Software: Friend and Foe in Online Larger Classes

Click on the title to read the earlier posts in this series: 1 (Going Big, Online); 2 (Backward designing your large online class); 3 (Designing for and with Accessibility); 4 (Online Assessments that Engage Them…and You); 5 (Communicating with Your Large Online Class). Again, apologies for a longer-than-usual post.

So you are doing an online large class this fall! Congratulations!! That means you will be using/trying to use/fighting to use/fighting with…several kinds of software. So let’s talk about what you might want to consider using. A confession—I have not used some of these as pedagogical software but I have been keeping up with stories about software on Academic Twitter, blogs, and educational websites during the pandemic. I also urge you to check with your institution’s Instructional Technology staff to ensure that using any of these software packages would not violate local IT policies, FERPA, or other laws about privacy, etc. Some of these would require a license (either for your course to use it or for the institution). I won’t keep posting URLs for Adobe, Cisco Webex, Google Suite, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, but they often have products which will help. For some, I have given links to “how to do it” help videos or information.

 Do’s and Don’t with Software in Large Classes

Woman sitting at computer screen, with coffee cup When hundreds of eyes will be watching what you prepare—be it pedagogical presentations, how you organize the LMS, the audiovisuals you choose and which you make in order to share content—there are some things to consider.

-Don’t use software if you are not comfortable with it. Practice, practice some more, and then even more. The last thing you want is to so post a presentation whose audio won’t play or you tell them it is captioned and the words don’t make sense, etc. Those kinds of errors will guarantee that you’ll have a lot of emails to read from frazzled students. You might also lose some of their interactional trust.

-Some software (i.e., those which are bundled with texts) often ask you to set up and account and to sign in as a faculty member. Do your best to also set up an account as a student—the software can look very different using the student view. If you can, be sure you have the student account “open” when you write directions about how to use the software, especially for an assessment.

-Use screen captures to illustrate each key step in setting up the software and to show how to use it. I use the snipping tool in Microsoft to take static screen captures. If you want to make a video about how to use the software, there is software which allow you to do this (e.g., Camtasia, Screencast-O-Matic, etc.). Remember to caption the video!

-Check for software updates before you need to use the software, so that you don’t keep synchronous students waiting. Also check with your institution’s IT staff about if you should update, before doing so.

Orange thought bubble that says, "How do I?"-Make a “how do I?” sheet for each software you are using. For some, that might be a set of index cards stapled together. For others of us, it might be online “sticky notes” which stay on one of your screens or a Google/Word form you create and fill out for each software. (I hope you have at least two screens – it will make online teaching so much easier!) What should you note as a reminder

-Your faculty account’s username and password for that software

-Your student account’s username and password (if you created one in this software)

-Your institution’s Instructional Technology helpline phone numbers/email address

-How to start up the software and login

-How to get out of the software if it crashes

-How to turn volume up and down

-How to change whose screen is displayed

-How to call on someone else/share the screen with someone else

-How to display different windows from your computer

-How to admit individuals into a group (and what is the upper limit of number of individuals possible in that software? Might be a different number for free or paid versions.)

-How to turn on captioning

-How to turn on a pen or some other tool to use onscreen

-How to access a chat room in the software and how to select another individual to manage the chat room (if possible)

-How to save the screen/file, including any additions you made while teaching, before exiting the software

 The Learning Management System

You likely will not have a choice about what LMS to use—it will be whatever your institution uses. As I mentioned in week 3’s post on accessibility, ask about the actual level of accessibility that your IT and teaching and learning staff believe the LMS has and don’t believe the company’s PR hype.

A key question is which other pedagogical software will interface well with your institution’s LMS—if you are selecting software that many others have used, for example, this past spring, then there will be many who can help you to avoid issues. But if you are pioneering software to use with your LMS, then expect to have more integration issues and create a policy for what to do if an assessment or group activity doesn’t work.

Polling Software

Graphic: tablet or phone sending information to an online pollIf you want to get a snapshot of your students’ learning, and you are teaching a synchronous online class, you probably want to consider some sort of polling software, either as a standalone or an addition to your presentation slides. (It would work for asynchronous, but you’ll need to set a time for when students must use it, in order for you to have that diagnostic ability to make any content additions/clarifications.) Polling can be especially useful for what I call “content trip wires” – a small set of concepts, theories, or skills that you know have confused many students in previous terms. If this is your first time teaching the class, see if other faculty can provide you a list of this content, so that you can focus on them. Here’s an example of this kind of polling question:

How do you clean your residence when a person is coming to visit for the first time? Do you…

1) Clean only the parts of the residence where the guest could likely go (living room, bathroom, maybe kitchen). Put all the mess in another room and close the door.

2) Clean the entire residence, “just in case” the person visits a room not planned.

I use this question in part because it gets a lot of conversation and laughter going, but it allows me to introduce the concepts of “presentation of self” and “how an object (the door) can symbolize something else (keep out/privacy).” We talk a lot about what the closed door could represent—normally we decide that it means “if you open this door, and violate the social norm about not opening a door in someone’s private space, then you don’t get to judge the mess you might find there.” That is a great segue way into symbolic interactionism as a theoretical perspective, and so on.

Done well, polls can also build student connection and engagement. You could ask a question without one correct answer. It will require each student to wrestle with how to find an answer. This could become the springboard for quick group formation (either those who used the same process or the same answer) or a more detailed discussion board conversation between a small group of students.

I suggest class polls should be low-stakes assessments—if they are even graded. Think of them more as diagnostic tools (and teach students to consider them that way as well) and perhaps make each question 1 point.

Cisco Webex:


Poll Everywhere:



 Breakout Groups and Projects

Again, most LMSs will allow you to create smaller groups. They can be sent emails, use discussion boards, create group chats, etc. However, most LMSs do not allow for simultaneous editing of a document, something groups often want to do. Also, many LMS software will add you to each group. That means you will receive every email from a group member to the group (sometimes you cannot be unselected even if a student wanted to take you off the email chain!). Some software will allow groups to manage their own projects.


Buckets*  (similar to Slack, Kanban, Trello)


-adding captioning  to-a-video.html?fbclid=IwAR3QAHQGh2aoGAKzZTjK4dkOke6M4PvCUW-   rD7zJ27dPTekui4spdf1ulPw


Google Jamboard (white board):

Google Meet: (how to set up video)

Hypothesis for Education (collaborative annotation software):

Excel as Project Management Tool


Padlet :

Slack (project management, group communication, etc.):

Trello (project management – more visual foci): (infographic creation)

Zoom Meetings


Bower, Matt and Jodie Torrington. Typology of Free Web-based Learning Technologies

Carnegie Mellon University’s Pedagogical Considerations for Teaching with Zoom:

Bruff, Derek. Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms (some ideas could translate to online only environments)

Darby, Flower with James M. Lang. 2020. Small Teaching Online. Jossey-Bass. (E-book available)

Davidson, Cathy. The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course (the role of trauma)

Foss, Katherine A. “The Optional Zoom: Connecting with Students (while Reducing Your Grading)

Free Resources for STEM Educators

Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing. STEAM from a Distance Education Resources

How to Teach Remotely: The Ultimate Guide

LearnWords: The 22 best training video software


Open Resource Courses about Online Course Design

Pandemic Pedagogy Facebook Group

Sh!ft Disruptive Learning:

Toor, Rachel. Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom.

Top Take-Home STEM Resources for School Closings

University of British Columbia’s Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology’s Online Teaching Program

Whitaker, Manya. What an Ed-Tech Skeptic Learned about Her Own Teaching in the Covid-19 Crisis. 248876?cid= wcontentgrid _hp_9

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Note: I realize that good pedagogy, let alone good online pedagogy, requires that content should be “chunked” into smaller amounts. I had to balance that versus trying to get all my thoughts about teaching a large class online completed before the start of Fall 2020 begins–which is why this post is not chunked. I still have 3 more posts in the series (software; testing and grading; and pedagogical failures).

*My nephew works for this software company. I used it to manage our move from GA to NC and use it to manage my editing business. Larger organizations have used the software to manage projects and connect individuals in a variety of worksites.

Communicating with Your Large Online Class: Frequency, Consistency, Tone, Honesty, and Humor (pt 5 in a series)*

Click on the title to read the earlier posts in this series: 1 (Going Big, Online); 2 (Backward designing your large online class); 3 (Designing for and with Accessibility); 4 (Online Assessments that Engage Them…and You). Again, apologies for a longer-than-usual post.*

Infographic: best practices for teaching onlineSo you are teaching a large class in an online environment! This means that you will be communicating almost if not entirely online with them. So what are best practices?

