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Binghamton University, State University of New York

Moving online in response to coronavirus: Best practices for adapting courses

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As universities worldwide respond to the evolving coronavirus situation, many are turning to online classes. James Pitarresi, executive director of the Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT) at Binghamton University, State University of New York has practical tips on how to adapt courses for online learning:

Be patient

Typical online courses can take three to four months to build, so building a course out in a matter of days may feel unfamiliar and frustrating.

Synchronous or Asynchronous?

While both provide advantages and disadvantages, you have the option to pick one or to incorporate both. 

  • Synchronous: instructors and students meet online in “real time”, allowing for some interaction.
  • Asynchronous: instructors prepare the course materials in advance, allowing students to access them at any time

Pitarresi recommends using one of these three options for shifting your class online

  1. Run your course live through Zoom
  2. Pre-record your lectures with Panopto
  3. Skip the video, and consider creative options such as annotating a slideshow with notes, setting up a discussion in myCourses, or sharing links to outside resources.

 Focus on interaction

Online courses are not the same as correspondence courses. Instead of focusing on packaging and delivering content, focus on the interactions between you and your students, students with other students, and students with the course content. Consider how to make your course as engaging as possible.

Organization and layout

It is paramount to structure your course materials in myCourses as organized and easy-to-follow as possible. Consider organizing content in weekly folders or in content module folders. This will result in less confusion among students (and fewer emails in your inbox!).

Communication and feedback

In such a stressful time, clear communication with your students is vital. Make expectations as clear as possible, establish unambiguous and consistent policies, and make them available in an easily accessible place (not just via email).

When it comes to assignment instructions, communication is also very important. You want your students to focus on the assignment instead of struggling with how exactly to do it.

With the lack of face-to-face interaction, feedback is critical. Keep in touch with students, and provide both individual and classwide feedback.

Course content

Attention spans are short, especially when students aren’t in the classroom. Consider varying your course content by packaging them into “chunks,” and switching between these chunks every couple of minutes. Content chunks of five to seven minutes are ideal, with chunks over 15 minutes being discouraged.

Consider breaking up your lectures with pre-made third-party materials, such as book chapters, videos, websites, podcasts, online simulations and articles.


myCourses offers many different options for question types, and also has options for some autograding. You can randomize the question order, use timed options and easily adjust accommodations for students.

In this unique situation, treat online exams similarly to open-book exams. By taking the exam remotely, students will have access to the internet and each other, so author the test accordingly! 

Group work and discussions

Group work can still be done with the use of group assignments, discussion threads and Google Drive. Because students are losing the ability to meet with their groups in-person, consider setting aside time in your Zoom session for them to virtually meet with their group members.

Discussion threads are a great way to keep lines of communication open between you and students. Craft interesting discussion questions and set clear rules for posts and responses. If you’re teaching a larger class, you can break students up into smaller discussion groups. 


While the current goal is to get your online course up and running as soon as possible, don’t assume all of your students will have access to a laptop and internet.

While no one solution is going to solve every possible situation, there are different options available to help service the needs of unique cases. Discuss alternative and realistic options with your students who need these special accommodations. For example, students can still access Zoom meetings from a landline, even if they aren’t signed on to the internet.

Also, consider accessibility. Make sure your PDFs are screen-readable, and include alt-text with all of your images. If you use different colors for text on your powerpoints, make sure there is enough contrast between the text and the background.

Audio quality

Nobody is expecting a Hollywood production, so worry less about your video quality and more about your audio quality. Make sure you are speaking loud and clear, and use a microphone if you have one available. Test out your audio and get feedback from others before making your online class live.

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