Many ADR teachers and practitioners around the world have responded to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic by closing down campus operations and moving all teaching activity online. This essay aims to provide a helpful, demystifying and comforting first read for faculty who have just received online transition orders from their institution.
"All in-person classes are suspended from March 10-13. This time is to be used for faculty and staff to prepare for the transition from in-person instruction to “distributed” or “fully online” instruction from March 16-?..."
This recent announcement to faculty at a US state university has already been echoed at dozens – perhaps hundreds by now – of institutions across the US and around the world, as the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 renders classroom gatherings unsafe.
First, I’ve got to say it: Policy-wise, as a blanket solution, this is, at best, questionable as far as teaching practice. Not that I’m against online teaching, which is literally putting my kids and my students through college. When done well, online education can provide educational benefits that meet or exceed those of traditional classroom learning. Still, anticipating smooth transition of institutions’ entire teaching and learning activity online without incurring significant educational cost is an iffy proposition. This is true enough for institutions with robust online learning programs, large and experienced IT departments, and a culture of online and hybrid learning for even their campus-based students. At schools that have embraced online learning to lesser degrees – to say nothing of those institutions resisting it, such as certain colleges wishing to maintain their traditional undergraduate experience, or many law schools in the U.S – the odds of smooth transition drop proportionately. As for the odds of preventing educational loss, this will depend, to a large degree, on the teachers who have been tasked to bear the brunt of this policy. As it always has.
Instead, this essay is intended for my friends and colleagues on the receiving end of these institutional missives, have little choice in the matter, and are likely to be teaching online tomorrow or next week with fairly little preparation and institutional support. I strongly urge them, if they are in a position to do so, to request or demand their institutions invest in support systems - experts on online teaching to support their teachers, online learning support staff to help their students, additional IT staff to troubleshoot problems and instructional designers to help teachers improve courses as they go along throughout the semester and as they think ahead toward the next - even as they scramble to meet the requirements of the moment.
Be that as it may, my purpose here is to lay out, in technologically-lay and comforting terms, the most important things to keep in mind and consider, the moment you receive that institutional missive. Many of you might find that you already know some or much of this; please forgive the ABC level of certain lay explanations. In writing, I’m thinking of myself, just getting started with online teaching as a blank slate, and all of the things I didn’t know and wished I had.
There is a world to learn beyond the basics I’ve touched on, but that’s for another day. For now, I’m more concerned that in my rush to share something helpful, I may have left out something ridiculously basic, and I apologize in advance so I don’t need to write personal apologies later.
On a brighter note, perhaps one silver lining to this situation is that some institutions, having finally crossed the Rubicon of online teaching, will discover the water isn’t as bad as they feared.
The most important thing to remember at this point, is that while the task you face seems daunting on the front end, you will pass the front end very quickly. I hope this intro helps to speed up that transition. Once you have a sense for what this whole online teaching -thing is about, your teaching expertise and experience will kick in quickly and you will know what to do.
While my own expertise is in teaching negotiation and conflict resolution online, most of what I’ve written applies across disciplinary areas. Feel free to share it with colleagues from other fields, if you found it helpful and think they would too.
Part I: Where Do I Do It? What Do I Do It On?
1) Your institution has all you need:
Nowadays, all universities have an online learning ‘platform’ or ‘thingie,’ called a Learning Management System (LMS). It is possible to teach online without one, but it is far more helpful to utilize it.
While some schools have created their own LMS, these are usually commercial platforms (Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, etc.), branded to the theme and color of your institution’s sports teams’ uniforms and mascots, just like everything else on campus, and perhaps given a different name to fit. Unless you teach outside of the US, in which case it will simply be tastefully themed in a way intended not to distract.
If you don’t know which LMS your institution uses, Google “LMS (your institution)” and it will probably be the first link to come up. The LMS is, in a nutshell, the place where you meet your students, interact with them, provide them learning material, receive their assignments, and grade them. Students will know to come “there” to participate. The LMS will provide methods for you to be in contact with all of the students enrolled in your course, as a group or individually.
If you choose to include webinars or videoconferences in your course, universities also tend to have licenses for suitable software; sometimes these are integrated inside the LMS, other times, they are separate.
2) How do I sign up? Who do I talk to? Where do I get myself access to the LMS?
