Moving Online in a Hurry

Cammy Shay, PhD, Chair of the Government Department at Houston Community College

The Scene

A pandemic sweeps the country, and you find yourself transitioning to an online learning management system when for half a semester, your classes met on campus. You haven’t trained to be an online teacher, but now you are required to teach online. How do you do your work, support your students, and get to the end of the semester intact? This cheat-sheet offers some suggestions to get you going, but by no means does it cover the nuances of online instruction. Let’s just get to the end of the semester!

The Basics

  • Effective online teaching requires regular communication with students, an encouraging tone, and patience. As you are learning to teach online, so too are your students learning how to learn online. With the stresses and pressures of the current health emergency, stay connected to your students, for you are an anchor.
  • Keep it simple, less-is-more, focus on essentials, leave the bells & whistles alone. Now is not the time to try out new technologies when you have been thrown into the LMS suddenly. Unless required, keep your classes asynchronous. This will allow students to do their work on their schedule. Avoid piling on work.
  • Unlike in the classroom, students don’t have you explaining the content (lecturing); they have to use the resources you’ve made available to them, their textbook, and each other to learn. You may find that some of your students did not purchase the textbook because they relied on your lectures to learn. If this is the case, look for a free open educational resource (OER) substitution.
  • An effective online teacher is a mentor, a facilitator. You will guide your students’ learning. In a low-tech environment, this is done in announcements, emails, discussions, and grading comments. Only use video tools (Canvas Conferences, Webex, Kaltura, Zoom, or other) if you can do so well. You do not want to confuse students!

The Necessary

  • Ask your students how they are doing. Ask about any challenges they are facing. Let them know about support services.
  • Be kind. Show some compassion if students let you know they are having trouble understanding the online platform or meeting a deadline. Be prepared to help them as they learn to navigate through your class.
  • Log in daily. It’s a good idea to log in in the morning and again in the late afternoon or early evening. Respond to questions and emails promptly, but certainly within 24 hours. Students need to know you are “there.”
  • Make sure you have a Q&A discussion forum and “subscribe” to it or check it often, so you know when students have posted a request for help. Encourage students to help each other.
  • Send a weekly announcement to let your students know what’s ahead during the week.
  • Send positive announcements and messages about their work and provide encouraging feedback on assignments.
  • Participate in discussions to enrich, clarify, and encourage students to interact with one another. This “substantive engagement” means a lot to your students.
  • Contact an LMS mentor if you are having problems in your class, you need advice for how to add content, or you have questions about grading.

The Must Be Avoided

  • Don’t take attendance. Students will work on assigned reading, discussions, assignments, quizzes, or tests that you have posted for them. You might want to look at the LMS activity log to identify any students who are not logging in and participating. Send them an email to see if they are okay or if they need help.
  • Don’t get hostile if students ask you questions that can be answered by looking at the syllabus. Be patient with them as they learn to navigate online learning. Sometimes they just want to know you are “there” for them.
  • Don’t conduct a “live” class unless you are fluent in doing so and can also record it so that it can be seen or heard asynchronously. Students’ lives are upside down. Their technology may not support live meetings. They may be sharing their living space with roommates, children, parents, pets, etc. They may be ill or looking after someone who is ill. In other words, they may not be able to “attend” a live meeting. Students must be allowed to work when they have time to do so. Be flexible and generous with due dates.
  • Unless you are required to do so, avoid high-stakes testing, essay tests, long paper assignments, or other forms of assessment that cannot be done on a mobile phone. Many students are going to rely on their mobile phones to finish the semester.
  • Don’t YELL AT YOUR STUDENTS IN ALL CAPS! They don’t need to be yelled at during this stressful time—or any other time!

The End Result

You can teach online if you stay focused on the needs of your students during this very challenging time. When you hit a bump (and you likely will), reach out to a colleague who teaches online, an LMS mentor, your Teaching & Learning Center, or others who can help. The goal is for you and your students to get to the end of the semester successfully.

Cammy Shay, PhD is Chair of the Government Department at Houston Community College. She has more than 20 years of online teaching experience. And she loves her online students.

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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