Adjusting expectations, avoiding tech overload and teaching effectively online in the wake of COVID-19: Advice from an eLearning expert


Adam Maksl

When the “move everything online” chaos created by the coronavirus hit college campuses in Indiana, Adam Maksl became one of the most popular people around.

Maksl, an associate professor of journalism and media at Indiana University Southeast, is currently serving as a Faculty fellow for eLearning Design & Innovation in IU’s Learning Technologies division (a unit within its IT organization, University Information Technology Services).

“I work with a group of highly talented instructional designers and technologists focusing on digital teaching, especially in online classes,” he said in an email interview this week. “My job is essentially to try to work with faculty across IU’s seven campuses and help them think more innovatively about how they teach with technology, especially in online classes.”

As both an expert in online course development and someone who has been working nonstop to help folks keep teaching in this unprecedented time, Maksl has been helping to develop key best practices for educators. He’s also trying to prevent instructors from burning out or trying to do too much.

He was nice enough to answer some questions that might help you as you continue to make the move to an online-only classroom:

Q: You teach online courses, including media law, so you have some experience in this area. What are some of the things you build into the online version that help you minimize any problems that might occur without the face-to-face component and what are some things you do that accentuate the value of online learning?

A: “I’ve designed and taught six journalism courses fully online at IU Southeast (Intro to Mass Comm; Reporting, Writing & Editing; Communications Law; Media Career Planning; Social Media Strategies; and Data Storytelling & Visualization) and another two when I was a Ph.D. student at Mizzou (a mass comm theory seminar and a grad reporting class). I’m currently teaching Communications Law online. Three of those IU Southeast courses have received certification from Quality Matters, an organization that helps universities establish quality-control guidelines and reviews courses for adherence to those guidelines.

“When people talk about online teaching and learning, they generally mean asynchronous teaching and learning, where instructors and students are not online at the same time and interaction among students, the content, and instructors does not take place in real-time. Though I’ve taught many classes synchronously in person, most of my online experience is asynchronous. What most instructors are talking about in response to COVID-19 is replicating synchronous face-to-face classes by conducting them over distance using tools like Zoom.

“That’s an important distinction, because the value of most online learning often is in the asynchronous nature of most of it. For most learners, the biggest value of online learning is not the ability to take classes from far-away universities (despite the fact that “online” and “distance” education are sometimes used interchangeably, most online learners enroll in colleges within 50 miles of their homes). Rather, it is the ability for students to “time-shift,” placing their school work where it fits in their busy schedules, between work, family life, and other modern challenges.

“The reason I mention all of this is because I think many face-to-face faculty might be inclined to use tools like Zoom to simply try to plan synchronous class sessions in their rapid move online. On one hand, it might seem most natural because; after all, they are used to teaching synchronously. It’s also, perhaps, the lightest lift when they’re only given a few days to make the transition. However, we need to realize that in all the stress, the technological inequities, and other challenges students may face in this environment, allowing for flexibility and time-shifting is perhaps even more important now.

“Perhaps the most important piece of advice for teaching online, especially in asynchronous environments, is that faculty need to be explicit about what their expectations are of students. In journalism, we often talk about the importance of the words we use because “perception is reality” and that we have limited opportunities to make our words clear to our audiences. We should adopt that mentality for our teaching online. We should also try to anticipate what students’ questions or concerns might be and address those ahead of time, because in an asynchronous online environment we can’t adapt to non-verbal queues like we can in a face-to-face environment.

“Try also to use your learning management system (e.g., Canvas, Blackboard, D2L, etc.) consistently and clearly. Practice what we know from publication and media design and development, and make sure the navigation in your course makes sense. You want your students — who are already stressed because of the broader COVID-19 crisis and probably have lower cognitive load — to devote their time and energy to your course content and not trying to figure out how your course is structured. That’s actually good advice in the future, too.

Q: You mentioned to me that when the virus hit and people started to need to go online down by you, you and your folks got extremely busy. That makes sense. What were some of the biggest concerns faculty members had in regard to moving everything online and what kinds of things could you provide to help them out?

A: “I think early on, the concerns were about technology – how do I use this tool to transition what I’m doing in the face-to-face environment online. What we tried first to do is get them to realize in this environment, they might have to adjust their expectations for students (and themselves). Not to lower them, but to adjust them. We also wanted to encourage faculty to be flexible in their plans and how they implement them.

“For example, some people were concerned about attendance – how do I take attendance in a Zoom call, for instance. We tried to encourage faculty to think about other ways to address engagement, rather than simply attending, since the factors to do so could be impacted by so many things, like tech, living situations, health, which are variable in this kind of environment.

“We also suggested to faculty that if they had a tool they’ve used before to do something, keep using that tool even if we were showing them something else. This is not the time to learn a whole new system or to add bells and whistles to a class if the new tool is not absolutely necessary.

“IU has had a website for years called, and in the last couple weeks, we’ve added a lot of resources to it (I’ve helped a little, but this is the work of many other folks so I can’t take any credit for anything on here). There is a list of specific strategies that align with the primary functions of a class (getting material to students, delivering lectures, assessing work, etc.), which provide good strategies.”

Q: What would be kind of your strategy for faculty who are trying to move things online? In other words, I’ve been hearing random platitudes like “Work smarter, not harder” or “Just be flexible.” What kinds of concrete pieces of advice can you offer to people as they move all of this over in a short amount of time?

A: “Sometimes there’s some truth in the platitudes (maybe not the “work smart, not harder” one). But flexibility is key. So is being clear and explicit with students about your goals and expectations.

“There are tech solutions to some of the problems we’re facing, but before we get to tech solutions, it’s important for a faculty member to understand the principles by which they are making the change. In my own class, which is fully online this semester already, I lightened the load a little for students (with their input), and I was clear about why I was doing that. I think in a period of social isolation and social distancing, we need to be even more connected to our students than we might have been before. That connection and interaction can go a long way.

“As for specific tips and tricks.

  • Be clear about your expectations and communicate them (thinking of your students as a journalistic audience)
  • Avoid synchronous solutions (and if you use them, make sure to provide opportunities for students not able to attend those meetings to participate, such as by viewing recorded videos or reading a transcript).
  • Avoid tech overload (especially with many ed tech companies seem to be falling over themselves to try to get people to sign up for their services). Keep it simple, for your own sake and as well as for your students’.
  • Keep in mind that this kind of emergency situation has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities, especially those relating to technology access, so really do be flexible. Try to design your course to build that flexibility in without having to require students who are less privileged to keep asking for accommodations.
  • Try to develop assessments that don’t rely on proctoring, especially live proctoring. There are both tech limitations (such as the fact that some students may not have the necessary devices) and logistical ones (such as the fact that there are simply a finite number of human proctors in the world). Maybe create open-book tests or assessments that measure application of course concepts and not simple recall of facts.

Q: What would be the one big thing you’d want to tell professors, teachers and other instructors in terms of dealing with this move to online? What’s the best advice you can give them?

A: “If I were to have to boil it down to one thing, especially for journalism and media faculty who are likely to read your blog, it would be that faculty should try to frame what they’re doing in the move online to what they teach students to do in their classes. The skills journalism and media programs teach are highly applicable to online teaching, so recognizing those compatible skills may give journalism and media faculty more confidence in their ability to rapidly move online.”

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