Chances are, you already have access. You may know this already, and use the LMS alongside your face to face teaching as a channel for posting your course syllabus and the occasional course announcement. Perhaps students submit their papers to you through the LMS. Many universities automatically create a course area on their LMS for each course taught in the university, whether the teacher uses it or not. And, most teachers currently use their institution’s LMS for course administration of one sort or another, even if they have never considered how to use it to convey actual course content – the actual content of an entire course. We’ll get to that later. For now, if you don’t know how to access your institution’s LMS, talk to your Department of Information Technology. In many schools the folks in this department are thrilled when teachers come to them and say ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about teaching a part of my course online, can you help me get started?’ If they are not, please don’t blame them – they have just received the task of moving the academic activity of their entire university online, overnight, perhaps after having been denied permission and budget to do so for years. This new task includes bringing all those teachers who have long held out against online teaching, for one good reason or another, up to speed all at once. Show them some empathy. Your all in this together.
3) Do I have to use the LMS? Can I use other platforms?
This is an issue of your institution’s policy. I’d suggest that if you are inexperienced with online teaching and need to use an LMS, it’s hard to think of a reason to learn to use one other than the one your institution utilizes. The basic functionality of most LMS is similar. On the other hand, there may be elements of the course in which you might choose to depart from your institution’s licensing portfolio, if this is not against school policy. In fact, other than regarding the LMS itself, I’d suggest you implement a Use The One You Know with regard to software. This issue commonly comes up regarding videoconferencing platform choice. If your school uses Adobe or WebEx, but you’ve been using Zoom for your own meetings for years, and nobody tells you not to, you may choose to use Zoom for live meetings, if it has the functionality you need. There is so much to learn as you spin up with online teaching; if you can save yourself the effort of learning a new platform or two the first time around, do so.
4) Where do I get help?
Your IT folks are your first level of support. They will provide you (and students) with points of contact for course design (for our purposes, this means ‘getting all your stuff up on the platform in the right form, place, and order, for students to find’), ongoing support, and ‘Help, the Death Star has blown up my course!!!’ emergencies. You can even talk to your IT folks about platforms you use that the university doesn’t license or officially support. In the heart of many techies lies a heart similar to the heart of a teacher: If one of them knows the program, and they are not forbidden to help with external software, they will help you if they can. In addition, the internet is full of support material. Given that these platforms are all, as mentioned above, commercial software that many institutions utilize, look for help on the web using the LMS’ commercial name. Googling “How do I set up a student discussion forum in Canvas” is likely to provide you with dozens of helpful tutorial videos – created by the instructional design people at dozens of different universities using this platform. Look past the color scheme, follow the guidance they give, and nine times out of ten you will find it works on your own institution’s Canvas platform. The same goes for any other commercial platform.
Part II: OK, I’m In! Quick: What Do I Do?
5) Intro to intro to course design
Slow down, and start with some basic course design considerations. There are a million things to consider in online teaching, many of which you’ve never needed to consider in your traditional classroom. Below are the four biggies that you must decide before you proceed to develop a course’s plan and content.
Synchronous / Asynchronous: Do I want my course to be based on learning ‘events’ in which everyone is ‘present’ at the same time (as traditional courses are structured)? Or, will students’ work be spread out according to their preference over the course of each unit, so long as each unit is completed on time. The former approach will involve classes and/or activities taking place in real-time; the latter will not include any live sessions at all. There are options in between, of course.
Video / Text: Do I want my course to center on video-based events (e.g., webinar-style classes) or artefacts (e.g., pre-recorded videolectures)? Or, would you prefer to forego video and have students focus entirely on text-based materials (reading material, written lectures, etc.)
Student-Teacher Interaction (High / Low / No): Do you intend to interact directly with students, and have them interact with you, in an ongoing and responsive way? Or is a one-way flow of information all you’re going for?
Student-Student Interaction (High / Low / No): Are students to interact with each other in any significant way? Or, is the class to be structured with each student working as an individual, interacting with the material and/or with the teacher?
Here is where you might consider the following: If you have made an effort to replicate your regular classroom as closely as possible, your answers to the first two questions are likely to be ‘synchronous,’ and ’video.’ Your initial answers to the second two notwithstanding, here is one thing to consider:
The hands-down -easiest and least confusing way to shift from classroom to online teaching on an ad hoc basis is to pre-record yourself giving the lectures you would give in class, and make them available to students. The second easiest is to give live webinars which your students attend in real-time, at which you give, essentially, those same lectures, and perhaps dedicate some time at the end for Q&A.
