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Moving to Digital Learning Fast: Where to Start

As coronavirus changes life as we knew it, these education experts offer advice on how to make the transition to online instruction.

man working on laptop at home

Numerous colleges and universities across the country suddenly find themselves in the position of having to teach online due to changes introduced by the national response to coronavirus and COVID-19. While every institution has its share of early adopters, people who have been delivering instruction totally or partially online for years, there are plenty of other faculty who are new to the process. To help schools make the transition as quickly and comprehensively as possible, Campus Technology reached out to instructional teams in universities and education technology experts to answer the questions we believe nearly every institution is rushing to answer right now.

This is part 1 of a series. You can find part 2, "Moving to Digital Learning Fast: More Questions Answered," here.

Most of my faculty haven't done this before. Where should we start with training them?

"Start where you can! The faculty likely has e-mail and can start with sending information through [that]." —Kara Longo Korte, director, product management at TetraVX

"The most important advice we could offer faculty members is to be creative and embrace the new options an online format opens up, rather than simply trying to recreate the in-classroom experience via webcam. Faculty should be prepared to engage with students at every phase and to personalize their instruction to the individual student's needs. Some students like the visual interaction of video chat; others might be fine with just a phone call. Sometimes instructors can create videos to share with a class or cohort, especially for material that needs to be shown, not just explained. The delivery choices should also be driven by the content of the material being taught.

"It is important to recognize that our familiar ways of teaching make us feel comfortable and competent. It is okay to mourn those when we can't use them. In a lot of ways, the digital realm offers more flexibility and room for personalization than a traditional in-classroom setting would, so faculty should be prepared to take full advantage of those opportunities. They will feel better about the shift if they embrace their inner learner and allow it to invigorate their teaching. Remember that online learning, at its best, mirrors the way individuals spend much of their days online already — whether they're learning a new skill for work or researching appliances. As much as possible, try to offer experiences that are familiar to the digital citizen. It's a kind of flexibility that the 21st-century learner takes to quickly." Katherine Porter, faculty experience manager; Natalie Murray, VP student experience; and Joann Kozyrev, VP design and development, Western Governors University

"1) Setting up a course shell for faculty is a first priority to give them a space where they can upload material, connect with students and post assignments. The platform should automatically enroll students.

"2) Have faculty start with a few simple tools — for example, drag and drop a syllabus and content for that week's activities, set up a discussion area for students to work together on activities.

"3) Add an activity feed that offers a Facebook-like experience on the course homepage where faculty can post activities and have conversations with students.

"4) As they get comfortable, help faculty with gradebooks, quizzes, or more advanced features to keep students on track for success and engaged." —John Baker, CEO, D2L

Students still crave the knowledge from our valued faculty, and even though these classes may not be in the physical environment, the words and knowledge we share still have power regardless of the avenue we use.

"Remind faculty that the most important thing in the academic process is to continue to keep the spirit of learning and discovery alive in their classrooms, and they have control over this. The first session of a course that has been shifted from face-to-face instruction into virtual instruction may not be perfect as the students and faculty adjust to the new environment, but this is also an opportunity to engage in a learning process of change management and working through adversity. Additionally, students still crave the knowledge from our valued faculty, and even though these classes may not be in the physical environment, the words and knowledge we share still have power regardless of the avenue we use as long as we make our focus on our students and their learning outcomes. During this time faculty should remember to be empathetic to themselves as they are adjusting to a change and extend empathy to students as they are in a transition process together." —Kelly Herman, vice president, Accessibility, Equity & Inclusion; and Marc Booker, associate provost, University of Phoenix

"I would start with Zoom. The software offers a robust platform to host most online courses, and have a free version that is suitable for most teachers and students." —Shaan Patel, founder of Prep Expert

