Online Teaching Tools

In 2020, professors and instructors across academia were thrust into the world of online teaching — some less gracefully than others. I heard tales of professors who just threw up their hands and gave up, but other stories of instructors who triumphed and kept their connections with students and grew to love online teaching.

I have been an online instructor and college lecturer throughout my PhD program, teaching online in Sociology, Sexuality, and Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and at Madison Area Technical College. The content of my online courses has always included difficult and sensitive topics related to sexuality and violence, LGBTQIA discrimination and bias, and inequality. I’ve taught classes ranging from 15 – 100 students online. My hope is that my experience with online teaching might be passed on to those who are new to teaching online, as teaching assistants, tenured professors, adjunct instructors. Upon reflection, here are my suggestions:

1). Online Orientation

  • This is the single most helpful recommendation I can give anyone who is teaching online. It will save you hours of emails and help you strategize your course. I recommend doing this as an addendum to your syllabus.
  • Online Orientation Canvas (PDF) from my Women & Law course using Canvas
  • Create a page on your teaching platform (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) that specifically guides students through the way your course will function online. Provide specific detail on the following elements:
    • Navigation. Explain your platform and your particular page. Where should students go for information? Where will you send course announcements? Do you want them to message you through the platform or via email? Will you have a home page? Discussion boards? Write it all out.
    • Lecture Content. When will lectures be posted? Are they asynchronous? Synchronous? Both? Will they be recorded? When will recordings be posted? How can students access those recordings? Where should students go for synchronous lectures? Is attendance mandatory? Can instructors see if someone has watched a lecture?
    • Test/Exams. Will there be exams? What format will they be? Will they be timed? Will there be a software students need that monitors them while taking the test? Are they open-note, open-book? When are they scheduled for? What should students do with technical difficulties?
    • Contact. How should students contact you? What is your timeframe for responding to student emails? (I recommend 48-72 hours). Do you have social media you want students to engage with you? What kinds of communication are appropriate? How would you like students to address you?
    • Assignments. How should students complete assignments? Do they need any particular softwares? Tools or technologies? Will you provide rubrics?
    • Research + Materials. What do students need to know about completing research projects? What kind of online research is allowed or forbidden? How can students access libraries? Where can students find databases you prefer? I recommend doing a tutorial of your institution’s library system or asking for help from librarians.
    • Notifications. Make it clear that students must turn on their notifications for your platform (Canvas, Blackboard) and have them sent to their email or texted to them. Tell them it is their responsibility to revisit the orientation page to understand where things are.
      • *Also make sure YOUR notifications are on!*

2). Minimize

  • Online teaching platforms regularly have links built in on left sidebars — applications and pages you and your students will never use. Get rid of them.
  • Remove links and pages that are irrelevant. You want your students to have fewer avenues to get to the same spot. Perhaps there are 50 different ways to get to an assignment and its rubric — make it so that there is only 1-2 ways to get to something.
  • Avoid overcrowding your homepage and try to have a table or list of only 6 items or so. Avoid having a massive list that everyone has to read through all the time. Use graphics when you can. You do not have to have high-tech website skills to do this effectively.
  • You need to know how to upload images and how to do hyperlinks. You are essentially making a website — design it for your users and make your site one that guides students to everything they would need.

3). Maximize

  • In your announcements, emails and pages, whenever you mention something (a reading, an assignment, etc.) put the hyperlink to it right there.
  • Students can just click through your announcement or email and their access is much easier that way. It makes your online teaching a bit more fool proof.
  • Try to send fewer messages but maximized ones — if you send 4 emails all with different information, it will be scattered. If you send 1 really well-thought out email with all the relevant information, links, due dates, etc. it will cut down on confusion and students will be MUCH happier.

4). Course Questions Board

  • Massive technology companies have mastered this and online educators should too!
  • There are some build-in applications that will also help make this happen, but you can use a simple discussion board.
  • Create a place where students can ask questions about the course itself. It might be a content question for the instructor or a question about the course operation and administration. Students sometimes answer these questions for each other or instructors and TAs can answer them directly for other students to see.
  • This cuts down on your email inbox being flooded with the same question over and over again. Tell students to check the course questions board and to post questions there for everyone to see instead of you answering 1-500 student questions about the same thing.

