Advice post: Teaching in the time of COVID-19


Some of us have already stopped holding classes in person. It looks like a lot more of us will be making the shift online very soon, as the COVID-19 outbreak will continue to expand in the United States.

We have a couple months left in the semester. I don’t think anybody knows whether campuses that go to online teaching will switch back to campus before the semester is over? It looks like we need to be prepared to stay online through the end of the spring.

This post is for advice.

I don’t have much useful advice to offer though – I’m very inexperienced when it comes to teaching online! I’m hoping to draw on the breadth of experience in the readership to provide helpful comments and links to help this shift. There are two areas I think many of us need to sort out:

1. What the most effective way to shift a class to online if you haven’t done this before, with the fewest bumps and the least unengaging experience for students? If we all shift to the LMS (canvas, moodle, blackboard), will they all crash? Any tips on doing quizzes, exams, assignments, lessons, discussions? If you know of a helpful resource for newbies, please share it. I can google these things up, but I imagine some of you have better knowledge and I hope you can share it.

2. What’s the least horrible way to move labs online? I know this will vary with each course, but what might your plan be if it typically involves wet lab and/or field experiences? I know that online labs are a thing, but we are teaching labs that weren’t designed for going online. Does your university have a plan? Or is each instructor or department left to come up with their own?

Please leave comments below! (You can make this entirely anonymous, just leave the fields blank.) If there are helpful comments on public social media that I find, I’ll try to track them down and paste them in.

*update: My link contribution is a thing in the Chronicle just for this occasion: “Going online in a hurry: what to do and where to start

*update” I’d like to add, thanks to the wisdom of Dr. Stanley in the comments:

3. What are we doing about our students who don’t have reliable or affordable internet at home? Not everybody has unlimited data or a fast connection at home, and maybe not even an adequate laptop, and working out of libraries and other public areas is often not feasible, especially if all classes go fully online. Thoughts? Plans? What might be the role for libraries?

14 thoughts on “Advice post: Teaching in the time of COVID-19

  1. Could I add a third question (while ignoring yours for the moment)? :) What about the students? My biggest concern is that our institution is in an area where many people do not have access to home internet of any substantial speed, if it is available at all. Phone service varies, and I do not think it is reasonable to ask students to complete a course using a phone. Heck, many of our students lack a phone with paid service, and rely on school internet.
    For labs, that is a concern shared by the faculty here. While there are ways to do some fun lab activities in an online setting (even hands-on ones), I don’t think it will be reasonable to ask students to get even common household supplies, nor to have a smartphone capable of video/photos. I also suspect quality online labs cost $, but I would love to be wrong about that. Anyone know of good online labs that are free? Of course, all of this also requires internet access…
    I look forward to hearing/learning from more experienced folks.

  2. This might be a helpful resource forwarded from an email I received from Society for Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER)

    Dear all,

    Amid the spread of COVID-19, we have been increasingly asked about our life sciences on-line modeling and simulation modules and how we could help instructors use them as part of their classes as they are moving to remote instruction.

    In response, we are creating a number of ad-hoc webinars to help instructors get familiar with the modules, and our group is more than happy to provide as much one-on-one help as needed. The first zoom webinar will be held this Friday, March 13th at 12 PM Central Time; we will also make it available on YouTube for those who can’t attend. If interested, please register here: Cell Collective (Part I) Registration –>

    Overview of our online education resource:
    Cell Collective ( is a (free) research-grade computational modeling and simulation technology that enables life sciences students/instructors to learn/teach about biological processes in an experiential fashion ‘by doing’: by creating, simulating, and analyzing computer models of various biological systems. By design, the technology is accessible to students with a wide range of technical skills, including those with no prior training in modeling or computer science. This low learning curve also means that high school teachers and post-secondary instructors can incorporate technology into any curriculum. The modeling lessons are turn-key, self-contained for adoption without the need to modify the syllabus. We currently have modules for ~15 topics applicable to a variety of courses, including intro bio, immunology, molecular bio, biochemistry, etc. A more complete list of our topics can be found here: Cell Collective Modules/Course Alignment

    Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions!