The main educational price these methods incur is the sharp reduction of student-teacher and student-student interaction. Some teachers don’t consider this an educational priority in the first place, and for them, this is an easy decision. For those that do value interaction, here is what you need to consider: creating good interactional patterns, useful interactional exercises, and quality learning conversations in online learning environments requires far more thought and ongoing effort than adopting a lecture-heavy approach. If you are trying to keep your first toe-dipping into the online environment as light as possible, and are just looking for a functional way to convey the course’s content to your students, consider keeping it simple by changing the answers to the latter two questions to ‘no’ or ‘low.’ What would this look like? Here are two simple examples:
You can record fourteen lectures, upload them to the LMS where students can find them, and tell them when the test is.
Alternatively, you can explain to students that the ‘online learning announcement’ they’ve all received entails only a single deviation from the syllabus you’ve already distributed, a geographical deviation: instead of taking place in Room L-301, the course will take place in a videoconference room or a webinar space, to which you will provide a link.
How can you call this simple? I’ve never recorded myself! I don’t know how to set up a webinar! That’s fine. Both of these are things that: your school’s IT department knows how to set you up with, you only need to learn once and learn by repetition, and are reasonably effective even when they do not run flawlessly.
While there are ways for teachers to create online learning experiences that are far more rewarding for students, keeping it simple, as I’ve described, is an entirely reasonable course of action to take, under the circumstances. It also allows you far more flexibility, given the shifting nature of this transition to the online. For example, you might only record the first three of your course lectures, and wait a couple of weeks to see if there are any policy changes or considerations before recording the next three. You might not do much special preparation at all, simply doing the best you can to convey each week’s material through a webinar, and hoping that later on in the semester you will be able to hold more interactive classes on campus.
In other words, teachers can spare themselves the time, effort, angst, and challenging learning curve of becoming great online teachers, and instead suffice with reasonably conveying material through reducing interaction and adopting a lecture-heavy approach. That is easy to conduct online.
If you choose to adopt this path, skip ahead to continue reading from item #10 below, and call your IT department when you’ve finished. If you want to consider creating a more robust learning experience that provides students with more of what the online environment can deliver – or, if you’ve decided that you’re already in for a penny, why not a pound? - read on.
Part II : OK, I’ve decided those. What’s Next? Content breakdown and material preparation
6) Unit structure:
You must next decide the unit structure of your course. Each unit (your LMS or IT folks might use the term ‘Week’ or ‘Module’) is a period of time in which learning takes place in certain ways. If you are staying close to your face-to-face delivery format, each unit might include the week leading up to a class and the class itself. Students review the material they need to prepare for class, complete preparatory assignments, and then attend a class (e.g., a videoconferencing-based discussion led by the teacher) in which they or the teacher discuss the material. Alternatively, the unit might include a webinar meeting in which the teacher lays the groundwork for students’ work, and the rest of the week, which is dedicated to students conducting that work. Whichever structure you choose, keep it largely uniform throughout the course, and make sure to announce – loudly and repeatedly – any deviations. Online students are more prone to confusion in the ‘what do we need to do, and by when do we need to do it?’ realm than students in traditional classrooms, and you can preempt this by clear and consistent unit structure.
7) Unit Material:
Create separate areas in the course for each unit. For example, if you are teaching a 14-week course, you might create 14 folders for Unit #1 through Unit #14.
In each unit’s area/folder:
- Provide students with the material they need to read / view / consider / mull to complete the unit. This might be in the form of a reading list, articles you’ve uploaded, lectures you’ve pre-written or pre-recorded, online resources, etc. Consider – particularly if you are not planning to provide students with lectures you’ve recorded, or to conduct live webinars – that there is a lot of material out there on the internet that you would not ordinarily incorporate in your classroom teaching, but which could benefit your students in the current format. If you teach in the areas of negotiation, mediation, alternative resolution (ADR) and/or conflict resolution, feel welcome to use the videos in this repository, or the short essays on negotiation topics at the bottom of this page, in any way you find helpful.
- Provide students with the assignments they need to do to complete each unit. These might include writing papers, participation in discussion forums, quizzes, fieldwork, simulations, or any other learning activities. Give them detailed guidelines on performing the work, and links to anything they need (e.g., a link to the page on which they are to upload the paper they’ve written in order to submit it).