"Educators tell us it's helpful to start the transition to remote teaching with a recognition that classes will be both asynchronous as well as synchronous, and that's okay. Some of the time, teachers may have the opportunity to connect with their students via videoconferencing and messaging tools, but much of the time, learning will be asynchronous and students will be required to read, watch instructional videos and study independently. Identifying the easy, go-to technology that helps with both aspects of teaching will help ground teachers and allow them to focus on lesson plans. For instance, a lot of teachers tell us they are using Zoom or Google Meet for videoconferencing with student groups, Google Docs for essays and written work that can be reviewed online, and Quizlet for study activities and formative assessment quizzes because it generates new questions each time." —Matthew Glotzbach, CEO,Quizlet

"Faculty who are asked to quickly move their teaching online should start by connecting with someone they trust who can advise them, and then deciding what technology is available to them that will help them transition most easily. Then, they should work from their existing syllabus or lesson plan to determine how each can be done remotely." —Carli Tegtmeier, vice president of Sales and Higher Education at Pronto

"It is essential that administrators create a plan that includes training and professional development that, hopefully, is engaging. Once a plan is in place, I would encourage administrators to have their instructors learn how to use video conferencing tools, and once they feel comfortable with those tools, to promote the idea of having remote professional development through webinars and videoconference calls so they can understand the student perspective. They will learn about some of the distractions that occur when a student is remote. If they are aware of some of the distractions, they can address them and help students navigate them." —Josh Nichols, veteran teacher and CEO/founder of CrossBraining

"The first step is to get the basic assignments online. Provide printable handouts (in PDF format) or reference documents from one repository if possible, to make it easy for students to bookmark and return to. The second step is to leverage videoconferencing technology built into Microsoft Office 365, Zoom, Slack or other services. Try to set up and keep the classes going on the same schedule. Record them for those students who are unable to attend. Establish 'office' hours online and conduct those using the video tools." —Wayne Bovier, founder and CEO at Higher Digital

"It is very helpful to provide FAQ documents and single-page summaries of basic features of the program [for those faculty who are not familiar with the programs]. Faculty will benefit from an actual run-through using the program prior to using it in class. IT staff members can host Zoom meetings. Finally, it is important for faculty to be able to reach out (electronically or by phone) for IT help in the middle of a [web conferencing] session [with students]; even if it is not used, it will ease an instructor's anxiety to know that this is possible." —Frederick Lawrence, secretary and CEO, The Phi Beta Kappa Society

What about students? If they don't have experience with online learning, where's a good place to start?

"Start where they are! E-mail then voice/videoconferencing. Encourage students to collaborate — have calls to share best practices, talk about assignments or 'work' together." —Kara Longo Korte, director, product management at TetraVX

"Setting a schedule — and sticking to it — is crucial. Without the imposed structure of showing up for class at a given time in a physical place, students need to impose their own structure. Otherwise, procrastination can creep in. If students have blocked out time on their calendar specifically for studies, it's easier to stay disciplined and on track. It's also important for the schedule to include time for breaks. It's a lot easier to stay on track when you know you have a half-hour for a walk or a quick 15-minute snack break coming up.

"Similarly, creating a study space can be a kind of 'mental trick,' a physical cue that it's school time. Students should find a place in their home that is free of distractions and allows for concentration. It is important to acknowledge that for some students, especially those from less privileged backgrounds, this might be really hard. When that is the case, recommend other techniques for making space: Wear headphones. Place a sign on your desk that says, 'I am studying .... Can your question wait?' Even a picture or a piece of colored paper can communicate to children who can't read whether we can be interrupted or not.

"It's also a good idea to lean on other people. This includes staying in contact with faculty through the protocols set up by the instructor. But it can also mean building a support structure among the people in a student's life. This can be difficult during a period of social distancing, but just like internet technology enables learning to continue, it should also be used to keep social support networks active. Students should ask specific people in their lives to keep them accountable — a family member in the home with them, a colleague they're staying in touch with via e-mail, or a cousin across the country who can send them daily Snapchat reminders to finish a chapter or work on a paper.

