Newswise — In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of students nationwide are now – or soon will be – taking classes online.

While many members of Texas State University’s faculty are already accomplished online teachers, and some students have studied this way, the practice will be new to others. The question, then, is how students and teachers should prepare for this brave new post-coronavirus world. Texas State University’s Dr. Michael Burns, a noted educator and researcher in communication, shared some thoughts and suggestions. 

Burns is a senior lecturer and director of the Communication Studies Career Readiness program. He teaches large lectures of COMM 1310 as well as courses in training and development, small group communication, interpersonal communication, sport communication, leadership, persuasion and more. He’s also a co-curator for TEDxTexasStateUniversity and a veteran contributor to NBC’s Today Show Olympics programming, having worked the 2006 Torino, 2008 Beijing, 2012 London, 2016 Rio de Janeiro and 2018 PyeongChang Games. 

Acknowledge the reality

The first step toward working within the new constraints of COVID-19 is to acknowledge the black swan nature of the pandemic. “This is an unprecedented time and situation,” said Burns. “Many people haven’t taught or taken an online course, so Job One is to lean into the uncertainty.” That entails a candid discussion of the coronavirus itself as well as the way faculty and students are feeling about it. “We’re all feeling our way through this,” Burns said. “That’s where a lot of the anxiety is coming from.” When classes resume online, an open discussion about the new realities, including both fears and hopes, can do a lot to clear the air. 

Set new expectations

“Taking a face-to-face class and adapting it to [be taught] online is a lot different than developing an online course from the start,” Burns noted. This is a potential problem for instructors especially, who may feel pressure to be in mid-season form even though they’re starting from scratch. The answer, he said, is to set and communicate realistic expectations. “If you’re moving your class online and you’re new at it, chances are you’re not going to be an all-star in a week.”

Burns noted that with any form of teaching, “It takes years to find your classroom voice.” While many Texas State teachers are veterans in online instruction, “when you’re new to it, there will be hiccups. Not everything you try will work.” The key, then – for faculty and students alike – is to concede that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and reset expectations accordingly. “It’s a contextual issue,” Burns said. “There’s this whole new level of stress. We all need to help each other prioritize and think about what’s realistic.”

Students and teachers may be surprised to learn that online classes are more time-consuming than their face-to-face counterparts. “When you sit in my classroom, we both do a lot of nonverbal communicating,” Burns said. Online, that component largely vanishes, “so most learning happens asynchronously.” As a result, faculty must spend more time confirming that key points have been delivered, and students need to be more diligent in grasping and making note of those points. 

Message development is one of Burns’ areas of expertise. He was asked for tips for students, teachers and parents on message development practices during COVID-19. The answer harkens back to the idea that a reset button is warranted. 

Burns said the Texas State community must hone in on “What are the essential things that are needed by those who complete this class?” For example, if the class is a prerequisite for others, it’s mandatory to prepare students accordingly – perhaps at the expense of some finer points. Similarly, if a course is intended to prepare students for a post-graduation career, the material they need to take with them should be prioritized. 

Don’t neglect security

One vital but easily neglected component of online study is digital security; the newly prominent role of apps, networks and devices could open the unwitting to all manner of data theft and malware. Teachers would be wise to check with the university IT department if they’re unsure about any apps or procedures. In addition, faculty and students should brush up on cybersecurity basics such as the following:

  • Make sure apps and operating systems have been updated with the latest security patches.
  • Create strong passwords (at least eight characters, with upper- and lowercase letters, numerals and special characters) and never share them with anybody.
  • Never click on links or attachments in email messages unless you’re sure of their legitimacy.


Burns is practicing what he preaches; he’s been forced to make significant concessions to the coronavirus. For example, for one of his classes, Re-Humanizing Communication, he had devised an assignment called the Public Space Engagement project. As the name alone makes clear, that won’t be taught anytime soon. “Sending students out into public areas to observe and engage with strangers?” Burns said. “Yeah, probably not.” 

Moreover, his high-profile contribution to NBC’s Olympics telecast has been put on hold along with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. “I’m very disappointed,” Burns said, “but at the same time it’s completely understandable. In July 2021 [the new scheduled date], I’ll be ready, the athletes will be ready … the world will be ready for a great celebration.”