources for the highest enrollment intro courses. The idea isn’t to collaborate to develop a single shared MOOC that they’ll all use. Instead, the idea is just to collaborate to create a bunch of online resources, from which anyone teaching (say) intro calculus, or intro biology, or etc., can pick and choose.

I found this suggestion puzzling, I guess because I’m unsure what’s meant by “online resources” here. I mean, if we’re talking about stuff like mini-lectures on YouTube, or videos of animal behavior, or instructions for using R, or etc., those resources already exist online, right? Including pretty high-quality resources, right? When I contemplate possibly teaching an entire intro-level course online in the fall, “lack of online resources from which to pick and choose in order to build my own course” isn’t anywhere close to the top of my list of worries. (UPDATE: I should clarify that, for upper level courses, availability of online resources might be a comparatively bigger worry.) Honestly, I worry more about sorting through the many candidate online resources in order to identify the best resources.

But even that’s far from my biggest worry. My biggest worry by far is just keeping students engaged and staying on top of the course material, when they don’t have to attend an in-person class at the same time as everyone else. And it’s not at all clear to me that choosing the right online resources really addresses that. Though if I was teaching a course with a field component or wet labs (which I’m not), my biggest worry would be what to do about those.

Does this just show how little I know about what online resources are (or aren’t) out there? You tell me! Are you thinking yet about how you might teach online in the fall? And if so, what’s your biggest worry?

20 thoughts on “What’s your biggest worry about possibly having to teach all your courses online in the fall?

  1. I teach a math class in the fall and a lot of the time, I develop the math by asking students what they think we should do next. It’s a real-time give and take. Has anyone found a good way to write on some sort of tablet and have that show up on a zoom session? I have a lot of arm/shoulder issues, so it needs to be as much like writing on a horizontal piece of paper as possible. A friend suggested an artist’s graphics tablet might be the way to go, because of the high resolution.

  2. Here in Brazil, we’ve been experiencing such struggles with a bonus. We’d have to adapt overnight to this situation and, in the beginning, without policy support (online courses have to have gov. permission).
    After three weeks, we managed some adaptations. I teach Geology, Intro Stats, and Population Ecology. Geology was the hardest one to adapt, because, after five years of teaching it, I included a lot of lab classes.

    • Yes, lab classes that involve anything other than computer labs seem like some of the hardest classes to adapt for online teaching. What did you end up doing for geology?

  3. Wait, I’m supposed to choose just one thing?!?! I’m not going to be able to stick to just one thing, but I’ll try not to make this my laundry list of worries! A few key things:
    1. How do I set my *internal* bar at a realistic place in terms of what I can accomplish? I don’t think my university is going to judge me harshly if my first attempt at online teaching has some bumps, but it really doesn’t feel good to feel like I’m putting a lot of effort into something and it’s not going the way I want.

    2. I think a possible (perhaps likely?) scenario is that the really big lectures like the one I teach (which has over 600 students a semester) will be online (or, at best, in a hybrid model) until there’s a vaccine. This leads to a few related things I’m trying to figure out:
    A) What differences would there be for a hybrid model vs. a fully online model? And, if there are tradeoffs (and there are always tradeoffs, right?), which should I prioritize? Edited to add: when I say a hybrid model, I mean some students are attending class in person, others are doing it fully online, and, most likely, still others start out in person but need to do a portion online. It would probably be good for students to have that flexibility and those options, but it seems very challenging to design a course that does both/all those things well.
    B) If we’re going to be online for multiple semesters, that especially argues for investing a lot up front in doing this as well as possible for the fall. What resources will that take? (Fortunately, here at Michigan, the excellent folks at the Center for Academic Innovation — my sabbatical home! — know a lot about online teaching and are available to help.)
    C) Again, if we’re going to be online for multiple semesters, how does that work if instructors change between semesters? Should we all be involved in recording short videos for students to watch each semester? How weird is it to teach when your students are watching videos recorded by someone else? (Yes, I realize that question reveals how much my thinking about these courses is lecture based.)

    3. We would need to change how we assess student learning, and there are also possibly some opportunities to do things that I’d like but that can be hard (but not impossible!) to scale, such as having more of a writing focus in the class. But, again, there are tradeoffs, including related to my time (there are only so many hours in the day, and, even this summer, I’m sure I will still be home with the kids a lot) and related to doing stuff that is hopefully high reward but also with a decent chance of not working (which causes a lot of stress for everyone, including students).

    4. How do we take advantage of cool resources (e.g., SimBio) while not overwhelming students with different platforms? We used to use SimBio more, but dropped it because students felt like there were too many moving parts in the course. I feel like there’s a good chance of having lots of moving parts in a fully online course, and that this could lead to really cool opportunities, but we’d want to make it so that didn’t feel overly burdensome to students. There will be a balance to strike but I don’t know what it is.

    5. How do I rein in my tendency to be overly ambitious, which is a major risk here! (And I truly mean that — I end up biting off more than I can chew, which makes me a ball of worry, or trying things that seem like a good idea but then don’t work out as planned which, as I said above, causes stress for students, TAs, etc.)

    Okay, I’ll stop there. 🙂

    • Oh man. The thought that we might be online-only for multiple semesters really scares me. And it’s exactly as you say: if that’s gonna happen, then it makes sense to do a lot of up-front prep work now.