Frequency of communicating with your class

How often should you be in contact with your students? Are you using a learning management system (LMS) to—at least in part—communicate with them? If so, consider doing the following:

Write a welcome email to the class. It is usually possible to email your class from your class registration software (e.g., “Banner”)—if so, use that for this first communication. BUT, this is important—students will add and drop from your class, so save the email and post it to the LMS, as a Word/PDF document in a “Welcome Module.” [Yes, you’ll want a Welcome Module!] You’ll go crazy trying to figure out which are newly registered students and only resending it to them, etc.

This email should have the basics (your name, title, office if you will be in it regularly; the full name of and number of the course; a brief course description; any text you are assigning that students have to buy [ideally in advance] or which they will need immediately at the start of the term; the URL for the class in the LMS (even if they cannot access it yet); the date when they can access the LMS; how to access the LMS (especially important if your fall class is primarily first-year students; and just a bit from you, about you and them as a teaching-learning team.

Graphic: hand, index finger has string tied to it as reminderSet up a communication calendar. Consider the following as you create it:

-Do you want notifications to be sent about the following: a module about to open or close? An assessment about to open or close? One week before a major assessment is due (test, major assignment—by major I mean worth 10% or more of the final grade)?

-Do you want notifications to be sent one week in advance, then 72 hours, then 24 hours before any synchronous, required activity for the course? The emphasis there is on both synchronous and required.

-Do you want to make scheduled announcements or emails, say at the start of every week to walk students through what to read, what assessments there might be, what videos to watch or presentations to go through, etc.?

-Do you know if your students are using other social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook? Do you want to make notifications there as well?

I used a Facebook class page and made all announcements/notification there as well as in the LMS. It was useful—some students would see an announcement/notification and share it with students who didn’t log in to the LMS as often (either in face-to-face interaction in another class or that they were on social media with each other). So the Facebook page was the second layer of communication that only those students who wanted to join the page received, but they were able to magnify the communication.

I sometimes used my professional Twitter account in the same way but found that only about ten students either were on Twitter or followed my account, and so over time, I stopped using that social media to make class announcements.

Note: If you want to use Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram in this way, I strongly urge you to use software that will let you post once and it will push the announcement/notification out to all those social media accounts. I use Hootsuite ( or TweetDeck . That way you are writing the announcement once but most or all those social media will “get” it. You can also write the posts and schedule them in advance. So Sunday afternoons I would write the weekly announcements and schedule them in the LMS and in Hootsuite and know they’d be sent out no matter how busy I got. Remember to download this to your phone, in case you are away from your primary computer (if it is not your phone!) but need to put out an urgent notification.

3) Decide on an emergency policy that will prevent you from having to make many emergency notifications/announcements. What do I mean? Given the significant increase in online usage, it is possible that the campus network might go down. Create a policy that tells students that, for example, “If the campus network goes down, once I learn about it, I will go and extend any assessment due in 24 hours by X amount of time. You do not have to write to me to ask, assume this will happen.” Put it in the syllabus and consider including it in every assessment’s directions. I asked a small group of students to write to me, who were on the class’ Facebook page, to write to me there if the LMS went down on campus. That way I would be checking for when it went up and could go in immediately and make a change in the time the assessment would be due. Did every student remember this policy? No. But instead of 300+ students writing to me about the LMS going down, only about 20 did instead. That for me, was a communication “win.”

Graphic: weekly updates - computer monitor4) Consider writing the class a short summary email after you finished grading each of the major assessments (e.g., tests, projects, etc.). Tell them what went well and help them to understand if there were frequent errors. Don’t just tell them about the error, but give examples of how to correct those errors. Keep it brief. You might want to create a module called “Follow Ups” or something like that, and post each as a Word/PDF document too, in case a student accidentally deletes an email, etc. Students can use these as study tools if some of your assessments are cumulative. This could also be done via a discussion board, which would allow students to comment if they still have questions, etc.

Consistency of communication

Graphic: Text says "Consistency is" and then there is an old-fashioned keyI learned this the hard way. I had this wonderful idea (it really was!) of doing a flash mob on campus with my large face-to-face Introduction to Sociology class and we would analyze reactions to it using sociological theories. Most of the class would learn the dance, which was created and taught to us by the advanced Jazz Dance class at my institution. Other students who didn’t want to dance would interview the crowd who (we hoped) would gather, asking questions the class created. Others worked with campus leaders (e.g., police, the administration, etc.) as we planned this event. The Jazz class came and taught us parts of the dance over a series of four visits. We also had Friday practice sessions at noon in the Student Union and had our only “everyone has to show up” rehearsal the night before. But we found we needed to post videos for students who could not make these events. Soon the LMS was crowded—there were about 40 sort dance videos plus all the assessments, readings, etc. I didn’t use modules or any kind of an organizing tool–I just posted a file, with a name and a date. It was a mess.

The only critique students had from that semester was that I needed to think about organizing the class page in the LMS. And they were right. So—modules will be your pedagogical friend—use them! There are several ways to consider the use of modules:

-Weekly: Put all the readings, videos, URL links, and assessments in the module. Clearly label it by date and perhaps week number, if you use that in your syllabus. Think about when you want to open the module and when to close it. This will become critical to think through now—you might even want to get a policy from your campus administrator. Will students who might become infected be allowed to go back and complete work which has “passed its due date”? Will you open up a module (or parts of it) just for that student?

– Sections of the class: This might mean putting the content of two or three weeks in one module (submodules might come in handy if the section is too large!). So for example, I had a section of the course, based on learning objectives, which focused on how groups shape individuals and how individuals can shape groups. Another section was about “thinking like a sociologist” and covered course content about theories and methods used by our profession. Think about how you could divide up your class. One suggestion though—these sections should not just be in the organization of modules, but should be reflected in your syllabus. Your goal is that all parts of the class fit together seamlessly.

-Consider creating some modules that will remain open the entire term: Consider a “Welcome to Our Class” module, containing your welcome message(s), any explanation of required technology, and documents like that; another module that might be good to have open consistently would be a “FAQ” module (Frequently Asked Questions) which contains an open discussion board for students to ask questions, copies of technology documents in the Welcome module, perhaps edited so that you have several, each about only one type of technology, a link to the LMS class calendar, and so on.

If you start with the modular approach to designing the course, stick with it for the entire term. That is the consistency students will need to succeed. Similarly, if you open the first module on Sunday, open all of them on Sunday (unless pedagogically impossible). Keeping to patterns will help students to know what is expected of them, and when. This is especially important if you are teaching first-year students or students who are not used to online learning.

One more thing about consistency—if you write long messages, you might start with an “executive summary” for those students who are in a hurry. Also, think about bolding key points or writing them in a different color font. Teach students what your patterns will be, so that they know how to look for key information and then consistently follow that pattern. If for some reason you have to vary it, alert them at the beginning of the message.

Have regular office hours, which are on the class calendar, and can be easily “found” by students. Include a link to the online location in the directions for each assessment. You might poll students for the “best” times to have them but have them. I used to use the “chat function” in the LMS, but something like Zoom might work even better because it would be more of a conversation with humans I can see! Rarely did I have more than 10 students come visit me during the routine Monday evening chats; that number increased significantly (to about 50) the week of a test. Consider also having brief office hours 48 hours before major assessments are due. I didn’t make those routinized; I would just announce them a few days in advance, but now I have rethought that idea. Routinize that “I’ll be here to ask questions” idea so that your students don’t feel as alone in those last few hours, when many of them are focusing on the assessment. While I didn’t want my students to do that kind of procrastination, it happened and if most of their courses will be online in the fall, it will likely happen more, not less. So lean into it.

I also decided that each week, I would spontaneously interact with ten percent of my students each week. In a fifteen week term, that meant that every student got an unplanned, encouraging private communication from me. Sometimes it was after a great assessment or a brilliant comment in a discussion board, etc., and each week I worked through the class list. Don’t just go alphabetically though—they figure that out quickly!

Tone of communication

I believe that the best communication reflects the person doing it. So be yourself. When adding voice to a presentation, talk as you would in class or in your office. Don’t make your language more complicated than it needs to be – the content might be complicated, but your explanations don’t have to be.

One thing I know about myself is that I have an “auctioneer mode.” Students say that I could cram a lot into, say, the last five minutes of class, if I felt that I was behind. Since you are teaching online, time is of less concern, so slow down. I made a sticky note and taped it to my monitor when I was making voice-overs for slides to remind myself that slowing down is good pedagogy.

