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Will Styler

Assistant Teaching Professor - UC San Diego

A Guide to Online Teaching in the Social Sciences

Introduction

Originally started in March of 2020 by Will Styler at the University of California, San Diego, this is intended to be a helpful guide for faculty moving to online teaching. It was then substantially revised and updated in preparation for a talk at the University of Michigan in July 2020. There are many such guides out there, including the official guide at UCSD’s “Keep Teaching” Hub, but this one is focused on the kinds of classroom interaction often used in the social sciences. Please email suggestions and ideas and comments to .

Last updated: October 7th, 2020

Conceptual Course Planning

As you consider how to best move online, the first and biggest question is ‘what form will my class take’, because you can’t just perform a ground class online and expect excellent results (any more than a lab class can be performed via large-group lecture). In the online context, this is because…

So, although you’re not expected to change everything all at once, it’s a good idea to consider whether alternative, online-first class structures might fit your needs better. Give yourself flexibility, and don’t be afraid to make big, bold changes to better fit a new modality.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Coursework

Synchronous (‘synch’) classroom interaction involves having students inhabiting a (virtual) space at the same time and interacting in real time (e.g. a virtual question-answer session, or virtual discussion section). These interactions are scheduled, involve direct supervision of the instructional team, and generally have a fixed duration.

Asynchronous (‘asynch’) interactions do not require any cotemporality, and students are able to interact with the material entirely on their own timeframe. Usually asynchronous work just has a due-date, but when the work happens is up to the students. These can range from ‘watch a video on your own’, to conventional homework, to asynchronous discussion board postings. You’ll note, by the way, that this is akin to the idea of a ‘flipped classroom’, where lectures are asynchronous and class times are active and focused on analysis and discussion. So, although it may feel crazy and new, it’s not new at all.

These form a continuum, with most successful classes combining elements of both (e.g. asynchronous lecture watching, but synchronous data analysis sessions and homework assignments). Each approach has advantages and disadvantages:

Synchronous Advantages

Asynchronous Advantages

In practice, you’ll likely end up combining both models, and most online-first class formats rely on asynchronous delivery of information (with pre-recorded videos, readings, and case studies), and synchronous sessions for active learning and discussion.

A sample mixed-synchronous course design

Imagine a MWF 12-1 class. Normally you might spend those three hours lecturing, and then have students do homework in the rest of the time. Then perhaps a proctored midterm and final. Something like 50% Homework, 20% Midterm, 30% Final exam as a grading split. This not only requires a lot of lecturing, but also relies on Zoom to be operable 3 days a week, and fails if this isn’t tue. A different approach might be to make more of the work asynchronous, like so…

By doing this, students are able to get the material, have their comprehension tested, engage with analysis or other relevant skills, complete assignments, and have their knowledge tested, but with only one synchronous period. And so long as the total time spent for students is not hugely greater or lesser, the administration at UCSD is fine with it. For sample syllabi (which are far from perfect and will change as I improve them), see my LIGN 101 syllabus and my LIGN 113 syllabus.

Here’s another sample syllabus from the UCSD teaching and learning commons

Implementing your online course

Evaluation

The biggest problem facing online classrooms is not teaching, but evaluation. This is because closed-note non-collaborative assignments are not possible online. Let me repeat that:

Closed-note non-collaborative assignments are not possible online

The fact is that there is no way to ensure that students are not making use of their book, notes, your lectures, or their friends and classmates for a student working at home on their own private machine. You can request that students not use notes or collaborate, but it is simply ‘on the honor system’, and this will end up putting honest students at a disadvantage relative to their less ethically endowed counterparts. As a result, the classical ‘exam’ cannot exist online, and evaluation will need to be fundamentally different for courses which have relied on exams historically.

Why Online Proctoring Tools are a bad idea

Most faculty immediately hope that technology can save them, and refer to ‘online proctor’ tools as a possible approach.

Do not use online proctoring tools. Even when working perfectly, these install keyloggers and other invasive software on a student’s computer, and then force them to keep a webcam on them at all times during the exam, with a live ‘proctor’ or flawed ‘AI’ promising to watch your students very carefully (among the thousands of other students also being viewed by the service).