  4. At the moment I worry most about not getting the most out of it for my student. My University (University of Bayreuth, Germany) has been great in setting up elearning tools and there is lots of things I can use. However, every new tool requires me to get into it, learn what it can do and then evaluate if it makes sense to use. Right now I feel like I will probably miss great ways to teach certain things because I lack the time to learn about everything that is out there. Plus I’ll add number 5 from Meghan as I am really not supposed to do much teaching at all and I am juggling this with my research and all of that with my kids/family.

  5. I pretty much relate to Meghan and Taina. One of the biggest struggles is finding a way that feels good for both me and the students, and doesn’t end up eating up all my time or costing me a fortune to implement. The other big big challenge is the lab work. Currently I’m teaching online a course that was supposed to be 50% lab work. I began using YouTube videos with experiments (very hard to find good ones if you’re considering the idea) and then asking students to write a lab report and peer-review each others work. No real lab skill gained in the process, but I thought it was a decent enough compromise considering they were supposed to perform the experiment and then write the lab report. Turned out students thought it was too difficult. Now I’m trying some more computational oriented tutorials, let’s see how it goes…

    • I am actually in the process of making videos of myself in the lab doing certain things to show them how it is done. This is for my thesis students (bachelor, master PhD) who are still allowed in the lab one at a time but now need to manage without me. However, I think this might also be something that could be used for class as it is more personal than reading about how to do an experiment. Am also thinking about doing ecology related “experiments” online but will have to see if that works. I am thinking the handshake game or a predator prey game we used to do with 1st year students….

  6. Jeremy mentioned field and lab course/sections as especially challenging. I suppose it is called a lab also, but in the fall I teach a graduate stats course with labs in R. I spend most of a two hour lab moving to the next raised hand (often 2-3 in the queue) helping them figure out what they’re doing wrong. I don’t think that is possible to do over zoom (I occasionally do it over email in the evening right before the homework is due and that is *much* harder).

    I suppose screen sharing would get part way. I could watch, see and describe what they should try next.

    But sometimes I’m so lost I just have to get my hand on their console and try a few things myself to figure it out. I wonder if R has any remote console-sharing functionality?

    • I teach my grad stats course differently than you, so this is well down my list of worries. But yeah, one thing on my to-do list for the fall is learning how to take over someone’s computer remotely. Also want to teach the TAs in my undergrad courses with computer-based labs how to do it. So that we have that tool in our toolbox to help diagnose coding issues.

    • I’m doing a course like that right now. Students work in pairs on labs and then a project, in class, and I walk around helping them. I was able to use the breakout room feature in zoom to allow them to work in their pairs, and the help button for them to be able to call me over virtually. At which point I ask them to share their screen with me.

      That’s worked well for me. If you really need to take over the steering wheel, there’s free software called TeamViewer that allows you to take over someone’s computer remotely once they give you their ID and password. (You both need to be running the software, of course.)

    • Thank you both. THis is helpful. I’ve used another remote access product called NoMachine. The problem is these all require installation on both computers. I was hoping for something more lightweight in R. R seems to have a lot of support for R servers but not for peer-peer. At least I haven’t found it with googling today.

      I think I’m going to have to just get better at being OK with screen sharing. There are obvious pedagogical benefits to having the student doing all the typing anyway.

  7. So many challenges… so little time, eh? Over the past 5 years, distance education has been a significant portion of my consulting activity in science. I encountered a steep learning curve, to be sure. The bulk of events I have hosted, including a few I conducted myself, were one hour programs. Thus, these are on par with what would be a standard 50 or 60 minute lecture in a college setting.

    Conventional brick & mortar education v. virtual learning are two very different animals. There exist many challenges, not the least of which is competition. When you lecture to an online audience, there are a great many potential distractions you never know about, at least directly. Your students can (and probably will) read email, surf the web, listen to music, watch youtube videos, make popcorn, answer the phone, read/send texts, do the laundry, or simply leave the room- while you are conducting your lectures. Holding the attention of an online audience is by far and away your greatest challenge. You do not have the captive audience you once enjoyed.

    I suggest paying strong attention to audience statistics while you lecture online. Initially, you might notice audience numbers increase and decrease frequently. Make note of when these changes occur, such that you can revisit your presentation and assess what may have caused those fluctuations. Engaging your audience is crucial. I suggest asking questions and soliciting feedback every two to three minutes. I know that seems like a lot of extra work, but it makes a big difference. I encourage that presenters do not think of online education as a lecture, but instead as a debate. The more you engage your audience, the less opportunity there will be for them to make popcorn…

    A picture is worth, oh, maybe 10,000 words in this format. In general, slides with not only a lot of text- but any text at all- tend to put the audience to sleep. Thus, a very colorful photo of a butterfly with no text, v. a slide with oodles of statistics about the decline of pollinators, is definitely the way to go. Think of yourself not as a lecturer, but a broadcaster. Think of yourself as the next David Attenburough instead of the reincarnation of Albert Einstein. Entertain while you communicate.

    Lastly, I strongly suggest investing in some quality audio equipment. A modest studio grade microphone and headphones cost about $100 to $300 each, and they are well worth the investment. Listen to yourself as you lecture and work on becoming the next David Attenburough of broadcasting. Practice your technique with peers and colleagues, and solicit their kindly critique of your technique. Record your sessions so you can view then later and improve upon your performance.

    All the world is a stage in the virtual format. Break a leg!

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