Online Strategies due to COVID-19, Part 2

In this series of posts, the StatTLC blog team describes how we are managing with the abrupt changes to our courses. In this, we share some of our decisions (and the thinking that went into them), the tools we are using, and tips. We are teaching a diverse set of classes this semester at institutions with many different technology tools. We hope that you find this useful as you make some decisions for your classes moving forward in the time of COVID-19.

Adam’s Situation

Calendar: My institution is on trimesters, so instead of switching a class to an online-only format midstream, we are starting our spring term courses online. We hope to be in person for the second half of the spring, but I doubt that will happen.

Classes: Introduction to data science (undergrad, 34 students), Statistical consulting (undergrad elective, 15 students)

Switched to: Synchronous online classes on 3/11/2020

Technology: Institution uses Moodle, Zoom/Google Hangouts Meet, Panopto; I’ll also use GitHub and Slack for data science.

Adam’s Thoughts

With my “extended” spring break I am making changes to my two courses for online delivery. Both courses require students to use R extensively. In consulting, students work on a group project all term. In data science, students are learning a lot of fundamental ideas and solving problems for homework. I’m a bit worried about the tech requirements for these courses, but there is no way around it without devising completely new courses, which is out of the question. Luckily, my institution already has an RStudio server that students can use remotely. The IT department is also working to get all students internet access and equipment, but who knows how that will go in practice.

My consulting course was supposed to meet once a week for two hours. This allows students to meet with their groups and check in with me. I plan to schedule 30-minute weekly check-ins with each group. I’ll also be using Moodle heavily to guide project progress and have students submit weekly journals where they outline their progress and reflect on assigned readings.

To adapt data science for remote delivery, I plan to do the following:

  • I need to set student expectations from the start and make sure that we are all in this together. I plan to be very transparent, and openly admit there will be technical snafus and unforeseen struggles in this new format. I also really need to beef up my syllabus with a lot of new statements about these expectations.
  • I am going to shamelessly use existing content, recording new lectures via Panopto only when necessary. These videos will be viewed asynchronously. 
  • Like Laura Ziegler (Part I), I plan to make weekly videos with a recap of last week and a look ahead to this week.
  • I’ll use Slack for discussion outside of class and to answer questions during office hours for students who would prefer that type of Q&A platform.
  • “Class time” on Mondays and Fridays will be similar to office hours, where I answer questions and clarify concepts. On Wednesdays, I will have students work in groups. To allow asynchronous work, after the first week students don’t need to “attend” class, but the assignment will be due the next day.
  • I’ll use Zoom for office hours.
  • I’m abandoning tests in favor of case studies, where students will either write a blog post or record a presentation (using Panopto or similar) that they submit to me.

Steve’s Situation

Classes: Biostat Methods II (MS, about 20 students), Data Visualization in the Health Sciences (MS elective/service course, 6 students)

Switched to: Synchronous online classes on 3/11/2020

Technology: Institution uses Canvas and Zoom

Steve’s Thoughts

After teaching a total of 10 sessions online sessions, here are my thoughts/comments:

My courses are all transitioning to synchronous online sessions at their regularly scheduled times through my university’s Zoom license. So far, Zoom has included enough functionality to allow a fairly painless switch to the online setting. Some of my comments may be specific to my university, so I apologize if not all functionality works at your institution. Main topic of each comment is in bold for easier scanning.

