The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning


As you make plans for moving your class online during an emergency, focus on what tasks you are trying to accomplish:

Communicate with students

Keeping in touch with students is vital during any changes to your classes – whether a planned absence on your part or because of a crisis impacting all or part of campuses. You'll want to let students know about changes in schedules, assignments, procedures, and broader course expectations. Early and frequent communication can ease student anxiety and save you from dealing with individual questions.

Keep these principles in mind:

  • Communicate early and often: Use Canvas to let students know about changes or disruptions as early as possible, even if all the details aren't in place yet, and let them know when they can expect more specific information. Don't swamp them with email, but consider matching the frequency of your messages with that of changes in-class activities and/or updates to the broader crisis at hand (for example, the campus closure is extended for two more days; what will students need to know related to your course?).
  • Set expectations: Let students know how you plan to communicate with them, and how often. Tell students both how often you expect them to check their email and how quickly they can expect your response. Let them know, too, if you are using the Canvas Messaging tool, since they may need to update their notification preferences.
  • Manage your communications load: You will likely receive some individual requests for information that could be useful to all your students, so consider keeping track of frequently asked questions and sending those replies out to everyone. This way, students know they might get a group reply in a day versus a personal response within an hour. Also, post Announcements in Canvas, and then encourage students to check there first for answers before emailing you.
    Read more about how to add an announcement in Canvas.

Distribute course materials and readings

You will likely need to provide additional course materials to support your changing plans, from updated schedules to readings that allow you to shift more instruction online. In a pinch, providing some new readings and related assignments may be your best bet for keeping the intellectual momentum of the course moving.

Considerations when posting new course materials:

  • Make sure students know when new material is posted: If you post new materials in Canvas, be sure to let students know what you posted and where. You might even ask that students change their Canvas notification preferences to alert them when new materials are posted. Refer them to How do I set my Canvas notification preferences as a student?
  • Keep things phone friendly: In a crisis, many students may only have a phone available, so make sure you are using mobile-friendly formats, PDFs being the most common. Consider saving other files (for example, PowerPoint presentations) to PDFs, which are easier to read on phones and tablets, and keep the file size small.
  • Post course materials and content to modules in Canvas: Organize course content and links in modules. The more organized your content is, the easier it will be for your students to locate and access your content on their own when you may be unavailable or unreachable to assist them.
    Read more about how to add content in Modules in Canvas.

Deliver lectures

Online lectures shouldn't be the primary method of delivering online instruction, but they can be a powerful one. Conducting live, online sessions is certainly possible, but it may not always be the most effective way to reach students during a campus disruption. Students may not be available to meet during the normally scheduled class session, or they may not always have access to the technology required to participate in a live session. Short, focused discussions of key concepts or ideas can be a great way to support student learning when students are working independently, and they can play a strategic part in how you teach. Asynchronous sessions and short 10-minute video recordings may be a more realistic alternative.

Considerations when delivering lectures online:

  • Deliver live, synchronous, online sessions: Zoom provides capabilities for live, real-time, virtual classroom environments directly from Canvas. It can also be used for study sessions, tutorials, office hours, or even guest lecturers. When you use Zoom to conduct a live session, also consider recording that session to be viewed by students unable to attend. Learn how to get started using Zoom with your course in Canvas.
  • Record yourself from your phone: Smartphones have become ubiquitous, and they can almost all record high-quality videos. Don't hesitate to prop up your smartphone on a bookshelf and record yourself delivering a short lecture for students. If you have access to a whiteboard or other large writing surface, you can position the camera to record your writing surface as well. Short, online lectures like these don't have to be perfect or professionally recorded to be highly effective. Simply upload your videos to Canvas from your computer or directly from your mobile phone.

Foster communication and collaboration among students

Fostering communication among students is crucial because it allows you to reproduce any collaboration you build into your course and maintains a sense of community that can help keep students motivated to participate and learn. It helps if you already had some sort of student-to-student online activity like Discussions in Canvas since students will be used to both the process and the tool.

