Online Lesson Planning for Suddenly Teaching Seminars Online

I know many of us are struggling with having to learn how to teach online in a very short period of time. For those of you about to turn your small discussion seminar into an online class, I thought it might be useful to go over some basics of online lesson planning.

Online seminars should, whenever possible, include a combination of synchronous and asynchronous approaches.  I want to help you build lesson plans that maximize the benefits of each approach to online learning. Even if you don’t have the ability to use synchronous tools, you should still find this useful.

The choice between what kind of activities to choose for your suddenly online class should be driven by content needs, learning outcome priorities, and efficient use of limited time for interaction during live online discussions.  If an activity can be done asynchronously without sacrificing quality, then do it. For example, if you normally start class by asking students to identify something they found surprising or interesting about the week’s readings, keep doing that! Just have them answer in a blog or discussion forum before class, then concentrate on the points of common interest during the synchronous discussion.

Asynchronous Activities

Students complete asynchronous activities on their own time, before, during, or after a synchronous class session. You give students a window of time in which they need to complete the activity, and they do so at their convenience within that window, not necessarily at the same time as their classmates. 

These activities should meet at least one of the following needs:

  • Prepare students for a discussion or presentation (individual or group)
  • Check student understanding of a specific term, concept, theory, case, or idea.
  • Follow-up on a discussion topic that needed more time
  • Initiate discussion on a topic there wasn’t time to cover at all.
  • Reduce the amount of time needed to deliver content synchronously
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Synchronous Session Activities

Synchronous activities occur within a voice conferencing style virtual classroom. In these sessions, everyone meets live online at the same time for class. In some cases they will directly follow or precede an asynchronous activity, as the two types of activities should complement each other.

These activities should be used to meet one or more of the following needs:

  • Host a discussion that is well-suited to instantaneous response.
  • Review points of confusion in the readings, lectures, or asynchronous discussions
  • Student presentations and small group problem-solving
  • Introduce, discuss or review particularly complex topics, procedures, or ideas.
  • Identify and assess key take home points for the week and build bridges and connections to previous or future material
  • Give students meaningful work that will enhance their understanding of key content.

Example Activities

This is not an exhaustive list by any means and while they are written as paired lessons, faculty should be creative in how they build their class sessions. But for those just getting started, feel free to draw from this list and combine activities as you see fit.

Samples Lessons Combining Asynchronous and Synchronous Activities
Asynchronous ActivitiesSynchronous Activities
Quiz on prerecorded lectures and readings before class to check understanding using a quiz function like Google Forms.Discuss common points of confusion and focus on those to ensure understanding of key terms. 
Ask students to propose discussion questions for the next session on a discussion boardPick a handful of the discussion questions, have the student explain their question and invite responses.
Ask students to work in small groups before class to complete a prompt or activity.Have each group present their work and invite other students to critique and offer counter arguments. If the group work requires a short period of collaboration, use the breakout group function in your VTC.
After class, post a couple of discussion questions for students to answer on topics that you were unable to cover in class. Ask students to respond substantively to one or more questions by the next day and to offer a counterargument to another classmate by the day after that.During the class session, cover as many discussion topics as you like, but recognize that you may not have the time to achieve the desired depth and breadth. Stop discussions as needed to move on to the next topic, but provide a forum for them to continue the conversation after class.
Upload a short lecture on content that needs to be delivered. Alternatively, send them a link to a video. Ask students to post questions, take a quiz, or respond to a prompt in their LMS blog before class.Address any student questions about the lecture or video and highlight a couple of key points before initiating discussion on a related topic. Poll students using the chat function or ‘reactions’ within the VTC to check understanding. 
Ask students to annotate or analyze a key reading. They can annotate in the free software Perusall, or ask them to create a single slide that notes key points.Compare student key points or annotations and make sure that everyone has consensus on the takeaways. Apply the concepts or lessons to a case.
Have students use the Wiki function in the LMS in teams to collaborate and build an entry on a key theory, process, concept, or case.Challenge students on elements of their wiki, including assumptions, missing information, questionable conclusions, or other points of improvement.

One final piece of advice:When designing lessons, be clear in your own minds and communicate to students about the purpose of asynchronous activities. Provide feedback to students (individually or as a group, in writing or during a synchronous session) on their performance so they know their work has value. Estimate how much time a particular activity will take, and make sure you aren’t overburdening them with assignments when you also account for time spent in synchronous sessions.

What ideas do you have for lessons that combine synchronous and asynchronous tools?

