Transitioning Course Activities

In the event of a disruption that requires you to teach your course remotely, this general guidance can be a helpful place to start. The guidance notes the importance of communicating with your students, reviewing and updating your syllabus and course schedule, adjusting expectations and priorities, addressing accessibility and disability-related accommodations, as well as being flexible and starting small. 

Assessing Your Readiness

You may be wondering what are some quick ways to assess your readiness and focus your efforts as you make the transition. Here are 5 key questions to ask yourself:

  1. Have I modified my syllabus and shared it with students to communicate changes?
  2. Is my course content ready to be delivered remotely (either synchronously or asynchronously) on a week-by-week basis? Do I have a backup plan if the technology doesn’t work as anticipated?
  3. Are my assessments ready to be delivered and collected remotely on a week-by-week basis?
  4. Do I have a way to evaluate assessments and record grades in a central place accessible by others, if needed on short notice, such as the Canvas gradebook?
  5. Am I interacting or prepared to interact remotely with the students in my course (e.g., distance office hours, discussions, etc.)? Remember that instructor presence is critical in distance teaching and learning, the more they hear and see you the better.

There are a range of strategies and centrally supported tools to help you achieve these activities. Certain options may fit your needs better than others depending on the circumstances. See below for more details, and our recommendation to begin with Canvas.

Getting Started in Canvas

We recommend starting with setting up your course in Canvas. Canvas is UW–Madison’s learning management system (LMS). You can use Canvas as a class hub to centralize all communications, instructions, materials, discussions, assignments and assessments for your courses.  A Canvas course shell is created for all timetable courses at the beginning of every semester. If you haven’t already, follow these steps to publish your Canvas course shell to start using the tool. We recommend building out your Canvas course, focusing first on a few essential areas:

Additional Strategies and Tools for Key Course Activities

In addition to Canvas, there are a number of other tools and strategies you may consider, and find useful, as you transition to teaching online. We’ve organized these options by the following key course activities.

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Communicating with Students

Communicating with your students is essential. This section covers strategies and recommended tools to communicate with your students remotely.

Asynchronous Communication

Canvas Announcements are the easiest and quickest way to reach students in the event of a campus closure or other emergency. A record of your messages is also automatically posted on the “Announcements” page. You can even make a video announcement right in Canvas! Tell your students to check their Canvas notifications settings to allow for copies of announcements to be forwarded to their emails. Students are emailed Canvas Announcements by default; however some may have elected to turn off this feature and would need to turn it back on. Let students know that you will communicate with the class primarily through Canvas and through Canvas Announcements going forward.  In times of high-use, emails sent over WiscLists can sometimes take several hours to actually reach students, and therefore may not be the best means to communicate with students.

Synchronous Communication 

For synchronous interactions or communications with your students, you can use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, which is already integrated with Canvas, or Google Hangouts Meet for things like office hours or remote discussions. More details on this are available in the section on conducting discussions and collaborative work online. Given students might experience technical issues trying to join a synchronous activity, it is always a good practice to record sessions and make it available to students after the fact. Please only share recordings that identify other students with those in the class to protect student privacy. Please refer to the Provisional UW–Madison Online Collaboration Session Recording Policy for more details. 

Use a UW–Madison-approved web conferencing system to ensure student interactions are secure, and campus technical support can be provided, as needed. Please do not call the Help Desk or ask for help with non-approved tools such as Zoom since they are not equipped with resources to help you.

Delivering Lecture Content Online

If your class includes lectures or demonstrations, consider using a recorded video. Hearing your voice and seeing your face can help students maintain a sense of instructor presence, which is especially important in online teaching and learning. If you are recording audio or video, please keep in mind these effective practices

Often, questions about a student’s privacy and FERPA protections arise when a class session is recorded and shared. You can refer to the Provisional UW–Madison Online Collaboration Session Recording Policy for details. In general, please keep the following in mind when recording any course-related activity such as a lecture, group discussion or office hours:

  • If the recordings only include the instructor or other instructional staff such as TAs, it’s not a student record and not considered protected by FERPA. It can be shared through course-specific and public channels.
  • If the recording includes students – asking questions, presenting, etc. – and those students are identifiable because they are heard, seen or named, then those recordings would be protected educational records.
    • These recordings can only be made available to students in that specific class as well as other student officials with legitimate educational interest. They should not be shared through a public channel. 
    • If the recordings are made accessible to individuals outside of the class, written consent from identifiable students is required prior to the release of a recording, unless the recording has been edited to remove the portions that identify students.