- If a live class is scheduled, provide students with the information they need to join the call/webinar/videoconference etc.
- Provide students with narrative instructions for conducting their work throughout the week, so all the above is not jumbled or done out of order. For example: “This week, start off by reading Article X and Article Y. Conduct Analysis A, and Self-Reflection B. Then, read Article Z in light of these exercises. Finally, view the movie I’ve linked to, and come to class ready to discuss the movie in light of the reading material.”
- If you are able to, precede the narrative instructions with a paragraph or three introducing the week’s topic, providing context for the narrative instructions (and perhaps other context, such as connecting this unit’s material to the previous unit’s material, or to future units in the course). Feeling bold? Good hair day? You can provide this foreword in the form of a 2 minute videorecording of yourself. This has the added effect of reminding students that there is a real teacher in the game with them, pulling for them, and helping them to put things into place.
Part IV: Teaching
8) Where and how do I do my ‘actual teaching’?
This depends on your answers to the four course design questions you answered a while back. If you chose synchronous, and video, then you can give live webinar sessions. If you chose asynchronous, and text, you can provide text lectures, reading material, and engage students in conversation in discussion forums. If you chose asynchronous, and video, use your university’s video recording room, or your laptop’s camera, to record a video lecture, and assign students to read it. There are many ways to teach online, some of which feel very different than the classroom.
9) Can I run simulations or other interactive exercises in my course?
Sure you can. Check out this chapter discussing using role-plays in online negotiation teaching. It is a bit dated, but in a good way: It shows how all the ‘But you can’t do that!’ claims were already wrong way back then, to say nothing of today. It also guides you through issues of simulation set-up, conduct, observing, and debrief over text, audio, and video platforms. Since this chapter was written, things have gotten even easier, due to the ubiquity of free videoconferencing platforms and teachers’ and students’ familiarity with all the media involved. All LMS have at least one medium for student interactions (e.g., a messaging system); most have more (e.g., integrated video conferencing for student use). Feel free to experiment with new ideas for student interaction; you can go so far as to ask students how they would like to conduct a simulation and add on anything necessary to ensure a good learning experience.
Here is an email negotiation you can assign students to perform, and here is a mediation simulation to be performed through videoconferencing.
10) What if my students guess that it’s my first time teaching online?
Why hide it? Be open with your students; ask them to help each other and to help you in the online environment, give the course a ‘we’re all in this together’ theme, and get to work. If your department/program has not done much in the way of online teaching thus far, students have likely not done much in terms of online learning. You really are all in this together, and student-helpers can be an online teachers’ best allies.
11) What about assessment?
What about it? Most assessment methods used in classroom courses can be used online with no adaptation needed. If you assign a paper, it is the same paper submitted online. Ditto for quizzes. If any assessment methods you use in class seem to be challenged by the online environment, consider replacing it with another method. If your entire assessment scheme consists of a final, proctored test, consult with your institution’s online teaching folks; they may have an arrangement for online proctoring already set up.
12) One Teaching Takeaway
Online teaching is, first and foremost, teaching. The online environment is challenging, and getting used to it will require a lot of work and patience. Still, in the end, very few of the challenges you face with be technological problems. Most of them will boil down to teaching problems, that will challenge you to think about your pedagogy, policies, and practices anew. Luckily, you’ve solved teaching challenges once or twice in the past; this will serve you well as you solve new teaching challenges online.
If you’ve been tasked to teach online for the first time, on a few days’ notice, you have no time to read conclusions. Get to it. Good luck!
Noam Ebner is a professor of negotiation and conflict resolution at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, which has offered an online MS in Negotiation & Conflict Resolution since 2008. Formerly chair of Creighton’s online degree program, Noam spearheaded its curricular and pedagogical development, teacher training and support, and online student formation. He has taught dozens of courses online, ranging from traditional ADR survey courses to specialty courses on Online Dispute Resolution and Conflict Resolution for Educational Leaders. Noam designed and taught the first online course offered by Creighton’s School of Law, as well as Creighton University’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC); this course on negotiation had over 2000 students enrolled, from 87 countries. Noam has consulted on online teaching and learning to programs and universities and has supported many teachers in the negotiation, conflict resolution, and ADR worlds in their transition to teaching online.