It’s not too late to plan for an online Fall!

Slowly but surely, universities in the US are ceding to the inevitable, reversing their rose-tinted reopening plans, and committing to fully or almost fully online Fall semesters. My own institution made its announcement on Wednesday of this week, although the writing had been on the virtual wall for several days.

To be clear, it’s the right decision, and I applaud the university for its courage and support for the faculty. Given the country’s abysmal failure to contain the coronavirus and the overwhelming evidence of the personal and public health risks of Covid-19, it would be a catastrophe to allow hundreds of thousands of students to travel or commute to colleges, live in dorms (or take the virus home with them), and spend hours a day in poorly ventilated classrooms, not to mention gymnasiums, dining halls, fraternity houses, bars, libraries, or wherever students spend their free time. No, thanks.

So, we have five weeks until Sep 1, the first day of our Fall classes. That’s not a long time, but it’s enough to make the semester better than spring and summer. In many ways, we’ve been working towards high-quality online classes every day since mid-March, but it’s clear that students have a right to expect effective, planned, and coherent courses, not “Zoom University.” We can’t pretend that we’re still in “crisis mode” next semester.

What’s not possible? If you don’t already have a carefully designed asynchronous or blended course with hours of short, edited videos, interactive online tasks, simulations, etc. etc., you’re probably not going to have it on Sep 1. That’s OK: while good online classes are very effective, there’s a lot we can easily adapt from existing classes that will work synchronously on Zoom or Teams. Ordinarily, an online course should be 100% loaded into your learning management system (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) on day 1, but in reality you don’t need everything for week 7 reading in week 1. Deep, cleansing breaths.

Here’s what we’re asking course mentors, coordinators, and designers to prepare. It’s a checklist that should ensure all courses meet the minimum criteria for good practices while hopefully reducing the existential, debilitating angst that many of us feel at 3am when we think about next semester. By way of context, our set-up is Canvas plus Zoom, and we’re an 8-week intensive English program, where classes ordinarily meet about 2 hrs/day every day.

  1. Teachers agree on a delivery model: 100% synchronous or blended asynchronous/synchronous, in which case what percentage (up to 40%) will be asynch, and how will it be allocated (e.g. 1 or 2 days a week, or 30 minutes of every class, etc.)?
  2. Every course uses the standard home page template we developed for Canvas, including consistent branding, instructor information, textbook/ebook links, basic course information, meeting times, Zoom room, and links to key resources (tutoring center, advising, social events, etc.).
  3. The Syllabus page on Canvas has the course leaning outcomes plus a link to a page with the department’s standard policies.
  4. Every course uses Canvas Announcements to share the homework and links for every class. That way, students in every class will know exactly where to look. No guessing or instructor idiosyncrasy (there’s still plenty of that elsewhere!).
  5. All assignments, quizzes, and other assessments are properly created in the right place in Canvas as content pages, not Word files to download (most students don’t have printers!). Canvas can also be set to ensure a degree of test integrity, which can’t really happen with Word docs flying around cyberspace.
  6. Every major assignment has a clear rubric created in Canvas. Somewhere between “content/organization/language” and the two-page, single-spaced, 10-point monsters that I’ve seen abandoned in the photocopier.
  7. The course is divided into “modules,” the unit of organization on Canvas. Modules usually correspond to weeks, but could also be aligned with units of study, themes, or textbook chapters. Even if a course is being delivered 100% on Zoom, it really helps students to have a consistent system of organization where they can find handouts, links, quizzes, and assignments.
The English Language Institute’s Canvas home page template in action

All of this can be uploaded as coursepacks to Canvas Commons for instructors to import into their classes when they are assigned for the fall. We’re also asking instructors to look at their course and ask:

a) What must be done synchronously?

b) What can’t be done at all?

c) What can students do in groups without the teacher?

d) What can students do asynchronously and independently?

Finally, for courses that will use additional online resources, we’ve asked coordinators and designers to make a development plan to ensure that everything is ready at the point of need, including:

  • discussion boards*
  • videos, video quizzes, other interactives
  • quizzes
  • content pages*
  • assignments*
  • Padlets, Quizlets, Kahoots, etc.
  • module overview and summary pages*

* = we have templates for these that promote clarity of visual design and directions.

So that’s where we are on this, the 131st day of March. To date, there have been 14,175 positive cases of coronavirus in Delaware (145 cases per 10K residents) and 579 deaths. As much as we all want to go back to the classroom, those numbers must give us pause. So, let’s stay online, and get it right this fall.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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