Tips for moving your classroom online

Forming digital communities with your learners.

Stephan Caspar
5 min readMar 10, 2020

Here’s some guidance for moving your courses online supported through a Virtual Learning Environment such as Canvas or Moodle. This might be the first time that you’ve delivered or adapted your materials in this way. I was reading a couple of articles (linked at the bottom of the page) and wanted to share some of the insights that I’ve gleaned from working alongside academics, subject matter experts, and others relatively new to online delivery. It can be daunting, especially if you’re already halfway through the term, but learners are adaptable, and if they are brought into the process, and can support you to build an engaging course that helps maintain the relationships already established in the face to face teaching.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

1. Ordered delivery.

Students benefit from knowing what they have to do and when, so apply order and hierarchy to your course layout. You could for instance use weeks/days so that the students can easily navigate through the course. In online learning, we commonly talk about “Steps” which the student can tick off as they move through the course. Each step is a self-contained mini-lesson, supported by materials and address a specific learning outcome.

2. Adding materials

Once you’ve established a hierarchy, you can add materials. You can write directly into a page on your VLE (here we’ll use the example of Canvas) or embed objects either directly or using HTML links (a great way to add a spreadsheet with your Scheme of Learning that you can update in real-time).

3. Learning outcomes

You can create pages in Canvas and add more than one item to each page. Students prefer pages because they provide a focus around a learning outcome. Ask yourself, what will the student be able to do by completing this step that they couldn’t when they opened it?

4. Time on Task

Now that you’re creating steps and designing according to learning outcomes; you find yourself adding more of your materials as the course starts to grow.

Think about how long each step takes to complete.

Let’s say you want them to watch a video and answer some questions. How long will that take, including the research that you’re suggesting, the paper you linked to, and the response that you’re asking for?

You need to think about manageable “chunks” of learning, preferably that a student can complete at one or two sittings. Try to avoid open-ended tasks that could take either half an hour or four hours to complete depending on the dedication of the student. Some students prefer word counts, but if you put time on task in brackets (1hr) in the title of your step then this can help.

5. Vary online activities

Just as you would in class, you don’t want your online course to be the equivalent of 15 PowerPoint presentations or 15 articles that need to be critically analyzed or single questions that invite detailed discussion. Vary both the style of learning and the level, so that the learning is scaffolded just as it would be in a face to face course.

6. Use the affordances of digital

You have a palette of online tools available to you, many of these integrate seamlessly into Canvas and can be added from inside the page you build. You can add text, image, video, and even interactive learning objects that you can find or modify elsewhere (such as H5P). You can embed Youtube or Vimeo content, record your own videos directly into Canvas, upload images, such as photos, illustrations, diagrams, and document scans.

Engagement is key online, your students will thank you for interesting and dynamic steps. Don’t dismiss the power of these elements in supporting the learning, even the inclusion of cover images that don’t directly relate to the material. If you’re stuck for images, then try Unsplash or Pexels.

7. Beaming in

Zoom is a great tool, just like Skype — for communicating directly with your students. There are a few helpful tips for you specifically for hosting an online chat or webinar.

Set a time and date and invite your students so that they can get online at the same time. Choose a quiet space to sit so that you can run your session without distraction and have a drink beside you.

Alternatively, you can create a short video using youtube or apple clips — recording directly into Canvas or on your phone. Remember the saying “show, don’t tell”. Videos, where you’re handling artifacts or using props to explain concepts (Lego is good for this), are much more engaging than recorded talks.

Remember, to make eye contact with the students too — that’s a camera on your laptop, so smile :)

Even better ask your students to create the videos!

8. Keep channels open

Students need a way of keeping in touch and asking questions, but more importantly, they need to be able to support one another. Canvas has some good forum tools but if you haven’t been using them in your course from day one, then chances are this is going to be difficult to re-establish. Piazza is another tool, it is easy for students to sign in and find your course. They will be able to ask questions and maintain their anonymity if they wish.

9. Step back

One of the key findings of online course delivery is that students who feel observed or pressured to respond engage less. This course is their space and you have to cede some ownership, provide pages where they can collaborate, share research, and useful links. Piazza helps with this, and tools such as Padlet or Pinterest can be helpful too. Emails, announcements, and the peppering of tight deadlines, (even for small tasks) can lead students to opt-out or engage less. Online learning is a balance between giving and receiving.

10. Build for the future

The time that you spend now on your course is an investment, which will reward in surprising ways. You might find it will easier to gauge feedback, understand some of the challenges that students have with the materials, and in discussing concepts. Remember, you’re not so much creating a course as nurturing a community of learners. I hope you enjoy this process, don’t hesitate to ask for support and advice.



Stephan Caspar

Rides bikes, speaks French, designs things, thrashes axe, paints shed, films, teaches and learns.