As Colleges Shift to Emergency Teaching Online, How Good Is Good Enough?

Mar 20, 2020

In the name of public health, colleges have moved swiftly to online teaching—but without all of the details worked out on how to do so effectively.

That reality was highlighted during a live online discussion EdSurge held this week in partnership with Bryan Alexander’s Future Trends Forum.

Among the topics addressed were how to make sure newly online courses follow accessibility rules, and how to make sure all students have the tech they need to get to class.


We plan to hold a similar online discussion every week as long as the community feels it is useful. The next one will be Tuesday, March 24, 1pm PT/4pm ET. RSVP here.


We were joined by:

  • Beth Kalikoff, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington, where in-person classes have been suspended for the rest of the quarter and some courses have moved online.
  • Stephen Downes, a national expert in online learning technology who runs the long-running OLDaily newsletter.

The underlying question that often emerged was: What level of quality is good enough? Participants seemed eager to share strategies and push to make sure teaching is done equitably and at high quality.

Watch the complete forum below:

Or listen to the full discussion on our EdSurge Live podcast feed.

If you’d rather read highlights, you’ll find a partial transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jeff Young: The University of Washington was the first major college in the nation to stop teaching in person and shift to online due to COVID-19. How is that going?

Beth Kalikoff: Nobody would claim that this is a really good way to learn how to teach online if you haven’t already been doing it. But I think one heartening thing is that everybody is very concerned, not just about everybody’s health and security, but also about engaging and teaching students. And so there’s been a lot of fast motion.

The most heartening thing is that people are really learning with and from each other, and teaching each other within departments. And also that academic[s on] Twitter have been very supportive and collaborative in sharing our strategies and resources.

Bryan Alexander: The main victims of coronavirus, in terms of lethality, are people age 60 and especially 70 on up. Most of your faculty, most of your staff, and especially most of your students are not in that dangerous zone, but they will be circulating to people in that zone. So, I’m curious about how you’re managing this?

Kalikoff: Well, we’re posting Covid-19 FAQs and protocols all over the campus website. We have a coronavirus home page for the university. Things have been changing so fast that just in the past two weeks we’ve gone from being a thriving smallish city to one where the theater is canceled, movies are canceled, there’s no sporting events, and no restaurants or bars can serve people. Restaurants can only be open for delivery or take out. … Right now we’re all advised to socially distance ourselves.

Jeff Young: Stephen, what advice do you have for those quickly going online based on your long experience working in edtech at colleges?

Stephen Downes: The first reaction that I saw from the online learning community was from people who were online education practitioners [who were saying] you need to take this precaution and that precaution and that precaution. You have to design your courses just so. It was really negative. And I was disappointed by that.

If we’re not pedagogically perfect in our presentation, I think it’s okay. And the message that we as a discipline should be saying is, yeah look, I know this is new to you, but the tech has been around for a while. A lot of it is pretty solid. There are going to be issues because there are always issues. So don’t expect everything to be perfect.

And you don’t have to be a wizard or a master to do this. The main thing is get out there, get online, make that connection. Let people know that there’s somebody at the other end of the line trying to help them. And most of your battle is solved with that, and then you can get to the serious business of teaching.

Bryan Alexander: This question of maintaining social presence is a really interesting one. I’m wondering if you could share with everybody what you’ve seen from your own experience that really, really works for this?

Kalikoff: I think the students and faculty are anxious about being isolated, socially. And faculty members don’t want to be considered bots.

But even just in an online class, if on the first day you ask students to post a photo of either their favorite meal or where they’re from. Boom! … It lifts people from being text to being other humans. Try meeting each other on a more emotional or social level.

We have a faculty member who was teaching an online course years ago and he would do video lectures from home where he kept a bunch of parrots. And one day they were super noisy, and they were squawking all over the place, and he just gave up trying to keep them quiet. So he just made a video with all these parrots making noise in the background, and he said to his students, “I am really sorry. Those are my parrots.” And what happened was these students who had been treating him like [he was] some kind of bot started writing, “I have parrots. I like parrots. I have a salamander.” And so, he did not intend that to be a social moment, but it became one because people want to connect.

[Audience question] If an individual faculty member decides to use a tool, what is his or her responsibility in terms of letting students know that this tool may not afford them the same data privacy?

Kalikoff: They have a real big responsibility. They’d want to be very clear in every possible way with students so they can opt in or opt out. And I’m not sure we’d be permitted to do something where students are forced to have information or data or recordings for class shared out in the open. So, at least from my perspective the university and the instructors have a responsibility to be really clear about how the technology or class is following FERPA. And giving students the option to opt out of certain things where their data would be shared.

[Audience question] Should the university have a plan to educate the faculty about their decisions, being that they’re probably being bombarded with opportunities to use third-party tools that are not going to be vetted through the university?

Kalikoff: We have a campus-wide privacy office and we have enrollment management in the registrar’s office, which is all FERPA all the time. [The mood is that it’s not] a really good time to try a technology because somebody on email asked me to. We’re in ‘all hands on deck’ [mode]. What will learning technologies be able to help me with? But certainly the privacy office and FERPA officers are communicating with faculty departments all the time. And I just have not heard of any faculty member or department who has expressed an interest in anything that’s not centrally supported, except proctoring options.

[Audience question] I’m interested in how you all are talking to your faculty about accessibility, specifically captioning and transcribing—either recordings that they’re making on the fly or synchronous events?

Downes: There’s some conversation in the chat area [of this forum] about using YouTube’s auto-captioning [feature], but it’s not ready for prime time. There is a mechanism in YouTube where you can ask viewers to manually create captions for your video. And I’ve had volunteers do some of that for me in the past.

Historically, what I’ve tried to do is make sure that everything I do is multi-modal. I always have a text component. And I have my website accessible so it can be read by screen readers. I do have images, I do have audio. Anytime I do a presentation, I make an audio-only recording. I make the video recording. I make sure the slides are available. That’s what is within the realm of possibility now. I am hopeful that within the next few years, that automated captioning will work a lot better.

[Audience question] My dissertation is about working with international students. And my work has a lot to do with them. During this specific time, if a lot of your students are international, what are some good practices you would recommend to faculty for making their teaching be accessible, equitable, and done in a way that makes sure international students are not feeling excluded?

Kalikoff: I will say that some of these technologies have long been used by multilingual students who are less confident about their disciplinary knowledge or their linguistic knowledge. So, if you’re using a lecture capture [tool], like Panopto. No matter how intergalactically stellar a multilingual student’s English might be, they may lack confidence. So, if they have a lecture posted on a website or somewhere, they can go back and hear it again, or they can [cue] up to the parts that they were unsure about.

And multilingual students benefit from practice. Practice giving presentations, practice reading, as do all other students. [Provide]remote opportunities to practice with each other—low stakes or no stakes opportunities—where you can gain confidence and just get better.

Overall, I would just say in this moment that it’s all about forgiving ourselves for errors, forgiving our students, and trying to attain moments of grace and joy under extremely trying and unpropitious and dangerous circumstances.

To hear the complete conversation, listen watch here or listen here.


Highlights from quotes in the chat section of the online forum:

“Community colleges may lead the way in reaching out to marginalized groups.”

“If you encourage your instructors to use one of the teleprompter apps, they can then make that transcript available easily for students to follow along.”

Resources shared in the chat during the session:

Common Sense Media’s COVID-19 resources for families.

Editing captions on YouTube

Comcast’s internet access offer to those who need it.


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