What about you? Do you have any habits like that, which might impact how students perceive you as they listen to you? Something else that people sometimes do when they first begin teaching online is to exaggerate their voice. I did this at first, because I was trying to “make up” for the loss of my hands. Yup, I gesture a lot. I think I have written previously about how students told me that if I pounded the podium, that was a “tell” that that content would definitely be on the next test. I thought that having my hands be invisible to students meant that my voice had to do all the work. But I learned that using my hands—gesturing in my office, to myself—helped me to pace myself and helped me to mix intonation in more interesting ways. Using other software, like Zoom, which allows students to see you as you teach, can allow a more natural communication pattern. But still—practice, practice, practice so that you are happy with how others might be hearing you. Ask a few friends to listen/watch your first presentations and take their feedback to heart.

Another aspect of tone is how you communicate when you are frustrated. Trust me, there will be those times! But sending off a quick notification/announcement when that is your emotional “temperature” probably will backfire on you. So pause, walk away, wait a few hours before you hit “send.” If you feel the need to say something, send a “give me a few hours and I’ll get back to you” message. Your goal is to support your students’ learning.

Quote about supporting studentsI think it’s important to be sure that I start and end communications with students—be it audio or audiovisual presentations, written messages, etc.—with a “check-in.” I’d do it in a face-to-face class (e.g., I’d chat with many students individually as they came in and I’d start off with a “how’s it going?” kind of comment). Many of my large classes were part of learning communities and I knew the calendars of those other classes, so I’d ask how the chemistry test went, and so on. If I had a cold, I might apologize for a hoarse voice, etc. And I’d try to end class with a similar “human-to-human” interaction. Just because you are teaching online, doesn’t mean students don’t need this kind of interaction. In fact, I might argue they will need it more—so will you.

Honesty in communication

I hope this is a given for you, but let me talk a bit about why I think this is important. Lots of people on my campus thought I was a “techie”—which my husband thought was hilarious. I’m not. Yes, I was willing to be a pedagogical tech pioneer (about some software, about “clickers”/audience response systems, etc.) but I definitely do not know much of the science and mathematics of the software I used. And I can become frustrated, very easily, when software doesn’t work as it is intended.

So one of the things I tried to do is tell students that about myself. I’d ask a couple of students who self-identified as “tech-savvy” in their introductory discussion posts, if I could ask them for assistance if I got stuck. I wasn’t saying they had to solve the problem, but would they be willing to brainstorm with (and for!) me about what I might want to try. They loved being asked. In an online environment, I think I would create some “Assistance Points.” Students could earn them by answering another student’s question about the class on a discussion board and how it works or help me if I needed this kind of tech assistance. Make it be for just a few points, but it routinizes that helping each other is a value embedded in the class’ interactions with each other.

Graphic: Communicate clearly, respectfully, & honestlyHonesty can be hard, but it’s a value I want to have embedded in my classes. That flash mob (mentioned above) involved one of the most difficult moments in my teaching career. Campus videographers were to record it, including from the tops of nearby buildings (one of our hypotheses was about the size of groups who stopped to watch, so we needed to see the event from a higher elevation) and give the class access to all camera angles, for our analysis. Five minutes before the dance started, they told me they decided to film only at ground level. That decision meant that we lost most of the data we had wanted. Students were on such a high after the flash mob ended. Four hours later, I had to write to them and tell them—after all their extra work to learn the dance, etc.—that it was for naught.

They were mad and disappointed, but they worked through it faster than I did. Within two hours, a large segment of the class started a discussion board/petition to let them write a different paper than we had planned (testing hypotheses). Instead, they wanted to write about how the campus was congratulating them for a job well done (campus administrators, the local paper—lots of people were doing this) when they knew it was a pedagogical failure. It was a perfect example of the social construction of reality. It wasn’t what I’d planned and several learning outcomes had to be reworked on the fly, but they made lemonade out of lemons…faster than I did. I was and am proud of them, to this day. The discussion board that day was not the easiest to read—there was a lot of honest emotions, some using language I didn’t completely endorse—but students poured out their hearts and then figured out what to do next. I was on the board for hours, commenting when I thought necessary but mostly supporting students’ honest emotions with my own. We all learned a lot about each other, sociology, and learning that evening.

The pandemic, the economic freefall, social injustices laid bare–these will be “students” in your class too this fall. They will be impacting your students’ lives, their work (or their non-work)–and yours as well. Creating a culture where a student can share their truth with you privately, or for some or all of the class to process these feelings will be something you need to plan for, prepare for, and be ready to be an honest communication partner. How trauma should impact grading, I’ll be talking about in another post. But honesty involves accepting and valuing the human(s) on the other screens. And right now, they and you, are hurting.

Humor in communication

I’m not the funniest person (my husband makes really bad puns frequently in class); alas, humor takes a lot of work for me to do. But I believe that it is crucial, especially in an online course. So I make the deliberate choice to add humor into many of my presentations. Trust me—I didn’t say it was good humor, but it’s humor!

What do I mean? When I am defining “status” and “role” for the first time, before I show the definition of “role” I have a slide that just has a cinnamon roll on it. And I’ll say, “No, not this kind of roll, but this kind…” and the slide forwards to the definition of “role.” In my face-to-face class, there are usually one or two students who get it during the “pastry slide” and snicker. If I wait, a few more will groan or laugh. Finally, after about a minute, I’ll say something like, “Come on, that was one of my better jokes!” and nearly everyone would laugh. There were two reasons that I wanted some humor built into that presentation. First, it was an easy one to pull off for me! But even more importantly, the differences between statuses and roles are what I call a “course tripwire.” Many students lose points on tests and other assessments about these concepts. Having humor that they can recall has helped many of them to cement the differences in their minds.

Much of my humor is planned—I work hard to find appropriate places in my online presentations where humor will fit. Others will have the interactional skills to have humor happen spontaneously (I envy you!).

A caveat though: we are in a time where social values, cultures, and norms are rightfully being examined. Humor is rooted in culture and so often can be perceived as “edgy.” Be sure planned moments of humor build unity and not create emotional or pedagogical barriers between individual students, groups of students, and yourself. Be even more aware of this if you use spontaneous humor.

Teaching a large class online requires you to routinize much of your communication so that you can spend more time focusing on those wonderful, unplanned moments that will occur between students, between groups of students and you, and in one-on-one interaction with a student and you. Knowing when and how often you’ll communicate the mechanics of the class minimizes their stress. Knowing that they can trust your communication to be honest and focused on their learning and success builds a sense of trust crucial to online pedagogy.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

*Note: I realize that good pedagogy, let alone good online pedagogy, requires that content should be “chunked” into smaller amounts. I had to balance that versus trying to get all my thoughts about teaching a large class online completed before the start of Fall 2020 begins–which is why this post is not chunked. I still have 3 more posts in the series (software; testing and grading; and pedagogical failures).


Online Assessments that Engage Them…and You

This is a long post; just a warning!*

Okay, let’s say the brutal truth: Grading assessments for a large class can be exhausting. Please don’t do what I used to do: I’d count every assessment, multiply it by the number of students in that course, then do the same for the other courses I was teaching, and add them together. That total went up on a sticky note in my home office. Every Friday I’d revise the number down. There were days when it was so depressing!

My key piece of advice is to accept that not everything has to be graded. So construct assessments that you believe will interest your students without the pressure of knowing they all will have to be graded by you. I would read everything each student in my 300+ student class wrote, but not all assessments were graded. Some of the assessments were simply marked “did/not done.” This is an easy way, for example, to assess “exit questions” at the end of class. Each student who either posted to an online discussion board or who answered a brief online form, earned credit. Read them all and then grade perhaps, 10% of them for points. Rotate which students earned points (as opposed to “did the work” points) and use their answers to discern which concepts you might need to go back over (perhaps in a quick video or a post to the class). Make these low-stakes assessments such that each student actually earns a grade, perhaps five times during the academic term. For the “did the work” grade, students needed to have turned in at least 80% of these assessments.

Note: not every learning management system allows you to grade P/F or better, “Did/NotDone,” so I had to use a spreadsheet to record these grades. I would assign this grade twice—once at midterm and once at the end of the term. Students could always ask me to see how their grades were being calculated.

Graphic: says "Online Discussion" and then has many hands held upDiscussion Boards:  Let’s get this kind of assessment out of the way first. If you choose discussion boards as an assessment, you’ll need to create groups. Students need a much smaller “place” to post and to wrestle with the material. I suggest having groups between 20-25 people, maximum. Most all learning management systems now make it easier to post a discussion question across multiple groups at one time, so be sure to learn that technique.