What tools are we using? And why Discord should be one of them.

I’m really curious as to how different institutions are managing the sudden transition to online learning. For some, they are trying to maximize the use of synchronous learning with the use of video conferencing software such as Zoom, webex, or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. For others, asynchronous tools like discussion boards, blogs, and social media are the main option, perhaps because synchronous is impractical or out of reach, perhaps because that’s how online teaching is already done there and that’s where people have expertise. I imagine many schools are using a mix of both.

We have asked faculty to include a significant synchronous component using Blackboard Collaborate Ultra to most closely recreate the in-residence experience. We have a number of advantages in doing so that other institutions don’t have–our students are all adults and paid to be here, and we already had the software in place. Devices may vary and home-based internet connections can be spotty, but we are well positioned to continue classes at their regular times without interruption. The biggest issues are those everyone is facing–quickly training up faculty and students.

For asynchronous tools, we benefit from having access to the Microsoft 365 suite–so things like Tools, Sharepoint, and Forms are available in addition to Blackboard’s discussion forums, blogs, and journals and Panopto for lecture recording. But I’m always on the lookout for other useful tools that can recreate multiple features at once. I’m not talking about Audacity for podcasts or Perusall for document annotation–I mean something that can do discussion boards and chat and voice discussion and allow for file sharing.

What I want to use is Discord.

For those not familiar, Discord is a free to use social media platform originally used by gamers to communicate with their fellow players and fans. Many content creators use it as a community-building space, particularly podcasts, but the platform would work very well for educational purposes. You have to be invited into a particular server, and then once in, you have access to a series of channels dedicated to discussion on particular topics. The channels can be text only or voice-based, restricted access or open to everyone in the server, and you can upload images and share links. The creator controls who can delete comments, create new channels, and can set up something called ‘slow mode’ which prevents a single person from dominating a conversation. Combined with a google drive to store documents, Discord could be a powerful space to connect students and faculty, many of whom may be scattered by time zones around now.

This is a sample server I created. The left side bar shows all the available text and voice channels. The right side bar shows who is currently online. In the center is the chat within a particular channel. Its easy to scroll up or down through messages or do a search, and you can ‘pin’ messages that are particularly important. You can also make channels read-only to communicate important information.

I’ve used Discord to connect with fans of various podcasts, but never for a class. I think it could work very well, though. Its pretty user-friendly and students will pick up on it quickly. The server creator has a lot of ability to customize settings to control who can access what, so it would be easy to build a channel and hide it while you are working on adding content, then let everyone see it. Group work is a breeze–you can assign students different roles, such as ‘Group 1’, and then give that group its own chat and voice channel. Sure, Discord doesn’t have video access or screen sharing, but voice-only access puts less of a strain on the system and doesn’t leave out students that don’t have cameras. Combine this with links to documents (in a google drive or shared one drive or dropbox), and I think Discord will do everything you need it to communicate with students and have high quality discussions.

I’m not teaching right now so I can’t try this out myself, but if someone else wants to take this idea and run with it, please do. I can walk you through the server set up and how to invite your students. All I ask is that you tell me how it goes!

More Tips for Moving Instruction Online

What a time to come back to ALPS! I’ve been absent the last few months as I started my new job as Associate Director of the Teaching Excellence Center at the US Naval War College. But with the sudden move to online teaching due to the coronavirus, I wanted to stop by and offer my top five things for faculty to consider as you make the move to online.

#1 Accept we can’t do everything we had planned. This is okay. We are ALWAYS making choices about what content to cut, as we know there is always greater breadth or depth we can bring to the table. A US Politics course has already cut content on Congress to one week, when they know they could offer an entire course on it. So, be brutal, focus on essentials, and cut back as needed. 

#2: Build in redundancy if you are using synchronous tools. Students may have trouble connecting from home, so if you are using Zoom or BB Collaborate Ultra or any other web-conferencing to hold classes, record the session and allow students to participate via chat, Teams, discussion boards, social media, etc.

#3 Remember that suddenly teaching online is not the same as fully online education. Those courses have months of prep and are intentionally designed for an online environment. We still have to deliver courses in as high a quality as we can, but don’t worry about making everything look pretty or be overwhelmed by most online advice you see online.

#4 Use the tools you already know, and then practice with 1 or two more that are needed to keep the course going. Its okay to record a podcast style lesson with the free and easy-to-use Audacity rather than learn Panopto. Hold virtual office hours before class if you are doing synchronous classes. This will give students a chance to check their equipment set up, troubleshoot problems, and familiarize both professors and student swith the platform.

