Online Teaching with the most basic of tools – email

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How to teach online using only email and a phone and maybe one other tool

There’s been a lot of a great resources being shared by so many of us who want to help with the move-online-quickly situation that COVID has found us in. I don’t link to any of it here but I want to acknowledge this great work and generous sharing of it. This is my small contribution.

The great thing about moving online because of COVID is that it’s the middle of the semester so students already know your flow. You just need to translate that flow to online. There are lots of ways to do this, but there isn’t a lot of time to learn a lot of tools and translate the use of those into good teaching. Also, access to some of these tools isn’t ubiquitous…for example not every student has reliable high speed internet access to participate in video conferencing sessions or the conditions to do so. Students are parents, caregivers, employees and being stuck at home while schools or workplaces are closed means a greater need for flexibility. Faculty who have never taught online before or tend to emphasize the f2f experience over technology may not have the skills or the headspace right now too learn some new tools. So I’d like to challenge us to think about the lowest common denominator and imagine online teaching with two things that most everyone will know how to use: email and a smartphone.

A lot of online teaching is really about communicating clearly and well (even if it feels like you are stating the obvious) and establishing and managing expectations. The good news is that you can do most of that by email. Early online teaching was focussed on good organization and structure, because there simply weren’t a lot of tech options to distract us.

At its most basic, online teaching is about 3 things:

Student – content: How will you get content to students in the easiest and most accessible way? How will students engage with that content?

Instructor-student interaction: How will you as an instructor feasibly communicate with your students? And how will they communicate with you?

Student-student interaction: How will students communicate with each other and work together?

For starters, maintain the flow you already have established. You will need to remind students what that flow is: readings by Friday, summaries by Monday, etc. For example, if you teach on Tuesdays, start your week with a communication email on Tuesdays. Tell students where the content for that week is, what needs to be accomplished, and how you will do that as a class. Students might have questions about how everything will play out over the remaining weeks, and you might not have all the answers but you can be honest about that and invite suggestions. (A great place to collect those, outside of your email, is a shared document like a Google doc, but make sure that editing permissions are on and students don’t have to sign in to Google to use it).

Here are some scenarios that I think some instructors will identify with.

Scenario 1: Content is everything in my course. I use powerpoints, worksheets, pdfs, you name it. 50% of more of my class involves students working with my materials.

In this case you will need to get content to students. At the most basic level you can do this via email. I’d avoid dumping the entire set of course materials in one email and opt for a subject line that clearly indicates that the email is only about Week 8 course materials and attach only Week 8 materials in that email.

If you have permission to use a shareable folder (e.g. a Google Drive, or Dropbox) you can use this as a container for your stuff and share the link with your students. Again, the key here is to organize it well: You can have a folder for each week, and label the folder and the content well – Week 8 course materials, Week 8 powerpoint presentation

For student to student interaction – put students in groups of 4-5 and assign them an identifier. These will be their peer support group. Their first task is to establish some group guidelines: what tool will they use to communicate with each other, how often will they do that, and who will assume the coordination of the group. You want students to solve their problems in a group first before emailing you in order to make emails to you more manageable. Anything they can’t figure out in their groups they surface to you via the group coordinator. Tell them to use a specific subject line so your email can be easily sorted eg. Week 8 Questions – Group Number. (Alternatively, you can create a shared document that students can add their comments and questions to, and invite students to answer each other’s questions or challenges. )

Now, how do you deal with these questions coming at you via email? Tell them their questions/muddiest points have to be in by a certain day, then compile all of the class group questions into one doc and respond. This doc could be called Week 8 Question responses.

But that’s a lot of work typing up all those responses. Turn on voice to text or dictation. (You can do this in Microsoft Word on a Mac under the Edit button). You will have to do some text clean up but it’s a good way to save some time.

Text seems so impersonal. You can record audio responses and share them in your shared folder. Emailing them might be too big, but if you keep them short and concise, that might work as well.

Scenario 2: The heart of my teaching are discussions. I run my class as a seminar, and students also do a lot of group discussions and group work.

This is where a bulletin board really shines. If your institution has an LMS, it will have a bulletin board and entire online classes have been taught using only the bulletin board. But if we are sticking to email and your class size is in the 20 or less range, you will want to structure the discussion around a key question or two per week and ask everyone to reply in that email thread. Designate a student or group to summarize the discussion or part of the discussion at the end of the week and post to everyone. Rotate that role. Consider doing your own wrap up email (Subject Line: Week 8 – Wrap Up) to capture any topics that didn’t get addressed or need further exploration.

Scenario 3: The heart of my teaching is group work. I facilitate and support my students in their group work process.

Presumably since it’s mid semester students are already in groups doing their thing. How to take the facilitation of this to email? I’m going to steal an idea from Lauri Prange and suggest adopting a Sprint/Kanban board structure. Replace each class with a check in, where student groups communicate with you about what is on the To Do, the Doing, and the Done boards. They surface any sticky problems that you can respond to. The subject line could be Week 8 Group 5 Check in.

Telephone might be the best way to do this but might not be as flexible for students. You can have a group call or have the group coordinator call you at a designated meeting time to do the check in.


Beyond Email

Beyond email and a smartphone there are some other options that can be combined. I personally feel like you could teach an entire course using only Mattermost (an open source Slack tool) and if you are in BC post-secondary you can have access to this tool for free via the OpenETC. The OpenETC community has already created some great resources for Mattermost. Alternatively a combination of a WordPress SPLOT site (also available for the BC post secs at OpenETC) for content and Mattermost for communication is a good way to go if you feel ready to go beyond email. Some OpenETC community members have already taught with this combo with great results, so it’s been tried and tested.

I really need to do a separate post on teaching and learning with OpenETC tools. SPLOTS offer the most potential here to instructors who are just dipping their toes into online teaching and digital tools, but want to create media and content rich learning environments easily and quickly. And there’s a lot to say about collection of OpenETC sites that can be cloned with a click of a button… eg. see something you like that you want to use for your class…click and voila.


These are obviously not the only possible scenarios so I’d love to hear your What if , How would I, and What’s the best way questions in the comments . Or if you have a great resource about teaching with email, please leave that as well.

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