Consider these suggestions when planning activities:

  • Use asynchronous tools when possible: Having students participate in live Zoom conversations can be useful, but scheduling can be a problem, and only a few students will actively participate (just like in your classroom). In such cases, using asynchronous tools like Discussions in Canvas allows students to participate on their own schedules. Also, bandwidth requirements for discussion boards are far lower than for live video tools.
  • Link to clear goals and outcomes: Make sure there are clear purposes and outcomes for any student-to-student interaction. How does this activity help them meet course outcomes or prepare for other assignments?
  • Build-in simple accountability: Find ways to make sure students are accountable for the work they do in any online discussions or collaborations. Assigning points for online discussion posts can be tedious, so some instructors ask for reflective statements where students detail their contributions and reflect on what they learned from the conversation.
  • Balance newness and need: As with any changed activities, you will need to balance the needs and benefits of online collaboration with the additional effort such collaboration will require on everyone else's part. Learning new technologies and procedures might be counterproductive, particularly in the short term, unless there is a clear benefit.
    Read more about using Discussions in Canvas.

Collect assignments

Collecting assignments during a campus closure is fairly straightforward since many instructors already collect work electronically. The main challenge during a campus disruption is whether students have access to computers, as anyone needing a campus computer lab may be unable to access necessary technologies.

Consider these suggestions when planning assignments:

  • Require only common software: Students may not have access to specialty software located in on-campus computer labs. Some of that software may be available to students through SSCC, but unless the students have permission to load software onto a computer they can access, they may be unable to use these tools. Be ready with a backup plan for such students.
  • Utilize Office365: All faculty, staff, and students at SSCC should have access to Microsoft Office365 for creating, editing, and sharing documents and files. Microsoft allows the installation of Office 365 on five personally-owned computers (Windows and/or Mac), as well as five personally-owned tablets and smartphones, using your subscription account.
  • Use Assignments in Canvas: It may be easy to collect assignments in small classes via email, but larger classes may overwhelm your email inbox. Consider using the Assignments feature in Canvas instead to post and collect assignments. Balance what is simplest for students with what is easiest for you to manage.
  • State expectations, but be ready to allow extensions: In the case of a campus closure or other crisis, some students will undoubtedly have difficulties meeting deadlines. Make expectations clear, but be ready to provide more flexibility than you normally would in your class.
  • Require specific filenames: It may sound trivial, but anyone who collects papers electronically knows the pain of getting 20 files named Essay1.docx. Give your students a simple file naming convention, for example, FirstnameLastname-Essay1.docx.
    Read more about managing assignments in Canvas.

Assess student learning

Assessing students remains an important component of conducting class online. Online quizzing provides a simple way to assess a large number of students, and it doesn't matter where students are when they take the online quiz as long as they are connected to the Internet. Online testing can provide instant feedback to students, but it can also provide feedback to instructors to let you know what concepts your students are learning and what concepts are not.

Consider these suggestions when planning assignments:

  • Create online quizzes in Canvas: Quizzes in Canvas are assignments that can be used to check student understanding and assess comprehension of course material. The quiz tool is used to create and administer online quizzes and surveys. Quizzes can also be used to conduct and moderate exams and assessments, both graded and ungraded.
  • Use formative assessments: Formative assessments shift focus away from achieving grades and onto learning. Unlike purely summative assessments, formative assessments help instructors know if a student is learning without the pressure of grades. Rather than creating basic quizzes that introduce concerns about cheating, use formative assessments that encourage students to read through their textbook or consult online databases to answer quiz questions.
  • Use proctoring sparingly: Tools like Respondus LockDown Browser and Monitor are available for helping provide some exam security on personal devices. When used, students are unable to print, copy, or access other websites and applications during an online test. However, if your students have not used these software tools before, introducing them during a major disruption may cause added stress and technical challenges, and these tools are not available for use on mobile devices when students may not have access to a PC.
  • Avoid high-stakes testing when possible: Because taking a higher-stakes exam online (especially with proctoring) can add to anxiety, try to schedule a low-stakes, practice test before scheduling a high-stakes exam. This allows students to confirm that they have the required equipment and sufficient internet speed. It also gives them a chance to get familiar with the process beforehand.
    Read more about creating Quizzes in Canvas.