Strategies & Tools

As you develop a plan for moving your class online during an emergency, focus on what tasks you are trying to accomplish and pick the tool you think will help you achieve your goals:

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  • Communication with Students

    Keeping in touch with students is vital during any changes to your instruction—whether a planned absence on your part, or because of a crisis impacting all or part of campus. You’ll want to let students know about changes in schedules, assignments, procedures, and broader course expectations. Early and frequent communication can ease student anxiety, and save you dealing with individual questions.

    Keep these principles in mind:

    • Communicate early and often: Let students know about changes or disruptions as early as possible, even if all the details aren’t in place yet, and let them know when they can expect more specific information. Remember that they will be in contact with multiple instructors. Don’t swamp them with email, but consider matching the frequency of your messages with that of changes in class activities and/or updates to the broader crisis at hand (for example, the campus closure is extended for two more days; what will students need to know related to your course?).
    • Set expectations: Let students know how you plan to communicate with them, and how often. Tell students both how often you expect them to check their email, and how quickly they can expect your response.
    • Manage your communications load: You will likely receive some individual requests for information that could be useful to all your students, so consider keeping track of frequently asked questions and sending those replies out to everyone. This way, students know they might get a group reply in a day versus a personal reply within an hour. Also, consider creating an information page in Blackboard, and then encourage students to check Blackboard first for answers before emailing you.

    Technical information for communicating with students:

  • Distribute Course Materials and Readings

    You will likely need to provide additional course materials to support your changing plans, from updated schedules to readings that allow you to shift more instruction online. In a pinch, providing some new readings and related assignments may be your best bet for keeping the intellectual momentum of the course moving.

    Considerations when posting course materials online:

    • Make sure students know when new material is posted: If you post new materials in Blackboard or Box, be sure to let students know what you posted and where to find the materials (see Communication section above).
    • Make your content mobile-friendly: In a crisis, many students may only have a phone available, so make sure you are using mobile-friendly formats, PDFs being the most common. Consider saving other files (for example, PowerPoint presentations) to PDFs, which are easier to read on phones and tablets, and keep the file size small. It is fairly easy to reduce the size of PDF files using Adobe Acrobat, and there are online tools that do the same thing (for example, search Google for "PDF file size"). Videos take lots of bandwidth, so only require them if you are confident students will have access to them during a crisis.

    Technical information for posting course materials online:

  • Deliver Lectures

    Depending on your course, you may need to deliver some lectures to keep students engaged in learning. Be aware, though, that a 45-minute live lecture sprinkled with questions and activities can become grueling when delivered online without intellectual breaks. Here are a few suggestions to improve online lectures:

    • Record in small chunks: Even the best online speakers keep it brief; think of the brevity of TED talks. We learn better with breaks to process and apply new information. To aid student learning, record any lectures in shorter (5-10 minute) chunks, and intersperse them with small activities that give students opportunities to process the new knowledge, make connections to other concepts, apply an idea, or make some notes in response to prompts. Smaller chunks also lead to smaller files, especially when using Panopto.
    • Be flexible with live video: Lecturing live with Zoom is certainly possible, and it best approximates a classroom setting, since students can ask questions. However, a crisis might mean some students won’t have access to fast internet connections, and others may have their schedules disrupted. So, record any live classroom session, and be flexible about how students can attend and participate.
    • It’s not just about content: If a crisis is disrupting classes, lectures can mean more than just providing course content; they also establish a sense of normalcy and a personal connection. Those that work exclusively in online education talk about the importance of "instructor presence", and that’s just as true during short-term online stints. Consider ways that you can use lectures to make students feel connected and cared about: acknowledgement of current challenges, praise for good work, and reminders about the class being a community. This affective work can help their learning during a difficult time.

    Technical information for delivering lectures online:

  • Specialty Classes (Lab or Performance-based Classes)

    One of the biggest challenges of teaching during a building or campus closure is sustaining the lab, performance, and/or location-based components of classes. Since many labs and performances require specific equipment or space, they are hard to reproduce online.

    Considerations as you plan to address these types of activities:

    • Take part of the lab online: Many lab activities require students to become familiar with certain procedures, and only physical practice of those processes will do. In such cases, consider if there are other parts of the lab experience you could take online (for example, video demonstrations of techniques, online simulations, analysis of data, other pre- or post-lab work), and save the physical practice parts of the labs until access is restored. The semester might get disjointed by splitting up lab experiences, but it might get you through a short campus closure.
    • Investigate virtual labs: Online resources and virtual tools might help replicate the experience of some labs (for example, virtual dissection, night sky apps, video demonstrations of labs, simulations, etc). Those vary widely by discipline, but check with your textbook publisher, or sites such as Merlot for materials that might help replace parts of your lab during an emergency.
    • Provide raw data for analysis: In cases where the lab includes both collection of data and its analysis, consider showing how the data can be collected, and then provide some raw sets of data for students to analyze. This approach is not as comprehensive as having students collect and analyze their own data, but it might keep them engaged with parts of the lab experience during the closure.
    • Explore alternate software access: Some labs require access to specialized software that students cannot install on their own computers.
    • Increase interaction in other ways: Performance-based courses can depend on student interactions. Think creatively about ways various tools (Zoom, Blackboard) can be employed to get students interacting virtually. Some students may have experience filming themselves but will need direction in ways to share and collaborate on the video for a productive learning experience (see section below).
  • Foster Discussion and Collaboration Among Students

    Fostering discussion among students is important because it allows you to reproduce collaboration you’ve build into your course, and maintains a sense of community that can help keep students motivated to participate and learn. It helps if you already had some sort of student-to-student online activity (for example, Blackboard Discussions) since students will be used to both the process and the tool.

