Professional News

Tips for Online Teaching: A Q&A With Trey Conatser

Mark Cornelison | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 17, 2020) — Last month, University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto announced the university would move to a remote learning model in response to the ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). 

For many, who have never taught an online course, the transition required many hours of work and a great deal of patience. As faculty members worldwide learn to tackle online teaching, maximizing value and efficiency for both faculty members and students must be considered. 

Although we are living in unprecedented times, we’re fortunate to have unprecedented technology to help surmount the challenge.

Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation (TLAI) has worked diligently to provide resources for staff and faculty members to ease their transition. UKNow recently spoke with Trey Conatser, associate director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), a part of TLAI, to better understand their efforts to expand support services in response to the university’s decision to move courses online. 

UKNow: How did TLAI prepare faculty members for the transition to online teaching?

Trey Conatser: When it became clear that UK would move to an emergency remote delivery format for at least a short amount of time, we began working with leadership in the colleges and administration while also energetically attending to instructors’ needs on an individual and small group basis. First, we designed a faculty survey for distribution in the colleges that provided valuable data regarding technological and pedagogical needs. Collaborating with UK ITS (Information Technology Services), we worked to get equipment where it needed to go for instructors to teach their classes successfully. Moreover, the data, along with some initial guidelines for teaching online, informed college-level plans for which we offered feedback and suggestions.

We moved quickly to offer all-day and weekend virtual office hours as well as consult with individuals and groups on all aspects of online course delivery, from the technical to the teacherly. Our Faculty Media Depot has gone entirely online, as well, with office hours and consultations on the design and production of video, audio and visual media. While all this was happening, we began to produce documentation and video resources for asynchronous faculty support, and these are housed along with other materials and best practices on the Teach Anywhere website, which we brought online with the generous support and expertise of UKPR and Marketing and Brand Strategy.

One of the great advantages to working at the state’s flagship university is the enormous amount of expertise and experience that our faculty bring to the table. We’ve seen a lot of grassroots support among colleagues already, and on top of that we’ve cultivated a roster of volunteers with whom we’d be happy to connect anyone looking for help, as well as a UK Teaching Community Slack group for faculty, instructors and staff to share questions, strategies and resources across the disciplines.

UKNow: Has the transition process posed any serious issues? 

Conatser: Students can be in very different situations when it comes to their access to technology and ability to participate in learning activities, and this asks educators to respond in creative and humane ways. If we keep our learning goals in mind and prioritize the essential elements to attain those goals, we have a lot of freedom to design learning pathways that still engage students in meaningful activities without burdening (or excluding) them during an already difficult time. This gets at the spirit of Universal Design for Learning: presenting content, engaging learners and allowing for expression in ways that are equitable for all students, no matter their backgrounds and situations.

Of course, for faculty, this transition has required an unprecedented leap into teaching online at a mass scale, and this can be overwhelming, especially for those of us who had not thought of ourselves as “online teachers.” Taking a significant portion of the semester and, within a week or two, redesigning courses for a remote audience represents a herculean effort on the part of our faculty. There are always anxieties about what to do if the technology doesn’t work, as well as persistent questions about whether the critical elements of a course can be preserved in such a rapid switch to the virtual environment. Practice-based coursework like labs, studios, internships and clinicals, for instance, presents a unique scenario for reimagining how students can still work toward learning goals remotely.

Part of the challenge is adapting to new issues as they arise. Maintaining the safety and privacy of the online class, for example, has recently gained widespread attention in response to “zoom bombing,” and our staff have been communicating with faculty and producing resources about how to prevent this from happening. As another example, the pressing need to learn about new tools and delivery modes will need to be balanced with continuing attention to how we are creating an environment of belonging where all students feel heard and valued. In this way, we remember that a course is not just content, but also community.

What we’ve been heartened to see in the face of these issues is just how much faculty and staff have supported each other and stepped courageously into the unknown. Colleagues with experience teaching online have helped those making their first attempts, and groups at the department and college level have collaborated on solutions to shared challenges across the curriculum. In a time when both problems and possibilities seem abundant, what has truly paved the way forward for teaching and learning is the human connection that we value now more than ever.

UKNow: How does TLAI hope to continue to support faculty as online learning continues over the summer?