Synchronous Lecture Delivery

If you want to deliver a synchronous lecture and record it, you can use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra is integrated with your Canvas course and roster, making it convenient for you and your students to access and use. Students can listen to the lecture in real time, and you can record your lecture or event and make it available to students who might have missed it. We recommend always recording your lecture in case students cannot join due to technical or scheduling difficulties. If your enrollment is between 250 and 500, please contact the DoIT Help Desk to provide 72 hours of advance notice and receive extra support. 

Although Blackboard Collaborate is recommended since you can also record the event, another option for a live lecture is Webex, which may require a download. Please note that students do not have access to Webex and cannot download it. They can only access a session you set up. Another option to connect with your students synchronously is Google Hangouts Meet. Please make sure you access Hangouts Meet through your UW–Madison GSuite account.

If your course enrollment is above 500, it is recommended that you do not host synchronous sessions. Instead, please use asynchronous delivery.

Asynchronous and Recorded Lecture Delivery

Given the technical problems you may encounter in a synchronous session, the safest way to deliver content is in an asynchronous fashion. If you want to deliver a lecture coordinated with a slideshow the easiest method is to record a slideshow with Microsoft PowerPoint for Office 365 (additional instructions for Windows and Mac). If you need to create a screencast of something other than slides you can record yourself or your screen with Kaltura Capture, which is part of Kaltura MediaSpace, the university’s centrally supported video delivery service. Limit your recordings to 4-6 minutes in duration. Be sure to follow these additional recommendations for how best to use Kaltura Capture. Whatever you use to record yourself or your screen, you can upload it to Kaltura MediaSpace and make it available to your students through your Canvas course.

Audio-Only Lecture Delivery

If you do not need to coordinate your lecture with a slideshow or demonstration, you can record an audio-only lecture. In a pinch, you can use your laptop microphone or phone. For better quality, use a dedicated microphone or headset, if available. When you export your audio, use the MP3 format to ensure broadest compatibility with your students’ devices. If you use a MacOS or iOS device, you probably already have some version of GarageBand on that device. If you don’t already have audio recording software, consider Audacity; it’s free and open source, available for both MacOS and Windows, and its basic features are fairly easy to use. As with any media, you can upload it to Kaltura MediaSpace and make it available to your students through your Canvas course.

Text-Only Lecture Delivery

You may also decide to provide students with just the text of your lecture — preferably broken up into chunks, punctuated by activities in which students interact with the material. You can do this using Canvas Pages or a more advanced content authoring tool like Pressbooks, which is based on WordPress.

Conducting Discussions and Collaborative Work Online

Translating a seminar-style discussion into an asynchronous format can be difficult, but keeping those conversations going during a campus closure or other disruptive event will promote student community, as well as student learning. With the following tools and guidance, you can foster online discussions that do not rely on you and your students being online at the same time. This guide offers some effective practices for facilitating online discussions. The UW-Madison Discussion Project also has some quick tips and a sample rubric (see #10 on the list) for assessing online discussion.

Asynchronous Discussion

The Discussion tool in Canvas provides a digital space for these conversations to happen. Piazza is another discussion option, particularly for formula-heavy or other STEM courses. If you grade the discussion in a face-to-face setting, grade it also in the online setting. In Canvas, you can create a graded Discussion, which allows you to assign grades and leave comments for every participant. Think about how you want to engage your students, and how you want your students to engage each other in an asynchronous, online discussion. Consider important differences between online and face-to-face communication, and urge your students to do the same. Tone of voice, body language, and general demeanor translate poorly into text-only communications. In particular, be aware that countering a student’s perspective with an alternative perspective can have a chilling effect on a conversation, so try to allow those alternatives to arise from other students whenever possible. Here are some more specific tips on making online discussions more effective regardless of the modality of your course, as well as five specific approaches recommended by Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD Vilas Professor and Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor of UW–Madison.

Asynchronous Group Discussions

You can conduct group discussions using similar principles. Canvas supports the creation of groups. Each group in your course will have its own homepage including its own discussion area. Beyond their educational value, group activities can support class cohesion during periods when students are physically far away from each other.