As of July 2020, most of these tools have high-ranking search results on Google discussing how to bypass them undetectably. In several cases, there are not methods for ‘fixing’ the vulnerabilities. In terms of effectiveness, these tools are someplace between putting a sticky note on your computer that says “Don’t worry, students won’t cheat” and asking students nicely not to cheat. Some students may be unable to bypass them, but this introduces another level of inequality in the classroom, rewarding students with multiple devices (which is perhaps the easiest way to bypass the tools) or sufficient technical knowledge to invent new attacks.

Additionally, these systems don’t work with students using Chromebook systems or tablets. Students who choose these lower cost devices over general-purpose computers are generally lower-income, so using these tools is unfairly impacting low income students. And many of them ‘penalize’ students for noise or other people in the room, which is inevitable for students with roommates or folks living in multigenerational households. There have also been cases of AI-based tools mistakenly flagging and failing to even detect people of color, which is a very ugly thing, and yet another social justice issue with these tools.

Finally, there are major privacy issues with requiring students to provide information about running programs and browser tabs, then to enable a webcam and hot microphone for three hours in a home setting, and uploading this data to a non-university company. If any other software did the things that these ‘services’ did, it would be considered highly intrusive spyware, and handing over this level of control or surveillance to an untrusted third party is poor cybersecurity practice for anybody, student or faculty. As such, you should be prepared to offer an alternative means of assessment for students who practice good cybersecurity and refuse to install these tools.

For a nice overview of some of the issues involved, please take a look at this page from the EFF on online proctoring tools.

So, in practice, these tools provide security theater at best, and using them simply gives students who are willing to bypass them an advantage. And given the considerable social justice issues of requiring more expensive computers and an uninterrupted test-taking areas, there’s a reason schools are banning these tools, and why you should ban them in your classroom.

Testing recall and problem solving without proctored exams

Although it’s often better to design assignments around more cheat-proof questions and approaches, which involves writing and synthesis rather than recall or demonstration, there are some techniques which can make classical ‘exam’ style assessment more tenable:

Conventional ‘Homework’, ‘Paper’ and ‘Project’ submission online

One approach which both teachers and students have seemed to appreciate is shifting from a few high-stakes exams and assignments (which are ripe targets for dishonesty) to a number of lower-stakes assignments or to a cheat-resistant final project. Luckily, homework and essay submission isn’t so different online.

Online-first assignment types

One nice approach is graded discussions, where students asynchronously complete discussions with their classmates in a forum/bulletin board style approach.

Other online-first assignment types include (in a non-exhaustive list):

Lecture-style teaching

Of course, part of our main goal in teaching is sharing information with students in a meaningful way, and historically, this has been done through lectures.

Live Lecturing

Although many students and faculty have found that live lecturing isn’t great in an online context, particularly given the lack of student feedback and impediments to smooth questioning flow involved with poor connections and bad mics, it’s absolutely possible.

Creating asynchronous lecture videos

If you’d rather create videos instead of lecturing live during scheduled class time:

For what it’s worth, in Spring 2020, student feedback was strongly in favor of prerecorded lectures:

Sharing Readings and Media

This one’s pretty easy.

Synchronous Student Interactions

Whether it’s during a live lecture, a small seminar, during a group work session, or in office hours, interacting with students in cyberspace requires somewhat different methods, and active learning techniques can (still) help narrow the achievement gap online.

Small-Group Discussion

You can also encourage students to ‘break out’ into small groups using Zoom to work on a problem, with somebody sharing their screen

Polling and Whole-Class interaction

In addition to judicious use of the chat for questions and comments from students, other forms of ‘whole class’ interactions

Active polling tools like iClickers have shown great promise in synchronous lectures for active learning, and this mode of interaction is no less capable in an online context.

Taking Attendance

Hosting Office Hours

Office hours are, likely, the easiest experience to replicate online.