If you use discussion boards, I have a few ideas on how to use them well:

    • Post an example of a “good post” – I suggest it has to include, in a clear and manifest way, at least one concept from the course (or the section of the course you assign).
    • Set clear guidelines about what should be in a post:
        • It should use the student’s own words.
        • Quotes (from the text, websites, etc.) need to be in quote marks and have a citation (it is up to you whether it is a complete citation in a style you select or whether you allow for a truncated kind of citation).
        • Quotes should be used sparingly, must be clearly marked, and only to illustrate something the student has already written about in her/his own words.
        • Have a range of lengths that are likely will reflect enough content to possible earn points.
        • Are there words/abbreviations, etc., which are unacceptable? Tell your students about them and why they are not (perhaps refer to your institution’s code of conduct, etc.).
    • Post a few examples of “bad posts” – from an “I agree with X’s post” to other common errors you have seen.
    • For the first post, have students respond individually and “close” each reply, so that only you and the student can see it. You will have to find the right amount of time for this kind of post—I wouldn’t suggest more than 2-3 days, maximum. I’ve found this, more than anything, prevents the “Yeah, I agree” kind of comment. Assess each individual post as you had planned. Then, open up the posts for perhaps 48 more hours (at least to each student’s group, if not to the entire class) and require each student to reply to a set number of other students’ posts. Again, give an example of what would be a “good” and “bad” reply, pedagogically. You want students to engage with each other and show evidence of learning. Assess their comments as well.
    • Assessments have to be worth enough points that students will do them, but not too many points.
    • What kinds of discussion prompts work best? Obviously, this will be impacted by your discipline, but try to write prompts that require critical thinking and reflection, not just a “Yes” or “No” reply. Some prompts could be:
        • Compare/contrast theories/theorists.
        • A short video or news article which can be analyzed.
        • Application of theory/concept to real-world situations. For example, I might ask students how theories of socialization would “see” the debate over “free range children/parenting” (there would be a video for all to watch about the topic embedded in the prompt).
            • Think carefully about discussion prompts about current events (i.e., the pandemic, Mr. Floyd’s killing by police officers, social justice marches, local or campus events) which could either make students feel they must represent a particular group or which might (re)traumatize them.
            • Even if your content fits with these real-world events (e.g., a course in policing, or public health), consider having a choice of prompts so that students can choose to engage the material and current events or not.
      • Give the case study to read and then ask different groups to respond to unique prompts, about different aspects of the case study. Then switch that group’s topic with a different group’s and have them respond to each other’s ideas.

So discussion boards can be used in an online big class, but to be manageable, you will need to form smaller subsets of students and have students engage most of the time with that smaller subset.

Machine-graded Assessments 

If you are using a text which comes with online support, it likely will have quizzes either already written or which you can construct and have the software grade for you. USE THIS OPTION! Once you set them up (assuming you use the same texts), all you have to do is change the dates for the assessments. In my large face-to-face classes, I created a 5-point quiz that assessed learning from that day’s meeting. Students had 24 hours to complete the quiz. In an online environment, one could do a similar quiz, perhaps at the end of each week or module.

If your readings are online, can you embed reading questions in them? That way students can receive feedback “in the moment,” which can help their learning. Again, some publishers are creating online content that does this (primarily for introductory courses though). I used these embedded-in-text questions as “pre-class” quizzes. Students could take them as often as they wanted—until class—in order to earn maximum points (but 95% of the students only took them once). Something similar could be used to begin sections of an online course—these kinds of quizzes can alert students to key concepts (thereby shaping their reading and studying). Again, the fact that they are machine-graded means that all you need to do, once you have set them up, is answer any questions students might have about the answers—and contact those students who didn’t take them on time. (Communicating with students is so important in an online large class—so much so that it is the subject of next week’s post!)

Group Projects

Infographic that says "Project" and has icons around it about different possible tools needed (e.g., calendar, bar graphs, etc.)Again, you will need to divide the large class into smaller groups. Most learning management systems will allow you to separate students into such groups. Group projects reduce the number of assessments to grade while involving all students in the learning process. There are several group activities that you can use to assess student learning.

      • Projects that relate to a case study, given to either the entire class or better yet, just that group. Ask the group to either
          • Problem-solve ways to gather data about the problem
          • Apply theories/concepts being learned to the problem
          • Discuss ethical issues related to data collection (if you teach a discipline which studies humans or one which does animal research)
          • Create a video which presents their “final decisions”
      • Projects that ask groups of students to create/find examples of concepts/theories being learned. This might be
          • Original photos and then written explanations linking the photo to the concept/theory (for lots of reasons, including legal ones—have it be original photos!)
          • Poetry and explanation of how the poem illustrates concept
          • Songs and how they illustrate theory/concept (if the songs are original, the group could record them singing, etc.)
          • Illustrations to show that students understand the scientific principles being studied
    • Laboratories
        • Probably want to divide the class into much smaller groups (as you would in a face-to-face class)
        • Give these smaller groups deadlines to complete tasks (e.g., doing an actual lab or watching a video of it being done)
            • Again, keep the assessment “closed” so that only you and the particular small group of students see the results (either always or until you want to open the results up for the entire class to see)
            • If possible, I would suggest that videos “doing the lab” (if they are necessary versus students being in the lab to do it themselves) showcase students, not you, unless it is not possible, time-wise.
            • Be sure these videos show likely mistakes; why they might be made and what/how they misunderstand the material. It’s good if the video could stop and allow students individually to write what they think about the error, before the video continues on, with you and the students being filmed explaining what might have happened, etc. These interactional “breaks” in the video can keep students engaged and can be set up to be machine graded for low-stakes points.
    • Student-led teaching and discussion
        • This can be a good assessment if the topic for the teaching and discussion are known in advance (ideally, several weeks in advance).
        • Be sure that any readings or visuals the student group needs to do the project well are available in advance.
        • Develop a rubric or a guide for each group so that students know what materials should be covered, how you want them to cover the material (e.g., is an original skit acceptable? Could the group create a video that covers the material? A PowerPoint slide deck about the material? Define what you want, but also allow for the group to be creative. Allow a group to contact you in advance of working on it if it has a novel pedagogical method it wishes to use which is not listed in your directions for the assessment), how you want them to create discussion prompts, and how you want them to monitor/lead the online discussion. Again, this should be available to all students well in advance of the first group’s due date. If correct definitions and original examples of terms are required, be sure the rubric states that and awards points for this evidence of learning.
        • If the topics under study are “difficult” ones, consider asking each group to locate a group that is working on the topic and helping to make social change.
        • It probably works better for smaller groups (5-7 at most) and not larger groups. So you will have to decide if this size makes the assessment unworkable for a big class.
    • Debates
        • Assign groups to various sides of a debate. Ideally, try to have more than just 2 sides!
            • Have each side provide a handout with a summary of its presentation, in advance of the “debate day” (graded)
            • Perhaps each group could also do a PowerPoint presentation about its argument, again, posted in advance of “debate day” (graded)
        • Assign another group to find resources for all sides (this group might have to work off an earlier due date than the other groups) (graded)
        • Assign other groups to be what I like to call “a prepared audience.” They have read the resources, presentations, and come prepared with questions for all sides (graded)
        • Some of these assessments could have a simple rubric of “not met the requirements;” “meets requirements;” and “strongly meets requirements” with a set number of points (e.g., 0, 5, 7 points respectively plus comments).
        • The “debate day” could be synchronous – Zoom or some other software – or could be asynchronous, where each side sends a video to the other side(s), they respond, then all posted for the prepared audience to reply, etc. Asynchronous debates need to be planned over a longer time period—you might only want to do 2 or 3 during the entire semester, so that each student can be on a “debating” group and either the resource or prepared audience group, etc.
  • Readings and groups
      • It is possible to have groups analyze a complex reading. Expect to be an active guide in the process though.
            • Consider using a modified jigsaw activity (see Resources).
            • Assign different groups sections of the reading
            • Give each group either questions or a list of key concepts/theories—these can serve as a guide through the content
            • Have the group write up answers/key concepts/definitions as well as questions the group or members of it still have
            • Then mix up the groups, so that one or two members of the original group are combined with similar sets of students from each of the other “reading section groups” you created.
            • Give these new groups time to teach each other content of the reading.
        • Create an assessment that measures each student’s learning of the reading. Ideally, create explanations for any incorrect answer (if you do not always do that), so that students can be confident about their learning

For each of these group project ideas, be sure to ask each group also to craft  memo about their processes, including

        • Attendance at “meetings” (e.g., Zoom, Slack, etc.)
        • Who did what during their processes (this could be in a table which lists name, tasks, was task completed, etc.)
        • Any other “facts” which you feel you need to assess group participation
        • Questions for other groups to answer about what they worked on
        • I award a small number of points for this “group process” memo. I made students use what we learned about how groups work in the memo and illustrate those concepts/theories with examples from their work – I realize I am blessed to teach sociology, where I can do that. But if you teach a different discipline, think about developing a form which gets at this kind of data—it helped me to discern if the free-rider problem occurred in the group or not:
            • Who led each step?
            • What steps were created? Using what deadlines?
            • How did they lead? Did they focus most on tasks to be done (instrumental leadership) v. the emotions of the group (expressive leadership) or both?
            • Did everyone meet their deadlines?
            • Did everyone keep communicating well with each other, using the tools the group decided to use? Who did/not?

