Priorities, Questions, and Challenges of Teaching Online


The unexpected demands that many faculty are facing now are as novel as the virus that created them. For some faculty, it may be the first time that they’ve been asked to deliver their course remotely. For others, even including those with online teaching experience, the underlying stress of balancing competing demands in uncertain times can weigh on them. This month we talk to John Oppenheimer, an instructional designer/technologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who provides advice on how faculty can successfully navigate the transition.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: John, as an instructional designer/technologist, what are your key responsibilities and how do you support faculty?

John Oppenheimer, Instructional Designer/Technologist, University of Wisconsin-Madison: I’ll answer this for the instructional design positions I’ve had over the last 13 plus years, since everyone’s situation is different. These positions have focused almost exclusively on fully online course design and development.

What I usually tell faculty, when we’re first meeting, is that I like to view my role as that of a consultant. The course is theirs, and they need to make the decisions about what goes in the course. I let them know that I will be as involved in the decision-making process as they want me to be, but, in the end, they are the ones making the decisions. My main expectation is to have conversations with them so that they can make the most educated decision possible.

On the surface, engaging in those conversations is one of my key responsibilities. Underneath this, however, is a responsibility that I think more designers should be aware of. That is, we need to have empathy for the human on the other side of the conversations. I give the instructors a little longer and nuanced spiel than what I said above, but if you read between the lines a little, you can already see that I am taking an empathetic approach. This approach is meant to allay instructors who might be feeling anxiety working with a so-called expert when they have received little to no training. It also sends a message of empowerment, that they are the one in charge and I am a resource available to them instead of a demanding outsider forced upon them by the administration.

I have other responsibilities that include teaching faculty how to use the tools available to them so they can be as self-sufficient as they want to be, consulting on appropriate use of technology, providing quality control of content, along with post-launch support and troubleshooting.

Hibel: You are a part of the Learning Design, Development, and Innovation (LDDI) team. Why are these areas significant in terms of online and remote learning?

Oppenheimer: I would say they’re significant in any situation where learning is expected to take place, whether it’s an online course, a face-to-face training, a webinar, or whatever.

Innovation is probably the least significant piece here. It’s important to keep innovating to find ways to make the learning experience for students deeper, more efficient, and/or more engaging. We also strive to find ways to lighten the load for the instructor, to free up time to have more meaningful engagement with the learners and their work. But innovation is more of a luxury that comes after diligent design and development of a course.

Design is tremendously important because it means you are mindfully exploring what students should be able to know and do at the end of the course and how they are going to get there. This is not a step I would ever skip and one I would always encourage folks to spend a good amount of time on. What you put in here almost always pays off handsomely in the rest of the process, not only in the development phase, but also each time the course runs. In my workplace, the design phase is punctuated by a strong collaboration between the instructor and the instructional designer, along with other staff such as media specialists.

Development is when you build the course. It is not any less significant than the design phase, but I find it is less collaborative. The development work for us is often performed by the instructor, instructional designers, media staff, student workers, etc. as appropriate.

Hibel: Given the current situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities have quickly transitioned classes that were originally face-to-face to remote instruction, which may be leaving some faculty feeling uncomfortable or anxious for a multitude of personal and professional reasons. For an instructor that is teaching online for the first time, what would be the top three priorities that you would tell them to get started?

Oppenheimer: I would say the number one thing to focus on is the people involved. Primarily, that would be the students and you. It would also include anyone you’re working with to get your courses converted for remote delivery to keep them running, such as TAs, designers, administrators, etc. We’re all humans and we are all going through this one way or another. So, be kind to yourself and to others. Empathy and self-care go a long way.

The next priority is to think asynchronous delivery. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that the systems we use for remote delivery of courses — learning management systems, virtual meeting tools, remote proctoring systems, etc. — are suddenly being used at rates the vendors probably never imagined. At this point, they are catching up and getting closer to meeting demand, but we’re still regularly encountering issues with system outages and slowness.

Another reason goes back to the consideration of the human side of things. Everything has changed so dramatically for everyone and this has had a strong impact on the work/life balance for many. Some have to deal with limited resources in the places they are hunkering down in, whether it’s low-bandwidth internet in rural areas, lack of devices for everyone in the household to connect to their respective educational or professional endeavors, competing for physical space to conduct their remote activities, etc. Others have had to take on care-taking roles they didn’t have while on campus. Still others have had to replace their former jobs with new ones that may interfere with the class schedule (including final exam times!).

Lastly, I would suggest focusing on a minimal viable product for getting courses ready for remote delivery. For the spring semester, we scrambled to get all face-to-face courses ready for what we called, “continuity of instruction.” We did our best under the circumstances. As we prepare for summer courses, we’re still thinking minimal viable product, but our expectations are higher because we have more time to get these courses ready.