5). Appointment Scheduler

  • My personal favorite on this list.
  • This recommendation is for anyone who has trouble with making appointments, keeping appointments, remembering them, then scheduling a Zoom or Blackboard video call, then finding that link….x200 students…
  • Use an appointment manager (I use YouCanBook.me )
    • Put this in your email block as your “virtual office” or “meetings request”
    • Students (or anyone else) will use this to schedule time with you and then you don’t have to email back and forth about scheduling.
    • You input to the appointment manager when you are “available” and set it to 15-60 minute slots for meetings. This helps also let people know you have to “hang up” when their time is over because someone else will be waiting.
  • Find one that syncs with your preferred meeting platform
    • My YouCanBook.me is synced with my Zoom account.
      • This is ESSENTIAL.
    • When a student makes an appointment through the virtual scheduler, Zoom + YouCanBook.Me sends both of us an email with the Zoom link for the meeting.
    • It will also notify you when the appointment is 15-30 minutes away and tell you when the student is ready and on Zoom
    • This saves me so much time and frustration, I cannot recommend it enough.
  • I pay $8 per month for YouCanBook.me and $15 for Zoom (the paid version doesn’t have time limits and cuts down security issues).
    • I earn a PhD stipend, I’m not swimming in money.
    • I’m telling you…this is worth it.

6). Make Time to Be Present

  • This is something I’ve read about extensively (see the recommended resources at the bottom of this page) and I find value and caution in this advice.
  • In online courses, instructors have to communicate differently than they would with an in-person class
    • Honestly, it takes more work. Students can ask questions at any time, it can be hard to keep up with the virtual space.
  • It can be tempting to respond to every student comment/question, but this will exhaust you and it simply cannot be done.
    • I have 100 students in one of my upcoming fall courses, imagine that they submit discussion posts every week, plus I have my course questions board, plus a board about movies/films related to sexuality and my email inbox still exists — am I expected to personally read every single thing they post, ask, do and then type a personal response? Hundreds of times each week?
    • Don’t do this.
  • Be present, set limits.
    • Set aside 30 minutes per day to look at questions or posts and comment back to students.
    • If you can, keep track of who you responded to on public discussion boards and then next time, comment back to different students so that you are engaging with everybody over time.
  • Don’t just leave this task to your grader or teaching assistant
    • Be there with them and with your students
    • Their assignments, discussions, and reflections will tell you more about what they are retaining and the information they are learning (or missing)
    • In order to check the pulse on your course, you have to get in there and spend the time.
    • It will also help students to see you as active and caring about their learning and what they have to say.

7). Reflect on Your Teaching

  • About 1/3 through your course or after the first exam or assignment, send out a mid-semester evaluation. Using Google Forms, this will take 10 minutes to create and is really helpful. Here are questions I ask at mid-terms online:
    • What are you enjoying most about this course?
      • Readings, lectures, instructor, content, videos, podcasts
    • Which lecture has been your favorite thus far? (select from list)
    • Select three readings you found most interesting? (select from list)
    • How long did the first exam take you? (select from list)
    • Rate the amount of reading in this class compared to other courses in the social sciences, humanities, life sciences, etc. (1-7 scale)
    • What can I do to improve your experience in this course?
    • What can you do to improve your experience in the course?
    • Here is an example from my Women & Law course
  • Each week, ask yourself these questions:
    • How can I improve my one-on-one interactions with students? How can I motivate students to meet with me when they need to?
    • What can I do to better communicate course goals, outcomes, rubrics and assignment guidelines? Is the information I have provided sufficient and accessible?
    • How is my online classroom functioning for all of my students? How does it meet the needs of different kinds of learners? How have I made it accessible for students with disabilities? How is it accessible for international students?

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