Synchronous Discussions

You can organize a synchronous discussion session using Blackboard Ultra, Google Hangouts Meet or Webex. Successful synchronous discussions require patience and practice, but can bring your class together in a powerful way. Given personal and technical disparities that individual students may experience, please do not penalize students who cannot participate in synchronous discussions. Please  always record a discussion and make it available to students who might have missed the session for whatever reason. Please only share recordings that identify other students with those in the class to protect student privacy. Please refer to the Provisional UW–Madison Online Collaboration Session Recording Policy for more details. 

Synchronous Group Discussions

Blackboard Ultra also allows you to use breakout rooms, thus breaking your students into smaller discussion sections and then bringing them all back together in the main room at your leisure. Please note that breakout rooms won’t function if you have more than 250 participants. If you have a large course you should have group or section based synchronous discussions rather than trying to get the entire class online at the same time. If you do anticipate having more than 250 participants in an Ultra Conference, please reach out to the DoIT Help Desk at least 72 hours in advance so that we can make sure Blackboard can handle the load on the backend.

Group Projects and Assignments

In an effort to help students feel connected to your course and part of a learning community, you may consider adding group-based assignments or amending current assignments to make them group-based. By making groups in Canvas you automatically create a virtual space for students to work together. You can also create group specific Blackboard Collaborate sessions allowing students an easy way to meet and work together online. Google Docs integration with Canvas through Canvas Collaborations makes it possible for individuals and groups to create a shared Google Doc to work together on. Students can even turn in a shared Google Doc for an Assignment in Canvas.

Grading Remotely

Canvas provides efficient and convenient ways to continue grading and communicating with students about their grades remotely. The Canvas Gradebook is the ideal way to make sure students and instructors are on the same page about their grade in the course. In particular, the Canvas SpeedGrader is an optimal tool for grading work remotely and making your grading and feedback available to students. See below for guidance on grading assignments and quizzes. 

Creating Assignments

In order to grade anything in Canvas, or with the SpeedGrader, you have to first create an assignment in Canvas. Any assignment you use in a face-to-face class can be created using Canvas Assignments, including peer review assignments. You can even use Canvas to easily assign different due dates and times to different students or groups of students. This is particularly helpful if you have students in need of accommodations. 

Entering Grades with Canvas SpeedGrader

Not only does SpeedGrader help grade papers and assignments more efficiently, it also provides a convenient way to communicate with students around grades and grading. SpeedGrader is easy to find and integrates with your Canvas gradebook. You can use SpeedGrader to submit a grade, add typed comments, or even record audio or video feedback

Using SpeedGrader to Grade Papers

SpeedGrader makes it particularly effective to grade papers or test questions with short or long answers. You can add comments, highlights, strikethroughs, and even free draw on submitted papers right in SpeedGrader. If you create and attach a rubric to your assignment before making it available to students, you will likely find it quicker to leave detailed feedback and grade. Depending on your needs and preferences, you can also download the student submission, add comments and feedback in Word and then re-upload or attach them to SpeedGrader for students to see. If you download and re-upload, you will need to manually enter the grade for that student in SpeedGrader. If you would like help ensuring originality of student work, consider using Turnitin’s originality checker. Students can also use it to check for proper formatting of citations in their work. Turnitin and materials provided by the vendor – such as this Plagiarism Spectrum Primer – can be used as a resource to help you discuss the originality of work with students.

Grading Student Presentations and Video Assignments Online

You can use Canvas and SpeedGrader to conduct and grade student presentations remotely. If you choose to have students submit audio or video recordings as assignments or presentations, they can upload videos captured on their phone, laptop or through Kaltura Capture to an assignment in Canvas.  You can also create Blackboard Ultra sessions where students can join as moderators so they can record their session and upload it to Canvas. You can use Blackboard Ultra or another approved web conferencing software to conduct synchronous presentations with a live audience as well. Please remember that any recordings of students and their work is FERPA protected and should not be shared outside of those enrolled in the class. Please refer to the Provisional UW–Madison Online Collaboration Session Recording Policy for more details. 

Administering Tests and Quizzes Online

Administering tests and quizzes online needs to be carefully considered and devised to meet the needs of the course. There are options for take-home type tests, which students can upload as files to Canvas, or timed essay exams through Canvas, as well as other possibilities. Quizzes and tests can be an effective way to help students stay on track and complete their learning outcomes. You can set up low-stakes reading or concept check quizzes that will motivate students to keep up with their learning and give you insight into how they are doing. Low-stakes activities are those that do not have a significant impact on a student’s grade and could be for little or no points. 