Microteaching

Microteaching is a method of helping instructors improve their teaching where a participant presents a short, 2-3 minute presentation, then this is recorded, then the participant is asked for their first impression, then the recording is played back for all to watch, and then comments are elicited from the group. This is more straightforward than expected on Zoom. Here are the steps:

  1. Get everybody in a room together
  2. Ask the teaching participant to share their screen
  3. The host or another designated participant starts recording to your local computer, not to the Zoom cloud
  4. They do their presentation
  5. The recorder leaves the meeting (but without ending the meeting for everybody else)
    • Zoom will not start processing local recordings until you leave the meeting
    • … but you are able to re-join the meeting while it processes
  6. The recorder immediately re-joins the meeting
  7. Once the recording is processed, the recorder shares that video window using Zoom (‘Computer sound enabled’), and plays it back
  8. After the video, move to discussion, and repeat the process.

Supporting students online

As in all teaching, supporting students is crucial, and online teaching brings up some challenges for students from a variety of backgrounds.

Creating a supportive culture for online learning

Online classes have their own dynamics, mechanics, and flow. Part of your role as the instructional team is to create an environment where students are best able to succeed. Here are a few tips:

Supporting overwhelmed or under-motivated students

Whether it’s because they’re not interested in your particular class, not interested in college generally, or perhaps because they’re distracted by important issues in their real lives, students without a strong internal force pushing them to complete the work can struggle in asynchronous online courses more than most.

Here, I’ll offer a few suggestions of ways to reach these students, although I’d certainly appreciate suggestions of more!

Supporting students with disabilities

Online education provides some wins and some losses for students with disabilities. First, you might check out the UCSD Office for Students with Disabilities’ Guide to COVID-19 and Disabilities. But for the most part, it’s straightforward.

Supporting students on the difficult side of ‘the digital divide’

Although we tend to think of modern students as tech-saavy and well-equipped for a digital classroom, many students, particularly coming from underprivileged backgrounds, may have lower end devices, internet connections, or lack the tech-saavy to adapt to fancy tools. Here are a few ways to help these students specifically.

Using Specific Tools

No matter your approach to structuring the class, you’ll need to use online tools to conduct the course. In this section, we’ll discuss some common tools, and offer tips, tricks, and resources to get the most out of them.

Using Canvas

Canvas is a great ‘central hub’ for your course, containing grades, discussions, and potentially even quizzes and assignment submission.

Canvas Pro-tips

Other people’s Canvas guides

Using Zoom

Zoom is my personal choice for synchronous work.

Zoom Pro-Tips

‘Co-Hosts’ and Zoom Breakout Rooms

If you have your IAs as co-hosts and you assign them into breakout rooms, they can… - Move between the N breakout rooms - Move back to the main room - Return back to the assigned breakout (e.g. they were assigned to 2, so they go into 2)

That said, co-hosts are not able to move from the main room directly into a breakout other than the one they’ve been assigned to (e.g. if assigned to #2, they can’t go from Main directly to #9, although they can go to #2 then move into #9).

The weird thing is that if the co-host is not assigned to a room by the host, they are completely unable to enter any breakout rooms at all. They can’t move into a room, or between rooms, or otherwise. Only by being assigned to (any) room are Co-Hosts licensed to join any breakout room. They are also unable to communicate with the host in any way.

This means, more importantly, that if you, the host, create manual breakout rooms to talk with a specific student and ‘leave your IAs in the main room’, they are unable to join you unless you have manually assigned them to any breakout room.

Other people’s Zoom guides

Discouraging ‘Zoom Bombing’, Trolling, and other bad behavior on Zoom

We are humans, and live in a world of humans, and as such, we can’t have nice things. One of the ways that this manifests is in ‘zoom bombing’, that is, people breaking into synchronous sessions and spreading ugliness of one of many forms.

Although these things are hard to completely prevent, it’s worth being aware of it, and being ready to act decisively if it ever comes up.

Using Gradescope

I recommend using Gradescope for grading both online submission assignments as well as assignments that would conventionally be done on paper. The only strength of Canvas is in grading long-form papers (as the annotation tools are better).

Gradescope Pro-Tips

Other people’s Gradescope guides

Using YouTube to upload lectures

Particularly if Kaltura (a.k.a. the Canvas Media Gallery) keeps crashing, you might consider uploading videos to YouTube for students, who can then watch the video without a canvas login and on their cell phones or tablets or computers. Here’s the process:

Getting Started on YouTube

YouTube Pro-Tips