Teaching Strategies

Welcoming Learning Environment

The transition from the classroom to remote learning doesn’t have to be a disorienting experience for you or your students simply because you’re no longer in a physical classroom. In fact, you can create a clear, coherent, and inviting virtual classroom by using the Canvas learning management system. 

Your Canvas course not only allows you to post your course syllabus and upload digital files of your course materials, but Canvas also allows you to create online discussion boards, create links to your Zoom web conferencing sessions, post announcements, organize your weekly class activities into modules, and accept and grade uploaded assignment submissions from your students. A well-organized Canvas course site will help to keep your newly remote students organized and provide you with a home-base from which to lead your course. 

Utilizing Canvas, you can do the following to create an organized and welcoming virtual classroom for you and your students:

  • Create a homepage and post an updated syllabus
  • Use the announcements feature to communicate with your students
  • Use the modules feature to create a detailed outline of each week of your course
    • Elements of a weekly online module include:
      • Weekly objectives or learning goals
      • All course readings and materials for the week, whether these are prompts to specific textbook readings, links to PDFs or Google Docs, links to videos, or e-reserves from the BC libraries. 
      • Links to Zoom synchronous sessions and recordings of Zoom or Panopto videos
      • Asynchronous weekly discussion forums to facilitate class discussion and participation 
      • Assignment submission links including instructions and related rubrics
  • Set up the Canvas gradebook to calculate grades and to deliver feedback to your students

You can use this Basic Module Template to map out each week of your course, and copy it into the text editor within the Modules feature in Canvas. 

Additional tips for creating a welcoming learning environment:

  • Create a “Questions & Comments” discussion forum where students can ask you and their classmates questions.
  • Provide opportunities for students to work in small groups on projects and assignments, as this will increase their interaction with each other.
  • Post weekly welcome announcements and wrap-up announcements to show that you are present and engaged and to give students a sense of structure. 
  • Conduct regular office hours (via Zoom or Google Hangouts) to provide students with a reliable venue for interacting with you one-on-one. 

Creating an Organized Canvas Environment with Modules

Organize Lesson Materials in One Place

One of the main benefits of Canvas’ module function is that it allows instructors to organize material topically and into individual lessons.  One Canvas module, for example, might correspond to a class session or even an entire course unit (or week of instruction) with multiple sub-sections.  Instructors seeking to move in-person course content to Canvas modules as a way of teaching through disruption might not build modules as detailed as in some courses originally designed to be online, but may still find the tool useful for remotely guiding students through a variety of materials.  Digital materials and Canvas pages for a lesson can be organized in one location along with anything students need to do in response.  This makes it easier for students to find and navigate course content and know what is required of them, mitigating some of the confusion that they may feel over how to proceed online with courses which were originally in-person.

Consider Asynchronous Content and Engagement

Another benefit of organizing course materials and student activity via Canvas’ module function is that it’s asynchronous.  While some instructors may have success with hosting live, online class sessions via Zoom, others may find that doing so poses difficulties for them or their students.  Some students may be in time zones which are not conducive to participation at the appointed class time, while others may experience technological or environmental barriers to joining a synchronous video class session.  Canvas modules may be completed within a designated window of time, but at the specific availability and pace of each student.

Take Advantage of Multimedia 

In adapting a disrupted traditional course to an online environment, instructors may wish to take advantage of a variety of media types to engage students and substitute for in-person instruction such as video, lecture capture, electronic articles, pictures and graphics, and surveys.  Media and links to outside websites can be embedded in a Canvas page and organized as part of a module.  This way students are not directed to exterior sites, don’t have to hunt down resources in different locations, and can find everything they need in one place.  Canvas also has plugin capabilities for applications like Perusall.

Give Specific Guidance and Sign-Post Often

Since instructors will not always be available to answer questions in real time, it’s vital to give students clear and specific instructions for navigating Canvas modules.  Make sure students know what modules are and how to access them. Within modules themselves, it’s advisable to sign-post often and provide students with clear, up-front descriptions of what is expected of them.  Consider beginning each module with an overview of its components. Introductory statements like “in this module we will: 1)… 2)…” or “by the end of this module you should be able to…” are helpful guides for students.  Instructors may want to similarly introduce any embedded media by suggesting larger questions, issues, or concepts students should keep in mind while reading or watching.

Include Interactive Components

Consider giving students an opportunity to reinforce what they’ve learned throughout a module via an interactive component.  Rather than simply asking students to read or watch through online materials, instructors can design modules to culminate in discussion board posts, the electronic submission of an assignment, or a quiz.  Discussion boards, assignments, and quizzes can be included directly in a module like pages.  These features of Canvas may also prove to be suitable substitutions for in-person discussions, group activities, or examinations that were disrupted in traditional course formats.  Whatever the interactive components, be sure to provide a specific forum for student questions.

Summarize and Contextualize

However students interact with module content, instructors should set clear expectations for how and when they will respond.  Consider debriefing assignments and discussions in a general way with the whole class or responding to students individually, so that there is regular guidance from the instructor in response to students’ independent work online.  Instructors might also consider how to contextualize a Canvas module within the larger work of the course, be that to other Canvas modules, assignment/exam structures, or synchronous web-conferencing. To return to the concept of sign-posting, statements like “in the last module/Zoom/assignment we [X]… and in this module/Zoom/assignment we will build on that by…” can help students keep track of the trajectory and goals of a course across different modes of instruction.

Play to the Strengths of Online Instruction

Finally, while many instructors (and students) may understandably feel that something is lost in adapting a course planned for a traditional, in-person environment to an online environment, it’s worth briefly considering some advantages of online learning.  A lot of online learning can be iterative in a way that in-person lectures or discussions often are not. For example, students can pause and rewind a video when they don’t understand a point, they can page through a module twice, or return to module materials when studying for an exam.  Online learning and discussions can also offer more space for student reflection. Students can engage material at their own pace and, if asked to comment on it, have more time to develop careful, considered responses than they might in an in-person discussion. Instructors might be surprised to find that some students who are reluctant to participate in person make substantial contributions in an online forum.  When contemplating how to modify an in-person course for an online environment, consider how these and other potential strengths of online learning might benefit the adapted course and its students.

Recommended Resources:

4 Tips for Making Online Courses More Welcoming – Video [Educause, 2019]

How to Keep the Human Element in Online Classes – Article [EdSurge, 2016]

Creating Real Time Connections Online – Resource [Harvard University]

11 Tips for Setting the Tone in Your Online Course – Article [Faculty Focus, 2007]

Creating Online Learning Experiences: Effective Practices – E-book Chapter [ Crosslin, et al, 2018]

Adjusted Syllabus “Principles” – Brandon Bayne of UNC-Chapel Hill developed new course principles for his revised remote instruction syllabus