What does this summer plan look like? There’s more attention paid to getting some instructor presence in the courses through things like course welcome videos and more opportunities for engagement between the instructor and the students. We also have more time to plan to convert the content to be delivered asynchronously. We’re avoiding “content dumps” that were more acceptable in the chaotic response to the crisis in the spring by providing more context to the material (e.g., adding paragraphs to introduce pdfs, videos, presentations) and transitional language to make it clear we’re moving from one topic to another.

In short, we’re doing more of what we would do for designing and developing online courses but still very far from what we’d be doing for fully online courses under normal circumstances.

One tip to get started on all of this: look for opportunities for easy wins. That could be choosing a task like shooting a course welcome video because that’s easy for you to do. Or, if you are uncomfortable being recorded, you might choose something else like adding some context to your content. Pick something you know you can do relatively well and relatively quickly.

Hibel: Faculty members who have traditionally taught in the classroom may be resistant to the idea of online teaching perhaps due to the preconceived notions that virtual learning lacks dimension, quality, interaction, or the sense of community like there is in a physical classroom. What would you tell those who are resistant?

Oppenheimer: There are definitely challenges to teaching and learning online. There are also advantages as well. I think the main problem is when instructors try to think of forcing their content, activities, and assessments from the face-to-face environment, which has its own advantages and disadvantages, into the online space.

What I challenge instructors to do is think about the pieces of their face-to-face courses they are thinking of bringing online not in terms of the mechanics of those pieces but in terms of what aspects make them critical to student success in achieving the student learning outcomes they’ve established for the course. For example, if they have a group discussion activity in the classroom, I ask the instructors to think about what makes that activity important to students’ learning. Is it the live interaction or the collaboration in general? Is it the students working together to come up with a final product? Is it the students taking on roles or identities within a working group?

Once we determine what those aspects are, we might find that we end up with the same or very similar activity in the online space that we had in the physical one. On the other hand, we might find we can leverage the online environment to get deeper into one of those aspects that make the activity more successful than we would in the face-to-face space.

Some of the advantages of the online environment over the face-to-face space include letting students go at their own pace, giving learners more time for careful consideration of what they want to contribute, shy students have an opportunity to comfortably participate, and so forth.

Hibel: What are some of the top questions you’ve recently received from faculty in regard to transitioning to remote delivery and instruction and how have you helped them resolve their issues?

Oppenheimer: The top two questions I’ve received are how to do exams and how to do labs online.

Asking how to give students exams online is a good question, but it is probably the wrong one. I’d ask, “How do I assess students online?” It’s very easy for us to go to exams as the method of assessing students’ knowledge. However, there are likely other more appropriate ways to do assessments.

You certainly don’t want to lose sight of the learning outcomes. They provide the scope for the course content and inform how you might assess their learning. For instance, if you have an outcome that states students will be able to defend a certain position, then you might consider allowing them to choose from various options such as writing an essay, making a podcast, filming a documentary-style video, creating an academic poster, and, yes, even including that as the writing part of an exam. The caveat here is that you would need to give these options all the same grading criteria so that learners could be assessed equitably.

Another thing I encourage faculty to do is to see how they might work some authenticity into their assessments. This almost certainly does not include giving an exam. For example, if the field the students will likely be working in requires some collaboration with policymakers, then writing a white paper synthesizing an issue might be an appropriate way of assessing their learning.

For those that must have an exam as their online assessment, we usually discuss things like the exam window students have (usually a period of several hours or a couple of days) and the amount time they have once they start the exam (often an hour or two, but sometimes less time or no limit). We also talk about how many exam attempts they get, whether to randomize questions and/or answer options, how many questions displayed per page, and whether or not they can move back to previous pages of the exam. The final configuration of the exam is hopefully a balance of limitations to avoid academic dishonesty with flexibility for those who might have technological issues to overcome.

Labs are certainly tough to do in an online course, but they’re not impossible. We definitely had some major challenges with this spring semester because we had to adapt midstream. However, if you’ve got some time to plan ahead, then you might be able to find kits your students can buy and have shipped to their location. A less likely option but one to consider is to build your own kit to send to students.

Another way to handle labs goes back to what I said above about reflecting on what aspects of the activity are important. Specifically, I urge the faculty to really consider what is going on in the lab that is absolutely necessary for the learners to do. I like to think in terms of what’s crucial, what’s optional, and what’s irrelevant based on the learning outcomes. In many cases, the “doing” part of the lab turns out to be optional (a “nice-to-have”) and working with the data that comes out of the hands-on part is crucial (the “need-to-have”). So, the students might watch a video of an experiment and then work with the data that came out of it.

