• Home
  • What is flexible design?
  • Creating options for remote participation

Creating options for remote participation

Flexible courses require a different mindset than courses taught only in person or only online. With flexible courses, some students may be in person. Others may be online. Others – including the instructor – may move between one mode and the other. Those teaching in person will need to create alternative ways for students to meet the learning objectives and participate online, as well as monitor students' online work, and help online students feel part of a community. That is definitely challenging. Flexible design doesn't require Instructors to create two completely different versions of the same course, but it does require them to spend more time than they would with either an in-person or online class alone. 

Recommendations for developing online options for in-person classes

Instructors must be creative in developing activities and assignments that allow students to meet the same goals in person and online. The overview section of this guidebook talks more about the philosophy and thinking behind flexible design, and the step-by-step section leads you through the process of reviewing your course goals and using that to identify the sorts of instructional activities that will help students acquire the knowledge and skills specified in your course goals. The approach of universal design for learning can help you identify different approaches for the same learning goals, and other sections of this website will help you think through what tools you might use, and how you can engage students in person and online.

Start by breaking your course into modules

The easiest way to approach flexible design is to break your course into modules.

Modules are small components of your course that allow students to build toward larger goals. For instance, you might create a module for every week of a course, although you may have modules that require more or less time. Whatever the length, each module should provide clear learning goals and explain to students how they can meet those goals. Each module usually has smaller components such as readings, written assignments, discussions or group work. 

Modules force you to articulate smaller course goals more clearly, and they provide a clear path for students. This page has more guidance about how to break your course into modules.

Design course elements for the online environment first

The guidance under our Step-by-Step section and Step 3: Plan Your Instructional Activities can help you think through the types of practice and feedback you want your instructional activities to provide. Once you have identified the sorts of learning activities that will give students this practice and feedback, you can consider how they could carry out these activities in different environments (online and in person).  

It is easier to adapt online material for a classroom than to try to push a physical course online at the last minute. Most instructors say that online teaching makes them better classroom teachers because it forces them to think through goals, assignments, and approaches in ways they have never done before. As you consider alternative ways for students to meet learning objectives, it is helpful to think about what is possible online first, and then consider what the in-person environment might enable you and your students to do. 

Can Online Students Just Participate in Classroom Sessions Remotely?

It might seem like the easiest way to allow for online participation in an in-person or hybrid class is to have remote students tune in to classroom sessions via Zoom or another live stream platform. It is quite difficult, however, to arrange things so that remote students feel a part of the in-class activities. In most cases, we do not recommend live streaming as the primary solution for providing online options for in-person classes. Keep reading for more details on why that is, additional considerations, and other strategies. You can also see more detail in a section titled Guidance for Recording Class Periods.

What We Learned in Recent Classroom Simulations

In early August, CTE leaders and faculty and staff collaborators experimented with several methods for remote participation via Zoom. Some of the activities we tried treated the Zoom room as an extension of the full classroom (Zoom participants on the screen, listening via a classroom microphone). We also tried having people who were in the room join Zoom breakout rooms with those online. The Zoom participants’ experiences were universally bad.

  • They could hear the instructor speak but could rarely hear anyone else.
  • They had limited views of classrooms, and sometimes saw nothing if the instructor moved outside a limited range.
  • In general, they felt distant from the physical classroom.
  • Having in-person participants in virtual breakout rooms with Zoom participants worked to an extent, but audio was often an issue. This approach only worked if in-person participants used noise-cancelling headsets. But then participants in the classroom then felt that they were missing out on interaction with those around them.
  • Audio in full-class discussions was also an issue, especially in large classrooms. Those connecting via Zoom could talk to the entire class through a classroom speaker. Participants in class could be heard by those online only with a microphone, though. That required participants to walk to the front of the room to a microphone or the instructor to use an extender to hold a microphone out for those seated in the classroom. Ultimately, we ended up having those in class speak into their laptops on Zoom so that everyone could hear them. The instructor had to turn off the classroom speaker to prevent feedback, though, and then had to quickly turn the speaker back on for Zoom participants to be heard. The technical maneuvering wasted a lot of time. 
  • Some in the classroom reported feeling fatigued by trying to hear and follow along with what was happening in the Zoom room.