"That being said, distractions like social media, other people in the house, and the refrigerator nearby can get in the way of success if students aren't careful. These things should all be taken into consideration when selecting a study time and space — a student who knows that her spouse's streaming TV bingeing habits could tempt her might choose to study early in the morning while her spouse is still sleeping, or ask that he reserve her designated study time to watch a show she dislikes. Maybe she [can leave] her phone in another room while studying and choose a room without a large window beckoning her to go outside and enjoy the springtime sunshine." —Natalie Murray, VP student experience; Katherine Porter, faculty experience manager; and Joann Kozyrev, VP design and development, Western Governors University

"My biggest advice for students is to make sure they are setting aside enough time to go through group activities." —John Baker, CEO, D2L

"First make the students aware of 'why' behind the change, and why the use of the specific online or virtual tools at your disposal are the best fit for students to continue to learn during this timeframe. Next, provide information about 'how' they will use the online instructional tools and resources to increase their knowledge around the functions that exist in the online learning environment. From there, you want to let the student know 'what' to do if they have any additional questions and what resources exist that are surrounding them as support during this transition.

"To assist students with the adjustment process schools may ... want to leverage students' pre-existing digital literacy competencies to help ease the transition process. For example, many students have used synchronous teleconferencing tools and social media applications that often mirror functions in the online learning environment. Providing students this frame of reference as a corollary can assist with the adoption process as you find analogous examples to your online learning environment. Ultimately, the process of learning requires the exchange of thoughts, ideas and information with an avenue for assessment; and focusing on these aspects and a virtual environment still allows for this to occur." —Marc Booker, associate provost; and Kelly Herman, vice president, Accessibility, Equity & Inclusion, University of Phoenix

"In this time of uncertainty, the key is simplifying. When designing online curricula, less is more. It's important to use technology that students are already familiar with whether it be via mobile phones or computers." —Sara Monteabaro, learning lead, MIT Solve

"Most students should have no problem getting used to an online platform like Zoom, given Generation Z is more tech-savvy then anyone. The biggest problem students may have is not getting distracted by the rest of the internet while watching their course. Therefore, I'd recommend closing all other applications such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc." —Shaan Patel, founder of Prep Expert

"Online students should approach this in the same way that in-person students do. Show up for class at certain times, put in the work. Find a way to communicate with your fellow classmates and engage with your professors.

"If students don't have experience working online, they should first set up a comfortable and quiet place in their homes that's free from distraction. If possible, use headphones to drown out other noises. Download any software needed to join videoconferences or to obtain reference materials. Bookmark content that faculty has set up to get to quickly and easily. If attending a live class via video, try to fully participate with the instructor and fellow classmates by turning on your video. Set up study groups with fellow students via video technology as well." —Wayne Bovier, founder and CEO at Higher Digital

What are the easiest components of a course to transition to online delivery — the low-hanging fruit?

"Sharing materials, communicating information, and discussing topics or responding to questions are all core components of teaching and easily done online. Teachers need to know which technologies are available to them to facilitate these core activities, and how they can get started." —Carli Tegtmeier, vice president of Sales and Higher Education at Pronto

"Homework-type assignments are easy. [Make sure they can be] e-mailed either in the body of an e-mail or sent as an attachment. What resources can be pointed to for research assignments? Are there videos on YouTube or TED Talks that show some of the content? Can quizzes be created from that? And how can quizzes be done in a non-traditional format? [Use] something like Kahoot! to have students 'play' against each other." —Kara Longo Korte, director, product management at TetraVX

"The low hanging fruit is dragging and dropping content to share with a class and then using the activity feed to keep the class on track for what comes next." —John Baker, CEO, D2L

"Slides. Slide decks are extremely easy to upload into any online teaching platform." —Shaan Patel, founder of Prep Expert

"Placing basic course materials in a repository is the easiest to transition and something that many instructors are already doing. Online quizzes and tests have become more common but do require more effort and time on the faculty's part to digitize. Conducting labs is the hardest component to transition to online delivery." —Wayne Bovier, founder and CEO at Higher Digital