    Best regards,

    Tom Helikar

  3. I am about to email our state-wide network of community colleges and see if we can get an easy shareable repository for our lab ideas/activity. We all use the same LMS (canvas) and while some campuses do online labs already, ours does not, but we all teach the “same” courses. They haven’t decided whether to move online yet, but we’re all expecting a decision by the end of the week (currently on spring break)

  4. It’s impossible to make great online classes overnight. Gotta go for the okay-ish options now, worry about perfecting later!

    Ex: I am using YouTube Live for class. It won’t have tons of features. But it’s easy to use, free, has chat, works on phones, high-traffic ready, etc.

  5. *** This is simple, and maybe not that helpful, but get your students using a camera app (if they have phones with cameras). Cam Scanner, Google Scanner, etc. They can convert pictures of their written work to black and white (or color) PDF that they can upload if you have a LMS at your campus.

    I use this IRL already but it’s good for shifting to grading homework online for stuff that is hand-drawn, like organic chemistry (which I teach), if you do graded homework.

    *** In the past I’ve also had students take a test online with signature / phone contact info for a family/friend “proctor” (it was an emergency in that case, and I don’t know if that would scale, work at more elite schools that are more competitive).

    *** In thinking about shifting my labs to some sort of “alternative” and understood-to-be-not-a-substitute-for-the-real thing, I’m planning, if I have to, to film myself manipulating the equipment (again, for O-chem) in both the correct and incorrect ways, asking students questions about proper technique, and generating some “fake” data or using data I’ve collected from past semesters from students in a Google spreadsheet.

  6. At HKU we moved online about a month ago and this past week the decision was made to make the move online permanent for the rest of the semester. My guess is a lot of US universities might be heading in a similar direction.

    Several points from my personal experience:
    1. We have good institutional support, e.g. the uni just upgraded its Zoom capacity. Without platforms that support online teaching this will be a difficult move.
    2. I’ve used Zoom and Moodle for both my courses, each about 70 students. My lectures and labs are live and all assessment is through Moodle.
    3. My students really like the chat function (and are not very comfortable with speaking or showing themselves). It works well! But does require a little bit of extra attention to the chat window.
    4. I’ve been using zoom breakout rooms for my R labs. In the “small groups” (8-10) led by demonstrators/tutors, students can share screens, speak more comfortably and chat (still seemingly the most popular option). And I can easily pop in and out of breakout rooms to assist when needed.
    5. I use email a lot more. It’s not ideal. But I’ve been answering a lot of questions (especially about R) over email.
    6. Try to have some fun! Don’t know how much my students appreciate it but I’ve been trying different things like dancing, talking stuffed animals, zooming in and out of the camera. At the very least it keeps me engaged. It’s an odd feeling lecturing to a camera. It’s also odd answering questions verbally that are posed through the chat. Do what you can to keep it interesting.
    7. I do miss personal interactions with my students. During a face to face lecture, many students will come up after to me and fire questions away. This week I’m offering zoom office hours to see if I can correct this missing piece a bit.
    8. I’ve converted my conservation biology labs to online practicals. It’s required changing the content but the key concepts should still be achievable. Obviously this isn’t doable for many courses. At HKU we are still sorting this out but are aiming to have labs close to the end of the semester and hold them such that only a few students (who can keep a significant distance from one another) can do the lab at a time. This is clearly a challenge logistically.
    9. We haven’t had an issue yet with students lacking internet access (that I know of). But internet is pretty widely available in Hong Kong… so I can see how this could be an issue elsewhere.

    Good luck everyone. Stay healthy and keep your spirits up.

  7. Regarding internet access, this is a major concern at my institution. I read an article in the WSJ this morning describing a district in Seattle that sent home wireless hotspots with students who needed them. Obviously the finances of that will work differently in different places.

    When I floated that article to my dean, she looped in our dean of students who has also helped students get set up with internet access:

    It’s definitely not perfect, but several plans are available for eligible households that require no contract cost $10-15/mo. I don’t know much yet about how quickly students can get set up with them – the one available in my area seems to require 7-10 days to mail hardware, which is definitely suboptimal. It’s also not clear to me that the speeds offered by these programs will support, for example, a Zoom breakout room – though they do seem like they would mostly support a Zoom room where the professor did most of the talking.

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