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The Shift to Remote Teaching: Lessons from the Field

Approx 7 minute read

Dr. Nicole Weber, Director of Learning Technology, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Dr. Nicole Weber, Director of Learning Technology, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

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The Shift to Remote Teaching: Lessons from the Field

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, campus leaders, staff, and students are all struggling with the unknown of what fall 2020 will look like. As universities review their budgets and consider how to maintain continuity for their campuses, it is important to reflect on what we have learned and share experiences so we can prepare for the future.  

What Have We Learned?

While it is still early on and we are learning more every day, I’ll start by focusing on three realizations I’ve had so far in our transition to remote teaching, learning, and work: 1) we need to quickly move to more advanced practices; 2) remote teaching is not online learning; and 3) staff adaptability is critically important.

We Need to Move Quickly to More Advanced Practices

Those of us with an interest in higher education learning technology have been talking about digital transformation for some time now. However, many of us thought it would be a long-range goal rather than a short-term one. Yet in a matter of weeks this March, my campus, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UW-W), and so many others moved to remote teaching, learning, and work.

This means many people have had a crash course on virtual teaching through training sessions, consultations, how-to sheets, and help from colleagues. Now that staff have this basic understanding of key tools (e.g., the learning management system, videoconferencing, etc.), it is the perfect time to extend that understanding with support that focuses on how to leverage those tools to create the best possible learning and virtual meeting experiences.

Interestingly, learning and work mirror each other in this remote – or alternate – modality. In both cases, it is important to look at the objectives of the course (or meeting) and evaluate the best way to achieve that objective. Often this does not mean merely transferring what was done face-to-face to a virtual environment, but rather redesigning the experience to meet the needs of the situation and the audience.

For example, at UW-W our Learning Technology Center (LTC) did not just take our monthly one-hour staff meeting and add a video conference link. Instead, we analyzed the situation and moved to three, 15-minute check-in video conference meetings each week for staff to synchronously share and collaboratively troubleshoot issues that they were seeing. We also use instant messaging group spaces to asynchronously touch base on new issues and questions as they arise.

Many of our instructors are using similar techniques by thinking about how they can best meet the learning objectives in their courses in the remote context. So, rather than simply doing virtual lectures, they’re often recording short videos to deliver topical information and saving synchronous class meetings for discussion and sharing.  

Remote Teaching is Not Online Learning

From the beginning we’ve been very clear that what we are doing is emergency remote teaching (ERT) and not online teaching. As Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, and Bond (2020) point out in their article, The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning, ERT “is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery due to crisis circumstances”; the goal is “not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis.”

ERT is not a true online course experience, as these experiences typically take much longer to develop, with particular attention to deep learning activities designed specifically for the online environment and with interaction with the content, peers, and the instructor in mind from the onset.

As we reflect on what we have learned and apply it to our future, leaders and staff who support instruction must turn their attention to scenario planning. If aspects of learning are partially or fully remote, we must plan to support instructors in creating more robust learning experiences or risk losing students. With many campuses not making fall 2020 modality decisions until mid-summer or later, we may very well find ourselves in the same scenario as we were this spring, with less-than-ideal time to prepare instructors to teach quality online courses.

Also, many campuses do not have sufficient staff to support the design and development of true, quality online courses. With that in mind, we are working right now to focus on what we can enable with training, workshops, and resources throughout summer to give instructors the tools possible to succeed no matter the circumstance in fall.   

The Adaptability of Learning Technology Staff is Crucial

One last thing that we learned (and are grateful for), is how important it is to have adaptable and flexible staff who are willing to upskill in key areas quickly to help their colleagues. Right away, our UW-W LTC saw an increase in inquiries regarding our learning management system, creating course content, and starting video conference meetings. Staff who led or supported other areas learned about these in-demand tools so that they could help with entry-level inquiries and save deep troubleshooting for those who had more experience.

As we look ahead, taking into account advancements toward digital transformation (i.e., staff moving past tool awareness and basics) and a push toward quality learning experiences, it is important that technology staff continue to learn more about ways to design learning to meet student needs so they can provide more advanced guidance.  

Quick Tips for Preparing for the Unknown

If we know anything about this situation, it’s that it will continue to change. There is no easy way to prepare for the unknown, but there are steps that leaders, instructional support staff, and instructors can take to prepare as spring courses wind down and summer quickly approaches:

Academic Leaders

  • Make sure that your infrastructure is built for success. Are your technology tools meeting instructor and student needs? Now is a great time to analyze this – and then to create resources to support your instructional staff and students in leveraging these tools. Don’t forget to think beyond typical training and how-tos—instructors also love videos, case studies, and testimonials from colleagues who have used the tool well.
  • Familiarize yourself with what experts are saying about the crisis and plan the training sessions, workshops, and resources you will need to provide for your campus to give students quality learning experiences regardless of how the fall semester unfolds.
  • Prepare to cross-train staff on in-demand tools and skills that are needed in remote teaching and online learning.

Instructional Support Staff

  • Work with your manager to understand the needs of the campus, as well as your unit, and start learning more about the tools and skills needed to support remote teaching and online learning.
  • Don’t forget to grow! Develop a professional development plan. Check out learning opportunities from organizations like the Online Learning Consortium and EDUCAUSE, as well as more formalized learning options like the new UW-W Instructional Design and Learning Technology master’s degree or certificates.  
  • Take time to refresh and take care of yourself. This is a difficult situation for so many reasons. Remember to balance the need to get to that last email with stretching your legs or getting some fresh air.


  • Be proactive. Design your course, as best you can, with some back-up plans (i.e., how you can meet your learning objectives face-to-face and what that would look like remotely – particularly in regard to assessments).
  • Chunk your course material, if possible, into smaller pieces to give you and students more flexibility if a quick switch (like this spring) happens. Think about ways you could record short media pieces ahead of time that can help students understand the content whether you’re face-to-face or remote. Then, if you end up teaching face-to-face, you can use in-class sessions for active learning!
  • As always, think about a communication plan for your students. Will you kick off the semester with a welcome email? Will you update students weekly with a course announcement? How can you manage your workload while connecting to individual students? How long before you reach out to a student if they aren’t participating? How can you make the best use of your office hours? How can you provide students personalized assignment feedback?
  • Don’t forget that your campus teaching, learning, and technology center is there to support you! Visit their website and see what they’re planning to offer for support over the summer. Also, don’t be afraid to contact them for a consultation. From experience, I can say we love meeting with instructors to chat about creating online content, facilitating online discussions, or designing online assessments.

Regardless of your role, one thing we often forget to do when we find ourselves in “emergency” mode is to get out of the putting-out-the-fires mentality. If you can, try to work strategic planning and reading back into your schedule. Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education have wonderful newsletters that come straight to your email; their top stories can keep you up to date while you eat your breakfast or sip on that morning tea. Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself—you can’t help others unless you’re in a healthy state of mind!  

Dr. Nicole Weber is the director of Learning Technology at UW-Whitewater, where she is responsible for providing vision, leadership, guidance, and support in the delivery of innovative, high-quality, and pedagogically-sound technology-enhanced instruction.

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