Adapting to Online in a Pinch

Ideally every institution would be prepared for teaching continuity before an incident occurs. The following recommendations can be helpful even if your institution is already in the midst of a switch to remote teaching.

Whenever a situation occurs that keeps students from their physical classrooms, online learning gets more attention. In this case, the emergency is COVID-19 that’s motivating some to examine their online learning strategy, but it may as easily may be a natural disaster or even a snow day. And though more college students are enrolling in online than ever before, online offerings are still the minority at most institutions, and the majority of teachers are unprepared to teach online. This leaves a large swathe of students vulnerable in an emergency.

Every educational institution should have a strategy for academic emergencies that is widely shared widely with faculty, staff and students. This strategy should include a teaching continuity plan aimed at helping everyone adapt to remote or online teaching learning if school stays in session campus shuts down.

Now, I’m no stranger to online education and I strongly believe that great online learning requires purposeful, iterative design coupled with training and practice. So can we expect teachers to adapt and facilitate effective learning in a pinch?

Having read dozens of teaching continuity plans from the Canvas LMS community, I’ve synthesized key recommendations that your institution can implement to support teaching continuity. Here are some ideas that your institution can adopt.

Teaching Continuity: Before

"When danger comes there will not be time for such work as this…" – Aesop, The Wild Boar and The Fox

Ideally every institution would be prepared for teaching continuity before an incident occurs. Their plan would be widely shared and teams would be ready to execute. But the following recommendations can be helpful even if your institution is already in the midst of a switch to remote teaching.

Create an Online Environment for Every Teacher, Every Course

Having instructors consistently use an LMS as the center of remote teaching not only provides them with tools they need to keep teaching, but also can simplify the student experience and streamline support.

From my experience, most institutions that use Canvas for their LMS have integrated it with their student information system (SIS) and authentication systems. This can ensure that every teacher has an online course environment in the LMS and that every student can access Canvas using their standard user ID and password.

Unfortunately, some institutions do not automate LMS course creation, requiring faculty to "request a course shell." This creates another layer of work for the faculty in an emergency —and additional help-desk load for the institution. The better path is to automate the creation of online course environments every semester, even if some instructors aren't ready to use them.

In a crisis, institutions may want to consider auto-publishing course environments when they are created so that students can take advantage of the LMS to share files, form groups or discuss, even if the teacher's not ready to jump in.

Adapting to online instruction

Photo by Solis Images

Help Service Providers Anticipate Your Needs

Canvas LMS, like other systems, is cloud-native and designed and tested to perform at massive scale. No system is perfect, but Canvas' reliability provides some peace of mind to institutional administrators, faculty and students — especially during peak usage.

Part of what helps an LMS scale is the system’s ability to predict future load based on past usage. A crisis like coronavirus is, by definition, unpredictable. And today's educators rely on multiple systems from different vendors with different capabilities to support teaching and learning, from video conferencing to online proctoring. Many of these systems will struggle with a massive increase in load or unexpected usage spikes. Some of them will even fall down. But most of them can prepare ahead of time — if they know the traffic is coming.

Your IT team can help those service providers by informing them ASAP when your institution decides to switch to remote teaching and how many active users you expect. Each service provider should be asked to assess capacity and scale up and even overprovision as needed. Learn how they can proactively monitor each service and report slowdowns or incidents. Be sure to understand how the service provider will inform you if something goes wrong, and know what to expect if disaster recovery is necessary.

Finally, have IT evaluate possible points of failure in your own teaching and learning ecosystem. For example, if users typically access the LMS via a campus portal, determine if there is a Plan B or alternate entries for students if one service fails.

Prepare to Scale and Deploy Teaching Support Staff

When you switch to remote teaching, the increase in technology usage will likely be mirrored by an increase in faculty training and support needs.

So how do you prepare for this?

Probably with the teaching support staff you already have — trainers, instructional designers, and technologists. These roles tend to have some overlap in skills and abilities, so rally them together in an emergency. Knowing who these expert staff members are is the first step in enlisting their help. They may be able to put current projects on hold in order to train or support faculty. They may also be able to find or create useful resources like job aids and checklists.

If you expect faculty demand to outpace your staff's capacity, consider hiring temporary student employees through one-time budgeting, work study or internships. Your existing support staff will be critical in on-boarding and training new student employees, so let them know that this is one step back for two steps forward.

Finally, every department likely has some faculty who are experienced online teachers and may even have online versions of face-to-face courses. These faculty may be willing and able to help their colleagues, but we should respect the fact that, as well-prepared as they may be, they're also under additional pressure to adapt their own courses.

Like the boar who sharpens his tusks against the tree despite not yet being in danger, educational institutions should ideally prepare for teaching continuity before a crisis occurs, but this is not always possible. With some flexibility and evaluation and implementation of resources, however, they can rise to meet the challenge.