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Adapting Projects to Online Classrooms

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Being suddenly forced to make major changes to one’s plans for a course—like, for instance, having to shift an in-person course onto the internet because of a massive public health crisis—is a nightmare scenario for many teachers. Thankfully, writing projects can be easier to adapt to remote teaching than some other kinds of assignments because they tend to require less specialized equipment or physical instruction. Even so, however, there can still be major challenges to taking a project designed for the classroom and putting it directly online. This resource provides general guidance for instructors struggling with these challenges.

Plan Sensible Assignments

When adapting a writing project for an online setting, begin by considering the following questions: 

  • What are the learning objectives being assessed?
  • Are there alternate ways of assessing these objectives that will be more doable for students remotely? 

For instance, if the key objective of the assignment is for students to practice evaluating sources, you might come to the realization that a traditional research paper isn't the best way of measuring that online. An annotated bibliography assignment (perhaps incoroporating sources provided by the teacher) could assess the same outcome while acknowledging that students won't have access to the school library and will have less access to the teacher for help. Similarly, for assignments like in-person presentations that might be impossible or unduly difficult in some online classrooms, reflective essays or slide decks with accompanying scripts might represent ways to accomplish the same learning objectives.

Plan to Gather and Distribute Vital Resources

In online classrooms, instructors may need to make a greater-than-normal effort to ensure students have everything they need to accomplish course assignments. Consider questions like the following:

  • What resources are required for the assignment?
  • Will students have access to those precise resources while learning remotely, or will new resources have to be substituted?
  • What are the pros and cons of those substitutions?

Many projects assess multiple learning objectives, which can make scrapping the project and designing a new one difficult and inadvisable. Instead, teachers can try changing some aspects of the project to accomodate students' situations at home. For instance, without library access, a research paper requiring 2 book sources may need to change to require other types of sources accessible online. Similarly, for multimodal writing projects that use design programs installed on school computers, students might be able to use free web-based alternatives. In a pinch, they could even draw their project on paper and upload a picture.

However, it's important to remember that students won't necessarily be aware of these kinds of alternatives unless you make them aware of them. Thus, be sure to direct your students to these kinds of resources using your institution's web-based learning management system (LMS) or email.

Plan to Offer Remote Students Support

While the relative anonymity offered by remote classrooms can be a comfort to some students, it can also make it less likely that some students will ask for help the way they normally would after class or during office hours. Consider questions like the following:

  • How does the difference in the learning environment impact student performance?
  • How can the assignment be scaffolded to help support students in learning from home?

Online learners usually need more check-ins along the way to a final product, since learners in the classroom typically get those kinds of check-ins more informally. Adding a draft or another in-process deliverable such as an outline or an annotated bibliography to a current project's scaffolding can help students get their work done over time rather than all at once before a deadline, and can offer more opportunities to address possible misunderstandings about assignment expectations. Similarly, offering peer review or other workshopping activities with other students can invite the sort of collaboration and feedback that ordinarily might happen in the classroom. Also, like drafts, these sorts of activities give students greater incentive to work steadily.