Individual Work

If you want to do this (I did, but keep reading!), get creative. Don’t have students write “traditional papers” if you can help it. Instead, construct assignments like “Bingo” – where you create things for them to do in each square of a Bingo card you create and the student has to spell out “Bingo.” One letter might be “analyze an online interaction you took part in, using Goffman’s dramaturgical theory. Maximum 2 pages.” Have the Bingo assignment available on the first day of class and go until perhaps, the 3rd week before the end. Be sure that you have concepts/theories from each part of the course (ending about a week before it is eventually due). (I want to thank several colleagues in sociology for this assessment idea.)

This was a 10-page paper to read, but students completed it at various rates. By midterm, about 40% of the class had already completed it. About another 30% turned it in between midterm and the due date, so I had about 100 to grade when it was due.

Consider giving students options: a paper such as described above or a group project. The points would have to be worth the same, so think about that as you craft your learning objectives for each. But you might expect about a third of the students might choose the solo paper versus the group project—so your grading time just was reduced.

In these pandemic times, I would not suggest what in sociology is (unfortunately, in my opinion) a common paper, the “break a norm/be deviant for a time and then analyze the interactions” paper. I have ethical issues with that writing prompt at all, but I also think that asking students to break a norm either on or off campus in the middle of a pandemic and social justice protests, is just not a good idea.

Tests as Assessments

I’d like to save this for another blog post, okay? Because this is a crucial type of assessment and there is so much to unpack—intellectual honesty/cheating, measuring learning, how to grade them, group v. individual testing, etc.—that I want to give it its due.

Wait, Is She Crazy?

Female teacher, grading on laptopI admit, I gave lots of assessments and despite having some graduate assistants working with me, I graded each and every one of them. My advice about teaching a large section online is to rethink how many assessments you need to get an accurate picture of the learning your students are doing. Assign more “did it/didn’t do it” assessments and then sample the class and give everyone feedback based on how the students in the sample gave evidence of learning and where the students in the sample had problems. Use machine-grading for low-stakes assessments which help you to diagnose where there might be students struggling with course content.

It will take more time than you think (LOTS more time) to create your presentations – making video and audio and transcripts, especially the first time you make them, so please factor that into your thinking about assessments of student learning.

I believe that the more you can interact with individual students that learning is enhanced. So next week, we’ll turn to tips about online communicating with a large class.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

*Note: I realize that good pedagogy, let alone good online pedagogy, requires that content should be “chunked” into smaller amounts. I had to balance that versus trying to get all my thoughts about teaching a large class online completed before the start of Fall 2020 begins–which is why this post is not chunked. I still have 4 more posts in the series (communication; software; testing; and confessing errors I have made).


Transitioning to Online Teaching

Creating an Online Community, Class or Conference – Quick Tech Guide (Google document)

Miller, J.A. 2020. “Eight Steps for a Smoother Transition to Online Teaching.” Faculty Focus (March 20)

Muhlenberg College’s Camp Design Online

Pedagogies of Care: Open Resources for Student-Centered & Adaptive Strategies in the New Higher Ed Landscape

Rutka, J. 2020. “7 Ways for Professors to Manage the Transition to Online Teaching During COVID-19.”

Whitaker, M. 2020. “What an Ed-Tech Skeptic Learned About Her Own Teaching in the Covid-19 Crisis.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 28).

The Facebook Group, “Pandemic Pedagogy” (must be accepted by organizers)

Case studies

Effective Online Case Teaching: How to Engage Your Students from Afar

Simmons, Emma. “Making cases work online.”

Schwartz, Laurel. 2019. “Making Learning Relevant with Case Studies.” Edutopia (June 4).

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching’s webpage on Case Studies

Discussion boards

Ho, Yvonne. 2020. “How to Create Engaging Discussion Forums.” eLearning Industry (February 19).

Page, Amanda and Miriam Abbott. 2020. “A Discussion about Online Discussion.” Faculty Focus (February 3).

Simon, Edwige. 2018. “10 Tips for Effective Online Discussions.” Educause (November 21).


Designing for and with Accessibility (pt 3 in a series of teaching large classes online)

Zoom class pictureGoing online in the best of times can be an exhausting process, made worse if one is forced to due to social distancing required during a pandemic with no end in sight. So let’s talk about how you can deliver content online in ways that are accessible. I have tips and I have questions for you to be asking your instructional technologists and teaching and learning center staff. Don’t be shy – these are important questions for you, your students, and your institution. Don’t think you are the first to ask, either!

Questions about the Learning Management System (LMS)

-Which one does your campus use? Is it a proprietary one or an open-source one?

-If it is proprietary, I would ask your institution’s TLC if that staff believe it truly is accessible. For example, if it uses a lot of icons for key sections of the course, is there an “alt text” already embedded in the LMS’ code, so that students who use text readers will know what the icon means? If there isn’t, is this a possibility? How hard is it to do for someone not used to coding?

-Can your LMS easily create smaller groups, for collaborative work?

-Will you automatically be made a part of each of the groups, if it does? You might not want this, given (hopefully) the amount of contact they will be having with each other.

 Creating Slides for Learning

Fonts and Font Sizes

Presenting in a large classroom requires slides that are designed for this size audience. Designing for a large audience means that you pay careful attention to the font used, the size of the font, and the color. Most design advice sites suggest a font size of 28 or larger. You might think that if you are planning for the slides to be seen online, that you can go smaller. But test it out on several sized screens, including a mobile phone, and find the size that works best. Many designers suggest using at least a size 16 on text for mobile phones.

Now, you know what a “sans serif” font? Here’s a sentence: “I want to see my friend, so we will meet at the zoo’s giraffe pen.”

The Times New Roman font uses serifs (look on the ‘y’, the ‘s,’ and the ‘f’) – a stroke attached to the main form of a letter – but serif fonts are more difficult for text reader software (used by students with visual disabilities) to discern. On small screens, like a cell phone, lines of serif font can blend into each other more than sans serif fonts, so plan on using san serif ones. Gill Sans is a commonly used sans serif font.


Lots of advice columns say to limit the amount of text which you put on presentation slides. They continue by saying, “Don’t use full sentences.” While I second that advice, I also want to tell you a story about one of my most epic fails as a professor, which is about what I did and didn’t put on presentation slides.

Picture of sand; someone has scratched the phrase "Messed Up" in it, and a rubber eraser is next to itIt was my first time teaching completely online. Luckily I had a wonderful colleague, Dr. Kimberly A. Tanner, who was co-teaching the class, on Disability in Society, with me. We were fortunate to have an embedded instructional technology graduate assistant who also worked on the course. We used films as our primary “data” for students to engage with and discuss. I worked really hard on a slide presentation about “theories of disability” and we put it up. I think it was the second day that it was up and the graduate student called me and asked “If I wanted to drop by to see how my slide presentation sounded for a student who might use a text reader due to visual disabilities.” I figured that the call really meant there was a problem, and I headed over immediately to visit with him. He pulled up a chair and called up the presentation. I settled in to listen. About 3 slides in I knew why he wanted me to listen, in person. Text readers need punctuation—since I hadn’t used any (following the common advice) and the text reader software read ALL 45 slides as one—very long—sentence. It took nearly 20 minutes for the torture to end. I was stunned, embarrassed, and angry with myself. Why hadn’t I ever taken the time to learn about this technology? I thought about all the students I had who never told me about how slides sounded to them. I went home, tracked each down, and wrote an apology letter to them.

So—please use punctuation! Here’s how I do it, since my “internal editor” won’t let me write incomplete sentences with punctuation:

      • I write short bursts of text (usually incomplete sentences).
      • I then add punctuation for students who use text readers.
      • Then I make a transcript of the slides (usually in Word) and I’ll edit them visually so they do not use as much space/paper. I will also make the transcript available in other formats (HTML, accessible PDF).
      • I change the font color of the punctuation only, to that of the slide background (slide presentation software). Why? Because this allows the text reader to stop and make the content meaningful but doesn’t impact those who are seeing the slide and its content.
      • It’s a win-win ! (An example: When I wrote this column in Word, I made a punctuation mark immediately after the 2nd “win” in the above line, but then I changed the color of it to white, so that you cannot see it; you can only see the second one, in black font).

