Low-Tech Teaching in a High-Tech WorldZoë Cohen | Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine Tucson, University of Arizona
Online teaching isn’t new. In the 1960s, people took correspondence courses, where teachers would mail assignments to students to complete and return. In the computer age, these courses were moved to an online format and range from stand-alone courses, to Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), to entire curricula.
As technology has improved, so have the intricacies of these online courses. Courses now have movie-quality videos, voice thread discussions, video chats and comprehensive animations.
But are all of these necessary for students to learn what is asked of them?
Many universities are investing money and time into building online courses, degrees and even entire departments. As a result, faculty who have been teaching for years in person are often asked to create online content. The pushback can be massive and understandable. Taking a course and transforming it is scary, especially for those without strong computer skills. In addition, many departments don’t have technical personnel able to help.
But with some effort, faculty with limited computer skills can create an online course that meets the academic needs of students and can be as motivating and interesting as those with bells and whistles.
What’s the missing piece? Interaction.
How do we get it? Interacting with students, whether in person or online, requires time! But in order for a course to be successful, that is what is required. Students may think they want to get through the material quickly, with the least resistance possible. But when asked about their experiences, students always praise the personal touches. This is also true of MOOCs. 
For 10 years, the department of physiology at the University of Arizona has made one online course (Physiology of the Immune System, an upper division elective) available to majors. This course is taught in person during the fall semester and online during summer. Not only is the summer course fully online, but it’s also condensed course, with the material taught daily for five weeks (rather than across a normal 15-week semester).
Due to my own lack of computer skills as well as the time to create fancy graphics and so on, this course is notes-based. The students are asked to read a set of notes each day and then to either participate in a treaded discussion (a discussion that doesn’t need to take place synchronously) or to complete a short assignment or quiz.
What I’ve found is that a daily message on our home page sets the mood for the day. I use the daily message to not only let students know what is due and when, but also to convey my excitement for the material!
In addition, the daily post often contains some reference to the weather, events (local and global) or something completely unrelated. Most Learning Management Systems (LMSs) allow you to write these in advance and release them when wanted.
An example of a daily post might look like this:
Thursday, June 21st: What??? It hasn’t already been summer for weeks (months)???? 🙂 And it looks like Mother Nature just said “Zoe thinks THIS is hot?? Hold my beer!!”…It’s just getting hotter the rest of the week!! Bleh!!
As Dory would say…”Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming”…
You should be finishing up Discussion #6…have you read all the papers? The problem with the graphic from the peanut allergy paper is where the peanut antigen is binding to the IgE…remember that the antigen needs to attach to 2 IgEs (cross-bind) on mast cells in order for the immediate release of granules…the picture doesn’t show this! (a former student was the one who pointed this out to me!) 🙂
Today you should read Type II Immunopathology and start working on Assignment #6 (due Friday at 10am). I know it can seem as if all these discussions and assignments are just a lot of busy work, but trust me when I say it is really helping you learn the material!!
The home page is also used to comment on how the class is doing and to answer questions that are asked frequently.
Another important aspect is to return grades in a timely manner. Whether we like it or not, students are grade-driven and the amount of stress associated with delays in scores is a real issue. Many Learning Management Systems can grade multiple-choice quizzes and post grades, decreasing back-end work for the faculty member.
Students respond to the attention more than the lack of fancy graphics and videos. Here are a couple of examples of student responses to this basic online course:
“She made the course flow so smoothly, it did not even feel like a typical online class.”
“Even though this is an online class, you still have to study to do well on the midterm and final. This is not a course you can just look the answers up as you go along. It’s at the same level as an in-person Physiology class. I did not feel like my learning was compromised just by taking the class online.”
“She is very responsive and makes things very clear so that the student is never confused about assignments or discussions.”
“This class is very well designed, one of the best online classes I have ever taken. Course materials are easy to locate, and the expectations are very clear. This excellent organization and presentation of materials allows me to spend all of my time exploring the concepts in depth, rather than spending time every day hunting around the course website to make sure I have everything I need (as is the case in many online classes). I also like that she logs in every day and posts messages to the class guiding us along. Her engagement in the course is above and beyond that of any other instructor I have taken an online course from and it has really kept me more interested in the course.”
“I appreciate the encouragement at the individual and class level. She provides very positive and constructive feedback, guides you along when needed but is also somewhat of a cheerleader (in a good way). … I actually want to study and learn about concepts beyond what is required for the class.”
“She had a bubbly post for us every morning and it made doing that day’s work a lot more enjoyable. Knowing that the teacher is excited about the material makes it that much easier to learn.”
“Even though the course was completely online, I liked how she emailed us each day and stayed in communication. It made me feel like I wasn’t completely on my own.”
I believe that with small tweaks, anybody can develop and teach a successful online course.
If you have the time and ability to add the extra touches, well, that’s a bonus for both you and the students.
 Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente. “The MOOC pivot: What happened to disruptive transformation of education?”. Science. Jan, 2019. 363: 130-131
Author Perspective: Educator