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9 Thoughts for Dealing with Online Learning in a Crisis

Colleges and universities everywhere are rushing to move courses online and keep teaching and learning going during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's how to cope with what may feel like an impossible task.


These are unprecedented times. With the growing, urgent need to "shelter in place" and slow the spread of COVID-19, higher education institutions (and K-12 schools, for that matter) are closing their campuses and making an emergency transition to online learning.

Our recent story "Moving to Digital Learning Fast: Where to Start" offers a wealth of tips and advice on this very issue. But above all I think it conveys nine essential truths for weathering this storm — things I needed to hear myself, as I struggle to manage some semblance of online learning for my own 8-year-old daughter, whose school is closed for at least six weeks. Many CT readers may need to hear this too.

1) Start with the basics. Use the tools you know: for example, sending course materials by e-mail or posting information in the learning management system. No matter how simple, it's a start.

2) Communicate with students. It's important to reach out and make sure their needs are being met. But also, students who feel isolated during this crisis crave a sense of connection. "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," said Kelly Herman, vice president, Accessibility, Equity & Inclusion, and Marc Booker, associate provost, at the University of Phoenix.

3) Connect with a mentor. Lean on your colleagues (from a distance) to share ideas and best practices. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

4) It doesn't have to be perfect. When asked how institutions can better support faculty through this transition, Katherine Porter, faculty experience manager, Natalie Murray, VP student experience, and Joann Kozyrev, VP design and development, at Western Governors University said, "Help them resist the urge to try to perfectly recreate their existing courses in an online environment. Encourage them to identify the most important, key goals and objectives that they want students to focus on, recognizing that many students will not get as much work done during this crisis as they might otherwise be able to."

5) This is not "online learning," it's emergency remote learning. Faculty in this situation don't have the luxury of months and months of well-planned instructional design. Learn what works as you go and tweak accordingly.

6) It's okay to feel anxious. As Frederick Lawrence, secretary and CEO of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, put it, "It is important to recognize the perfectly normal anxiety that all participants in this new education format will experience. There is no reason to pretend that this isn't disconcerting in many ways — but we are all in it together and will get through this time together."

7) Allow yourself to grieve. Being wrenched away from normal campus operations is like experiencing a loss. "Our familiar ways of teaching make us feel comfortable and competent. It is okay to mourn those when we can't use them," noted Porter, Murray and Kozyrev.

8) This is temporary. It may not be as short-term as we would like, and we don't yet know how long it will last, but there is an end point.

9) Look for silver linings. Getting out of your comfort zone and trying new technologies has a bright side: "We will all gain skills over the coming months that we did not previously have," said Lawrence. "Once we are able to return to in-person learning, many of these skills can be utilized to augment live teaching with an enhanced virtual presence."

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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