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Tips for teaching in the time of coronavirus

Veterans of teaching chemistry online offer advice for professors challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 19, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 12


Photo of woman with headset sitting in front a computer.
Credit: Shutterstock

Even before the World Health Organization elevated the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak to pandemic status on March 11, colleges and universities in the US saw the writing on the wall and were making plans to move classes online.

Still, moving classes online in a short period is no small feat. Veterans of online teaching will tell you that planning and implementing a course via the internet takes thought and practice to ensure faculty deliver material successfully and students absorb it. To help instructors who are suddenly faced with the challenge of teaching online because of coronavirus-related school closures, C&EN asked online teaching veterans for their advice. Here are some of their recommendations.

Familiarize yourself with the available resources

At some point, your institution probably sent you information about the ins and outs of its learning management system and how to use its conferencing platform. “Now is the time to dive in and really make sure that you’re comfortable with your learning system or at least comfortable with knowing where the information you need is, because you’re going to have to lean on it really, really hard when you’re teaching online,” says Marita Barth, a chemistry instructor at Oregon State University who teaches in its online program.

In addition, Barth says, people can reach out to accessibility experts and instructional designers at their institutions. Those people probably know “things you wouldn’t think about that make the classes more usable,” she says.

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Chemists should also pull together as they prepare to shift online, experts say. “There’s no reason for every single person to reinvent the wheel,” Barth says. Professors have begun sharing documents that list prerecorded video demonstrations and simulations, among other resources.

In terms of technology, your school might have a license for screen-capturing software such as Camtasia or Kaltura. These programs allow you to record videos as you lecture and annotate your slides. Such things will be easier with a tablet computer that you can write on.

“Every faculty member who comes in here, we buy them a tablet. I tell them I don’t know when they’re going to use it,” says Ian R. Gould, associate director of the School of Molecular Sciences at Arizona State University. But now, because of coronavirus-related closures, “a tablet PC or an iPad is the most important teaching tool you have,” Gould adds. “Draw on it. Record yourselves.”

“Gaining comfort with however you want to communicate information is going to be super important,” Barth says.

Be aware of accessibility issues, including students’ technology constraints

Don’t assume that your students are tech savvy or that they have access to the internet.

Even among the so-called digital natives, your students may not be as comfortable with technology as you think. “When I started teaching online, I made the assumption that my students were all going to be very tech savvy, and that is absolutely not the case,” Barth says.

You have to decide whether you plan to deliver content synchronously or asynchronously. In synchronous instruction, students watch the lecture as you’re giving it in real time. For asynchronous teaching, you record and upload videos for students to watch at their leisure.

In the early days of planning its response to the coronavirus, Arizona State gave all faculty members their own “rooms” in Zoom, the web conferencing platform, that can accommodate up to about 300 students. The chemistry department did trial runs with professors who had never taught online before.

“We had a faculty member sitting in his office talking to 60 students on Zoom. We recorded it, and it worked great,” Gould says. The faculty member is a person normally resistant to new technology, but Gould says the department got him up and running in about 10 minutes.

But for something like Zoom to work, students need to have internet connections that can handle streaming. If that’s not true for your students, a better option may be videos that students can download.

Debbie Mitchell, a professor at the University of Denver, previously taught online for Brigham Young University–Idaho. Her students—some in rural Idaho, others around the US—had mixed access to the internet. “One of the most important things for faculty to figure out is what resources your students have. Do they have a library that they can go to? Do they have access to some type of internet? Because Zoom is not really going to be an option if you don’t have a pretty decent connection.”

Adding captions to videos can help with accessibility, although the specialized vocabulary of chemistry can make captioning a challenge. “Auto caption will absolutely mangle the things we say,” Barth says. Manually checking the accuracy of captions takes time, “but it’s absolutely worth doing,” she says. “Many universities have resources for that available, but it’s important to start early.” Students—even ones who don’t have impaired hearing—will appreciate it, she says.

Beware of the technical challenges

Video isn’t the only technology that can present challenges. The audio that accompanies online lectures can also be troublesome.

“It’s surprisingly difficult to get the audio right,” Gould says. Arizona State bought a batch of tablets that they discovered had poor internal microphones. “You might want to get a decent USB microphone” to have as a backup, he says.

And even a good microphone won’t work well if you’re not actually speaking into it. “The hardest thing we have is training faculty members not to walk around because then the sound comes and goes,” Gould says. Arizona State has tried to find a wireless solution, but they find that the quality of low-end wireless microphones isn’t good and high-end wireless microphones are too expensive.