"Lecturing, asking questions to engage students, and asking students to comment on the remarks of their colleagues all transition well to online delivery. More sophisticated use of the online platforms will allow for students to form breakout groups. But even without doing this, many standard classroom techniques can comfortably be used. For instructors who prefer to use PowerPoint in teaching, the 'share' function on Zoom, for example, allows for the entire class to see the instructor's home screen, where the [slide] display can be displayed." —Frederick Lawrence, secretary and CEO, The Phi Beta Kappa Society

"The lowest hanging fruit might be content that is already online, such as homework engines associated with your textbook or a practice site like Khan Academy. You can turn to these to get started while solving for the trickier goals to convert to online.

"If there is content that is best shown, rather than told or written, consider creating a quick series of videos. Just be sure to keep videos to two to five minutes and follow each one with practice, activity or discussion so that students stay engaged. Try to avoid simply recording a lecture in front of a whiteboard, but for faculty whose teaching style involves demonstrating a math equation on the blackboard or mapping the connections between philosophical concepts, making use of video is a quick and easy way to keep teaching without losing the ability show concepts in action.

"On the flip side, some content in your classroom lectures may have zero visual component at all. Can this content be quickly and easily transitioned into readings that can be completed individually? Can they be delivered in easily digestible formats, like bulleted lists with bolded headlines, so you're not significantly adding to students' reading requirements?

"Finally, consider the times that in-classroom learning centers around group discussion and collaboration. Assign cohorts or small groups right away and set up a cadence for them to complete phone calls or videoconferencing sessions. Assign subjects to be discussed daily or weekly. Make use of technology to keep the social component of the classroom going.

"Consider also the types of assignments or work that students might be doing. Can you adjust the timeline or order of those assignments to make the best use of this time? Perhaps you can tweak your course plan to help students get started on research or writing of a term paper or project early — this type of work is well suited to online or remote work." —Joann Kozyrev, VP design and development; Natalie Murray, VP student experience; and Katherine Porter, faculty experience manager, Western Governors University

How do we make sure our students with accessibility issues are being taken care of?

"There are two parts to ensuring that the needs of students with disabilities are being met during the transition to digital courses: accommodations and alternative access plans. First, students may need different accommodations in an online or virtual class meeting than they do for in-person class meetings. Both closed captioning and ASL interpreters may be needed for students who are deaf or who experience hearing loss, but other accommodations may include notetakers, more frequent breaks to account for increased screen time and fatigue as well as navigation assistance with unfamiliar technology. It is important that institutions make students aware of how they can request accommodations should they need them and publish this information with updates regarding the transition.

"Institutions that use technology that does not meet accessibility guidelines will need to think through alternative access plans for students affected. This may mean developing alternative assignments and different ways of demonstrating learning. Doing this starts with a review of the learning objectives and goals of the course to determine what is an essential element. Keep in mind that some concepts were taught on college campuses long before educational companies developed tools and programs that do it for us now. Faculty may have to go back to the basics, provide additional resources outside of the inaccessible technology and think creatively about developing alternatives. Those alternatives can range from documenting (in writing or via audio or video) what a student would do to complete a task without actually completing it with inaccessible technology to discussing practical applications that demonstrate the mastery of the skill or competency being assessed. Institutions may also provide assistants, readers and/or scribes to their students with disabilities to meet the learning needs. All of these alternatives will need to be discussed with faculty, disability services and the student to be sure that learning and access needs are met." —Kelly Herman, vice president, Accessibility, Equity & Inclusion; and Marc Booker, associate provost, University of Phoenix

"Online content should have audio materials accompanied by text transcripts, and video materials should either have a transcript or be captioned to accommodate users with auditory handicaps. Teachers and educators should work directly with parents to accommodate students with physical disabilities who may require additional technology." —Sara Monteabaro, learning lead, MIT Solve

"[Most] importantly, ask the student [what they need and] how they can be helped." —Kara Longo Korte, director, product management at TetraVX

"First and foremost, make sure you are connecting directly with students and listening to their needs and concerns. What accommodations do they receive, and how do their needs change if they are working remotely? Be aware that changes to routines, housing, access to medical care, food access, and contagion risk may trigger or exacerbate student disabilities or conditions, so students who typically do not request accommodations may need them under these circumstances. Students may also have increased caregiver responsibilities. Proactively reach out to students [to offer] support with accommodations and accessibility.