Conatser: Like good online teaching, we want to incorporate a strategic combination of synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for faculty to design their courses and reflect on best practices. Moreover, we want to make sure that we’re able to sustain our personalized support beyond the initial design phase, throughout the delivery of courses over the summer. We’ve devised a three-pronged approach to accomplish these goals:

  1. a self-paced Canvas course for faculty designing courses and preparing to teach for the summer;
  2. synchronous virtual workshops that cover the design process, effective tools and best practices for teaching online; and
  3. a “case load” model for ensuring that every instructor teaching over the summer has consistent, personal communications and support from a TLAI staff member or one of our expert volunteers.

UKNow: What tips do you have for teaching online?

Conatser: I pitched this question to the experts on our team, and they provided a lot of wisdom that I've consolidated in the following points.​

  1. Regularly check in with students and make adjustments based on their feedback. Especially during a time of remote instruction, it will be important for students to connect with their instructors and feel that their voice and experiences matter. For instructors, this can provide critical insights for adjustments that will enhance students’ morale and academic success. Virtual office hours, anonymous surveys and reflective activities can provide instructors with different kinds of information about student needs.​
  2. Foreground access and equity in any curricular or pedagogical decisions. Students will be connecting with their coursework using a variety of devices, with a variety of limitations, from a variety of personal situations that may impose an additional set of challenges. Digital platforms have greater or lesser degrees of accessibility, and instructors can respond proactively with alternate formats for course materials, activities and assessments. (Tools like Ally in Canvas help us gauge the accessibility of course materials.)
  3. Let students know that you value their identities and experiences. In a moment when anxiety, division and prejudice are easily exacerbated, students should feel like they belong in the class community. We can dedicate space for student voices and experiences (e.g., as part of activities or in discussion areas), and we have a responsibility to facilitate a safe and affirming online environment for students of all backgrounds and identities. This bolsters class morale and also sets students up for greater academic success.
  4. Communicate regularly, clearly and kindly. Without the natural opportunity for announcements that an in-person class affords, we’ll need to be intentional about how we convey updates and expectations. Explaining everything, including what seems obvious or common knowledge, makes great strides toward equity and understanding in the class (e.g., why a change was made in the syllabus, what students ought to expect in a quiz). Making instructions easy to find also goes a long way to helping students succeed.
  5. Remind students of the resources that are available to help them. There are a wide array of services for students such as academic support (e.g., tutoring, coaching, libraries, disability resource center), advisingstudent services (e.g., basic needs, financial support, employment and career services), wellness services (e.g., counseling, health and wellness) and technology help (e.g., IT support, student media depot). It is very possible that an instructor represents a student’s only opportunity to connect with assistance. The Learn Anywhere website is a good place to start if you’re unsure where to look for help.
  6. Keep student learning goals in mind when considering how to deliver the course online. This point may seem obvious but privileging the overall goals of a course can allow instructors to think freely about the best ways to structure the curriculum and assess student learning. Activities work differently in online environments, which invites us to rethink the norms of our teaching and the pathways to mastery in our fields. Flexibility is key; we’ll likely need to scale back in both pacing and workload, as well as adjust the schedule and activities if they’re not working how we’d hoped.
  7. That said, structure and consistency allow students to focus on what matters. Whatever curriculum and activities we design, students need to focus their available energy (which is, like ours, often drained in this moment) on the activities that matter for their success. Canvas modules that follow a regular pattern, for example, prevent a lot of confusion about what students are supposed to be doing, and consistency of communication (e.g., channel, format, timing) takes even more guesswork out of the equation.
  8. Choose synchronous and asynchronous activities strategically, and strive for engagement in both. Remote teaching doesn’t mean that people aren’t interacting. And, there is no one format that represents the sine qua non of effective teaching online. What matters is the design rather than the technology; as long as activities are intentionally structured and explicitly connected (i.e., scaffolding) with ample opportunities for students to give and receive feedback on their learning, the class will be effective. Zoom meetings might be the best choice for one instructor, while another might choose Canvas-based activities instead.
  9. No one is alone in this endeavor. Seek advice regularly, from a variety of sources. We may not be on campus at the moment, but our professional communities are as committed as ever to support us. The experts in Teaching, Learning, and Academic Innovation are always available to consult, and a benefit of working at the state’s flagship university is the enormous amount of expertise among our colleagues. (We can connect you with a colleague, as well as invite you to the UK Teaching Community Slack group.) On social media, too, we’ve seen a myriad of groups and hashtags pop up for folks to share tips and tricks.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.