Other options might be to search for existing open educational resources (OERs) that have lab simulations you could incorporate into your course. Unfortunately, we’ve also found that sometimes it’s not feasible to do a lab online. In that case, you’ll have to postpone the course until face-to-face instruction resumes for courses that are in response to safe-at-home initiatives, reconsider the course design, or simply not offer the course online.

Hibel: Since many instructors had to quickly transition to online for spring and many are currently preparing for summer, time is a large limiting factor. Faculty may fear the quality of instruction (and ultimately students’ educational outcomes) will be sacrificed. How can a faculty member best maximize quality outcomes with the limitations of time, and many cases, lack of experience teaching in this format?

Oppenheimer: I would say it’s best to think of online course design and development in terms of iterations. Sure, we’d love to put out the ideal product for the learners, but we’re always facing constraints such as time, money, expertise, access to development and delivery tools, etc. We can plan for the ideal course but think in terms of the minimal viable product for the next offering of the course; what is crucial for this upcoming semester and what can we put in the parking lot for next time.

Lack of experience can be overcome by taking a purposeful approach to converting a course for remote delivery. Much of what I talked about above can be used to mindfully design a course for this new environment. Faculty who are newer to online course delivery can also help themselves by familiarizing themselves with the tools they’ll be using to teach the course.

Hibel: In an article related to social and emotional learning, it was stated that several reasons instructors may feel anxiety is due to the lack of support by their administrators. What suggestions do you have for both faculty and administrators to work through this together in order to de-escalate the anxiety they may be experiencing?

Oppenheimer: I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified to answer this, but I have some thoughts. I would start by being mindful. Check in with yourself to observe how you are feeling. Name those feelings and avoid burying them. This is crucial to my next suggestion: ask for help.

Asking for help can take the form of logistical things like requesting additional resources to develop your courses. It can also be related to what you are going through. You might need some time off to rejuvenate yourself. If that’s not enough, you might need to take advantage of any employee assistance programs or mental health services available to you (if your institution doesn’t have anything like this, your local community might have low- to no-cost mental health services available).

Working with others helps, too. Besides feeling isolated when you work on your own much of the time, you also run the risk of feeling pressure to have all the answers. A quick video chat with someone can ease this pressure and give you the sense you’re in it together.

Lastly, enjoy life. Step away from the computer and do something else for a little while when you can. Set your workday hours and try to abide by them. Set up occasional check-ins with your coworkers where you just have fun.

Hibel: Schools have been prioritizing equity for student access to course content. How does the equity factor account for different devices (laptops, tablets, or smartphones) and different internet speeds, and what do instructors need to keep in mind when creating their courses?

Oppenheimer: Preparing content for delivery on different device types might be a bit tough for those who are not experienced in doing that and don’t have some sort of support in the form of instructional designers/technologists or a campus technology group. Ideally, we are making responsive designs that will accommodate any modern device.

Given the current situation, however, we also need to be thinking about the age of some of the devices learners are using. Being on campus is a way to establish equity because students have access to the technology we require. At home, many students don’t have the resources to acquire the required technology or they are competing for it with other members of the household. We need to temper our expectations.

One way we can adjust our expectations, which helps address the issue of older devices along with lower internet speeds, is by limiting or removing the requirement of synchronous delivery of classes and assessments. If you must have any synchronous class sessions, I strongly recommend you record them to allow students with technology issues to download them later. For synchronous exams, you might have to make alternative arrangements for those with certain technology limitations.

With any synchronous events you have, expect there to be issues, both for the students and you. Have a backup plan at the ready and try to have some extra facilitators with you to assist those who are having trouble.

Hibel: What keeps you engaged in working in higher education in the field of instructional design and technology? Please explain your passion for working in higher education in the area of instructional design and technology.

Oppenheimer: I have been on the other side as both a teacher and a student. I know the broad reach I can have. I also gain a lot too. I consider myself a lifelong learner and my job allows me to continue to learn new things and new skills pretty much on a daily basis.

I enjoy the mix of common issues and new challenges I get to experience with each course I work on. I’ve had a few different turns in my education, but I find that I am able to use my background in graphic design and in Spanish on a fairly regular basis.

But, for the most part, I can sum it up in one word: people. I like working with people and I like serving people. I get to do this directly through my interactions with faculty, administrators, and various support staff. I, along with so many others, get to do this indirectly with a large group of people, our students. That’s huge!

Disclaimer: All of the thoughts, opinions, and ideas are Oppenheimer’s own and do not necessarily represent those of LDDI, the Division of Continuing Studies at UW-Madison, or the campus itself.

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