Principles to Guide the Move to An Online Environment

Compiled by the School of Information faculty. 


You are not in this alone

The School of Information has offered flipped-classroom, online learning since 2014. We have learned a lot along the way. In this blog you can find pointers about embedding videos into bCourses, how to greet a class upon arrival, and other practical advice. This related document also provides classroom specifics.

Rethink the classroom

Institutions define roles and responsibilities that are well-understood by students and instructors. We are all very familiar with these institutions in the lecture-hall: we know how to call a class to order, how to engage students, and how to rouse the student snoring in the third row.  Classrooms and learning online also have a series of behaviors that support learning. But the norms and institutions that we know from in-person teaching do not always map one-to-one into the online classroom setting. While experimentation and learning is integral for each instructor to find the voice and method that makes them most effective, in this document we provide some general principles that instructors at the School of Information have learned in the years we have been teaching online.  Keep in mind that each subject may have a different approach to instruction. Even before the move to online coursework theater, philosophy, computer science, and statistics classes used different modes of instruction. It seems reasonable that each discipline might also create unique classrooms in an era of online teaching. Accordingly, we present some of our accumulated wisdom about strategies for student and class success. Though none are necessary to create an engaging classroom for your students, and certainly none are sufficient, we hope these core principles provide a helpful beginning.

Core Principles

Use technology to turn video lectures into active learning in the asynchronous content

  • Why this is important: Low-stakes assessments personalize the experience, inform students if they are “getting” the material, and give students an opportunity to engage with each other via discussion-type assessments in the asynchronous (async) content. Incentivize active engagement.
  • How we achieve it: 
    • Quizzes between async videos. 
      • “Did you understand the concept?” 
        • Target difficulty of question so that it assesses comprehension, but ensure it’s not too difficult because this can discourage students. 
        • Ensure that recorded lecture content prepares students for quiz content.
    • Discussion questions between async videos.
      • “Can you apply this concept?”
        • Application questions help assess a higher level of mastery. These types of questions will also encourage students to engage with each other while they view the async material.
    • A summative discussion assignment at the end of the async to assess understanding of the entire week’s content. 
      • Application outside of the examples provided in the async content, and/or synthesis of multiple ideas 
        • e.g. How would you apply Concept A to <a new scenario>. Describe how Concept A and Concept B are related.

Use live session for activities, not more lecture

  • Why this is important: In the best case scenario, you have provided students with the appropriate asynchronous resources (e.g. recorded lecture, primary sources, and textbooks) to develop the baseline understanding necessary to have a productive discussion when students attend live session. Use the synchronous time to engage students with weekly concepts as pairs, groups, or a whole collective. 
    • Ask yourself, “How can I structure this live session to actively engage students?” Similar to the in-person lecture environment that has in-class distractions (e.g. chatty neighbors, the students on social media, the students who watch movies during class), the online environment also provides students with potential distractions. After all, by design, they are already on their computers. Please make an extra effort to create a class that is as interactive as possible.
  • How we achieve it: 
    • We start the live session with a quick (about 5 minutes) presentation of the landscape, where the content du jour fits in that landscape, and a recap of a few important concepts. The remainder of the session is used for interactive activities, socratic dialogue and student-led discussion. 
    • Discussions are a chance for people to apply theory against problems; discover the limitations of what they know; and develop a deep, working capability with a concept. 
      • Example: Ask them questions that are not straightforward, or could not simply be answered by simply regurgitating the async content. 
      • Stats examples: teach students theory, then discuss application in breakout on their own or in the main room with the instructor (depending on their level of comfort with the concepts).
    • Instructors (and TAs) should circulate around the breakouts to help students stay on task and to give students a slight push if they get stuck.

Create space for 2- and 3-person interactions

  • Why this is important: Students learn through the process of explaining concepts.  Students that practice their ideas in a small group are then more likely to participate in larger discussion. We can replicate think-pair-share strategies that are effective in traditional in-person classrooms in online synchronous classrooms. 
  • How we achieve it: Several 10-15 minute Zoom breakouts. 
    • Give students a prompt to discuss. You may provide these to students before class if you want students to prepare, or you may give them to students live.
    • Instruct students to discuss the question in small groups and prepare to share their ideas with the entire class after breakout. 
    • Return to the main Zoom area and either ask for volunteers, or call on specific groups to share. You can see which students are in each group if you click on “Breakout Rooms” in the Zoom window. 

Create space to engage with students on an informal level

  • Why this is important: In an online only environment, students do not have the before and after class time to chat informally with faculty. In particular during this crisis, attending class gives students a feeling of normalcy. To connect with an empathetic mentor (i.e. you!) will assist with comprehension of material, will provide an understanding and expectation that you care about their outcomes (generating supportive, external motivation for students to complete work), and will afford students a type of informal support.
    • How we achieve it: 
      • Ensure availability before or after class. 
        • This mimics the in-person interaction students may have with the instructor before class formally starts and after class ends. 
        • Post-class availability helps students ask questions that come up during live session. 
          • This alleviates the number of students that attend regularly scheduled office hours, and will help accommodate students that may not  be able to make your office hours. 
      • A check-in or check-out 
          • A brief “check-in” (a short sentence / one or two words) at the beginning of class can be helpful. Post the names of the students in the Zoom chat in the order you would like them to speak. 
          • You may list them based on the order you see them in your zoom window (because the order you see is likely different than what they see). This gives students a heads-up about the order.
          • Students can share something about how they’re doing or can share something about the class content.
            • Make it clear that students can pass if they prefer not to share. 
          • This helps create community because students ease into class by talking about themselves and because they hear from their classmates. This also helps them practice each other’s names. Furthermore, a student may relate to something another student says.
          • If your class is particularly large, you may direct students to do this check-in when they arrive in breakout groups. 
          • In some cases a “check-out” at the end can also be helpful. 
            • This may work particularly well if there is a topic to discuss–such as how that week’s assignment went.

Be open with students as you tackle this new challenge

  • Why this is important: In the new, unfamiliar learning environment, spend time to communicate honestly with students. A little extra transparency and humility about the novelty of this format for both students and instructors helps to humanize the instructor. This will help reduce anxiety, and we have found that this dramatically reduces the number of student grievances we receive. 
  • How we achieve it: 
    • Tell students “This is new to everyone. Let’s be patient with each other.”
    • Clearly communicate when any changes are made and why. 
    • Walk students through decisions. 
      • E.g. last minute assignment extensions 
        • Explain how it’s not fair for students who planned and did it the “right way.”
        • If you change the deadline, acknowledge that it’s unfair, but that you want to prioritize learning and you think most students would benefit if you extend the deadline. 
    • Explain ideas behind the assessments in the async material. 
    • Describe goals for each major assignment.