Guest article by Scott Cowley.

I have very narrow expertise when it comes to teaching online. Like many of you, my tips should probably be limited to “How to convert to an online class in a weekend during a pandemic at the end of a term (and who knows if it’s any good).

But I have been talking a lot more to my students in individual conversations and emails about their experiences as all of their classes moved online at the same time. I find it incredibly fascinating, knowing that none of us had time for much formal training, and watching how we choose to adapt. Or not adapt. It’s probably unfair to judge educators for not having a seamless transition during a crisis. It’s an unenviable position.

What is clear, from my conversations with students, is that the migration to online education is really providing a window into the core value systems of individual educators, which I noted on Twitter. Most of us aren’t going to instantly transform into a different style of educator just because we teach online. So let’s learn from the feedback our students are providing today, both direct and implicit, so that we can be better educators and humans tomorrow.

I’ll summarize some principles for success, based on student feedback about my own classes and others during this big online teaching experiment.

1. Accept yourself.

You might see some colleagues get praised by your institution for their adaptability or their command of online teaching technologies. It’s OK. You aren’t them and you don’t have to fit a particular mold to be successful in the eyes of your students. Also recognize that some classes are, by nature, harder to transition online with short notice. You have unique constraints or personal challenges that others may never realize, but you also have unique resources and capabilities that can be used for good right now.

2. Prove you’re human.

At our institution, administrators have frequently used the phrase “instructional continuity” to describe the goal of this transition process. Students observe that it has turned some educators into robots by making them think that continuity means acting like a pandemic isn’t really happening. Students are going through major upheaval from job loss, relocation, and unplanned anxieties about health, future employment, etc. It’s OK to acknowledge the challenging conditions and consider whether some of your course elements become unnecessary burdens in an online-only format. I tried to keep course objectives intact while finding places to simplify or increase flexibility for students.

Students also appreciate an educator who can lead the conversation in relevant, constructive deviations. I had personal experience to share about losing a job in the last recession, but it was ultimately a message of optimism that, however long these conditions last, they will get better. I recorded a separate video for my graduating seniors about their future decision about whether to return to campus for a physical graduation ceremony when the time comes, since I had a unique perspective to share. Deliver empathy with positivity in small doses, and it will pay off.

3. Find unique ways to add value.

I’ve always appreciated some advice I heard as a young professional. “Nobody expects you to know everything or fix everything. They just expect you to add value.” This is especially true for us as educators during a crisis, and unique value is the type that goes beyond the lesson plans students know we’re being paid to deliver. Remember that at a basic level, value could be considered hedonic or utilitarian—entertaining or helpful. I have a professor friend who paid to have a llama join her class’s Zoom lecture. In my class, I created a collaborative Spotify playlist and students had fun contributing their own music that had to relate to working from home and social distancing. On our American holiday of April Fool’s Day, I couldn’t let that go by without pranking my students into momentarily thinking that their computer speakers weren’t working before surprising and rewarding them. On the utilitarian side, I compiled and published links to a variety of websites offering free limited time access to online trainings that would be useful to digital marketers and some of them have enjoyed taking advantage of these.

These all fit my style, and yours will be different, but just as valuable. Again, you don’t have to fit somebody’s mold. I’ll admit that being online has created more work than I expected, but going beyond basic expectations is my way of showing my students that I’m thinking about them and the response has been affirming.

4. Connect individually. 

One of the most important parts of my new routine has been an increase in individual touchpoints with my students. Yes, it took time to send individual emails checking in with every student in one of my classes, but I learned so much about their general welfare and the state of mind they were bringing to class and that was key to adapting. When students email me with class-related questions, it doesn’t take much in my response to simply add, “How have you been this week?” and that can create a simple connection that is motivating and uplifting to both sides. When handling more complex student questions, I now default to proposing a live video conference instead of putting everything in email. I try to find more ways to express gratitude to individual students and I’m even writing some personalized graduation cards to my senior students—something I haven’t ever done before. What is the point of all this extra emotional labor? It’s hard to say. But if it makes a difference for one student in their ability to cope with these challenges, that’s enough for me. And it helps knowing that this is a unique period of time with temporary needs and changes.


What I’m learning most right now is that in the midst of uncertainty, change, and sometimes fear, small gestures can have a greater impact. And without being physically present, we can become even more human.

Scott Cowley
Assistant Professor of Marketing,
Western Michigan University.