Shifting to a Digital Teaching Model? Here’s Some Advice

May 11, 2020

Almost 19 years ago, I started a new teaching position that introduced me to the world of online instruction in higher education. That summer, I was selected to be an assistant professor of psychology for Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The position came with the added—weighty—responsibility of serving as a program coordinator for the Department of Psychology’s first fully online Bachelor of Science program.

The transition to a digital teaching environment is a great opportunity to be reminded of a simple fact: You don’t have to do this alone.

Developing my first online courses alongside my department was very much a humbling experience. It required me to really rethink teaching, and how best to do it in a digital environment. I remember scrambling to learn all I could about the features of Blackboard and reviewing all of my textbook’s eLearning-related ancillaries, assigning self-paced modules and online quizzes to my students. Over time, I benefited from reading books on online pedagogy, attending online learning conferences and receiving training in online teaching and learning—including good instructional standards from tools like the Quality Matters rubric.

Reflecting on the process of shifting from on-campus to online teaching reminds me of a recent experience in my personal life. My family moved from Pensacola, Florida to Leander, Texas in mid-March, just as the COVID-19 crisis was beginning to take shape. The pandemic, of course, created unusual circumstances, but moving is always an interesting experience. It gives you the opportunity to review all the clothing, furniture, appliances and various knick-knacks that you have accumulated over the years and assess their worth. This exercise feels especially important during a moment when we all face such uncertainty. The impending move forces a decision: Which belongings will you keep—pack, transport, unpack and eventually use again—and which will you leave behind? The latter can be particularly challenging, but you realize deep down that you must move on without certain items when they no longer fit into your plans.

It’s necessary to engage in a similarly introspective process when shifting from a physical classroom to a digital one. What can you hold on to? What can you learn to do without?

Look to your learning objectives as a starting point. What are your students expected to know and be able to do at the conclusion of your course? How will your instruction differ when students are not in your direct line of sight in a lecture hall or classroom? This process can initially feel as uncomfortable as a challenging yoga stretch, but it helps you adapt to teaching in new ways.

The transition to a digital teaching environment is a great opportunity to be reminded of a simple fact: You don’t have to do this alone. Instructional designers, instructional technologists and peers with advanced remote and online teaching experience are assets who should be leveraged. In addition, there are opportunities for your institution to partner with companies, such as Six Red Marbles, that have experience designing digital learning content and online courses and programs that enable institutions to support learning across the lifespan. Such partnerships are crucial in preparing faculty to offer engaging digital learning experiences to students.


Contact Six Red Marbles for a complimentary consulting or planning session with our Learning Strategy and Learning Experience Design teams.

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Institutions also need to ensure that their transition to digital learning includes online versions of student services. While many offer online advising, tutoring and proctoring for their eLearning students, such services should be extended to the entire student body. This can be a costly undertaking, but it must be viewed as an investment in the digital future, ensuring that outreach and support are not limited to physical spaces.

The transition to digital teaching and learning requires that institutions actively engage in strategic planning and evaluation with a focus on continued improvement. Organic discussions among faculty on this topic are not enough to help an institution review its existing culture and determine the barriers that prevent movement toward good practices.

Below are four key steps that institutions can take to begin or refine their approach to digital teaching and learning:

  1. Engage in strategic planning with a consultant or vendor partner like Six Red Marbles to develop strategies that further digital teaching efforts at the institution, as well as online access to student support services.
  2. Encourage open and honest discussions that allow faculty to share how they have traditionally taught on campus. Solicit advice from faculty with online teaching experience, instructional designers and instructional technologists to educate novice online teaching faculty on good practices in instructional design, course development and facilitation.
  3. Participate in digital learning professional development opportunities, such as Six Red Marbles' new series of self-paced professional development modules.
  4. Plan for and schedule online surveys and focus groups for faculty, administrators, staff and students to describe their experiences with digital teaching and learning. Encourage each group to share their opinions about how best to improve upon these experiences. Share the results yearly, and highlight how the institution is providing ways to improve digital teaching and learning based upon the feedback received.
Institutions must do more to meet the learning needs of their current and prospective students.

Institutions must do more to meet the learning needs of their current and prospective students. Access to digital learning experiences aligns with the fact that all students are not able to come to a physical campus to begin or continue their education. Institutions that invest in and actively provide and iterate on such efforts will be the most successful in helping learners acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities to succeed in an ever-changing world of work.


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