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College of Arts and Sciences

A&S Faculty Guidance on Virtual Instruction

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Guidance on the transition to online instruction (as of Thursday March 12th @ noon)

This document provides guidance (rather than formal policy) on a number of questions received about the transition to online instruction.

Below is a list of the questions with hyperlinks to allow you to jump to each individually.

Not included here is information on any changes to university policies, e.g. to respond to questions about changes to access of on-campus facilities, implications for students for the federal work study program or university policies on final exam scheduling. We will need to await formal responses from the university on those.

The information here represents my current understanding, and aggregates guidance from discussions with the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) and Associate Deans for Undergraduate Education from the colleges, along with suggestions from the Center of Teaching Innovation (CTI).

I apply the caveat that things are continually evolving so the guidance may evolve, and some responses are still incomplete and are awaiting additional information.

General questions on the logistics of transitioning as an instructor:

Courses for which distance learning is not easy:

Other considerations for our students:


How does the transition to online affect class planning/scheduling before the Spring break?

  • Courses can continue to be taught in conventional formats, this gives time for students to acclimatize to the transition online. Please allow flexibility to students who may be at greater risk due to underlying medical conditions.
  • It is not appropriate to attempt to compress the remaining semester into the lectures before break.  Other courses continue and students will have numerous distractions / other priorities.  Increasing stress by attempting to compress 6 weeks into 1 week is inappropriate.
  • Synchronous deliver of content via on-line lectures is viable.  Hardware may be challenging since rooms with dedicated equipment for synchronous delivery are likely already scheduled for other classes which may not have gone on-line.
  • Restructuring the syllabus timing to deliver content that is most dependent on synchronous delivery should be prioritized for this period.
  • Labs, in particular, should be thinking of shifting analysis to post-spring break and focusing on experimental work immediately.

How does the transition to online affect class planning/scheduling after the Spring break?

  • Think about course remote delivery as consisting of two distinct components, with the second absolutely critical
    • Content delivery (lecture, notes, etc.)
    • Substantive interaction – the direct interactions that provide value to the students beyond listening to content
  • Expect that synchronous delivery of course content will be difficult and available to a very small subset of courses
    • Key challenges include that students are distributed across many time zones, including internationally.
  • Asynchronous delivery can take multiple forms and consider many alternatives
    • CTI has notes for several options, see their website for on-line instructions
    • The 50- and 75-minute class lengths for courses are no longer hard and fast.  You are free to present material and videos in smaller chunks (this is actually a good teaching approach online). Consider how you might manage this.
    • You do not need to use your assigned classroom to record your lectures. CTI have said that static delivery with close proximity to the screen/microphone is preferable (e.g. you can post slides on line and either provide a voice-over, or record yourself from your laptop presenting the materials).

What does “substantive contact” mean? What are some ways we can meet this?

  • Substantive contact means two-way engagement with students.  
  • Posting a video of lectures, or providing lecture materials online does not count as substantive contact in itself.
  • The VPUE is recommending that faculty include at least 2 hours of active faculty-student interaction each week.
    • One approach would be to hold online office hours (two or more at different times to accommodate the distribution of time zones students will be in). In those times you could be doing any/all of the following:
      • Having an open Zoom video conference that students can join
      • Actively communicating in canvas discussion forums (these facilitate Q&A conversations that multiple students can see and interact with.) Encourage student to use these when they have general questions/comments.
      • Responding in real time to individual email questions (and potentially sharing them with the other students in the discussion forums/video conference if that is appropriate)
    • Set clear expectations for students on your responsiveness outside of office hours e.g. you might commit to respond to emails or discussion forum questions within 24 hours.
    • Set up group discussions/quizzes that students can do together, mentored by you and your TAs, to encourage communication between students outside of the office hours. This will help alleviate feelings of isolation for students.

How can I best help my students in this transition?

  • Let them know that this is a big transition for everyone and you are in this together, with them: Set the expectation that students and faculty will all need to be patient and flexible. There’ll be learning experiences for everyone in this transition, with some things that work well and some things that don’t.
  • Be responsive: Reassure students in your classes, and your undergraduate advisees, that just because they are off-campus, and perhaps in a different time zone, they will not lose their ability to communicate with and hear from you when they have questions or concerns. Encourage them to communicate openly and honestly with you.
  • Provide flexibility: This is an extremely stressful time for our students as they seek to both successfully complete their studies for the semester, while navigating their return home and the transition to online instruction. Please consider flexibility and accommodations if students have technological challenges, time zone differences etc. (e.g. as it relates to deadlines).
  • Provide frequent and clear communications: Use the canvas site for your course to post and announce e.g.
    • changes to the syllabus,
    • materials being posted,
    • good advanced notice of upcoming office hours,
    • any changes in expectations for how material will be posted, collected or assessed for the course during and after the transition. 

This allows students to be reassured that they have access to up to date information about the course, any discussions, and any changes at any time & place.

What happens to lab courses/independent research projects involving lab work?

  • Students can continue to access labs and take experimental data prior to spring break.
  • We are currently awaiting university guidance on under what conditions, if any, undergraduates would be permitted to continue in any campus-based activities post spring break.
  • For independent research/honors theses: If students are not allowed access to labs after spring break, Departments should:
    • determine how they will accommodate students who may not be able to complete their lab-based honors thesis or independent research prior to April 6
    • develop guidelines for how students can complete their theses/reports in other ways e.g. the student can write up and analyze the data they have and then include a discussion of what they would have done, why and with what expected outcomes, to conclude their studies after April 5th. We expect these guidelines may vary across departments based on the type of research being conducted.
  • For structured courses: departments should develop ways to engage students in the lab experience remotely, e.g. Chemistry is proposing to record a TA conducting a lab experiment, asking questions as they do, to encourage engagement, and then send the data to the students to remotely analyze and write up the lab report.

What about group performance classes e.g. chorale, orchestra, dance groups?

  • The VPUE has asked that departments avoid simply ceasing instruction after spring break where possible. Instead, departments are asked to identify alternatives, that would be meaningful, academically related to the course and achievable through distance learning. If a department is unable to come up with a viable solution, then the VPUE asks that they communicate it to both her and me, as the Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education. 

Will student services (advising, career development, registrar) still be open?

  • Student services will be open, and continue normal in-person services, through spring break. 
  • All services will transition online after spring break. We will be updating our webpages and communicating with students about this in the coming week.
  • You should continue to send academic advising or registrar questions you have about, or behalf of, students you teach and advise to

What about students who don’t have computer or internet access at their residence, or for whom it’s not safe or too financially burdensome to return home?

  • The Office of the Dean of Students has sent out a questionnaire to all students which includes questions that relate to concerns and challenges about returning home. They will be using this to determine if some students should be permitted to stay on campus.

What about students for whom going online might require additional/modified SDS accommodations?

  • Students who have concerns or questions about accommodations related to the transition to online instruction are being asked to work with Student Disability Services.