Biology Teaching in the Time of COVID-19: How to Transfer to Online Learning

March 14, 2020

As microbiologists, we teach our students to always expect the unexpected from microbes. COVID-19 is currently putting the global education system to the test by forcing face-to-face learning environments to quickly move online. As educators, we need to ensure a seamless transition for our students. 

As professors with more than 30 years of teaching experience combined, here are our best recommendations around distance learning education to help make the transition from face-to-face learning to online modalities efficient and effective.  

Maintain Consistent, Informative Contact with Students

In face-to-face courses, you may only meet with students 2-3 times per week. To maximize impact of online learning, instructors must implement methods to communicate with students on a daily, if not every other day basis. This is daunting at first, but, from a student’s perspective, feeling lost for even 12 hours may increase anxiety and decrease student success in meeting learning goals. 

Follow these practices:
  • Remind students of your availability. Specifically, let students know when they should expect to hear back from you (i.e. within 24-48 hours).
  • Utilize the learning management system’s (LMS) messaging or announcement tools to remind students of assignments or upcoming due dates.
  • Use the LMS to schedule messages ahead of time for delivery on a specific date/time.
  • Inform students of daily news related to COVID-19, current events or relevant college updates using social media, like Twitter or Instagram.
  • Consider making short recordings instead of typed messages. Seeing your face and hearing your voice can be reassuring in an unsettling time.
  • Lastly, let them know you care, period. 

Remember: Your Students Didn’t Choose an Online Environment for Their Education

Many students are in an on-campus section for a reason, i.e. they might not possess the skills, discipline, or drive to study online. Knowing this, you may need to create a series of modules or mini-lectures to help students progress through content in smaller chunks. Such modules could contain animations, recordings and learning activities such as videos with embedded questions, concept map assignments, pre-laboratory activities and self-quizzes to prepare students for formative and summative assessments.

Also, you may have to consider how to modify your formative and summative assessments for online delivery:  
  • Will you use timed exams?
  • Will you allow open notes?
  • Will you convert a multiple choice exam to critical thinking-based questions that require research and perhaps online group work over an extended period of time?  
You must also think about maintaining ADA compliance for students. Ally is a feature that scans your course content for such compliance and is built into LMS programs like Blackboard and Canvas. Some LMS platforms like Brightspace and productivity tools like Microsoft Office have a built-in accessibility checker. By implementing universal design principles and strategies, your online course will be more inclusive and engaging to all learners.

Exercise Flexibility and Understand Limitations 

Some students may be in environments where they will experience inconsistent internet access or may not have a device for online coursework. Use a confidential survey or email your students early in the transition process to identify any of these roadblocks to assist the students in finding solutions. Perhaps your college will loan laptops or iPads to students. Also, encourage them to identify locations in their area that have stable internet access such as libraries. Be flexible in using alternative platforms (i.e. Google Docs) for student submission. Also, you may have to directly email (or even mail) assignments, photos and videos to students to ensure that they obtain and submit completed work. Consider using low- to no-cost apps that allow students to scan and email documents with their mobile device. Allow for time zone differences when determining submission deadlines and scheduling synchronous communications, and be mindful that your students may be working overtime or have illnesses themselves. Being flexible yet consistent will provide students with stability and predictability while working from non-classroom environments. 

Maximize the Use of Technology 

To successfully convert your face-to-face course, you must always get the students engaged and active. Here are some ways:
  • Discussion boards, both peer-led and open-ended questions from the instructor, are critical to maintaining consistent participation in an online course. The instructor should:
    • Encourage students to share, consider, research and synthesize information,
    • Serve as an active participant by responding to student’s posts to further the learning and correct any misinformation and
    • Support students who bring creativity to the learning process by having discussion boards that allow them to build, draw or photograph/record parts of a response  
  • Many learning platforms have features that allow you to create group work activities (i.e. case studies, debates, presentations) that maintain on-campus-like group experiences.  
  • WebEX and other conferencing programs also have the capability of turning a standard “lecture” into an engaging active learning session through the use of polling, open response and drawing features. Many of these companies are upgrading their free subscription plans to include recording features and technical support to assist faculty during this time of academic disruption.
For some less traditional ways for online teaching, think outside of the box and invent ways to convert on-campus content to online learning experiences. Some examples are: 
  • Utilize or create photos, videos (i.e. Journal of Visualized Experiments) and demonstrations specific to your lab course to analyze experimental outcomes and data. Bring a new level of critical thinking and troubleshooting to interpretations and analyses by making purposeful mistakes in techniques to test students’ knowledge and comprehension.  
  • Think about how a standard lab activity, such as PCR and DNA sequencing, can still be performed using online lab simulators (i.e. HHMI Biointeractive, NCBI BLAST).  
  • Consider sending students small kits with disposable tools (i.e. plastic test tubes, inoculation loops) so they can mimic laboratory techniques while recording and summarizing their actions without any biohazard implications.  
  • Let the students teach the class. Allow them to pick a learning outcome, develop an active learning activity and use technology to convey the information to the class. If you bring the creativity, you will see highly engaged students.
We hope our tips ease your transition into a new world of teaching while also creating a learning environment that will be stable for your students. Right now, our top priority as educators is to reduce student anxiety through our pedagogical practices and knowledge.  

Looking ahead, you may find yourself implementing distance learning techniques in future semesters. This will provide effective, engaging ways to reach students while also ensuring that when a health crisis interrupts the world again, higher education—much like the memory immune response—will exhibit a quicker, more robust response the second time around.
The current coronavirus pandemic is affecting many aspects of life across the U.S., including education and work. As of March 2020, more than 200 universities are canceling in-person classes to help contain the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving many educators scrambling to make the move to teaching online.  
  • For further information on active learning techniques for online courses, register for ASM’s Teaching Undergraduate Biology webinar series.   
  • View the latest repository of ASM’s teaching resources for the coronavirus disruption and use it in teaching.  

Author: Jennifer A. Herzog

Jennifer A. Herzog
Jennifer A. Herzog is an associate professor of Biology at Herkimer College.

Author: Mary Mawn, Ph.D.

Mary Mawn, Ph.D.
Dr. Mary V. Mawn is Dean of the School of Science, Mathematics, and Technology and an Associate Professor of Biology at SUNY Empire State College.