"Recognize that online instruction may present barriers to students who are d/Deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, or with low vision, especially if that instruction is provided primarily in the form of videos or scanned images. Work with faculty to ensure that all videos include accurate captions and image descriptions. Be aware that automatically generated captions (e.g., from YouTube) are often inaccurate, especially for specialized vocabulary; support faculty in learning how to review and edit captions for accuracy. The same goes for image descriptions; many faculty are not familiar with best practices for alt-text and descriptions and will benefit from support in this area.

"It is also important to keep in mind that not all online learning content meets accessibility guidelines. Work with faculty to ensure that any videos, simulations or other online resources they are sharing include captions, are screen-reader accessible and provide other accommodation options (such as high contrast or large text). When possible, offer more than one modality for students to gain knowledge; for example, offer both a reading and an infographic. Consider allowing students to form groups around the type of input that works best for them, then encourage them to switch groups, share what they learned, and learn from each other." —Joann Kozyrev, VP design and development; Natalie Murray, VP student experience; and Katherine Porter, faculty experience manager, Western Governors University

What should we do about students who don't have good internet access?

"Record and send classes and notes offline to those students so they can download and view at a later time." —Wayne Bovier, founder and CEO at Higher Digital

"Institutions should gather and share information with students that will help them get online reliably. This may be through local internet service providers, who may be offering discounts during the crisis, or by loaning out portable 'mi-fi' hotspots. Additionally, [ensure that you're leveraging tools] that provide a great mobile experience where students can engage on a 3G network." —Carli Tegtmeier, vice president of Sales and Higher Education at Pronto

"Consider summarizing an e-mail or providing a brief at the beginning of an assignment. Consider using an audio-only version of a video call for those without enough bandwidth to participate. Essentially consider how everything could be done from a phone. And if a student encounters connectivity challenges, [figure out] a solution (that might have to be a one-off) for their scenario." —Kara Longo Korte, director, product management at TetraVX

"Instructors should provide mock exams in advance of the actual exam to help students get comfortable with the technology and try it out in a low-pressure situation. Students with unreliable internet should be given extra time and leniency in submitting their work. Deadlines should be extended where necessary and results decided on a case-by-case basis." —Michelle Caers, CEO, Crowdmark

"Universities should mobilize their student support resources to ensure equitable access to the technology students will need to be successful. Funds that are available for need-based scholarships or grants might be used to help offset the cost of broadband access or supply hardware like laptops or modems. School counselors might be dispatched to research companies that have signed on to the Federal Communications Commission's Keep Americans Connected Pledge and work individually with students who lack access to provide information about resources available from those companies.

"As days pass, continue to check in with students. They may think that their data plan and bandwidth are sufficient only to learn that once other [students and neighbors who are now remote workers] are all online, they are experiencing unexpected shortages or delays." Katherine Porter, faculty experience manager; Natalie Murray, VP student experience; and Joann Kozyrev, VP design and development, Western Governors University

"Faculty need to be aware of students' ability to access the internet and not require high-bandwidth video or lectures in real time; this does cause an equity issue." —John Baker, CEO, D2L

"This is a tough one. However, 81 percent of Americans own a smartphone (versus only 74 percent with a computer or laptop). Luckily, most online learning platforms now have an app that can be used on a smartphone in the case that students lack accessibility to a computer or laptop." —Shaan Patel, founder of Prep Expert

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