Changing Course: 9 Tips for Instructors as They Begin Teaching Online


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For most University of Virginia faculty members, moving their classes online – which officially starts Thursday – will be a totally new experience. Others, who have been conducting courses online or using technology tools for a while, are helping their colleagues make the transition.

As UVA President Jim Ryan and Provost Liz Magill announced Tuesday night, in-person classes will not resume on Grounds for the rest of the semester and will have to be conducted virtually.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Archie Holmes said. “Between school-based resources and centralized services, we are striving to help faculty develop the best quality instruction they can produce in a very short time.”

UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence is one of the units on the front lines of helping faculty members rework their courses, and its team of eight faculty members is quickly adapting to helping more of their colleagues than ever as UVA makes this transition.

The center held eight “teaching continuity” sessions on Friday and Monday, and an additional eight – now virtually only – on Tuesday and Wednesday. The staff is also working with faculty members one-on-one, fielding emails and phone calls.

The workshops focus on the two main kinds of courses: lecture-based and discussion-based, director Michael Palmer said. Video and audio of the sessions are posted here.

“We’re triaging; these are the most common pedagogies,” Palmer said. “Using technology to support teaching has always been part of our work, but in the current state, technology has to come first, and second, how to use it effectively for teaching. It’s not our favorite approach, but we have no choice right now.”

He knows that some faculty members have gone back to their departments or schools and replicated what they learned from the training sessions. “We’ll take that help, given the scale of this,” he said.

Other types of classes, which individual schools and departments are assisting faculty with, include lab sections, performance-based and music courses, and those with a strong community engagement component. “It’s difficult when physical interaction or intimate conversation is essential to the learning,” Palmer said.

Palmer said the first thing he and his team address when leading one of these workshops is the most common question that no one wants to ask; basically, “How am I going to do this?” Behind that question lie many others, including personal worries such as how they will do their jobs effectively and take care of their families, among a raft of other things.

Acknowledging these uncertainties right away also includes reminding faculty and other instructors to practice self-care and to empathize with their students.

Read on for advice on communicating with students and making adjustments, big and small.

Give yourself a break. “We give our colleagues permission to say, ‘I can only do so much.’ We are focusing on the human side of this,” Palmer said.

Remember that everything online takes longer, he said, especially as faculty and students get up to speed on this new process.

McIntire School of Commerce professor Roger Martin, who already teaches two large classes online, said he has encouraged his peers not to be afraid to let the students see them struggle.

“Don’t pretend like this is no big deal, let them see you are doing something new and different, and experiment,” he said. “We tell our students all the time it’s OK to fail, but I don’t think we are very good at that ourselves.”

Set up a communication routine with your students. “Post that routine on your website, and stay accountable to it,” Martin said.

Reimagine the elements of the course. “Just because you’ve done something in the past doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing, or even that it’s the best way to do something,” Palmer said.

He encouraged faculty to think critically about their teaching in ways they may not have thought about before. “Pick the things that matter most.”

Keep it simple. “Don’t try to do all the fancy things,” Martin said. “Think about how you get information in front of students and what you want them to do.” Every time you add anything complex, you have to figure out where it could fail, he said.

Palmer warned that the best decision might be not giving an assignment that’s been typical in the past, because it’s just too complicated to rework or carry out under the present circumstances.

Don’t assume students know how to use the technology. Assume that the students don’t know, Palmer recommended. Even if you ask and no one says so, go over it. Some students might not want to admit they don’t know. Explain, so that everyone has the same access.

Make sure to provide students with the course resources. This covers any materials supporting instruction, such as Powerpoint slides, lecture notes, and handouts.

Provide access and content equitably for all students. Remember that some students might not have stable internet access; some might be dealing with sick family and friends; some might have a disability that affects their learning.

Decide whether to hold virtual discussions in a synchronous or asynchronous format. Synchronous means everyone showing up at the same time – for instance, in a virtual meeting. Take into account that students might be in different time zones; this applies to some faculty members, too. There are tools that allow for asynchronous discussions.

Alternatively, an instructor can record or present content that students can access at any time.

Get help and get your tools. UVA has robust tools available – programs or apps to enable discussions, to show materials or content, to collect student work.

The University is rapidly compiling resources for faculty to help with virtual instruction, ranging from this checklist of technology requirements from ITS, to resources on the Teaching Continuity website that offer suggestions on the best tools to use for various kinds of instruction. In addition to these centralized aids, individual schools are gathering tools and tips applicable to various disciplines.

In addition to the Center for Teaching Excellence, the College’s A&S Learning Design & Technology team is also assisting faculty. Judy Giering, who directs the team, encourages faculty members to reach out to her and her team at or to sign-up for faculty interested in consults.

Another issue that concerns the faculty members he’s heard from, Palmer said, is how to assess student learning. “How do I preserve that integrity and make it meaningful? We’re thinking about about how best to support faculty around these issues; that will be the second wave,” he said.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications