Online teaching veterans share their top tips

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rep ot laptop student 550pxAs UAB transitions to remote teaching in response to the global outbreak of COVID-19, faculty across campus are translating their in-person classes to a new delivery method.

For faculty who are new to online teaching, eLearning offers comprehensive support, from basic course building and design to delivery (connect with the eLearning team now to set up an appointment). "All you have to do is reach out to us," said Pam Paustian, Ph.D., executive director of eLearning and Professional Studies. "Faculty are the subject matter experts. We're here to help with the rest." The week of March 16-20, eLearning is offering group and individual workshops by Zoom. "Send us an email and we'll send you a link — just click it and get started," Paustian said.

Ready to take your courses to a new level? We asked three faculty who have earned the UAB Provost’s Award for Transformative Online Courses for their advice and tips on engaging students online.


1. Pay attention to course structure

Brenda Bertrand, Ph.D.: “Be consistent in how you present information to students in each module so that the look and feel is always the same. This way students quickly learn what to expect in terms of content presentation. The module learning objectives should stand out and all of the content of the module (i.e. lecture, fun activities, assignments) should connect to the learning objectives. This is really useful to students because they can use the learning objectives as a guide to assess what they are doing well and other areas where they need to focus.

“Give estimated timeframes for each task to complete in a module. This way it can help students to plan their time accordingly.”

Malinda O’Leary, Ph.D.: “Keep the interface simple and intuitive. Modules organized by weeks or dates tend to be ideal for me.

The UAB Center for Teaching and Learning will offer Zoom workshops March 16-20 to help prepare faculty for remote teaching; check dates and time and register online at the new Teaching Remotely site. Explore other resources available to you in the remote-work technology toolkit.

“Use the student view often so you know what you are creating and try it out on folks who are not familiar with your class so they can tell you where something may be fuzzy. Sometimes an organization style seems super clear to us but other folks think differently. 

“Also, it is super important to remember that students are accessing your Canvas course from a multitude of directions: Canvas app, desktop/website, clicking into calendar, checking only via assignment buttons, linking from syllabus or class home page, or by module. So if there is a specific way you want students accessing your class, build it that way.”

2. Use the tools

Beth Barstow, Ph.D.: “UAB has amazing technology support. Contact your technology support team in your school, in the Center for Teaching and Learning, or in eLearning if you need help or to bounce ideas around.”

O’Leary: “Tools like GoReact, Zoom Conference, discussion boards, email, the comments section of assignments, announcements - these are all tools I use in an effort to build community, help students build relationships with each other and one-on-one with me. 

“We have the luxury that UAB has subscriptions for faculty and students to many great tools to help create a unique and rich experience. Don’t be afraid to tinker around.

“Zoom and GoReact are ideal for getting online students to work synchronously on their own time while still giving you the opportunity to eavesdrop and/or assess.”

O’Leary gave a presentation on “Conversation, Accountability and ‘Effective Eavesdropping’ using the GoReact tool at the Modern Language Association’s 2020 national meeting in January. GoReact is a cloud-based video tool designed for teaching performance-based skills, with a number of feedback tools built in.

O’Leary uses GoReact for partner conversations, individual performances or presentations with visual aids and for “eavesdropping” on group and pairs.

“In class, I am often unable to circulate to all groups to participate in conversations, evaluate contributions and offer feedback,” O’Leary said in her MLA presentation. The GoReact tool “allows me to eavesdrop on their group work without the pressure of my presence making them nervous or the constraints of class time. They often forget they are being recorded when they are engaged working together.”