#5 Communicate extensively with your students about changes, assignments, due dates, etc. Give them a space to talk about what is going on and to socialize. Physical social distancing doesn’t have to mean there’s no human contact, so give them that space.

These are tough times, but its when those of us who care about pedagogy can be useful resources to our students and colleagues. Help where you can, and take care of yourselves.

Back in the saddle

Apart from a dull ache from the thought that the 1990s are now, on average, a quarter-century ago, it’s been a good break.

It’s been especially good to get away from all those social media posts about how much one has changed over the past decade, complete with youthful/haggard profile pics to chart one’s maturation/decline.

The usual thing to think about at this time of year is what you’ll change.

I’ve already had one colleague inform me they’ll be focusing on writing every Friday, even as they undermined it by querying whether it will actually happen.

So I’m going to suggest you try not changing things right now.

Instead, focus on what you do that works. It’s a bit harder than picking out what’s not working, but it’s a more positive starting point.

In practice, it’s what most of us do in any case: building out from successes and chipping away at the problems around the edges. Sure, it’s probably not as likely to treat root causes of those problems, but if the latter are really ramping your style, then we should be having a different conversation.

Part of this is about perspective.

Writing personally, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how I manage my work and my career, probably as a result of a podcast interview I’ve discussed already.

I’m aware that I’ve got various pressing deadlines right now, and that this post is another element of my avoidance strategy, and I’m aware that I could be doing a whole bunch of other things that would be Good Things To Do too.

But instead of succumbing to the winter blues, I’m trying to pull myself out of it, reminding myself that I am reasonably competent and have handled much worse situations than this before.

It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or particularly enjoyable, but the prospect of what is to come cheers me up.

As one trivial example, I made a simple wall-planner for the half-year, listing my various events and talks. Not only does it remind me of More Stuff To Be Done, but it also makes me think about how much I enjoy sharing my work with others.

So, stick your head out the door and notice the days getting longer*, and think on reasons to be cheerful.

* – Sorry to any Southern Hemisphere readers on this one

Do you have 2 minutes to improve your teaching? Watch one of these videos.

When I talk to other instructors about using more active learning in their classes, I regularly hear concerns about the time it takes to plan activities.  My number one piece of advice is to liberally borrow ideas from others. And, in fact, one of my favorite things about the active learning community in higher education is how many great ideas are already out there, just ripe for the taking.  

Image description: an illuminated clock in the dark.
Photo by Denilo Vieira on Unsplash

My university had its annual Teaching Day a couple of weeks ago and the keynote speaker was Claire Howell Major.  Among the many other insightful elements of her presentation, she shared a resource that was new to me: the K. Patricia Cross Academy. One of the primary elements of the website is a library of videos presenting teaching techniques.  Each video is short – just 2-3 minutes long – and presents a very practical and concise summary of a teaching technique.  The videos are clearly developed with the busy instructor in mind; each technique is presented with quick tips on how to use it in class. There are currently 39 techniques on the website. Some might be old hat to active learning pros, like the Think-Pair-Share, but there were some ideas that were new to me like the “Update your classmate” writing activity which I plan to use soon. Many of the techniques will be familiar to readers of my favorite book, Student Engagement Techniques (which I’ve already talked about here, here, and here), which isn’t surprising when you see that Elizabeth Barkley and her frequent co-author Claire Howell Major are the instructors behind the project.

In just 2 short minutes, you can find a new idea to engage your students.

Social Capital and M&Ms

Social capital is a “fuzzy” concept but serves as the foundation for some key comparative politics theories that we cover in my Introduction to Comparative Politics course. To help my students get a better grasp of the concept, I borrowed an activity from economics: the ultimatum game.

Briefly, I have the students pair up and distribute a handout to keep track of offers in the game. The students first need to allocate roles: proposer and responder. I tell them that the student whose middle name starts with an earlier letter in the alphabet is the proposer, just to randomize it somewhat. The proposer makes an offer of a division of some resource. Because candy is a (near) universal motivator, I use M&Ms and Skittles (I let the pairs decide which candy to play for, but I like to offer skittles for lactose-free students). I distribute 50 candies per pair and they play 5 rounds; in each round, the proposer makes an offer to split 10 candies. The responder can only accept or reject the offer. If the responder rejects, neither get any (they go back to me). If the responder accepts, then they divide the candy.