    Consider these suggestions when planning activities:

    • Use asynchronous tools when possible: Having students participate in live Zoom conversations can be useful, but scheduling can be a problem, and only a few students will actively participate (just like in your classroom). In such cases, using asynchronous tools like Blackboard Discussions allows students to participate on their own schedules. In addition, bandwidth requirements for discussion boards are far lower than for live video tools.
    • Link these discussions to clear goals and outcomes: Make sure there are clear purposes and outcomes for any student-to-student interaction. How does this activity help them meet course outcomes or prepare for other assignments? Avoid activities that students will consider ‘busy work’. You are not simply trying to fill time; keep teaching toward the learning goals.
    • Build in simple accountability: Find ways to make sure students are accountable for the work they do in any online discussions or collaborations. Assigning points for online discussion posts can be tedious, so some instructors ask for reflective statements where students detail their contributions and reflect on what they learned from the conversation.
    • Balance newness and need: As with any changed activities, you will need to balance the needs and benefits of online collaboration with the additional effort such collaboration will require on everyone else’s part. Learning new technologies and procedures might be counterproductive, particularly in the short term, unless there is clear benefit.
    • Group Work: When live video is possible, Zoom can provide and organize real-time video discussion groups. Such Breakout rooms within Zoom can be a great way to facilitate group conversations.

    Technical information for fostering discussion online:


  • Paperless Assignment Submission and Distribution / Collect Assignments

    Collecting assignments during a campus closure is fairly straightforward, since many instructors already collect work electronically but, for those that don’t, distributing and collecting assignments online might be challenging. The main challenge during a campus disruption is whether students have access to computers, as anyone needing a campus computer lab may be unable to access necessary technologies. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

    • Require only common software: Students may not have access to specialty software located in on-campus computer labs. Be ready with a backup plan for such students.
    • Avoid emailed attachments: It may be easy to collect assignments in small classes via email, but larger classes might swamp your email inbox. Consider using the tools below instead. Balance what is simplest for students with what is easiest for you to manage.
    • State expectations, but be ready to allow extensions: In the case of a campus closure or other crisis, some students will undoubtedly have difficulties meeting deadlines. Make expectations clear, but be ready to provide more flexibility than you normally would in your class.
    • Require specific filenames: It may sound trivial, but anyone who collects papers electronically knows the pain of getting 20 files named “MyEssay.docx”. Give your students a simple file naming convention, for example, “firstname_lastname_Essay1.docx”.

    Technical information for collecting and grading assignments online:

  • Assess Student Learning

    Formative assessments via small quizzes in Blackboard can keep students accountable and allow you to do spot-checks on their learning. This might be ideal to keep students on track during class disruptions. Additionally, Blackboard Tests can substitute for larger summative assessments that otherwise would be given in class.

    General Tips for assessing student learning during class disruption:

    • Embrace short quizzes: Short quizzes can be a great way to keep students engaged with course concepts, particularly if they are interspersed with small chunks of video lecture. Consider using very-low-stakes quizzes to give students practice at applying concepts—just enough points to hold them accountable, but not so many that the activity becomes all about points.
    • Update expectations for projects: Campus disruptions may limit students’ access to resources they need to complete papers or other projects, and team projects may be harmed by a team’s inability to meet. Be ready to change assignment expectations based on the limitations a crisis may impose. Possible options include allowing individual rather than group projects, having groups record presentations with Zoom, or adjusting the types of resources needed for research papers.
    • Consider alternate exams: Delivering a secure exam online can be difficult without a good deal of preparation and support, so consider giving open-book exams or other types of exams. They can be harder to grade, but you have fewer worries about test security.

    Technical information for online assessment of student learning:

  • Remotely Engaging with Library Resources

    Research Librarians: Your liaison librarians are available to help faculty, staff, and students with research and instruction support in courses or with any research need. Your liaison librarians can provide a full range of remote, research support options that are identified through Ask a Librarian. Liaisons can also create individual course guides for faculty to help identify specific research resources students need for a class or how to access the resources remotely. Liaisons can also help faculty select and make available library resources—such as ebooks with multiple user access--if alternate readings or accessibility to class materials are necessary for remote availability.  

    Library Resources: Remote access to library resources range from the library catalog, to databases, to full-text journals and books. Liaisons can help faculty identify links to add to a syllabus or Blackboard for personalized research guides, library web pages, databases, ebooks, or streaming content – contact your liaison for help with any of these. Email the library or contact Carol Wittig, Head of Research & Instruction with any questions.

    Access: Library subscription resources are available to UR faculty, students, and staff.Most electronic, licensed, UR Library resources are accessible from off-campus and require log-in and authentication with your NetID. For information and options for logging in remotely to licensed library resources, refer to the Off-Campus Access to Library Resources guide.

  • Disability Accommodations when Remote Teaching

    When making the transition from face to face instruction to online instruction, it is important to consider your students with diability accomodations. Here are some tips to help you with that process:

    • Share videos that include closed captioning and/or transcripts.
    • Make sure scanned content is saved as a pdf and, if possible, try to find the html or original electronic version which would be more compatible with screen readers
    • All content should have proper headers that allow for screen readers to properly identify each section of the document/webpage
    • When creating assessments (test/quizzes) in Blackboard, you can make time exceptions for student’s requiring additional time (if you need help setting this up, reach out to the Blackboard team).
    • If recording lectures in Zoom, consider enabling closed caption (learn more here).
  • Classroom Software and Teaching Resources

    Faculty may wish for their students to remotely use speciality software previously only available in computer labs on campus. Due to the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, companies have made student licenses available for free. IS has compiled a list of the software that is currently free for students to download and use (link).

    For software and resources not listed above, please complete this form.

  • Other Resources