Back to School: Online Edition (2)

When my co-teacher Janna and I set out to redesign our normally face-to-face course to accommodate the pivot to online learning this past semester, we were not sure what to do. The Covid-19 lockdown seemed to call for an altogether new approach to online teaching. In three blogs posts, we’ll describe how we revised our course design, the practicalities of lockdown teaching, and why our students called our course “the gold standard of online teaching” by the end of the semester.

Part 2: The practicalities of lockdown teaching

In Part 1 of this short series, I outlined our approach to course design, which combined synchronous and asynchronous forms of learning. Our aim in the course was to create an inclusive learning environment for those students able to attend our weekly online seminars as well as those students who followed the course asynchronously. In this post, I will address how we put our initial ideas into practice. In short, we found out that three things proved to be particularly important when teaching online during a lockdown:

  1. Take the small talk seriously: making space in our course for chitchat and non-teaching related banter helped create an online community between us and our students. It made students more at ease, when participating in the online chats and breakout sessions. They also indicated feeling more comfortable signaling to us, when they were struggling with the course.
  2. Make connections between synchronous and asynchronous learners: having to take a course remotely is difficult enough, let alone doing mostly on your own. We wanted to make sure that asynchronous learners did not feel as if they were excluded from what was going on in the online seminars. We made use of the interactive features on the course management page (discussions, blog posts, Wikis) and created joint exercises for synchronous and asynchronous learners to overcome this obstacle.
  3. Make sure to check in: in our department, few students make use of office hours. We therefore feared that remote learners might not contact us, when struggling with the course. Our solution was to make attending our office hours part of the participation grade. This way, we gave a strong signal that attending office hours was expected from students. It helped us give extra attention to students who needed it.

Running the live seminars

Each week, we would meet our students for three hours during an online seminar. The seminars took place in a Kaltura Live Room, the online teaching platform acquired by our university. The Live Room made it possible for us to show slides, use a whiteboard, share our screen, have students work in break-out groups, and several other things that helped approximate a face-to-face classroom setting. Managing multiple functionalities at once proved difficult. Since we were co-teaching, one of us would lecture or lead discussion with the students, while the other person would monitor the chat or activate tools when needed.

We made sure to start each seminar with some small talk, with topics ranging from Netflix recommendations to the small joys of freshly baked pastries and park picnics during lockdown. Small talk proved to be important for our seminars for several reasons: it introduced a semblance of normal social interactions in our course; it opened the discussions in the chat, making students more comfortable to contribute; and it allowed us to do a quick check before each seminar to see how everyone was doing.

It is important to note that we did not shy away from sharing our own experiences with the students. After one of us had a bad day, about half-way into the course and into the lockdown, and expressed as much during the small talk, several students expressed feeling more comfortable admitting that they were struggling as well. In hindsight, this became one of the most appreciated features of our course (see also below on course evaluations).

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building ceiling classroom daylight

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Our seminars then followed a standard structure. Having three hours at our disposal, we would dedicate the first hour to a short lecture. One of us would talk, supported by slides and other visual aids. The other would monitor the chat. We made sure to make the lecture interactive by including brief surveys, pose questions for students to answer in the chat, or share links to additional online resources. The lecture would end with a short assignment, related to the week’s lecture topic. During the second hour, students worked together in break-out groups to do the assignment. While the assignment would rarely take a full hour to complete, we wanted students to have enough time to take breaks and to chat amongst themselves. For this reason, we did not enter the break-out groups, unless invited by the students (for instance, when they had a question). The third hour then was dedicated to presentations: the various groups would report back on their completed assignments and some students would present their blogs. We would end each seminar with a general discussion, to which students could contribute via webcam or chat.

For the asynchronous learners, we recorded the lecture component of each seminar. Break-out groups and class discussions were not recorded. We feared that students present in the online classroom would be more reluctant to actively participate, if their comments and remarks were ‘on-the-record’. After each seminar, we would post the lecture video on our learning management system (Blackboard).

We added also several features on our learning management system that would help asynchronous learners understand the learning materials and keep engaged with the course. First, we created several discussion threads, where students could pose questions. One thread was dedicated solely to organizational matters to the course; others were structured around each course week and invited questions of a substantive nature. Second, we created a glossary of difficult terms and concepts from the course readings, for which we used the Wiki function in our learning management system. Students were asked to post any terms they were struggling with or to post definitions of listed concepts that they already knew. Finally, we posted students’ blogs on the course page and asked students to use the comments function to ask questions or provide feedback on the blogs.

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woman writing on a notebook beside teacup and tablet computer

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Synchronous/asynchronous interactions

While we designed our course page on the learning management system predominantly with the asynchronous learners in mind, we were pleasantly surprised to see it helped forge connections between synchronous and asynchronous learners in our course: students answered each other’s questions in the online forums and they engaged in lengthy discussions around the blogs, sometimes over several weeks. To a large degree, these interactions were unforeseen. While we had aimed to incentivize students to interact with each other by giving them a participation grade (weighed at 20% of the final grade), our students had initially misunderstood our instructions to mean they were assessed either on synchronous learning activities or on asynchronous learning activities. When synchronous learners used the interactive features on the learning management system, they told us they did so for their own enjoyment of communicating with other students.

One of the mechanisms at our disposal were the exercises that we gave students in the online seminars to work on in breakout. We would distribute the same exercises to the asynchronous learners, who would e-mail us their completed work. The exercises always involved a small research task, that helped connect the themes from the course readings to current events. To give an example: in our week on corporate social responsibility, students explored public corporations’  charitable giving and other responses to the corona virus pandemic and compared these against the measures taken to benefit the corporations’ shareholders. During the live session, each breakout group had done research on some of the world’s largest firms. We collected the results in a shared Google Drive file, to which asynchronous learners would add the findings from their own self-study efforts. The result was a collectively assembled dataset. Curious about other exercises? Click here.

Finally, we wanted to create a welcoming environment for students to interact with us, the course instructors. Again, we predominantly had asynchronous learners in mind. Since we would not meet our students in person for the duration of the course, we were afraid that we would not be able to find out, when students struggled with their coursework during these strange times. We therefore included attending online office hours in our participation rubric, hoping to incentivize students to reach out to us. This worked out as expected: over the course of seven weeks, we spoke with almost all asynchronous learners in a one-on-one setting. While most conversations initially covered assignments or other substantive questions related to the course, they also provided an opening to talk about the – sometimes very serious – situations in which our students found themselves during the lockdown. In some cases, we were able to direct students to support services provided by our university; in other cases, we simply offered a listening ear. All in all, our office hours resulted in very meaningful conversations with our students, that we may not have had under normal circumstances.

Up next: how students experienced our online course

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Filed under Flipped Classroom, Institute of Public Administration, Open Education, Welfare State

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