The main takeaway was that trying to combine in-person and live-stream activities in one class session diminished the effectiveness of both the in-person and online sessions. Instructors were unable to use the approaches that are most ideally suited to either context. An instructor can invite online students to "join" an in-person class meeting remotely, but it is very difficult for online students to participate or feel like they are a part of the class. As a result, we do not think it is advisable for this to be the primary solution to providing online options for in-person classes.

Suggestions for using remote participation in classroom sessions

  • Make Joining Classroom Sessions a Supplemental Activity. Give students the option of simply “joining” an in-person class session without making it a substitute for the in-person class. Students could tune in to stay apprised of what is happening during classroom sessions, but would then complete online activities that help them learn course material (the real substitute for in-class learning).
  • Assign a Rotating Remote Facilitator. This approach could work if you have a small number of students online or students who need to be online temporarily. Assign a rotating “remote facilitator” role to one or two in-person students per class period. These facilitators would be responsible for monitoring and interacting with remote students during class time, but only occasionally, so that in-person students still gain the benefits of being in the classroom. This role could also be taken up by a graduate or undergraduate teaching assistant. Noise-canceling headsets will be essential for these remote facilitators, though, and it will very likely take some time to work out all the logistics. Moreover, the other challenges that we identified in our simulations will still apply.  

Developing Alternative or Parallel Activities

In most cases, instructors can create a more engaging and effective learning experience for online students by developing alternative or parallel online activities, rather than focusing on having online students try to participate in in-person sessions. Here are some examples:

  • Use online activities that promote the same sort of thinking, learning and opportunities for feedback that you are using in class. For instance, students who attend class have full-class or small group discussions about readings. Students online engage in asynchronous discussion in a discussion board or blog about the same issues. Or students in the classroom complete a worksheet; students online complete the same worksheet after watching an instructor-created video or attending virtual office hours. Instructional staff provides individual or class feedback to all. This page provides suggestions about a variety of learning activities that can be carried out online (to replace common in-class practices) and give students practice using and applying concepts and skills.
  • Try a “jigsaw” approach, in which online and in-person students take ownership for different “pieces of the puzzle” and share what they learn with their peers. This enables the online and in-person students to interact virtually around work or reflections. For instance, after class, in-person students can post their major take-aways or questions from a class session (this reflection also enhances their learning), and online students can generate take-aways from an in-depth analysis of the reading or other asynchronous activities. All students participate in a synthesis discussion. This approach could be an especially useful solution for alternating cohorts of students, because students will switch roles each class period (or week, depending on the alternation pattern).
  • Convene your online students separately. Another approach is to host separate live online sessions for your online students. This would allow you to engage online students much more seamlessly than if you were trying to simultaneously bridge online and in-person students. This approach works especially well if you have a co-teacher, a GTA, or an undergraduate learning assistant or peer mentor who could lead or facilitate the session. Without additional instructional staff, this approach will (obviously) take more time for you as the instructor, so it is best used sparingly and in combination with some of the other approaches described here.
  • Record your in-person class and post it for online students. Many of the challenges we identified with students Zooming into in-person classes will also be an issue for recordings. It can be especially difficult to capture student voices in class recordings, so this will work best for classes that are highly instructor centered (e.g., lecture heavy) OR for classes in small rooms where the microphone can easily pick up comments and questions. if you choose this option, you can make it more effective by asking online students to engage in additional asynchronous “processing” activities, such as posting their major take-aways or their most pressing questions, or responding to quiz questions about the video.  Recordings could also be used to supplement other online learning activities (in much the same way that live stream participation might). See this page for more guidance on recording class periods.   

Need more ideas? If you are teaching an alternating cohort course, check out this page for more guidance. You will find additional ideas about online options on the Plan Your Instructional Activities page, as well as the engagement and connection section of the website.

Deciding Between Synchronous and Asynchronous Online Options

Some of the methods described above involve meeting with students online in real time (synchronous methods) whereas others use asynchronous approaches. As you design your online learning options, be sure to weigh the pros and cons of these two methods. The question of whether to use synchronous or asynchronous methods for online teaching does not have a “one size fits all” answer and depends on a number of different considerations. This page provides some considerations to help you decide the best approach for your course, including how to implement your selected methods equitably.