If you have time, practice before you switch to online. “It doesn’t have to be a full-length practice. You don’t have to stand in front of a mirror and give your lecture,” Barth says. What you need to practice is making sure you know the right buttons to press and the right order to press them in. You want to ensure that “what they’re seeing is actually what you think they’re seeing,” she says.

Reading the virtual “room”

Building community with students can be difficult online. “Teaching online requires more effort per student than teaching in person, because you have to work really hard to cultivate and build a community,” Barth says.

Unless you’re using a synchronous platform such as Zoom, you can’t get visual cues from the students about whether they understand the material. And even then, individual students may not have webcams or there may be too many participants to easily see each student.

As a result, you have to find an avenue of communication in which students feel comfortable asking questions. Many instructors will move communication to email.

“It can be terrifying to put your hand up in class, but it’s a lot scarier to cold email a professor who’s never shown any interest in hearing from you,” Barth says. “I write to my online students in a way I probably wouldn’t communicate with anyone else, because I need them to know I care about them and that it’s OK to ask.” Barth emphasizes writing to students in a conversational way, being approachable, and preparing for students to contact you at hours outside the normal workday.

Keep it short and simple

If you’re someone who still delivers 50-minute lectures in your class, that’s not a good strategy for online teaching, experts say.

A better strategy than simply delivering a full-length lecture is to break the videos into manageable chunks. “You can take advantage of the format to do one topic, do it well, and do it in 12–15 min,” Barth says. “If calculations are involved, break those out as a separate video.”

“Keep videos super short, as short as possible,” Mitchell says. “I wouldn’t make a video longer than 15 min. Students aren’t going to want to watch it.”

And even shorter may be even better. “We tried very intently to keep videos short because the attention span for dense material beyond 6 min is pretty challenging,” says Jeffrey S. Moore of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, who was involved with creating videos for a so-called flipped class, in which students watched lectures before coming to class and then worked problems during classtime. “We broke things up into pretty tight snippets of information. A given lecture might have covered three or four of those.”

Plan for assessment

Beyond delivering course material to students via the internet, there’s also the question of how much they learn. That’s where assessments come in, and educators may have to adjust their strategies as they move online.

The final exams for Mitchell’s classes were the week of March 16 (the University of Denver is on a quarter system). She usually gives paper exams, but she put this one in the online learning management system because of concerns over coronavirus. “I am just letting go of worrying about whether they are cheating,” she says. “I’m trying to write my exam in a way that it won’t help them if they look things up.”

What about the lab?

There’s not much that can be done about labs in the short term, say the experts C&EN interviewed. Even online programs such as those at Oregon State and Arizona State bring science majors studying chemistry to campus for intensive programs of a week or less in which the students do face-to-face labs. Oregon State has an extensive repository of virtual labs for its online nonmajors course. In other programs, especially general chemistry or nonmajors’ courses, students use kits to do labs at home, which wouldn’t be possible to implement on such short notice.

At the University of Denver, “we’ve been thinking really carefully about what are essential labs and what are nonessential labs,” Mitchell says. “Our nonmajors’ lab is kind of a nonessential lab. No one is going to be hurt in their future career if they don’t have a face-to-face lab.” Instead, Mitchell’s students will be spending much of the spring quarter focusing on areas such as information literacy, which can be taught online.

For other labs, the University of Denver is evaluating which labs must be done to achieve the desired learning outcomes, Mitchell says. If online teaching lasts for only part of the quarter, they’ll do essential labs when students return. If the entire quarter ends up being online, they’ll probably ask students to make-up the lab part of the course later.

On March 13, the American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training (CPT) informed chemistry departments in the US that the use of virtual labs during the pandemic will not jeopardize the approval status of their programs. CPT approves bachelor’s-degree programs that meet ACS guidelines, and the chemistry departments then certify graduates who complete an approved curriculum. ACS publishes C&EN.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many universities are embarking on an unplanned experiment in online teaching.

It’s possible that it will be a bumpy road, experts say. “Some students are probably going to have experiences that will give them pause before they take more online classes,” Barth says. Professors could struggle too. “It’s a different modality,” she says. “You can’t do the same things [as in the classroom] and expect them to work.”

But the experiences of the next several weeks might also win new converts to online teaching. “Old-school people are going to realize [teaching online] isn’t so bad,” Gould predicts.

“People will start to become more aware of the tools and what you can actually accomplish,” Barth says.


This story was updated on March 20, 2020, to clarify the role of ACS's Committee on Professional Training (CPT). It approves bachelor's degree programs that meet ACS guidelines. Chemistry departments, not CPT, then certify their graduates.


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