  • Scheduling all Zoom class sessions through my course Canvas pages (Zoom Conferences app) has made it simple to provide students with the appropriate meeting links. One recurring meeting for Monday’s sessions, and one recurring meeting for Wednesday’s sessions. I believe you can also set a static meeting ID so in theory students could use the same exact link for all sessions. Scheduling through Canvas automatically notifies students of the meeting times and saves me the time of announcing the link before every class session.
  • When scheduling Zoom meetings, there is an option to automatically record the class session to either the local computer, or if your license allows it, to the cloud. Once we received permission to record to the cloud, this option was strongly preferred because you can set it to automatically transcribe the audio. While I expect most of my students to show up for the live session, I like the option to upload a recording just in case a student is without internet access or runs into technology issues during the scheduled class time. 
  • I set my Zoom meetings to automatically mute all students upon entering to avoid having a bunch of open microphones as people connect. Students are allowed to unmute their audio/video at any time if they have a question or comment (which works fine in my small classes, e.g. < 20 students). Otherwise, students can interact by using the “hand raise” button or the “clap” emoji which looks like a small hand raise. I can see these indicators by keeping my “manage participants” box visible at all times on one of my two monitors. Additionally, I keep the “chat” box open and visible at all times as well in case students are more comfortable typing than speaking. I am considering transitioning to requiring students to use their video, as sometimes I will ask a question and get no response at all. Two-way video may be important for engagement. 
  • Most of my class sessions involve a mix of verbal lecture, presentation slides, code examples, writing on the board, and exercises for students. Zoom’s presentation tools make it possible to continue using these methods. The screen sharing option in Zoom allows me to share my computer screen, which includes my slides and my R session. While sharing, I typically click the “Annotation” tab and use the “spotlight” feature to highlight my mouse. This makes it easier to track as I move it around the screen to “point” at certain things. 
  • Finally, for a virtual whiteboard, Zoom has a few different options. If you have an iPhone/iPad that you are comfortable writing on, you can share your device’s screen by clicking screen share in Zoom and choosing the iPhone/iPad option (instructions provided by Zoom from that point). Personally, I use the touchscreen on my Chromebook to create a digital whiteboard. To do this, I join the Zoom conference on my Chromebook and share my note taking app with the conference (I use Squid). This allows me to write on my Chromebook tablet with a nice stylus and have the result appear to my class in real time (the delay is very minimal).

Laura’s (L.) Thoughts

For anyone who knows me, I’m very much a people person. I say this because I was a little bummed when I realized that I was only teaching online for the 2019-2020 school year. However, in the wake of recent events (and especially because I’m taking on additional in-person classroom (my kiddos…so is that 2 additional courses?? 🙂 ), I feel I can offer tips and tricks into delivering an online course.

Tip #1: Communication is key!

While this may come as no surprise, I feel it is even more key in the online environment. Communication includes:

  • Instructions on how to navigate the online course, if they aren’t used to doing so (e.g., course overview and orientation). For example, provide a course structure for the rhythm of each week/unit (see this example from my introductory course). 
  • Updating expectations and (possibly) grading for the alternative mode of instruction. Things to think about are should they post questions in the Q&A or via email? How will you handle requests for extensions? Who should they contact first if they have questions: instructor or TAs?
  • As Laura Ziegler said, once a week (at the minimum, twice at the maximum) announcements about the week, upcoming assignments, upcoming assignments, and other important notes. 
  • Providing clear directions on all learning materials.
  • Offering timely, constructive, and frequent feedback on assessments. 
  • Responding to questions or posts in a timely manner (within 12 hours, minimum, and no more than 24 hours, maximum).

For other tips, see the recent StatTLC post by John Haubrick on instructor presence in the online classroom.

Tip #2: Create collaborative keys via Google Docs for activities.

If you have activities in class, move the activity to a Google Doc and have the students create the answer key as a class (we call them collaborative keys). Then the teaching team (instructors and/or TAs) can monitor the key to make sure the responses are on the right track and pose any additional questions. This offers an asynchronous, but effective, method for delivering active learning materials. 

We have been doing this method for a while in our flipped classrooms and for our online courses. It works better in the online environment than in in-person, and it’s actually a beautiful thing to see. There are discussions among the students, students helping other students out, questions being asked that are beyond the question that is asked, etc. We require students to post at least once (although, many go above and beyond that). Here is a document that includes (1) assignment instructions (that has a link to an example Google Doc collaborative key for our Week 1 activity) and (2) “How to contribute to the collaborative key” details on how to participate on the key. 

So, if you do have in-class activities, consider using Google Docs to create a community of learners.


This concludes our editor series on transitioning to the online environment during the COVID19 times. We hope that some of our thoughts and experiences are useful as we all try new things to adapt to the current situation. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or contact us to contribute a post of your own.

We hope that you and your families remain safe and healthy.

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