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Meet the teachers

rep malinda oleary 550pxMalinda Blair O’Leary, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Spanish in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. She was the first faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences to have an online course certified by the national group Quality Matters. O’Leary earned the Provost’s Award for Transformative Online Courses award in 2016 for her undergraduate course in Business Spanish.

rep beth barstow 550pxBeth Barstow, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Graduate Certificate in Low Vision Rehabilitation in the School of Health Professions Department of Occupational Therapy. The certificate program, the first of its kind in the country and now one of only two nationwide, has graduated about 320 OTs nationwide and has 20 international graduates. Barstow earned the Provost’s Award for Transformative Online Courses in 2017 for her Foundations in Low Vision II course.

rep brenda bertrand photo 550pxBrenda Bertrand, Ph.D., is a professor and director of the Master’s in Nutrition Science Program in the School of Health Professions. She earned the Provost’s Award for Transformative Online Courses in 2017 for her Advanced Medical Nutrition course, in which students work in teams to explore gaps in their knowledge about a chosen medical condition, consult with an expert in the field, study current research and plan appropriate nutrition interventions. They then showcase their work to fellow students in team electronic portfolios.

3. Brighten that ‘walk in the dark’

Bertrand: “Give really good instructions about how to navigate the course up front, and some small assignments (like a syllabus quiz or an ‘introduce yourself’ discussion post) so that students can ‘warm up’ to your course and gain confidence in how to use the tools that you will be using for assessment before it really counts for grades.

“I never realized, until I really stepped back and thought about how when a student comes into a course how overwhelming it can be to navigate the course. I kind of think of it as if they are walking into a dark room and so if you can give them instruction about what to do and where to go, they will gain confidence more quickly in how to navigate the course.”

4. Get specific to save yourself — and your students — precious time

O’Leary: “I know a lot of folks are surprised by how time-intensive teaching online can be. So it’s super important to know the specific outcome you want for anything you post in your online class. This will save lots of trial-and-error time as well as time-consuming review of student work. Knowing the answers to questions like these will help you be more efficient with your time and assessing student work:

  • Post a news article:
    • Is it required reading?
    • Is it food for thought?
  • Make an assignment:
    • Is the process that the student goes through in completing the assignment more important or is the outcome more important?”

“A good rubric makes all the difference in the world. Canvas has a great rubric tool. Use it for everything you do, no matter how simple.”




5. Engaging students is critical

Barstow: “Teaching online is completely different than teaching in the classroom. Things you take for granted — being able to take questions on the spot and the luxury of having every student hear the response — aren’t there. You have to be very mindful of engaging students in the course. You have to work at developing the sense of community.”

Barstow has several go-to engagement strategies. One is what she calls “expert chats.” 

Barstow: “For any given topic I will post the CV of the expert and have the students read a selection of articles on the topic of the chat. In a discussion board, students will write one or two questions they would like to ask the expert. It’s a great way for students to learn from an expert and it develops a sense of community among the learners.”

6. Even online, keep learning styles in mind

Barstow: “All of my lectures and other materials, if they are not already captioned, I have the university caption those for me to adapt to visual learners. That also provides a transcript that students can read later. It’s more difficult to do hands-on learning for kinesthetic learners online, but it can be done. I have students gather adaptive equipment or items around the house they can get their hands on. If I have students purchase a magnifier, I’ll have them find the focal distance, or take the batteries in and out with a blindfold on.”

7. You’re not a random robot — be vocal

O’Leary: “I comment a lot via the ‘comments’ in assignment submissions. I use text comments, audio and video comments — a variety. I find that is the venue where students are most likely to respond to me.

“My comments are feedback, sure, but I also make comments on something that was humorous, got my attention, reminded me of something I had seen or heard — just anything really that lets them know I see them, I see their work and I am thinking about it (and I’m a human, too, not just a random robot somewhere.)”

Bertrand: “Always offer ways in which students can give feedback. One example is including a frequently asked questions discussion board, where students can post questions they have and others can respond. I generally wait until about 36 to 48 hours to respond to give other students the opportunity to provide their input first. 

“Another example is asking an open-ended question on a quiz every few weeks:

  • what’s going well in the course? 
  • What are you struggling with?
  • What advice do you have for other students to be successful in this course?

“Then summarize what the students say to you in your weekly announcement and let them know what modifications you will make based on their feedback.”