Setting Up Low-Stakes Quizzes

You can use Canvas Quizzes to set up low-stakes quizzes. Canvas Quizzes provide a variety of question types. As long as you don’t use long or short answer question types, Canvas will autograde the quiz. If you do you want to include longer or short answer question types, you will need to grade those question types using the SpeedGrader. You can even set up non-graded or self-check quizzes that students can take as many times as they want. If you have a student who requires accommodation, you can also use the Moderate Quiz function to give them additional time or attempts. 

Setting Up High-Stakes Quizzes

While we generally do not advise using Canvas Quizzes for high-stakes testing such as midterms or finals, you can use it when necessary especially during a major disruption. If you are concerned about ensuring the originality of student answers, there are some measures you can take. For example, you can create a bank of questions of similar difficulty that are then randomly assigned to the students ensuring no two students will likely get asked the same questions in the same order. You can also put a time limit on the quiz. This means that if a student does not know the material, they are unlikely to find the correct answer in time even if they are looking in sources or notes they are not supposed to. Also, if you are using long answer or essay question types you can always use the Turnitin originality checker. Basically, if you can construct your test so that cheating takes as much or more effort as learning the material, your students’ motivation to cheat is minimized. 

UW-Madison has secured the online proctoring service, Examity, and is currently working to fast-track the tool’s implementation to support the university’s shift to remote instruction for spring 2020. Examity is an online proctoring solution that helps instructors maintain academic integrity when providing online assessments to students. Online proctoring is only one of a number of ways to assess student learning in the online environment that promote academic integrity.

Sharing and Managing Files Online

While Canvas is ideal for delivering content, it is not designed for easily hosting and managing files. In particular Canvas is not designed to host extra large files such as video, audio or PowerPoint files. For organizational and logistical reasons you might want to consider using a file storage system such as Google Drive, Box or Kaltura MediaSpace (video files) to host your course’s files. 

Embedding Files in Canvas

You can share any course-related files through Canvas by embedding those files from Box or Google Drive. You can embed files either through the Box or Google Drive integration with Canvas, or for those comfortable with editing html by using an embed code. Similarly, you can also embed video files through our university’s video hosting service Kaltura MediaSpace either through its integration with Canvas or through an embed code. If you don’t want students downloading your files, make sure you disable download in Box and choose the “view only” option in Google Drive.

Sharing Files Outside of Canvas

Box and Google Drive also allow you to share your files in other ways such as generating easily shareable URL links. However if you share a URL, your students can share it as well, so if you prefer that the files are not shared outside of your course, you should embed them in your Canvas course as noted above. 

Running Lab Activities Remotely

Lab activities typically require specific equipment and supplies, and can be challenging to fully translate an online space. Here are some steps that may work for some labs:

  • Divide the lab experience into smaller segments, and determine which segments can be taught remotely. If you normally begin a lab session with an orientation to certain procedures or equipment, try using a video recording to deliver the same information.
  • Try virtual labs such as those provided by the ChemCollective.
  • Create lab videos that would allow students to make observations just like they would in a normal lab setting. Those observations can be turned in on Canvas and graded.
  • If the primarily learning outcome of the lab experience is data analysis rather than data collection, consider providing the students with realistic data sets upon which to perform the required analysis.
  • Piazza can also be useful for group work around lab data.

Supporting Your Students' Use of Digital Tools

Internet and technical equipment play a critical role in continuing teaching and learning remotely and you can direct students to this checklist for recommended technology for learning remotely. However, not all students have the same access to technology. In the beginning, consider assessing your students’ prior experience with various tools and other resources available to them, with a short, non-graded Canvas quiz or a Google form like this sample survey In addition, regular check-in quizzes while your course progresses will help you continue to assess your students’ evolving situations and response to the course.  Common discrepancies to consider include access to printers and sufficient internet bandwidth.

Other helpful resources for students can be found at:, which provides tips on learning remotely, tool access, academic advising and career services support, and more. 

The following are direct links to KnowledgeBase documents for specific tool access and use:

To troubleshoot and resolve any technical issues, contact the DoIT Help Desk