Teaching in the Times of COV19

During the last week, I have observed many educators around the world struggling with moving their courses online as a result of the current Pandemic. This is a HOW TO guide backed up by research on best practices on distance education, and centering marginalized students.

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Every chemistry educator all over the world is struggling with current or projected school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the daunting prospect of moving their teaching online. It feels like we are moving into uncharted waters: our degrees didn’t come with a class called "How to flip your course in two days". 

As a result of these extreme circumstances, most of us have been thinking a lot about this problem over the last week. Traditional lecture is not the easiest mode of instruction to translate to online environments. Things might seem even more complicated if you use active learning and discussion techniques, and let’s not forget about the challenges presented by remote assessment of instruction. Furthermore, even though people have been sharing lots of resources online (#ChemTwitterIsTheBestTwitter), it can become overwhelming to figure out which of all of them to choose and implement. 

So, even though we don’t have a magic wand that can flip a classroom in a hurry, I and Dr. Maria Gallardo-Williams have some solid advice from the learning sciences literature, backed up by best practices in distance education that we hope can help you navigate this transition.

Center marginalized students first - Know that your marginalized students are more likely to be affected by these disruptive events. Regardless of the choices you make while going online, think about this. 1) Don't assume everyone has access to good internet 24/7, 2) Don't assume people can pay for premium resources, 3) Don't assume school is the only thing they need to worry about, and 4) Remember that some of your students will now be in charge of taking care of family, might be food insecure, homeless, or have learning disabilities that don't lend themselves to online settings. So whatever you do consider the needs of your marginalized students.

Have realistic expectations - It is unrealistic to expect that you will cover every little thing in your syllabus. Before you even start uploading videos or activities, take some time to reflect and think about what is really the most important material that your students need to learn. This is a good time to audit your learning objectives and prioritize those that are most important to the future success of the students in your class. Some things that we considered indispensable won’t be available (such as access to on-campus instrumentation). You will be surprised to find out that students can learn how to use instrumentation online with a simple video and a robust assessment. Consider the options available to your students before you undertake your course redesign. NC State has a good list of resources to consider available strategies to keep teaching.

Simple is best - This is not the moment to try to become the innovative instructor you always dreamed of. Making innovative changes take time, and require careful planning. The best bet for you and your students' experience is to keep it simple. If every single instructor tries to teach using Zoom or live bluejeans conferences the systems are going to crash. So here are some practical tips:

  1. Asynchronous instruction works best for novice distance education practitioners. Instead of replicating your in-person class in an online environment, consider that there are advantages to short videos covering specific concepts, coupled with online homework. You don’t even have to create all this content from scratch, there are many video options already available online. 

    1. UC Davis open chemistry classes with videos.

    2. RSC also has some wonderful Chemistry Vignettes.

    3. NC State Organic Chemistry lab videos are open access and might help with lab coverage.

    4. You would be surprised at how many videos on youtube have already covered your topic

  2. If you are thinking about turning your exams into multiple choice questions follow this guide.

  3. If your students got separated from your textbooks rely on open sourced books.

  4. If you are going to lecture using a conference call app make sure you record it for students that cannot make it. 

Asynchronous Assessment - Given that not all students will have access to reliable internet and/or may be sick it is unrealistic to expect them to take an exam at the same time. Online assessment can be tailored to your class, and most learning management systems support testing and even have randomized question options and can support file uploads. You can combine multiple choice and long answer questions, or you might find that other assessment avenues such as oral exams or presentations (via videoconference). Regardless of your choice, make sure your assessments have flexible deadlines. Again center your marginalized students and think about the obstacles they will face to access your assessment.

Laboratory Classes - Translating laboratory classes to an online environments is certainly one of the most daunting tasks! But fear not, here are some tips. Dr. Ginger Shultz, posted an amazing thread on how she is translating her Organic Chemistry II Labs online:

Also, Stacy Lowery Bretz (Miami University) has compiled a comprehensive list of virtual simulations for chemistry and biochemistry.

Use video conference software or Twitch for office hours - Zoom, Skype, bluejeans and even Google Hangouts can be used to hold office hours. If your institution doesn’t support one of these systems, or the services become unreliable due to excessive traffic, there is always Twitch, which became famous as a social media platform for gamers. It was designed so many people can watch at the same time, and has very good Q&A capabilities.

Engaging students through discussion tools - Most learning management systems have tools that can be used for online discussion. Message boards might be a good avenue for general communication. You can model message board etiquette by posting questions or problem sets for your students and helping them as they work on them. Don’t give away the answers, but make sure that your posts help them move along the right path. Video conferencing software is also an option for class discussion, but it might be challenging with larger class sizes, discord allows you to create chat rooms and free video-message for large crowds. Other tools that might be useful and interface well with most major learning management systems are Perusall and VoiceThread. These are two apps that allow for interactive discussion with readings and media. 

Motivation is a key factor in learning -  Consider that as much as your daily schedule has been altered, the same is true for your students. The fact that classes are happening may be the only source of normalcy they will get in a while. So every time you write an email to them, acknowledge this. Be kind and think that the more information they get from you about the class the more likely they will be to be in a position to learn the material. Students will need your leadership and support during this difficult time. Think about how you can re-structure their grades so they focus more on the process rather than the outcome in such stressful times.

Be kind to yourself - You may not get it right the first time, but you are not alone. Allow yourself to fail and to ask for help from other members of your network. It is important to make sure that you don’t feel isolated during this time. You can organize virtual meetings with other instructors, if possible. Also, #ChemTwitter will help you if you ask a question, and there are lots of Chemistry Educators there (#ChemEd) that will be happy to answer your questions (our DMs will be open).


Go to the profile of Paulette Vincent-Ruz

Paulette Vincent-Ruz

Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Michigan

#MadeInMexico #ChemistryEducationResearch #LearningSci PostDoc at @UMich Expert in #QuantMethods & #EquityInSTEM #CASFutureLeaders she/her #NewMestiza 🏳️‍🌈

4 Comments

Go to the profile of Ruth Milne
Ruth Milne 4 months ago

Thanks for posting this!

Go to the profile of Paulette Vincent-Ruz
Paulette Vincent-Ruz 4 months ago

Hope makes your teaching life easier :)

Go to the profile of Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson 4 months ago

This is fantastic! A lot of this will be useful for any teacher, not just chemists. I am going to share this far and wide.

Go to the profile of Paulette Vincent-Ruz
Paulette Vincent-Ruz 4 months ago

Thank you so much for sharing, and I am glad you found it useful!