Emergency Course Build Checklist: A Response to COVID-19

Emergency Course Build Checklist: A Response to COVID-19

Group with masks.

The Scenario

Your class was never intended to be online. It was delivered face-to- face to a live audience. Perhaps it followed that same structure for years. Now, with little warning, it’s an online class. Where do you start? What do you prioritize? And what is essential to create a meaningfully engaging learning experience online? Rapidly transitioning a course to online doesn’t require recreating every element of the face-to-face version. The course doesn’t require every tool on the shelf or every feature available within the Learning Management System (LMS). But it does need structure. It needs milestones. It needs an instructional framework. And above all, it needs an intuitive path for your students to navigate and connect. A few quick steps within your LMS can establish those elements and set a firm foundation for the remainder of the term. Here are five steps you can take to get your course up and running.

Step 1: Update your syllabus to reflect the online landscape of your institution.

The foundations of your syllabus—the learning outcomes, key topics, major assessments, and instructional goals—needn’t change when taking the course online. But after taking stock of the policies, requirements, and resources set by your institution during this period, you’ll want to make some key updates to reflect the transition. Once updated, the syllabus should be placed prominently in the LMS and referenced in communications. Consider the following questions:

How is your institution approaching participation requirements online? It’s important to state up front how students will replace the in-person attendance requirements by logging in and engaging with the course at a certain frequency. Ideally, this policy will also be consistent with other courses at your institution so that students don’t get mixed signals.

What teaching expectations has your institution set for online?Teaching online shouldn’t mean 24/7 availability, but you should let students know how to reach you, when you’ll be online, and when you’ll typically respond to emails. If you expect to respond to students within 24 hours, state that as your policy. You’ll alleviate a lot of student anxiety if students know when they can expect to hear back from you.

What grading policies are in place at your institution? Given the abrupt transition to online, some schools have increased flexibility for instructors with regard to pass/fail grading, the number or type of assignments, and accommodations made for late or incomplete work. See whether any revised policies have been communicated to students or faculty and adopt these policies as needed in your course.

What technology tools have been made freely available to all students? You should never adopt a technology just for the sake of using it, but if communicating with the class or completing an assignment will require technology, make sure to inform students up front on how to access the technology and any support resources.

Step 2: Establish a consistent strategy and structure for class discussions.

Moving online is a chance to reflect on your unique teaching style. What is your method for engaging students on key concepts? How does your expertise add to that experience? Depending on your answers, a synchronous or asynchronous approach to discussion could effectively recreate the learning experience. Structured effectively, online discussions can promote and encourage critical thinking. Additionally, students “benefit from online discussions by being able to construct their own knowledge, reflect the knowledge of the real world, and learn from others by exchanging thoughts or ideas” (Hsaio, Chen, & Hu, 2013, p. 15). In setting up your class, create a weekly schedule of live sessions and/or a series of topical discussion forums within the LMS, with clearly stated expectations and simplified steps for participation. Include at least one “practice” session to orient students, and provide feedback after the practice discussion is complete, reaching out individually to students who need additional support (Smith, 2015). Discussions enhance online learning; however, without clear expectations of what the posts are expected to look like, students could be more likely to disengage with the activity and provide fewer substantive posts (Covelli, 2017). Consider the following:

  • Hold live class sessions using a video chat tool such as Zoom or Skype, set at the same time as when your class would have met face-to-face. Use the tool your institution has made available to all students and/or has institutional support resources.
  • Record each of your class sessions to share with the class. Those who cannot attend due to scheduling issues can watch the session on their own time. The recordings can also be posted in an announcement or discussion forum for students to comment asynchronously.
  • Keep the recorded conversation active through asynchronous discussion forums that prompt students to explore the topic in greater depth. Have students address one of the big questions from the live conversation through their independent research.
  • Assign students to groups and ask them to collaborate synchronously to complete an assignment or discuss a topic. They can submit a summary of their session for a participation grade.
  • Pre-record lecture content and key insights to share with the class. Consider recording these sessions in short chunks (5-10 minutes) and ask students to respond in a discussion forum, assignment, or survey.
  • Elevate the exchange in discussions through occasional interjections that draw attention to responses that exemplify the effective use of reasoned arguments and/or insightful interpretation of texts.
  • Encourage student-led discussion sessions where a member of the class leads the conversation and shares resources.

