We’re all familiar with the large lecture hall with fixed tiered seating and a pitched floor descending to the front of the room where the professor stands, perhaps on a stage behind a lectern, with a microphone in hand and a large projection screen framing the front of the room. The room is large, making it difficult to see the students in the back, much less get to know their names. The professor may use clickers or polls to increase participation, but the design of the room primarily encourages dialogic exchanges between professor and individual students, and perhaps even straight exposition-style lectures with little to no student participation.
The good news about adapting a large lecture course to an online learning environment is that you will still be able to lecture—albeit in a different way—but you will also have increased opportunities for student engagement—with you, with course materials, and with each other. Online you will find that there is no back of the classroom and your learning space is no longer constricted by fixed seating. You will be able to see all of your students and their names up close on the computer screen, and you may even find increased participation, as students in asynchronous activities (such as online discussions) will have opportunities to think through their responses before engaging. In addition, a large and mostly anonymous online gathering of numerous students can easily be broken down into small groups, facilitating much more active engagement—with one another and with you—whether in breakout rooms or other versions of small group collaboration. More intensive engagement in this manner builds students’ sense of belonging, which in turn leads to increased learning (Frisby et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2010).
When moving a large lecture course online it’s useful to think about the movement to the online space as what one educator refers to as adaptation—a new kind of classroom with new affordances that requires a different approach—rather than as translation from the physical classroom (Supiano, 2020). The goals of content delivery, student engagement, and assessment can still be successfully achieved online, and with careful planning you can adapt your large lecture course into an engaging learning environment. This adaptation may lead to new habits of mind for you and the students.
When students take large lecture classes on campus, they may feel anonymous in the classroom but they are still in close proximity to their classmates and professor and have opportunities to interact with their peers. Moving a large lecture course online can lead to disengagement and isolation among students, a phenomenon that can be proactively addressed through strategies to foster a sense of belonging and community. While the potential for positive outcomes are real, our large lecture classes don’t automatically become cozier learning spaces online in which everyone is on the “front row” to develop new cognitive skills. Work has to be done to structure the online environment so that it fosters community and engages students as active participants in the learning process. This work requires you to understand and be comfortable with the teaching tools available in the online space and then intentionally design for the student experience—in particular those related to “shrinking” the class. Because going online eliminates the physical barriers to active learning that exist in most large lecture halls, this “shrinking” is fairly straightforward—and once the class is “cut down to size,” most of the techniques related to such things as active learning, student engagement, and inclusivity in smaller classrooms will apply to your large lecture.
Despite its potential to experientially shrink the class for your students, there is also the potential risk in large online courses to further anonymize the student experience—hiding or helping your students to hide in a virtual space. To combat this, design for community by promoting peer interaction and regular faculty presence in the student experience. Fostering a sense of community in online spaces is strongly correlated with increased learning (Sun and Chen, 2016; Chaffin and Jacobson, 2017; Sadera, et al, 2009)
Incorporate small groups:
Faculty Presence: Positive interaction with faculty goes a long way toward building community and a sense of belonging. Teaching Assistants can also play a key role in building community and belonging by communicating with students and amplifying students’ perception of faculty presence. Large classes make it difficult-to-impossible to have substantive one-on-one engagement with students, but there are still opportunities for faculty presence to be a regular part of the student experience. Key to faculty presence is creating regular, one-to-many forms of communication between the faculty (or TA) and students. For example,
Although there is no “one right way” to deliver content in a large online course, there are some best practices to consider before developing your course content for an online environment.
Lectures: While it is possible to deliver lectures synchronously or asynchronously in an online course, it is recommended that, for most lectures, faculty pre-record them so that students can watch them on their own time and refer back to them as needed. For details on the nuts and bolts of delivering lectures asynchronously and synchronously in large classes check out this tip sheet on teaching large lectures remotely.
Just as in the face-to-face classroom, it is important to build in opportunities for students to actively engage with rather than merely listen to lectures. In the online space this means creatively linking lecture content to activities such as quizzes, discussions, case-studies, opportunities for reflection, and opportunities for discussion with peers. Such activities can be done in either the asynchronous or the synchronous setting.
Course Readings: An important affordance of online education is the availability of online texts, which tend to be significantly cheaper—an important issue related to inclusivity. Additionally, there is the wide variety of materials that can be linked to or embedded within Canvas pages. In transitioning to online, consider the following:
Accessibility and Inclusivity: There are other important issues related to access and inclusivity in addition to those already mentioned.
In part for logistical reasons, many large lecture courses continue to rely heavily on exams that carry a lower burden of grading. The good news is that once again, there are specific affordances available for assessing students in the online world, some of which can improve feedback while saving time. Key to this is crafting rigorous assessments that promote academic integrity without inappropriately surveilling students.
Online Tests/Exams: If you are conducting online Tests/Exams, consider rewriting exams with questions that are largely “ungoogleable” and explicitly make exams open book/open source. For example, ask students to cross-reference information (e.g., “How does what we learned in unit A interact with or inform unit B?”). You can also ask students to defend a previous position they’ve taken in the course (i.e. refer back to previous assignments they’ve submitted), or to apply principles and content in understanding case studies ( e.g. “Using content learned in these lectures, explain what is happening in this specific case”).
Many of the assessments suggested here test for higher order learning goals (e.g. analyzing concepts and evaluating arguments). Do make sure to also include lower stakes assessments interspersed into the course focused on lower order learning goals (e.g. multiple choice quizzes that test for understanding during or immediately after an online lecture). Furthermore, if you are to assess the higher goals, consider spending synchronous class time practicing these skills so that students are primed for success and know what to expect.
Proctoring your quizzes and exams in Canvas offers a number of options. In particular, there is a timer option to set a time limit for students taking a test online. However, internet connectivity issues on the student side can cause premature submission and/or an incorrect rendering of time spent on the test. For this reason, we urge caution using the timer on Canvas exams.
Also, Canvas allows for automatic grading of some forms of quizzes and exams, and likewise allows you to provide instant feedback to students based on their selection.
Georgetown also subscribes to Proctorio, which integrates with Canvas and monitors students taking a test at a distance. There is both a learning curve to using Proctorio as well as substantive concerns regarding the appropriateness of student monitoring. For this reason, we recommend viewing our webinar for further information.
You might also consider partnering with students in the creation of exams or assigning alternate projects instead of exams. For example, you might have students:
In Canvas, consider using the following for student submissions:
Professor MC Chan and Kasey Christopher
BIOL103: Foundations of Biology I
Spring 2020, Summer 2020.
Professor Patrick Johnson
PHYS102: Principles of Physics II
Spring 2020, Summer 2020.
Professor Linda Green, Manus Patten and Jennifer Fox
BIOL104: Foundations of Biology II
Spring 2020, Summer 2020.
Bowers, J., & Kumar, P. (2015). Students’ perceptions of teaching and social presence: A comparative analysis of face-to-face and online learning environments. International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Teaching Technologies (IJWLTT), 10(1), 27-44. Retrieved from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Students%27-Perceptions-of-Teaching-and-Social-A-of-Bowers-Kumar/c45e29bf50b537b04dc28abacc6dae53b7ecb499
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