Online teaching quick and dirty:
COVID-19 edition

Ana Maria Barral
March 12, 2020

Academic Twitter and email lists are full of both angst and advice regarding moving to online teaching in a very short time due to the coronavirus epidemic. I sympathize. As somebody who teaches both onsite and online, I can attest that the first online courses are hard, even with enough time and support. It takes a lot of work to set up a decent online course, and it is an ongoing process to keep it engaging, interactive, attractive, up to date with technology, etc.

So this article is dedicated to those colleagues who are new to online teaching and who have to switch in a very short time, based on my experience of more than 10 years in the online realm. This is focused on undergraduate biology courses.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

First of all, keep calm

Chances are, students will be quite comfortable with the online environment. But also be aware that this will not be an optimal course.

Stand on the shoulders of giants (including textbook providers)

There is no need to reinvent the wheel and no shame in taking something that is already developed (especially if the time is short). Most textbooks (at least in my field, biology) will have some kind of online support website. Many will have short videos, embeddable quizzes and other activities that can be used as low-stakes assignments and homework.

Structure, organization, guidance

Decide on the structure of the course. Weeks? Topics? It is simple to create content folders/modules based on the major structure. Make them repetitive (each module/folder containing the same type of materials/assignments). Routine and predictability is good. Students need guidance about what to do and where to find it. It is not a bad idea to have a task list somewhere with all assignments and due dates.


Recording lectures is a major task. There are courses and workshops dedicated to how to do it. There are tech requirements. They take time and effort to make them right. Decide if such effort is necessary if time is short. There are plenty of great video collections (and that includes YouTube) already available. The more that is outsourced, the more time and effort that can be dedicated to the really important stuff.

Exams, etc.

Some people make exams from scratch. Others use test banks or software such as Testgen. The latter usually allows exporting as a file that can be imported into the learning-management system. In the case of Blackboard, it is a compressed file. Again, if time is short, it may be worthy to use a test bank and edit the questions later. Note: Plagiarism is obviously much easier online. Check that the question prompts are not “Googlable.”


Well, that’s a complex issue, and a lot depends on the kind of lab. I have no problem using fully virtual labs or take-home kits for nonmajors’ lab classes. Some schools are OK with virtual science labs for almost everything. In any case, there are all kinds of simulations and virtual labs online (check out HHMI Interactive). And there are specialized companies that make them, some quite good.

Another option is to have students buy a kit that they use at home. Or use labs using household supplies (deshelled eggs for diffusion! catalase activity using diced potato and peroxide at different pH!) Again, it depends on the lab and the audience.


Well, while online classes don’t have the face-to-face aspect, instructors may be pleasantly surprised that they will get the voices of shy students if using tools such as discussion boards. Have one for each week or topic, and ask an open-ended question with no right/wrong answer. Or ask students to share something from the class or from science websites. Note: For discussion boards to be worthwhile, requirements such as minimum word number should be clearly stated. Oh, and have students comment on each others’ postings.

Live interactions.

Zoom and other videoconferencing tools can be used for a one-per-week meeting. Many things can be done with practice and technology (drawing on a whiteboard, polling, asking for feedback, place students in breakout rooms), but, for starters, it can be fine just to lecture on a PowerPoint and have the floor open for questions via chat, for example.

The personal touch

Online teaching requires being responsive and proactive. Reach out to students regularly via announcements or email. Respond quickly when students have questions. Be aware that some students may not have steady internet access or computers with software we take for granted. Be flexible. Be kind.

So these are my thoughts for instructors who are not familiar with online teaching and need to set up online courses in a short time. Hopefully there will be plenty of tech support for this transition.

Personally, even in onsite courses, I tend to do as much “flipping” as possible to give students flexibility and time. Lectures are recorded, low-stakes quizzes are online, practice quizzes are available before exams, and written assignments are submitted online.

One last thought: If you are new to online teaching, take an online course to experience how it is. Being on the receiving end is a great eye-opener to the good and the bad of online teaching.


I left out, on purpose, pointing to specific vendors or websites. Needless to say, the more sophisticated the tool, it tends to cost. On the other hand, shinier is not always better — in fact a tech tool requiring fast internet to work just brings problems and is discriminating. Less is more!

This article originally appeared on the writer's blog. It was republished with permission.

Ana Maria Barral

Ana Maria Barral is an assistant professor at National University’s Costa Mesa, California, campus. Follow her on Twitter.

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