Step 3: Create weekly assignments to encourage participation

Your class may have already had weekly assignments built into the structure. But if not, creating graded activities due at the end of each week will keep students active in the course and provide a built-in mechanism for monitoring participation. They needn’t all be time-consuming or complex to set up. This is a great opportunity to incorporate student-generated activities where the class takes the lead in identifying and presenting on real-life examples of a key topic. The literature has recognized the positive impact that student-generated activities can have on communication, satisfaction, community, and engagement. (Armstrong, Tucker, & Massad, 2009; Stanley & Zhang, 2018). Assessments that require students to produce a representation of learned course objectives and to present said product to their peers and/or instructors foster an interactive environment in which students feel compelled to participate. Short online assignments are also an opportunity to incorporate authentic tasks to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and real-world environments. Such implications allow learners to take knowledge and utilize it in conjunction with their experiences to make knowledge more than just facts (Luo, Murray, & Crompton, 2017). Consider the following:

  • Prompt students to briefly reflect on the weekly topic and connect it to their own experience.
  • Have students take a weekly survey, similar to an exit poll, where they evaluate their own progress.
  • Assign students the task of finding a real-life example of the key topics.
  • Ask students to create an authentic activity that applies the topic to a real industry. For instance, an engineering course could ask students to design a product, while an education course could ask students to redesign an assessment.
  • Ask students to write a summary of the live session that identifies the key information presented or discussed.
  • Require a rough draft of a major assignment due at the end of the course, and consider grouping students for peer reviews to encourage virtual community building.
  • Have students develop sample test questions on the week’s topics.
  • Assign a different student or group of students to be the “expert” on individual topics and to prepare a handout, presentation, or quiz for the rest of the class.
  • Have students locate an additional reading or video that connects to the week’s topics and lead a discussion around that resource.
  • Create a Q&A discussion forum where students can build community and share knowledge.

Step 4: Curate and post weekly instructional resources with framing text.

Your course probably already had a collection of textbook chapters, scholarly journal articles, popular press resources, videos, and/or case studies assigned to students. There is no need to change those. However, it is important to provide clarity and context for each resource in an online learning environment, as students will be reviewing the assigned resources without you in the room. Adding framing text will humanize the course by establishing your teaching presence. Interacting with content alongside students allows you to bolster student feelings of community and increases students’ understanding of course outcomes and learning goals (Dolan, 2017). One of the main identifiers of success in encouraging critical thinking amongst students is how the instructor engages with the coursework; structure and facilitation is key (Manderbach, B., Forrest, K., Babutzke, J., & Manker, L., 2009). Consider the following:

  • Create a page that organizes your required and supplemental materials by week.
  • For each set of resources, write a paragraph of text or record a very short video that places the materials within the context of the course. Why were they assigned? How do they tie into the assessments? What questions should students consider while they are reading/viewing?
  • Consider recording a short video to review some key concepts and considerations. Video recordings can help to humanize the online course space and foster community.
  • Reflect on which resources are the most essential and that set the foundation for the entire week.
  • Highlight those in their own space on the page with a dedicated introduction paragraph.
  • Link your social media feeds. Many of your students might already be following their personal and career interests through social media outlets. Share your own social media feeds within your course as a way to deliver in-the-now information.

Step 5: Create presence with personalized class announcements.

Don’t let going online disrupt the personalized touch and sense of community you’ve created in your class. There is a plethora of research that supports the social nature of education and the importance of creating a shared experience for learners and instructors (Moore, 1993; Vygotsky, 1978). After putting all the content and assessments in place, a series of 1-2 communications per week is essential to keep the class connected. These can be informal, with a tone that matches your teaching style and provides continuity with the existing class culture. Just make sure to actively prompt students for their participation. In online courses, opportunities for student engagement need to be deliberately designed (Martin & Bolliger, 2018). Your communications should strive to create a learning environment that provides opportunities for connection between students and instructors. Consider the following:

  • Record short video announcements on your laptop computer for specific milestones in the course. Production values aren’t critical. What matters is the message and the tone.
  • If possible, pre-schedule your announcements within the LMS to automatically go out each week, creating a regular pattern of communications.
  • Look for opportunities outside the announcement cadence to highlight exceptional work, ask students questions about their prior knowledge, or draw attention to something in the news. Even if it’s just a few written sentences or a quick question, it will validate your active presence in the course to students.


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Covelli, B. J. (2017). Online discussion boards: The practice of building community for adult learners. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 65, 139-145.

Dolan, J., Kain, K., Reilly, J., & Bansal, G. (2017). How do you build community and foster engagement in online courses? New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 151, 45-60.

Hsaio, W-Y., Chen, M., & Hu, H-W. (2013). Assessing online discussions: Adoption of critical thinking as a grading criterion. The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society, 9, 15-25.

Luo, T., Murray, A., & Crompton, H. (2017). Designing authentic learning activities to train pre-service teachers about teaching online. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(7). doi:10.19173/irrodl.v18i7.3037

Mandernach, B., Forrest, K., Babutzke, J., & Manker, L. (2009). The role of instructor interactivity in promoting critical thinking in online and face-to-face classrooms. MERLOT Journal of Online Teaching and Learning, 5(1), 49-52. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol5no1/mandernach_0309.htm.

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Smith, D. N. (2015). Effectively using discussion boards to engage students in introductory leadership courses. Journal of Leadership Education, 14, 229-37.

Stanley, D., & Zhang, Y. (2018). Student-produced videos can enhance engagement and learning in the online environment. Online Learning, 22(2), 5-26. doi: 10.24059/olj.v22i2.1367

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. In M. Gauvain & M. Cole (Eds.), (1997). Readings on the development of children (2nd ed.). W. H. Freeman.