Teaching with Unknowns: Finding Meaning in Your Online Course Delivery

Virtual meeting with students for online course

This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies.

While there is no shortage of data about COVID-19, finding meaning within that data has been another matter entirely.  Meaning would be especially helpful for faculty who are trying to plan courses for the fall semester, where colleges and universities are facing a great deal of uncertainty. Some institutions have announced that they will be “open,” but the term “open” remains largely undefined.  Being “open” doesn’t necessarily entail traditional face-to-face course delivery in massive lecture halls.

From a personal perspective, being a faculty member and a parent-of-students during COVID-19 has offered contrasting perspectives on the pandemic transition from face-to-face to virtual instruction.  Some instructors managed the shift well.  Some did not.  This variability in instructor agility explains why some students loved online learning, and others desperately wanted to return to the traditional classroom. 

Lessons learned? Well, here are three anchors for successful course delivery.

Your students want to see you—not just a photo, they want to connect with you as a human being.

Thanks to technology, there are several ways to make this connection. When COVID-19 caused closures on campus, some traditional courses moved to remote delivery, in which instructors delivered lectures at the normal class time using LMS conferencing technology or tools such as Zoom or Google meet.

However, it is not clear that synchronous delivery is truly optimal for students. Anonymous online discussion boards indicated that there is a student preference for access to recorded lectures to watch at any time.

Another promising approach is virtual office hours through the same conferencing software. While office hours are historically lonely and poorly attended, they can make a big difference to students who have questions or concerns. Virtual office hours also put a live, human face to support online learning. Lowenthal et al. offers a terrific overview on best practices for such meetings. In addition to a fairly obvious suggestion to schedule meetings at a time that makes sense for students, the authors also suggest giving the meetings a fun name such as “Happy Hour” or “Bat Cave.”

Importantly, faculty have the opportunity to develop their own compelling video narratives. Anthropology professor, Michael Wesch, has been a pioneer in this field and an excellent role model for faculty who seek more student engagement. You don’t have to be a professional videographer to create compelling, engaging, thoroughly human video content: YouTube has taught us that lesson. Most mobile devices have a video camera feature to make quick notes, something as small as a 30-second tip about how to approach an assignment. The human touch makes a difference.

And for more engineered projects, tools such as AdobeSpark offer free and intuitive ways to splice together videos, pictures, and text.

Online course design should be intuitive. 

In the spring, it was understandable that the pandemic transition made some courses feel a little . . . willy-nilly-pell-mell.

But importantly, Baldwin et al. (2018) reviewed six prominent evaluation instruments for online course design.  The review identified characteristics that were highly valued across the instruments, and intuitive navigation was indeed important in the online classroom.

Supporting intuitive navigation means that faculty should work across the curriculum to develop coherent templates for course development. Using consistent design features and protocols throughout an institution leads to intuitive navigation for students.  That is, materials, assignments, and deadlines should be found in a consistent, predictable place in every course.

And yes, include discussion boards

One misconception related to online learning is that it is isolating. In fact, community discussion boards are a frequently used tool in any online classroom.  Such discussion boards can be used to both prompt learner engagement, as well as build a community.

Afterall, current generations of learners are often more comfortable in virtual online communities via Reddit and social media than in face-to-face contexts. Online discussion boards are uniquely well suited in this context.  That said, newer technologies, such as FlipGrid, allow students to integrate discussion opportunities with short, personal video messages.

And while subjects such as ethics might lend themselves to discussion, other subjects, such as biology, may seem less likely to match this forum. But consider questions such as:

“Cells are often explained using analogies such as factories, school buildings, and homes. Build your own analogy to describe a cell. In your post, be sure to mention at least five parts of the cell . . .  Then identify at least one weakness in the analogy.”

Discussion boards can provide excellent opportunities for students to apply concepts outside the classroom.

Just as scientists learn more about COVID-19 each day, faculty are learning more about how to reach students in new ways. Agility is the name of the game.

Miriam Bowers-Abbott, MA, is an assistant professor and academic department leader at Mount Carmel College of Nursing.


Baldwin, S., Ching, Y., & Hsu, Y. (2018). Online course design in higher education: A review of national and statewide evaluation instruments. TechTrends. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11528-017-0215-z

Lowenthal, P., Dunlap, J. & Snelson, C. (2017). Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours. Online Learning Journal, 21(4),. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.learntechlib.org/p/183778/.