6 Things to Consider when Moving a Course Online

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By Mary Chaktsiris

Many of us have just received an official e-mail informing us that classes have been suspended for the rest of the term and that learning will transition online. This is just the latest in a series of shifting messaging, circumstances, and fluctuating decision-making as institutions cope with the global spread of COVID-19.

People, instructors and students, are feeling this uncertainty in multiple areas of their lives, and now in the area of course design with a sense of urgency about how to respond and adapt quickly. Abruptly transitioning your course to a new online pedagogical approach three quarters of the way through the term is not how you imagined it unfolding.

When approaching the teaching of History, which often revolves around lecture-based transmission of knowledge, moving to digital pedagogies might seem like a stretch for your teaching strategy toolkit. You will need to pivot.

As an instructor this concept is familiar to you. There is likely at least one specific time, probably burned into your memory, where a course or activity did not go as planned and it caused you to reconsider or change direction quickly and sometimes drastically. Recall how you navigated this circumstance, and how you acted to create meaningful change. Draw on that experience and apply it here.

Student learning online

1. Put students and learning first. Revisit your course learning objectives. Ask yourself: What parts have students already completed? What remains outstanding?

2. Consider where you are spending your time and effort to maximize their impact. Now that you’ve identified what learning still remains outstanding, you can use that information to inform the content and assessments you develop for completion online.

As part of this, consider how you are allocating your own time and resources. Focusing on what still remains to be done in the course, and narrowing your content development only around that, will help eliminate less relevant work.

3. Collaboratively develop content. Think about how you might collaboratively develop content or assessment strategies as a team or department, especially as a way to support sessional instructors and graduate students who may be teaching new courses and have fewer paid hours for course and content development. You don’t all need to start from scratch. Is someone already using an online tool or assessment structure that you can adapt to your course?

If you are a department chair, have tenure, or are on the tenure track, consider designing a process to help facilitate the sharing of already developed digital pedagogical tools. This may be an opportunity for you to help balance out the unfair burden placed on sessional instructors who are often not compensated fairly for time spent on course design.

4. Don’t forget you’ve spent most of your term together in class. Link together class time and online activities while building on the class culture you’ve already developed collaboratively with students so far this term.

Use digital tools and approaches that feel easiest and most accessible to you. Remember the most important consideration is how the content you develop helps students achieve the learning objectives of the course not yet completed, and to do so in a way that is manageable for you both in terms of time and in terms of technological ability.

Show leadership in choosing whatever method works best for you. The less complicated the better. Remember to stay focused: What do you want students to learn? And how will you know they’ve learned it? Try to be a coach and a guide while leading students through these online activities, being as clear as possible about how they all link together and help achieve your course learning objectives.

  • Is your course primarily lecture based? Choose a documentary or video and ask students to comment on it in a discussion post. Or, perhaps use a lecture capture tool like Echo360 or YouTube to narrate and share content with students.
  • Do you regularly use discussion as a tool for student engagement? Set up discussion posts for participation grades using your institution’s learning management system (LMS), perhaps even assessing them as PASS/FAIL, to ask students to demonstrate comprehension of readings or responses to course lecture or materials.
  • What about tutorials or labs? Distill each tutorial or lab down to the particular skill or exercise students were expected to demonstrate. How might you be able to help them achieve that, and measure their achievement, through other means?
  • Could you ask them to analyze a source or problem and then respond by recording a short response and uploading it to the LMS?
  • Ask creative questions. For example, if you had to choose one most relevant idea that came out of the readings or content for the week, what is it and why? Then, create a word cloud to share with the class to everyone can see patterns emerging from all their answers.
  • Ask students to develop a mind-map. A mind map is really simple if you haven’t done one before; you essentially place a central idea in the middle and then “map” it out to other ideas or quotes in the text. You can see an example here: https://www.mindmapping.com/ Students can create a mind map as they’d like – electronic/digital or by hand – and then upload the file or a picture of it to the course website.

5. Considering where we are in the term, it might make sense to focus on summative assessments. Summative assessments ask students to demonstrate their learning over the whole term, whereas formative assessments ask them to reflect on their learning at regular intervals throughout the learning process. Rather than developing content week-by-week, consider the final weeks of the term together as one unit. Where does it begin and end? What is one activity, with different scaffolded parts, that students might complete in order to demonstrate the learning expected of them in the course?

Some sample summative assessments include:

  • Developing a learning portfolio where students assemble examples of their work so far in the term and reflecting on what they’ve learned.
  • Complete a quiz or open-book test based on specific tasks or solving problems
  • Contribute to a class blog where each student develops a blog post entry on a particular topic or reading, creating a resource for the whole class to then study from for a quiz, test, or reflective response. The blog could be hosted on your LMS or a site like WordPress.
  • Ask students to develop an infographic, to be shared as a resource with the whole class, from a list of identified content or questions. These could also be process oriented: for example, how might you complete a problem or experiment? What are the different steps?
  • Ask each student to develop a quiz question using Kahoot or a similar app, then ask students to complete the whole quiz as an assessment.

6. Collect feedback from students in real time to ask them what more they need or what activities they would like to complete.

  • Develop a Google form with a few simple questions. It automatically collates responses and develops reports for you.
  • Use Mentimeter to other online polling software to poll students, ask questions, and consider how you are assessing what students have learned.


I’d like to end with a subtle but important distinction: while you might consider this “moving your class online,” what you are employing could also be approached as a blended learning pedagogical approach. This approach views in-class and online learning spaces as intrinsically connected: what happens in one supports and encourages what happens in the other.

As with any teaching approach, remember that less is more. Focus on asking students to do what you consider most impactful for their learning, while also using strategies that are manageable for you and your course team.

And one final appeal: stay focused on the learning objectives of your course. What has already been achieved? What remains to be done? And how is what you do working to achieve it?

Everything else can wait.

Dr. Mary Chaktsiris currently holds a visiting Assistant Professorship and is a Wilson Fellow at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University. You can follow her on twitter at @marychakk

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

One thought on “6 Things to Consider when Moving a Course Online

  1. Corey

    Thanks for this – it is really great advice. However, we need to keep in mind that this deals with courses being moved online because of a public health emergency. Faculty didn’t want to offer these courses online. Many have never taught online. They are overwhelmed by this. Students didn’t sign up for online course delivery. They may have no experience with online classes. They are overwhelmed by this. And our distance/online learning staff are soon going to be overwhelmed as they try to bring faculty and students forced into an online environment up to speed. And, quite frankly, everyone might have more on their minds right now given the situation. I think our key obligation as faculty is to ensure minimal disruption to our students learning, and to make sure that they both understand the material and get credit for their work. Basically, we need to get our students (and ourselves) through the last month of a semester upended by C-19. There are also valid concerns being raised by many faculty about how if we do a really great job at online teaching, then administration will begin to demand more and more such classes at the expense of on campus courses.

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