Helping Students to Focus

Look, in any learning environment a student might “tune out.” One might think that in an online environment, the student would immediately replay what he or she missed, but that might or might not happen. So what I have done for all classes, no matter how I delivered the content, is this: I built the slide presentation as if it were an outline and color-code the background of each slide according to its pedagogical signifcance. Here are my outline’s color codes:

Topic of the day:  black background with white font

I. First main section: dark grey background with black font

II. Second main section: dark grey background with black font

Subsection 1: light grey background

Subsection 2: light grey background

Subsection 3: light grey background

III. Third main section: dark grey background with black font

Subsection 1: light grey background

Example 1: white background (or Application 1, etc.)

Example 2: white background

Subsection 2: light grey background

I teach this background color-coding often in the first few weeks of class. Periodically in a face-to-face class, I stopped and asked students to explain the level of significance of a slide. You could do the same in an online presentation. Once they understand it, they love it. Many compliment it on student evaluations, saying it helps them and prevents them from having to ask another student, “Where are we now?”

I use a system based on the book, Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, to craft my slides and the outline for the class; it makes it easy to color-code slides. But if you are creating a presentation from scratch, it is still easy to color code. In PowerPoint, go to the slide sorter view and hold down control and click on all the slides you want the same color and change the font background. Then do the same for the next color, and so on.

Here’s a picture of what a slide presentation might look like:

A picture of 30+ slides with the suggested color-coded backgrounds

Don’t feel you have to be “flashy” and “cute” – stick to basics as you begin to develop the class. Don’t use “fly-in text” (again, difficult for text reader software) or too many presentation gimmicks like that. Talk with your students; tell them if you are just developing these skills; ask them for advice and guidance—let them help you to present the content they need to succeed in your class. It’s a great thing for them to see you as a person who is learning new skills. Be human with them.

Some other standard advice about accessibility:

-If you create tables, be sure to create them using a standard software’s table function, which will embed (hidden) codes to alert text reader software to skip to next column, etc. If you just create boxes and then begin to insert data—without these codes—it won’t be accessible.

-Be sure that you use “Styles” to create your syllabus. If you do, it will automatically embed codes for different level headings, etc., which will be more accessible. BUT—if that’s all you do, you have not done enough. First, be sure you paginate the document. Then, go and create a Table of Contents (again, don’t just create one on your own—it needs those codes!). It will capture all the headings/subheadings you used, match with the correct pages, and will insert it at the beginning of the syllabus. NOW you can make a PDF of the syllabus and there will be hyperlinks that will allow students to click on a heading/subheading in the Table of Contents and take the student directly to that section. Without such a hyperlinked Table of Contents, the student would have to listen to the entire syllabus to find perhaps the one paragraph she needs. With syllabi as long as mine were (20 pages)—you can see how frustrating and inaccessible that would be.

-Caption all videos. If you are using videos you did not make, be sure that they are captioned. You might need to show students how to turn captioning on—different software does it differently. And again, captioning helps all students. In this time of learning from home, being able to watch a video with the sound off and captioning on could be a lifesaver for a student with small children or who is caregiving for sick person, etc. If you are not sure how to caption a video you create, I have some links below to help. Your institution’s office which works with students with documented disabilities might be able to offer assistance with how to caption. Please know, however, that right now their staff if probably overwhelmed, so look online to see if they or the IT staff or the staff of the Teaching and Learning Center might have put up a page about captioning to help faculty.

If you are embedding a video in your presentation where it will automatically play (versus the students having to click on a link to watch a video), be sure that the captioning is turned on and will show when all students look at the presentation.

If you are using an older video which isn’t captioned, then you will need to create a written transcript and make that available to all students. Post it in the learning management system (or whatever you are using) – ideally post the transcript right below the presentation itself, so that it is obvious to students that they are linked.

I suggest you contact a librarian at your institution if you have questions about the length of videos you can use in a presentation without violating copyright laws, etc.

-Use primarily black and white for colors of backgrounds and fonts. Some styles (discussed above) use a different color for certain levels of headings—it is relatively easy to edit that color (perhaps change to black but italicize, etc.) before using a selected style. Save your revised style and it will be there when you next need it. Use lots of white space—don’t cram too much into any one slide!

-Use “Alt Text” when you insert a picture. Some of us think if we put a caption beneath a picture, that that is enough. But again, text readers look for the “Alt Text” content to read to the student, not a caption. Usually, you can find the “Alt Text” box by right-clicking once you have inserted the picture or using the “edit” function for the picture.

There is always more to learn about making class content accessible, so do what you can now. Attend workshops if there are some offered by your institution, and be open to students, staff, and colleagues who might offer suggestions of how to do better.

Next week: Assessments that engage them–and you!


About Typefaces/Fonts

About Alt Text

How to Caption Videos and Narrate Presentation Slides,video%20you%20want%20to%20caption.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Backwards designing your class (pt 2 in a series about teaching large classes online)

In this post, let’s continue our conversation about taking a large class (or really any class) online, no matter the subject matter. Here are the links to other blog posts in the series: first one (questions to consider).

To backward design a class (also labeled “UbD” for understanding by design) is to think critically about who your students are (not who you would like them to be), what you want your students to learn when you and they will cover the course content, why they need to learn it, how you want them to practice what they have learned, and how you will assess their learning. Knowing all this means that I can then construct interesting, accessible, and intriguing content that, hopefully, will want students to engage with it, each other, and with me.

Cognitive profile -- words which illustrate the types of learning tasks asked of studentsThis step is crucial no matter the means of course content delivery—planning what you want students to know and why they need to know it. So please forgive me if this doesn’t seem all that “online-focused” – it’s just about good pedagogy. I promise that coming posts will be directly focused on creating a large class in an online environment.

[An aside: there are terrific websites and books about backwards design and I will include some at the end of this post. I don’t want to take credit, nor merely repeat, what these fantastic scholars have already done. They will outline the process from learning goals, to objectives, to assessments, to delivering content in the detail you’ll need.]

Often I’ve used lots of color-coded sticky notes around my office as I thought through the best way to design the course. I’d ask myself the following questions:

  1. What should my students know at the end of class? Think about what they might need for the next class if it is in a sequence or if it isn’t, what are the learning goals, objectives, and outcomes for the course?
  2. What are the “tripwires” in my course? By that, I mean what content confuses students the most? It might be a theory, or a particular concept or the ability to compare and contrast two theories, etc.—list what they are. You’ll want to be sure that you have a variety of ways of teaching these tripwires and ways to assess student learning.
  3. We know the course will be online, but will it be synchronous or asynchronous? I am assuming that a large class will likely be asynchronous but with some of the “returning from pandemic” options, such as HyFlex, you might be delivering content both in-person and online. Knowing this in advance will help you to backward design the course.
  4. How long will the course be? An entire term, be it a semester or a quarter? Half of that? Four weeks? Knowing this will help you to consider the pacing of content and assessments.

So let me talk about the large Introduction to Sociology class I taught.

Who:    In the fall, it was about 98% brand new first-year students; in spring about 90% first-year students, but they had more familiarity with my institution’s learning management system than the fall students did. My students were primarily first-generation college students, who were not working (but looking for on-campus work), who were nervous about succeeding in college but willing to work hard.

Why:    Nearly all our lives, humans participate in social groups, be it in our interpersonal relationships, at work, in our volunteer activities, etc. So understanding how groups shape individuals and how individuals can shape groups, is central to the student doing well in life.

What:   I had five questions that I wanted students to be able to answer, which I framed as puzzles we would unpack as the term unfolded. These formed the five sections of the class. I’ve listed in italics some of the key concepts covered  during each section of the class:

        • Do sociologists see the world differently (especially as compared to psychologists)? And if so, how? [the sociological imagination, culture, taking the role of the other]
        • How does life in groups work? [culture (continued), norms, values,  ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, social structures, statuses, roles, and sanctions, how groups influence us and us, them]
        • Who are you? Who am I? The puzzle of socialization [Theories of socialization (psychological and sociological), nature v. nurture]
        • How do sociologists think and act? [sociological theories and perspectives, sociological methods, statistical analysis, the ethics of  studying humans]
        • Culminating in:  Why is life not fair? Why are there social inequalities and injustice? [racism, sexism, economic inequalities, how these are interrelated, ways to create social change].
      • When:  I devised the course to work through those sociological puzzles in that order because it allowed me to scaffold not just the assessments but the key concepts in ways that built students’ sociological skills so that by the time we got to the “Life’s Not Fair” section, they had the skills to wrestle with data, find data, and analyze the data using sociological perspectives.

