Transitioning To Emergency Virtual Instruction

Moving face-to-face courses to a virtual format can be stressful, and can create some challenges and choices that can be difficult to navigate.

Whether due to a health crisis, severe weather, national disaster, or other threat to daily life, our schedules and ability to meet on campus may be disrupted. It is important to have a contingency plan in case classes cannot meet on campus, and communicate your plan to your students each term. Include information in your syllabus on where students should go to receive course updates and information in case of emergency.

Teaching online during times such as the coronavirus pandemic is going to look and feel different than teaching online because you’ve purposefully designed an online course. However, we can use some of the techniques, technologies, and practices of online education to make appropriate adjustments for our traditional face-to-face courses.

General Tips/Advice

  • Review your syllabus to determine your priorities. What information is critical? What information is supplemental? What information can be easily accessed by students through other resources? What do they need to hear directly from you?
  • Review assignments for feasibility. Out of class assignments such as group projects, papers, etc. can likely be kept as-is. In class testing, presentations, etc. will likely need some adaptations.
  • Review your content delivery plan and gather resources. Did you plan to deliver most of your content through lecture? Determine what absolutely needs to be delivered via lecture, and what information can be obtained through other means (such as readings, student projects or assignments, existing websites, etc.)
  • Consider your expectations for students. If “class participation” is a big part of your grade, you'll need to reconsider what that looks like when you aren't meeting students face-to-face.
  • Communicate early and often with students. Clarify your expectations, the tasks students need to complete, and deadlines. Consider creating a weekly “checklist” for students. Include every task they need to complete, even if it something they “always do”. (Remember, in times of crisis and adjustment, even the most conscientious student will forget details!) Include specifics such as time or workload (for example, checklist item “watch video lecture” will be followed with the length of the video. “Read textbook chapter 7” will include the number of pages)
  • Don't get fancy! The goal here is to maintain academic integrity through a different format, not to create flashy and tech-heavy online courses. Use the tools that feel comfortable to you, and that make sense for the needs of your course. We are not designing online courses. We are designing face-to-face courses to be delivered remotely.

Moving lectures online - Asynchronous vs Synchronous lectures

  • Asynchronous lectures allow students and faculty to interact with the material and each other on their own time. It's important to keep some time parameters in place when delivering content asynchronously. Consider the timeline for your course. If you normally cover topic Y during week 7, allow students to access the online course material, asynchronous lecture, and participate in any assignments at any point during that week. Create a deadline for all assignments based on topic Y's content.
  • Synchronous lectures allow for the closest "feel" to a face-to-face classroom. In this format, students and faculty access the same online space at a designated time. This can be done through D2L using our Virtual Classrooms tool or through conferencing tools such as Zoom
  • Regardless of format, it is important to include assessment of student interaction with and understanding of the presented material. Without the face-to-face interaction, you are losing body language and facial cues that allow you to identify when students are confused. In the asynchronous format, you are also losing the ability for students to ask clarifying questions mid-lecture. Create some discussion questions for students to complete after viewing the lecture or course material. Additionally, consider creating a discussion space for students to "raise their hands" and ask questions. Monitor this discussion daily!
  • You may be used to meeting in class once a week, or a few times a week, but with online courses, students may be accessing the material at any time. Therefore, it's important to "check in" on the course more often. Students may have more questions, be unsure and anxious, or work on course material and assignments at odd hours. Be as accessible as possible during this time to support students as they (inevitably) struggle through a stressful time. Conversely, protect your time and personal space by communicate boundaries with your students. Let them know what hours you will not be checking email or accessing the course.

Considerations for delivering content online asynchronously

  • Without students as a "captive audience" in the classroom, more consideration needs to be made for student attention spans for online lectures. If you would normally lecture through the majority of a 50 minute class, consider breaking up that lecture when preparing it for online distribution. Find natural breaks in the lecture, or use other resources to go in-depth after a brief introductory/highlights lecture. For example:
    An article, textbook reading, or website may provide the information in a readily available format. Your online lecture could highlight important or missing components of that resource. Create comprehension based discussion questions or assignments to assess student understanding of the information.
  • If using PowerPoint (PPT), multiple technological resources can help you put your PPT lecture online. Use the voiceover capabilities within PPT, or use the Panopto tool to record your PPT lecture.

Alternatives to the video lecture

Faculty may not want to create video lectures for a variety of reasons, from technological to personal preference. That's fine. Other options exist to disseminate course content without resorting to recording a bunch of audio/video lectures. Here are some possibilities:

  • If your PPT slides are comprehensive, and/or include information in the "notes" section that expand on the slide content, you can simply share your slides as-is with your students.
  • Create an explanatory word document highlighting the important components of the topic.
  • Make the students do the work. Create assignments that require students investigate information on the topic on their own. Be prepared to provide feedback, expand on missing or incomplete information, clarify, and redirect as needed.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Is there a video, article, or other resource that has already been created on this topic? Be sure to add your own thoughts, take-away's, or highlight certain aspects of the resources. Keep your own presence in the course so that it doesn't become a compilation of other people's resources.

Course Assignments

Some assignments, such as papers and projects, may be easily adapted to the online format, simply use the D2L Dropbox for student submissions. What may need to adapt is your communication of these assignments to students. Adjust deadlines as needed based on your contingency plan and any schedule interruptions. Be clear and consistent in your communication. Think about the questions students normally have when completing the assignment under "normal" circumstances, and address these questions through a detailed assignment sheet. Provide detailed feedback of student performance in the assignment.


Moving tests away from the face-to-face format can be quite stressful for faculty. How can faculty ensure students are not cheating, either by looking up answers online, or by working together to take the test? Without access to proctoring services, this is a very valid concern. However, exams can be formatted in a way to mitigate these issues.

  • Assume students will be working together, accessing the internet, etc. This means you will need to rethink how you ask questions. Fact-based questions are easy to look up. Consider reformatting questions to require students to apply information at a higher level. Assume the exam is “open book” and communicate your expectations and allowed resources. This article offers some recommendations for open book tests.
  • Some resources to help you rewrite multiple choice questions:
  • Use the technology to your advantage. Create time limits on the exam, turn off "backwards navigation" so students can't go back to a previous question, and use the randomization option. This link provides resources for how to use D2L's quizzing features. These options make it harder for students to work together or to look up information quickly enough in the time allowed. Keep in mind, students who receive accommodations such as extended time on exams will still receive those accommodations in the virtual setting.
  • Include an academic honesty statement at the beginning of each exam. Require students to affirm that they will maintain academic integrity while taking the exam.

Group Work Online

Group work can be conducted quite effectively in the virtual environment.

  • Set specific parameters for group expectations. Are students required to meet, or can they work on the project individually with communication happening via phone or online? What are the roles for each student? How will they be assessed? Etc.
  • Set up a virtual space for group work. This can be a discussion board for each group, or other virtual space.
  • Set goals and "check in" dates. What must be completed, and by when? How will students communicate their progress to you? Keeping tabs on the group progress will allow you to provide timely feedback if they group gets off track.
  • Set up a space for questions, or a process for communication. Are you checking D2L discussion boards daily? Do you expect students will email you with questions? How are you planning to communicate with the groups? Should there be one "point person" for each group who asks questions/submits group work, etc.
  • If needed, schedule conference calls with each group to discuss progress.
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