How to Pivot to Online Learning in the Event of a Campus Shut Down
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How to Pivot to Online Learning in the Event of a Campus Shut Down

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Two weeks have passed since we first wrote about the global and sudden transition from a physical to an online learning environment. Across the world, governments and institutions took proactive steps to combat coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Major public gatherings are canceled, shops are closed, employees are working from home, and also schools had to close their campuses.

Major universities, including Harvard, Duke, and UCLA, sent their students home midsemester and transitioned to a remote-learning model. The pandemic is still progressing, and instructors are being forced to think differently about how they teach. This transition is rough on both students and instructors, who abruptly have to adapt to the challenges and considerations of an online education model without the typical developmental preparations.

While this may have been overwhelming at first, shifting to online classes won’t have a detrimental effect on student learning if instructors act quickly and decisively to convert their courses to an online format.
In fact, this can be an opportunity to reexamine the core components of your class and to create a positive learning experience for students, even during these stressful times.

Now the most sudden changes have been made, here are some of the most important factors to (re)consider as you take your class online for the foreseeable future.

Adjust to New Technology

Your university probably already has the basic tools you needed to move your class online: webinar and video recording tools, a learning management system (LMS), and a technical support team that can help you quickly adopt those tools.

If you’ve never used an LMS before this, focus on learning the basic functions of the tool. Your goal is to get your course out to students, not wow them with bells and whistles.

We recommend that you stick to the tools provided by your university (even if you believe there are better tools available elsewhere). The reason is simple: If you use the prescribed tools, you can rely on in-house tech support if you run into an issue. If you go off-label, you may be on your own when it comes to technical troubleshooting.

Balance Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

Looking back on what you learned the past weeks, would you adjust your current working style? There are two major styles of elearning that can help you reassess:

  • Synchronous Learning: Everyone learns together, at the same time. The class takes place in real time, with all participants in attendance, using live video software, like Skype or Zoom. This is great for keeping a sense of community and encouraging student participation. The instructor has the ability to call on students and answer questions in real time. However, it can be logistically difficult, particularly if students are in different time zones or experience connectivity issues.
  • Asynchronous Learning: Classes are self-paced, and activities do not necessarily take place at the same time. While there may still be assignments and due dates, students engage with materials according to their own timetables. That might be watching lecture recordings, doing prescribed reading, or participating in forum discussions. While less personal, async learning is typically more convenient for students and more forgiving of scheduling issues.

Your university will most likely have policy recommendations for how to approach your class. In many cases, your course may be a mix of both: live lectures, and time to complete other assignments asynchronously.

Even if you do intend to give your lectures live, consider recording them so that students who can’t tune in live for whatever reason still have access to the materials.

Use a Mix of Media, Not Just Lectures

Your first instinct may have been to translate your existing lecture materials into an online format and move on. But what works in a physical classroom setting doesn’t always work online. It’s engaging and effective to have a lecturer speaking, answering questions, and interacting with you in person, but online lectures can feel flat and monotonous, particularly if they are viewed asynchronously. A two-hour video lecture won’t hold a student’s attention as well as the real thing.

Take advantage of the features offered by this new online medium to create a variety of teaching and interaction points. Here are a few formats to consider, apart from video lectures:

  • Slide decks: Make your PowerPoint slides or lecture notes available for online viewing.
  • Written materials: Provide links or uploaded articles, book chapters, or other reading that supports your lecture.
  • Discussion boards: Post discussion questions about the readings or lectures.
  • Video clips: Post movie, television, or YouTube clips that support your lessons.
  • Guest speakers: Thanks to the internet, you no longer have to worry about geography holding you back from bringing in great guests. Tap into your network to record interviews or lectures with relevant guest speakers.


One major difference between online and in-person classrooms is that any information that isn’t stated explicitly and repeatedly tends to get lost in the shuffle.

If you haven't done this yet, provide students with an updated syllabus that details what is expected of them, and when. Never give important information only verbally in a lecture: always put important instructions and requirements in writing. Make sure students have a way to reach you if they have questions (or, even better, provide multiple ways); email, text message, messaging apps, and video calls are all viable options.

Even very important information, such as due dates and project requirements, can easily be overlooked by stressed and distracted students. To combat this, share critical information over multiple channels at several different points in time. Post the date of the final exam not just in the syllabus but also in lectures, and send out an email reminder the week before and the day of.

Encourage Interaction

While you may need to eliminate traditionally structured group projects from your course for the time being, there are many other ways you can encourage students to interact and collaborate. Online learning can potentially be isolating for both students and instructors, so consider taking advantage of collaboration and interactivity features offered by many LMSs.

Chat bubble made of paper

Encourage communication and interaction in your course as much as possible, both for psychological reasons and because it can be a great learning tool.

Use online forum functionality to take the place of class discussion. Don’t expect students to dive in on their own, though. Instead, start discussions with insightful questions, and encourage debate. Tell your students that participation is mandatory, not optional. Do remember, though, that the shield of a computer screen can sometimes bring out the worst in people; be prepared to moderate if discussions get heated or inappropriate.

Another way to foster student collaboration remotely is through peer review. Having students read and assess each other’s work is a great way to give individualized feedback to a large number of students. Both evaluating other students’ work and receiving feedback can be hugely beneficial to the learning process.

Reevaluate How you Assess Students

Now you transitioned to online learning, consider how you will assess how well students have retained the knowledge from your course. Certain assessment methods, like group work and class presentations, will be more difficult to execute in an online environment, so you may need to alter your grading strategy using the tools at hand.

Make use of the automated assessment options in your LMS. Almost all LMSs easily allow students to turn in papers or take exams online. Many LMSs also offer other assessment options, such as peer reviews, short quizzes, and more. Instead of in-class participation, you can measure student participation in online forums.

Consider assigning short, regular quizzes in place of infrequent lengthy exams. Not only will they be easier to administer and grade (and reduce the amount of time you spend staring at a computer screen), but they will also allow you to readjust your teaching methods if students aren’t meeting expectations.

Be Cognizant of Accessibility Issues

As you further transition your class online, be cognizant and sensitive to the fact that some students may have unique accessibility needs that require accommodation. Simple measures such as transcribing lectures and including alt text for images can go a long way toward creating an inclusive learning environment. Ask your students to inform you immediately if they need special accommodations.

You may also need to make special accommodations for students who become ill or need to care for ill family members during the pandemic. Some students may not have reliable internet access all the time, or they might experience system failures at a crucial moment. The chances are big that you already had to be more flexible with due dates than you might have been otherwise.

Reflect, Adjust, and Learn As You Go

A quick pivot to online learning is going to involve a steep learning curve for both teachers and students. During this personally and professionally stressful time, remember to give everyone some grace as you adjust to new software and new styles of learning.

As you move forward, set time aside each week to reflect. What’s working well? What’s not? Make adjustments as you go so that your class is as effective as possible for as many people as possible.

Resources for Further Reading

Here are some more tips and advice on making the switch to online learning as painless as possible:

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