How:    I had to think about what kinds of assessments would help me to know how well each individual student was learning as well as trends in the class so that I could quickly intervene if there were difficulties. I decided that much of the class would be very low stakes assessments (1 point per question “clicker” questions, 5 point after-class quizzes, and 1 point exit questions). These low stakes assessments kept students connected to the material on an almost daily basis. In addition, I had three major tests. Many of the assessments were online or could easily be shifted to an online format (more on assessments in 2 weeks).

Each major question/part of the course had what I call “tripwires,” content which, based on test scores and other assessments, with which most students struggled. So I built more of these low stakes assessments around that content, and I had more examples in my repertoire so that I was never at a loss for illustrations, etc.

Will the environment of the course impact how you design it? That is to say, will the course be either synchronous, asynchronous, HyFlex, or not? Of course, this decision will shape some of your pedagogical decisions. Will your course be recorded for those online? Will you be meeting all students in an online environment or some face-to-face and some online? Can students shift between these, as their health risks or their schedules require? What will happen should you become sick? These are questions that will have to shape some of your pedagogical decisions—but let’s be clear—good pedagogy must drive your planning, be it for any one faculty member’s classes or for an institution’s.

I realize that sociology is a discipline that might be easier to think about taking online—especially in a hurry—than say a lab science or lab art class, etc. That is true, in part. But I have seen wonderful pedagogical innovations, no matter the academic discipline. So be brave and dive in–lots of us are here to help. Just reach out! Email me or write in the comments.

Next week: Designing for and with accessibility in an online environment. As you shift to an online delivery method, there are ethical choices to make (yes, there are also legal ones, but since I am not a lawyer, I would rather talk about the ethical choices to make).

Resources on Backwards Design (many of these URLs link to further resources),final%20results%20of%20the%20course.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Going Big, Online (Pt 1 of series)

Large college classroom, full of studentsSo you taught a large face-to-face class (150+ students) and you now find yourself having to redesign it for an online environment, perhaps permanently. First—I can empathize with you. While I never went completely online with my classes of 275+ (what my institution called a “supersection”), all but the class meetings and some office hours were in an online environment. And I prepared most of my class meetings for online delivery just in case it was every needed.

I taught these supersections of Introduction to Sociology every semester for a decade. I’ve probably made every mistake—interactional, technological, about classroom management—that someone could make. I’ll share some of them in the next few weeks and also some of the techniques that worked well for me and for others I know who have taught large sections online.

Zoom screen with 25 people participatingSo in a series of posts, I will offer some suggestions if you didn’t make the transition during the spring but now find yourself faced with a fall large class. Let’s start the series with some questions:

-How familiar are you with the course management system offered by your institution? Can you get more training now—preferably before the course begins, if you don’t feel very comfortable with it?

-What other software can you use for your course, which is supported by your institution’s IT staff? (You really don’t want to be using software not supported during this kind of transition, with several hundred students, trust me on this. Been there, done it, lots of tears!)

-How familiar are your intended students with the course management system? Other software you want to use? Or are your students likely to be new to all or some of them? I usually taught first-year students, so they were new to our course management system and many had not used anything similar in high school. Some had a steep learning curve.

-Will you have any pedagogical help? A graduate student assistant? An embedded undergraduate peer tutor? Academic coaches? Beg and plead for all the assistance you can.

-Does your institution have an Academic Support Center? An Instructional Technology Support Center? Online Library staff? What hours will they be open during the term you are teaching? How can you and your students interact with these crucial staff members?

-Do you have required pedagogical experiences such as laboratories, service-learning, or observations in the face-to-face class? Will you transition all of those experiences in some way to the online experience?

-To the best that you can know it now, what is your institution’s plan for reopening? Are there policies being created about, for example, you being able to meet with small groups from class, in an open area, or could you reserve a smaller classroom? Will you be allowed to have in-person office hours as well as online office hours, if you wished to do so?

-Is there a chance that you could be told to deliver face-to-face AND online content for the same large section, with students choosing which content delivery they want to have on any given day, based on their health status and other choices?

-What is your institution’s plan if you get sick (and not necessarily just from Covid-19!) and are teaching online (especially important if you have no assistance)?

-What instructional materials will you use?

-Open educational resources? If so, have you read through them all? Do you have the ability to add notes/make changes to any which might conflict with how you teach the material? [I have found that students struggle mightily when what I am sharing is contradicted or even slightly different than what the text says. The last online text I used allowed me to line through any text I didn’t want them to read and insert a “text bubble” with what I wanted instead. It really helped!]

-What online resources do you have available? Does the text have online exercises or applications or visuals which you can assign? Again, have you looked at them all/watched the ones you are likely to assign?

-Are all the visual materials chosen accessible? (This will be the topic of a post in this series, so if you are not sure – I’ll help.)

-Have you looked at your selected resources on screens/monitors of several sizes? Think from a large, gaming monitor, to a standard monitor, to a phone—students should comfortably be able to access your educational materials using any of these technologies.

-How likely is it that most of your students will be enrolled in online-only courses? There can be an increasing amount of “screen fatigue” with more classes taught that way (it can happen to you, too!). Think about that as you contemplate the amount of work you are assigning.

Text says: "Make the plan, execute the plan, expect the plant to go off the rails, throw away the plan"And of course, other than knowing what CV-19 is going to do in your area, the biggest set of questions is: What is your institution’s plan for the fall? When will it be decided? And how flexible is it/will it have to be?

Here’s how I see the series unfolding, but if people suggest other topics, it could change. Some of these might be longer than usual, but to make the series useful, making it be over too many weeks won’t help much. If people would like me to do the series at a faster rate, just let me know in the comments, I can do that too!:

Week 1:  Some questions to think about

Week 2:  Designing for and with accessibility

Week 3:  Backwards designing your class, for its content and the changed circumstances of Fall 2020

Week 4:  Assessments that engage them (and you!)

Week 5:  Communication: tone, honesty, and humor

Week 6:  What classes might look like come fall and building student engagement for different options

Week 7:  I can’t believe I did that–but I did–please learn from my failures  (I might choose to weave these through each post, again, in an effort to share my pedagogical tips out quickly.)

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Pandemic Lessons

Image of COVID-19 virusAs the academic term is winding down for most (and for some, summer term has started), it’s time to reflect on what happened. Have you taken some time to do that? After you’ve gotten some rest and relaxation, of course!

Three blocks that spell out "You"About Yourself

-What new skills did you learn (by choice or by necessity), either for teaching or for interacting with members of your department and university?

-Are there ways you can continue to build on those new skills?

-How can you use those skills in your future pedagogy?

-What did you enjoy about the last two or so months of teaching?

-What did you come to detest about the last two or so months of teaching?

-What did you learn about how you handle unexpected change? How you need support? How you offer support to others?

-How did your pedagogy change (I’m assuming that it had to, at least in some ways!) during this time of staying-at-home-teaching?

-How did you manage the changing workload this academic term brought? What time management steps did you learn? Wish you had learned?

-How have your relationships with others at your institution changed over the last few months?

-What did you learn about your communication style and how others react to it?

About Your Students

-How did they rise to the changes in your courses?

-What strengths did you see in them?

-How did they cope with the transition to being away from campus, if they were primarily an on-campus population?

-How many online campus services did they access?

-What new skills did they learn (or were forced to learn) in order to continue with the term?

-How can you create future class content to leverage their new skills?

-What did they teach you about your pedagogy and how to better meet their needs?

-Are there skills you thought your students had learned that you feel they need to still work on, in order to succeed in courses and the labor market?

-How did they do working in teams (if they did)? How can you help them to strengthen these people skills?

Sign in 4 directions, which say, "Respect," "Ethics," Integrity," and "Honesty"About Your Institution

-What software worked best for communicating with others on campus?

-What software did not work as well for you?

-What surprised you about your campus/department/program’s leadership team and their decision-making? Good surprises and not-so-good ones?

-How well did you feel your institution communicated with you about CV-19 on campus, in your community, and the plan for trying to reduce its spread?

-How well did you feel your institution communicated its pedagogical plans to you, to staff, and especially to students as the transitions occurred?

fountain penShare Your Thoughts, Constructively

In this time of Zoom meetings and such, people might be “screened out.” So I suggest you consider doing something “old fashioned”—drop a few handwritten cards or notes to those individuals who were really there for you, your program, or your students. That might be your Teaching and Learning Center staff, your Instructional Technology staff, your Library staff, the faculty member who had more online teaching experience and helped others out, your Housing and Residence Life staff who helped students to exit campus safely, your campus security, your Human Resources staff, or a particular administrator whose deft touch in campus communication helped the transitions which had to occur. Even if you have ideas for improvement, a short note might be heard better than a long email.

