top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. Caitlin Barnes

An Emergency Online Course is Not Normal

I have spent many years trying to convince faculty that online education is not the dark horse it has been made out to be. I thought, if they would just try it out they’d see it’s not so bad! So when everyone had to go online because of the global pandemic, I thought that this was the perfect opportunity for faculty to see how great online was! Wow, was I wrong!

An emergency online course, also known as "crisis teaching" is what classrooms experienced starting in 2020 when lockdown began and we all went under quarantine. Educators were forced to become online instructors, whether they had training or not.

Faculty had to transition to online in less than a week in some cases. And even experienced online instructors had a difficult time pulling that off.

I am incredibly proud of higher education. I’m proud of the technical support staff, the students and all the people who rallied together to get through it. But the unfortunate side effect of this emergency transition is that faculty who had never taught online before thought that THAT was what online courses actually look like.

Well, that is why I would like to explain 5 key differences that make our emergency transition into an online format very different from a truly online course that was meant to be online and prepared that way.

So let’s get started with number 1.

1. The Prep Time

In our emergency, we were JUST trying to digitize the in-person class so students can access it online. Fully prepared online instructors rethink the entire class for an online audience and that takes more than a week!

And I realize that prep time is an obvious choice, because even traditional, in-person coursework would take longer than a week. But online prep is extensively longer, even compared to an in-person course. Faculty have to find, and often create, their own online educational activities, assignments and assessments best suited for online students. I have hours and hours of trainings, tutorials and resources for online instructors, for good reason.

Teaching online is a practice, not a skill you master in a couple of days.

It takes time to learn the ropes and time to strategically restructure your class. And that’s not including the time to learn any new technologies or learning management systems.

Now to be fair, I saw some pretty stellar online courses produced in less than a week. But if you’ve never taught online before, I usually recommend 3-6 months to plan and build the online course.

2. Delivering Instruction (Lecturing)

In our emergency, many faculty recorded and live-streamed their lectures and then posted it later for more flexibility. Sometimes it was just posting lecture notes or additional readings with no video lecture at all.

The resulting videos weren’t the best quality, as faculty accidentally moved out of view or the students couldn’t see the board because of glares. Students couldn’t hear other students speaking and it often left students feeling like they were watching someone else’s class.

But when fully online, instructors record some, if not all, of their lectures at home or in a studio to help control audio and visual quality and address other accessibility features. Their video lectures are condensed into much shorter versions to make it easier for students to move through the information.

Even if faculty are using electronic texts and resources, there is still plenty of explanations, descriptions and instructions that should always come from the teacher. A great deal of thought and time go into creating original instructional materials, that are meant for online students.

3. Homework and Examinations

I feel like this is the one people struggled with the most during our emergency transition, and mostly because of concerns for academic integrity, or cheating.

There are ways to reduce cheating in an online class and it’s one of the first things I discuss with faculty.

But during our emergency, the easiest and fastest way to transition online exams to just to recreate it, as it was, as an online version typically by creating an online quiz with your exam questions. But these types of paper-based, quiz-style exams are difficult to translate online successfully and uphold academic integrity.

So I encourage online faculty to rethink their assessments altogether.

You already know students will have access to the internet and their textbook, and you can design the assessments around that. Embrace it! Instead of multiple choice, you may have more essay responses or open-ended questions. But it also goes beyond just changing up the style of questions, it also could impact your entire grading scheme.

An established and well-supported teaching strategy is to create multiple, low-stakes opportunities for students so that it’s okay if they fail a couple of activities because they are low on significance to their overall grade and helps them prepare for those high-stakes exams.

If you have multiple high-stakes exams and very few other opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know, it puts extra pressure on the students to do well on the exam, which can actually incentivize them to cheat so they get that good grade.

Instead, you can bump up the value of the low-stakes assignments and reduce the pressure of their performance at a single point in time.

This is what I mean about shifting your assessments to target an online audience. You do not have to sacrifice quality or academic integrity when teaching a fully online course.

4. Student Support and Online Resources

Put yourself in the shoes of a truly distant learner. What would you need if you were never able to step foot on campus? Just think of things like printers, scanners, internet access, online tutoring, online counseling or the ability to meet with the instructor for questions.

Students who sign up for online courses are aware that they need access to the internet and a computer, but these students did not sign up for what occurred during the emergency. In many ways, this left many of us underprepared to support students during the lockdown.

But a little more disturbing was seeing the reduction of instructor activity as the course progressed. This is a pretty common misconception about online education, that instructors can sort of set up the course and the sit back and wait for something to grade or for someone to ask a question… Essentially, that the course will run itself.

But teaching online is not a spectator’s sport. You should be just as interactive in the online class… with the students just as aware of your presence… as you would be in an in-person class.

Not all students are familiar with online coursework, and not all students thrive in the online modality. Providing support for students and giving them all the tools they need to succeed is really at the heart of online education.

5. Consistency

We can’t help that we had to change the game plan mid-semester. It left us all going in different directions with technology, assessments, assignments and class schedules. Students struggled to remember which conferencing system Class A was using, or whether it was Class B or C that did synchronous lectures. Wait, was it Class A that had an online exam today?!?

For traditional online, I encourage consistent due dates for assignments, scheduled exams that are clear on day one of the class, regular and reliable emails from the instructor, and weekly updates about assignments to keep the students aware of what is expected of them and keep them involved in the course.

It’s very easy for a student to forget about an online exam. Did you ever walk into exam day in an in-person class, take one look around, and say to yourself “oh no I forgot the exam was today!”

Well, prepared or not, at least you had a chance to complete it! Online students don’t even get that! They could easily breeze through their day and not have the faintest clue they are missing an exam until it’s too late.

And consistency doesn’t mean boring, and it doesn’t dampen instructor creativity, either! You can alternate assignment styles and get creative with assessments, just be consistent with when those items are due. Online students love the flexibility of completing the assignments on their own time, but inconsistent deadlines will make it more likely they will accidentally miss something. If you are consistently providing updates and referencing a very clear and organized course schedule, it makes it more likely that students will be aware of those very important course deadlines.

Now I want to be clear. The emergency transition was completely uncontrollable, and faculty did their best. As I mentioned, even faculty with years of experience teaching online struggled with the insane situation we all found ourselves in.

But I also simply cannot let that chaotic experience be the final word on online education.

Therefore, to show my support for our online transition regardless of the reason, I’d like to provide 5 additional ways our emergency transition actually embraced some of the best parts of online education in The Bright Side of Emergency Online Teaching.

For expanded explanations or training in any of the 5 differences described above, email us at

Recent Posts

See All


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page