Shifting to Teaching Online? Make This Decision First

Lead Features March 20 / March 28, 2020

 – Thomas Mennella –

The recent release of the free, one-hour Rapid Transition to Online Learning (RTOL) course could not have come at a more appropriate time. As I sit here, colleges, universities and school districts all across the country continue to close each day, and the end of this COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere in sight. And while RTOL is an outstanding piece of professional development and an invaluable resource for any educator faced with the immediate need to migrate instruction online, it also ends like a Stephan King novel: “Wait, that’s it?” “That’s the ending?” “Shouldn’t there be more?!?

RTOL ends with a very short unit on the group space. Before COVID-19, the group space would have been our classrooms, but now… it’s also online. The group space unit of RTOL was intentionally kept brief. Why? Because it needs to be different for each educator. The online group space is amorphous and individualized to your needs as an instructor and your students’ needs as learners. Here, I try to pick up where RTOL left off and provide you with some considerations and ideas for the group space of your new online learning environment.

The critical consideration: synchronous or asynchronous?

Most typical online learning environments are asynchronous. Students log in at different times and engage with the material and each other at different times of the day. But given the COVID-19 closures, we’re in a unique situation where time in the day has been allotted for our class, yet our students are being strongly encouraged to stay indoors. That gives us the opportunity to mandate that students must log in to our online class during class-time each day. Making the decision of synchronous or asynchronous first is critical, for it will dictate the kinds of group space activities that you can employ moving forward. (Please note: different districts and institutions are approaching this in different ways. Some are mandating a specific format; please verify what the expectation is at your institution.)

Group space activities for the synchronous environment

If you are gathering your students for time together online, leverage that time to be as social and engaging as possible. You can gamify your group space time by posing deep, challenging questions on your course content. Kahoot is a wonderful tool for gamification. It is an online student response system that can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection, but students (either individually or in teams) gain points both for correct answers to your questions and for the speed in which they get that answer. These points are tracked and the winner announced at the end of each Kahoot. Generously, Kahoot is offering its premium package for free to all schools that have been closed in response to COVID-19. Other options for synchronous and social assessment activities include Quizizz and Quizlet Live

You may also consider using Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, etc. to gather your students together into a virtual room where they can engage with one another, both through video and audio. And Jake Habegger recently told me about where students call into a virtual room by phone and have an audio group chat. The advantage here is that students don’t need an internet connection! (Many of the other online conferencing platforms also offer call-in by phone options, as well.) In these rooms, you can employ role-playing exercises, student-led presentations and even Socratic Seminars just as you would in class. In the synchronous learning environment, the only barrier you need to surmount is finding the best online tool to gather your students for their activity. The rest is just your classroom in the cloud.

Group space activities for the asynchronous environment

Things get a little more foreign to on-ground educators who transition to an asynchronous learning environment. Here, students are not gathering together during the same time of day, and so the ‘group’ of the group space seems lost. Trust me, it’s not. You just need to think a bit outside of the box. Your main tool of choice here needs to be your LMS’s discussion assignment. In general, discussion assignments are open response platforms where students get credit for posting their own response to your discussion prompt and for replying to the posts of fellow students. Most cookie-cutter online discussion assignments read something like: “In the Great Depression, GDP plummeted and society went into economic decline. Using research from this course and external sources, state how society might have….” Bueller, Bueller…. Don’t do this.

Instead, use your LMS discussion platform for debates. In my discipline, biology, one activity I do in the classroom is a mock trial. A mock trial in biology?! Yes. We put mutations on trial. The prosecution says they’re bad for the species and the defense says they’re good. You can divide your class into two ‘teams’ and use the discussion platform to allow them to engage in debate with one another (requiring each student on one side to respond to the points made by students on the other side of the debate). As a side note: the jury is always hung in our mock trials; mutations are both good and bad. 

Use your discussion platform for deep, open-ended questions. I use some of my on-ground group space time for Challenge Questions. These are deep, open-ended questions that get to the higher levels of Bloom’s. Since my university just closed for on-ground instruction for at least three weeks, I’ll be posting these Challenge Questions as discussion prompts and requiring my students to respond to at least three other students’ posts. What was strong in those peer posts? What could have been stronger?

Use your discussion platform for case studies. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your rapid transition to online learning, then fall back on old-faithful. Every discipline has online repositories for vetted, tried and true case studies. Find those that are most relevant to your content and post it as a discussion assignment. All case studies are built around an individual and then group workflow. Have your students post their individual work as their initial discussion response and use the group activities of your selected case to guide how students will reply to each other’s posts.

As you can see, your transition to an online group space is not as daunting as it seems. It is not a black box. Much of what you already do can still be done online, you just need to think a bit differently.  

Other considerations:

  • For both synchronous and asynchronous settings, maintaining your relationships with your students and a sense of normalcy will be huge.  Consider setting up small group discussion environments for your students. In a synchronous model, virtual rooms with a small number of students, where you pop in and out, can be a powerful and comforting approach. Asynchronously, you can employ a shared collaborative document (such as a Google Doc) where students discuss a topic and you check in on that discussion for each student’s amount and strength of engagement, relevance and validity of points being raised, etc. (before the due date). 
  • Points for completion or points for quality? Are you going to grant points simply for student engagement or for the quality of their work? Here, do exactly what you’ve done on-ground. Don’t change, diminish or increase expectations simply because you’ve moved online. Your students are dealing with a lot of change, too. Keep the points distribution for the group space work consistent and continue using (and sharing with students) the same rubrics you used before for grading.
  • Short completion times or longer ones?
    • If you’re moving ahead with a synchronous environment, keep your work times the same, too. In other words, if you gave your students one hour for a Socratic seminar in class, keep that activity to one hour online. 
    • If you’re going with asynchronous, you’ll need to expand your timeframes. My general rule is a 24-hour window (from activity posted/assigned on the LMS to due date) for any activity that was done in a single class session. Also, for discussions, have two due dates: an earlier one for initial student posts and a later one for the replies to each other

You’re going to be fine. This is going to be fun. And, most importantly, you’re maintaining a high-quality group space component to your newly online class. Every Stephen King novel actually did have a good ending; he just expected your imagination to play a role in making that ending real. RTOL has a good ending, too. It ends with your imagination, innovation and magic as an educator coming to fruition and creating the most exciting and dynamic online group space activities possible for your students. You’re going to be amazing. Be well and stay healthy. 


Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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