You might even consider writing yourself a letter—memorializing what you have learned, how you have changed as a teacher, and how you want to keep changing in the academic terms to come, given that the virus looks like it will still be on campus, in our communities, and in our lives, for at least the near future. Open it as you begin fall planning.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Now, it’s your turn

Closeup of typewriter, with the words "The end"You made it. You pivoted to teaching, learning, advising, counseling, teaching labs, and even physical education, online, with little or no time to breathe. You had to do it—and you did. Many of you did it while also becoming teacher to your own little ones, who were home with you.

Pink flower, gently opening; above it, says "It's time to take care of yourself"But as the academic term winds down, I worry about each of you. How will you decompress? What do you need to decompress? How will you heal your body and soul from the stresses of the last two months? All while knowing that the next few months might not be necessarily that different. Staring into a future that is so uncertain brings its own stresses. So before you focus on the future (summer and fall academic terms): Stop. Breathe. Take care of yourself. Take care of your loved ones. Do nothing for a while. Turn off the notifications on your phone(s).

Just be.

Saying Goodbye

Sand and wave approaching; in the sand, someone has written "Goodbye"The academic term-to-end-all-academic terms will soon be finished. It included a pandemic, a nation-wide economic crisis which touched nearly all of us, and changed how most of us in higher education, worked. Other than that – it was business as usual, right?

Classes—be they extended due to weeks for transitioning to online delivery or not—are about to be completed. First off—congratulate yourself. You did it—the ways that faculty and staff have pulled together in this extraordinary time have been inspiring to witness. Congratulate your students as well; many of them stayed with classes because classes provided one of the few stable patterns in their chaotic new “present.” But that inspiration and perspiration have also created exhaustion, incredible stress, and a myriad of emotions, for everyone.

So let’s talk about one of those emotions: saying goodbye to your students this term. I confess; I never felt that I did the “last day” very well. After going over grades, I tried to sum up key concepts and engage with students about how they could use those concepts in their professional and personal lives. But often, it was clear that students just wanted to be “done” and were very happy when I dismissed the class for the last time (save for the final exam, to be taken only by some of the students).

Quote: We don't live through live only by our own experiences, we live through life with other people's experiences as a reference too. -- Nike ThaddeusHow you end an academic term where, for many, more life experiences have been shared than ever before? This term, those “final moments” might be even more interactionally difficult: they perhaps will be on software like Zoom, where many are on at a time and so the moment has to be public in a way that a face-to-face interaction might not be. Or they might be embedded in an asynchronous posting which not all students might even read.

It might be more difficult this term because their grades might not reflect what all has happened to them, to you, to the class, and to our world. It could feel awkward awarding the grade a student earned, given all that you might have learned about her or his current situation. Prioritize kindness and humanity right now, whenever you can. So what to do in your last time with your class?

Be honest—something I hope you have been doing throughout this pandemic’s new pedagogy. Tell them if it is difficult to acknowledge that in a few days or weeks, you won’t see them regularly and will worry about them, their health, economic security, and that of their families too. Acknowledge their worries about you and yours as well.

Do you have to say “goodbye” though? I ask because you might want to understand fully the limits of the software you have been using. Will the Zoom “room” allow a student to continue to log in and talk with you after the semester is over? Can you prevent that from happening, if you want to/need to? Or if you are using your institution’s learning management system, do you understand how long the class page will stay active? If you are like me, I would “hide” my past classes and only keep current class pages visible, but that means it would be more difficult for you to notice if this term’s students checked in with you via the learning management system. They may need that ability to reach out to you and hiding the class will complicate communication. Will you encourage students to contact you via your school email? Again—some of this just involves understanding thoroughly the tools you have been using. And sharing that knowledge with students, so that they know how to stay in touch if they wish to do so (and you concur).

What about advisees? Especially those who are about to graduate? With most public moments to celebrate canceled, there will be fewer opportunities to congratulate them, wish them well, and celebrate their successes. Can your department or program host a virtual party and invite them to attend? Or can you do a smaller one for your advisees? Could you start an official Facebook (or perhaps Instagram) account which would allow them to choose to follow you? There you could post job announcements, link to articles about job hunting (in general or in the post-pandemic job market), and would allow you to encourage and support them in the days and weeks ahead. It could also create a social network for them to connect with each other as they spread out across the country.

back of beige envelope; it is closed and sealed with red waxOne of the things I did the moment it became clear that our country (or most of it) was headed for shelter-in-place guidelines was to buy a large number of blank cards. For the price of a stamp (which helps out the US Postal Service—an organization that desperately needs our support), I can stay in touch with former students and graduates who I know are on the job market. I’ve offered to review/edit resumes and be a reference. Most importantly, I’ve offered to just listen as they game out their job search.

It won’t be easy, no matter how you and your students say goodbye. Give yourself time to process your feelings, time to decompress from what has happened, time to just breathe. Celebrate their successes, and yours. Next week will come and it might mean time to begin to prepare for summer or fall classes.

But Spring 2020 will be one for the history books. You made it. They made it. You all persevered. Give yourself permission to have mixed emotions as it ends. Have them, feel them, reach out, and share them. Know your students will not soon forget you, how you pivoted to face the pandemic and how you taught them—and not just the academic content. You taught them and learned from them what being human is all about—the good, the confusing, the anxiousness, the fear, and the ability to focus, even if it was for just a few minutes at a time.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.






Regrets, I have a few…

Tiles that spell out "Regret"I read Facebook and Twitter and hear the exhaustion, sorrow, and sadness of so many of my friends whose lives have changed so drastically, due to the coronavirus. Some were experts at online pedagogy and are thriving—at least in their teaching—at this time. Others are struggling with transitioning laboratory classes to an online environment. Many are juggling life as an online teacher with being parent-teacher—online and in person—to their own children as well. As a non-parent, I read those posts and admire each of them for multitasking so diligently. I realize that how one did yesterday does not mean how today is going.

I’ve had lots of regrets. Did I retire “too soon,” given this pandemic? Could I be useful now, teaching a large online class of students in these tense times? Could my senior capstone course help advisees and majors about to graduate think smartly about how to find jobs in this weak job market? Should I have gone into public health instead of sociology (has long been an interest of mine; about 5 years into my teaching career, I had an opportunity to enroll in a MPH program and really had to think hard about it)? [I’m thinking of seeing if my local public health department needs contact tracing volunteers.]

"I wish life had a rewind button"My guess is many of us have similar thoughts—should I have done . . . ? But rethinking choices can be difficult in times like these. Be kind to yourself. Realize that during times of stress it’s easy to wish for a different present, just in case it might help create a different future. But we’re living, teaching, and surviving in this pandemic.

Up here on the mountain, self-quarantining is our way of life anyway. Even before the virus, we tended to go to the store once a week (or less) and run all our errands during that one trip. I’ve been going into the stores because my husband is older than I am and well, I’ve seen the data about the mortality of this virus and males. So I am doing most of our trips out or Frank’s coming with me, but staying in the car. Though North Carolina doesn’t require it, we’ve started using masks when we go out (we found several which our contractors and carpenters left in the garage!).

My husband and I are blessed and we know it. Of course, that could change, but for now, financially we are so much better than most, so we are doing what we can to help out our local food bank and local companies.

All we can do is to live—and teach— in the moment—be it one of calm, stress, anxiety, fear, or just exhaustion. We need to help our students to be in this same moment and to look, not long term, but to near-term horizons. Help them to get through this week’s classes and to plan for next week’s. Help them to assess accurately their health status (physical and emotional) and access resources they need. For those who will be graduating soon into a labor market that has crashed, give them hope that their degree will provide skills they can use in a variety of jobs let alone careers. This is the time to really be sure their resumes list skills they have (e.g., data analysis, qualitative and quantitative research methods [many jobs will need staff who can, with a bit of training, provide contact tracing, for instance], cultural competencies and how to handle customers from a variety of social locations, etc.).

Stay honest with yourself, about yourself and your pedagogy. Stay honest with your students by modeling truthfulness. Be gentle with yourself and with them. The goal of “finishing the term” needs to be flexible and reflect the pandemic realities of the last few months.

Know that there are many people, like myself, who are here to support you all as you live and teach in these historic, scary times. Stay inside, stay healthy, and be strong. You are doing hard things very well. But remember, you are entitled to “down time” – even if you are online, you don’t have to be “working.”

Meme that talks about it is okay to have a variety of emotionsIt’s okay to cry, scream, to need a break, to take time to meditate or exercise, to chill out with your favorite comedy or Hallmark Christmas movie or whatever it is. Be kind to yourself. There will be time for whatever comes next—make this moment, now, count. Know lots of us are here to support you.