UMSL faculty and staff offer educators advice, resources for teaching online

by | Apr 16, 2020

Emily Goldstein and Shea Kerkhoff discussed how things like staying connected to students, using familiar technologies and writing a detailed syllabus can aid educators.
Advice Online Teaching

As the University of Missouri–St. Louis moves to online classes, Emily Goldstein, interim director of eLearning at the Center for Teaching and Learning, and Shea Kerkhoff, assistant professor in the Department of Educator Preparation and Leadership, are doing what they can to provide support and resources for educators. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis was comparatively well positioned to shift courses online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing resources to faculty and staff through its Center for Teaching and Learning and University of Missouri System Office of eLearning.

However, Shea Kerkhoff, assistant professor in the Department of Educator Preparation and Leadership, said educators at all levels have still faced challenges.

She noted the distinction between moving face-to-face classes to the web and online learning as a discipline. The speed with which the shift happened didn’t allow for the development of the latter.

“eLearning or online learning is a field within education that has decades of research and includes a set of theoretically-based and evidence-based practices,” she said.

Emily Goldstein, interim director of eLearning at the Center for Teaching and Learning, echoed Kerkhoff’s sentiments and said the Office of eLearning is doing its best to provide support for the UM System to shift to online classes this summer.

“With the recent announcement from all four campuses about online instruction, the Office of eLearning instructional design team has developed a workshop, with faculty input, called Start Here: Online Course Design Basics Workshop,” she said. “It has resources for faculty to go through in a structured four-week asynchronous model to learn the fundamentals of design and to get that baseline knowledge.”

UMSL is also offering a collection of online courses designed for K-12 teachers this summer.

“While we have many online summer courses in the UMSL College of Education, the six courses in our ‘Jumpstart Summer’ have been carefully curated,” said Nancy Singer, chair of the Department of Educator Preparation, Innovation and Research. “Each of them has specific strands and applications for in-service teachers who have had to rethink and adapt their instruction for online delivery to their K-12 students. While we all hope that fall will mean a return to business as usual, we also know that teachers may need some additional support around teaching online – now or in the future. We’re here to help.”

In addition to those resources, Kerkhoff and Goldstein have a few pieces of advice for educators adjusting to online classes.

Educators need teaching presence, even online

During this time, the most important thing for educators is to maintain connections with their students.

“My number one tip for professors who are moving from a face-to-face class to an online class is to remember that teacher presence is important, and students need to see your face,” Kerkhoff said.

Those who aren’t used to teaching online might feel self-conscious about having to be on camera, which is something Kerkhoff is familiar with.

“When I first started teaching online, I would try to always be camera ready before I would post a video, and now I realize that it’s not about that,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in a Cardinals t-shirt and a baseball cap.”

Goldstein agreed and said she recommends weekly video updates.

“You’re getting that instructor presence, so that they can see who you are,” she said. “You may be working out of your kitchen right now or working out of your back deck, and that’s personable to them. It also provides them structure.”

A robust syllabus

With summer courses moving online, Goldstein said it’s paramount for educators to create an in-depth syllabus for their students. The CTL offers a syllabus template that is updated each semester and includes information on student resources, office locations, email addresses and phone numbers, as well as templates for grading and feedback criteria and course goals.

Goldstein said the course goals are the most important thing educators can clearly lay out in a syllabus.

“The course goals really guide the student and help them learn about where they’re going in that eight weeks or 16 weeks,” she said. “Having module-level goals is a great way for students to understand how the assessments align with the content.”

Those weekly goals help educators plan out the course, but they also help students plan out their weekly schedule and understand what’s expected of them.

Use familiar technology

There are more technological solutions than ever, and educators typically choose tools based on the interactions they want to foster in class – whether it’s face-to-face or online.

Generally, students who have chosen to be online learners go into a class well versed in certain technologies or they know they need to get up to speed on them. Moving classes online takes special consideration, though.

“What we’re trying to do as faculty members, instead of perhaps choosing the digital tools that might be best for this particular interaction, we are choosing digital tools that our students are familiar with,” Kerkhoff said. “We don’t want them spending this time learning new technology. We want them learning the content. New technology can just become frustrating and add to the stress of the change and the newness. It’s a different decision-making process right now.”

Kerkhoff added that Canvas, the Google suite of tools and VoiceThread are some common, familiar tools that are being used during the transition to online classes. Goldstein said that Canvas, when used to its full potential, is particularly effective.

She noted that educators can post their syllabi, upload course content, organize the content and post grades. The challenge is making sure they are able to fully take advantage of its functionality.

“I think the big thing is going beyond just using Canvas for those baseline things like posting your syllabus and taking your course to the next level,” Goldstein said. “That’s what our workshop helps faculty do. It breaks down how to organize their content. Instead of a big folder or one big string of announcements, you can put content into modules, which is like a folder structure in Canvas.

“You can link all sorts of material, so you can have a Week 1 module with links to web resources that you might have been using, PDFs, pages of content, assignments, anything really. That’s a huge benefit for faculty if they can break things into manageable sections for their students.”

Scale assignments

One way to keep things manageable for students is to scale assignments throughout the course instead of relying on one big project.

“There are manageable chunks or manageable sections of the project, which students can do in a much lower stakes way instead of – in a traditional 16-week semester – waiting until week 15 to begin this thing, that’s challenging,” Goldstein said.

She added that creating multiple assignments that are worth smaller percentages of students’ final grades gives them opportunities to get feedback early and make any necessary changes to their work.

Asynchronous learning can alleviate some barriers

By their nature, face-to-face classes are synchronous. In other words, everyone is learning at the same time. For some educators, there might be the impulse to bring this approach online – everyone in class logging into Zoom at the same time, for example.

While the impulse is understandable, Kerkhoff pointed out that many students depend on UMSL for a reliable internet connection and face challenges accessing it when they’re off campus. Asynchronous learning – or learning happening at different times for each individual in class – can help ease that strain.

“An example would be Flipgrid, which is a tool where students can come in and make a video and leave it there for other students to see and respond to,” Kerkhoff said.

Recording mini lectures for students and uploading the videos is another useful strategy.

“In my experience, I upload it to YouTube, set it as an unlisted link and put the link in Canvas so that it doesn’t take as much broadband for my students as they’re interacting with the Canvas platform,” Kerkhoff said.

There are additional advantages to this approach, too. Students can pause videos to look up words they don’t understand or refer to their textbooks for more context. They can also rewind and listen to part of the lecture over again until they understand the concept being presented – something that’s not possible in person.

“That’s why asynchronous learning is important during this time, so that UMSL students can balance taking care of children or taking care of parents or working different hours than they were before with their schoolwork,” Kerkhoff said. 

Both Goldstein and Kerkhoff stressed that members of the UMSL community are doing everything they can to make the move to online learning as smooth as possible.

“In the summer, it truly is an online learning experience, so we are striving to give every student across the University of Missouri System the best experience,” Goldstein said. “We have many professional development opportunities for faculty that are led by amazingly talented instructional designers to really help them, and the workshops continue all summer long. And for students, they should know we’re all in this together.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe