Converting a Class Online in a time of Crisis

Rebecca Kreitzer PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Well-designed online classes can be an effective platform for teaching. Faculty making the sudden transition from face-to-face courses to online courses mid-semester face a unique set of challenges. We must manage our expectations of ourselves and our students with respect to what we can accomplish in the rest of this semester. We have to remember that this is also an impossibly hard task for our students. Most have never taken an online class, much less taken all their coursework online. They are anxious that grades will suffer as they figure out how to learn online and what that means for graduation or graduate school applications. Some students do not have resources that are prerequisites for a typical online class, like a reliable internet connection. Many are taking on additional care-taking roles right now, homeschooling younger siblings whose classes have also gone online, or working to financially support their family. Most students are facing some degree of psychological distress – isolated from friends, back at home, sometimes in difficult situations. Some of them have family members critically ill with COVID-19. They are reading the news, just as we are, unsure about what is going to happen. For all these reasons, we must have grace with our students. We need to be understanding, empathetic, and flexible.   Here are some of the most important things I learned as I prepared to make this transition online.

Know the pros and cons of teaching synchronously or asynchronously for your type of class. Be open to the reality that your preferred method of instruction may not be feasible right now.

Synchronous teaching means that all students log on to Zoom/WebEx/GoogleMeet at the same time and you lecture or hold discussion live. The benefits of this approach are that it can (though not always) be easier for discussion, allows students to ask clarifying questions about the lecture in real time, provides structure and routine, and allows you to interact with your students in a familiar way. You can also record these live lectures for students to watch later. This may be the best way to teach graduate or honors classes, especially discussion-based seminars. The challenges with this approach are that many students cannot feasibly attend live classes anymore, for the some of the reasons mentioned above. Students might also span several time zones. Depending on your class size, these classes are prone to tech glitches.

Focusing in an online format can be difficult; a long, live online class can be especially difficult. If you are teaching synchronously, make sure you make clear expectations of attendance. Be clear if attendance is optional and will not affect their grade. Have a plan if students cannot attend. Set clear guidelines for participation – tell students if they should keep themselves muted, if you will be using a hand-raising function, or if you will be also using a typed chat function. Students don’t know how to do this, so make it as clear as possible for them.

Asynchronous teaching means all students have access to pre-recorded lectures and can watch those lectures at a time that is convenient for them. The benefits of this approach are that students’ lives are chaotic right now and this maximizes flexibility. Students can download multiple recorded lectures at once, which is better for students lacking a good internet connection. Students can watch a lecture, pause, continue, or re-watch as needed. This approach may be best for larger classes or when students are facing many barriers to online learning The challenges with this approach are that students may feel less engaged without a regular class time. Students cannot as easily ask a clarifying question mid-lecture. Students also don’t get the “face time” with you and other students. In these classes, discussion can only take place in a typed, online forum. I teach at a large, public university. Many of my students do not have reliable internet and have chaotic lives right now. For these reasons, I am teaching asynchronously. I am mitigating the challenges to this approach by having regular, group video office hours, facilitating discussion online and setting clear expectations. Here is a document explaining my approach and additional resources in more detail.

Establish a practice of clear, consistent and frequent communication.

Reach out to your students right away, even before you have a plan. This can be as simple as an email that says, “We are going online, as you heard. I don’t have a plan yet, but I am on it and will keep you updated. Take care.” Write out a plan and keep it updated. Err on the side of over communication. Students are anxious about this process. Trying to preempt their concerns will save you time and will mitigate anxiety students are facing. I shared a file in my Dropbox account that I update as necessary – this way students always have easy access to the most recent, accurate information. You can read my plan here. Make it clear how you will communicate. Don’t bombard students with emails as it is difficult for them to keep track of which emails include critical information and which are general updates. Try to keep all critical information in one place so students can easily find it.

Check in with students, repeatedly.

Send out an anonymous survey to students to assess their situation. My survey was short to increase the probability students would complete it. I asked students:

  • If they had Wi-Fi at home, or if they would need to rely on cellular data on their phones or going to internet hotspots.
  • If they had experiencing taking an online class. And if they had, I asked what they liked or disliked about that experience.
  • What the best times for office hours would be, to try to make sure I was making myself available when they needed it.
  • If they had concerns about food insecurity or other basic needs.
  • What concerns they had about moving to online.
  • If there was anything I could do to make this situation better.

Many of my students expressed concern about how to stay engaged this semester. You can read my tips for staying engaged online here. Give them space to talk about COVID-19 if they want it. They may need someone to help them understand and process what is going on. Empathize with them and share that you are also anxious and concerned about what’s going on. Let them know it’s okay to be feeling that way – we all are – this is an unprecedented event.

Be reasonable and adapt to changing circumstances.

Many of us have to change course content and assignments for an online format. Be reasonable in your adjustments, communicate, and relax your expectations. Now isn’t the time to assign more work to compensate for less in person class time! Big research papers may be harder now, without easy library access. Final exam and quizzes will likely now be open-book. Deadlines may need to be much more flexible. The changes you make today may need to be changed again before the semester is over. And finally, despite our best intentions and efforts, our control over this situation is limited. Just do your best.

Rebecca Kreitzer, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on gender and political representation, gender and racial inequality in public policy, and the diffusion of policy across the US states. She teaches undergraduate and graduate classes on public policy theory, the politics of policy, and on gender and sexuality policy.



Editor’s Note – This post is part of Educate’s series, “online learning during Covid-19.” This series features APSA member voices across higher education. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact 

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