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New year, new me. Not

You’ll be happy to know that I have no recommendations to offer this new year, except to say that January is an absolutely awful time to start changing your life.

That’s true for most people, but it’s very much so for academics.

Our year doesn’t run from January, and the past few weeks have been a brief pause in the gallop from semester to semester.

I have my ‘to-do’ list sat in front of my monitors in the office and it’s not a pretty sight. Plus, I notice, it doesn’t even include all the stuff I need to do.

Plus, everyone else is back at work now, so that email inbox is filling up nicely.

So what can we do?

This shouldn’t be cause for getting down though.

In these days, before it really gets going again, there’s still some space to take stock and to look ahead across the coming months.

It’s like standing on a little hillock, looking across the plain and trying not to get too concerned about the marshalling armies preparing for battle on the land you are about to tread.

Key point to remember here is that you’ve made it through the first semester and through the start of the academic year.

Semester two is more of the same, not whole-new-ballgame territory. Plus you probably also get it broken up by Easter. Plus the days are getting longer again.

So keep your chin up and think about what’s been good so far and about how you’ve avoid/manage the bad stuff.

And for that alone, it’s a happy new year.

Mastering Research Proposal Writing: Innovation through the Combination of Traditional Lectures and Active Learning

This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Markus Siewert.

Throughout the course of their study, every student has to write a research proposal. In the old days students used to be confronted with this task at the very end when preparing their Bachelor or even Master thesis. The good news is that in the social sciences we have largely moved beyond this state of affairs since the courses that offer guidance on how to craft a research design have become standard in almost every curriculum.

Yet, everyone who teaches introduction to research design or project-based courses – like I do on a frequent basis – knows that helping students to master drafting a coherent research proposal can be a real challenge. In her chapter ‘Design Your Own Flying Carpet’: Helping Students to Master Research Proposal Writing, Ivana Rapošová, based at Masaryk University, presents an innovative design for a course session whose main goal is to meet this end through the fruitful blend of brief lectures and student-led activities.

The core objective of the session is to guide students step-by-step through the process of coming up with a road map for their research. The session starts with a brainstorming of potential research ideas and blind spots followed by a short debriefing and peer-to-peer feedback.

Based on this, key guidelines for drafting a research proposal are introduced focusing on aspects like formulating an appropriate research question, justifying the research, deriving a suitable research strategy, embedding the research question in the context of the state-of-the-art, etc. At each step, students are presented with small tasks allowing them to put the abstract rules into practice straightaway and to revise their research design along this way.

The chapter moreover offers empirically-grounded reflection on the achieved learning outcomes, both from the perspective of the students and the course instructors. Although the evaluation lacks robustness due to the small number of observations, Rapošová convincingly discusses the added value and potential benefit of her innovative design. Here, a valuable avenue for future research would be to test the effects of an active learning design against traditional frontal teaching in a quasi-experimental setting.

In sum, Rapošová’s chapter is a stimulating read on a topic of utmost importance for us as researchers and teachers as well as for our students. I, for my part,will definitely implement this approach in one of my next classes.

Enhancing Student Participation


This guest post is part of a series linked to the publication of G. Pleschova & A. Simon (eds.) Learning to teach in central Europe: Reflections from early career researchers. This post comes from Sarah Holz.

As a teacher who aspires to student-centered learning, increasing student class participation and involvement in seminars is a central concern for me. Reading Michal Tkaczyk’s book chapter offered some insightful and thought provoking ideas for me because the chapter addresses the question in how far enhanced student participation, interest in the subject matter, and the acquisition of key concepts are linked.

In his chapter, which is part of the newly released online book Early Career Academics’ Reflections on Learning to Teach in Central Europe edited by Gabriela Pleschová and Agnes Simon, Michal Tkaczyk offers insights into the findings from a teaching innovation introduced in a seminar on semiotic analysis of media contents. The innovation aimed at (1) improving student knowledge-acquisition, (2) enhancing their skills to apply key concepts of semiotic analysis and (3) promoting student participation.

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Mixing media

On set of my latest lecture capture…

Having given up on the blindfolds, I’ve now moved to some less radical activities in my class this semester.

Part of that includes making more use of media in sessions.

Video

A big part of that took place before we started teaching, when I recorded some more videos to upload to our virtual learning environment.

This is Flipping 101: giving a lecture online, then using class contact time for more interactive activities. Given that I’m teaching negotiation, that seems particularly sensible and I’ve been doing that for some years now, but this time around I’ve embraced it more fully.

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