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I teach a couple of assistive technology classes, and lately, I’ve been contemplating the idea of transferring them to online. However, I’ve never been a big fan of asynchronous online classes.  I understand the benefits and the allure: distance education, access at a time that is convenient for the student, no commuting and fighting for parking, possibly lower cost, access to a variety of courses.  However, the need for self-discipline is a huge drawback for a lot of students. I, like many others, have signed up for numerous MOOCs when feeling ambitious only to leave them incomplete in the face of multiple demands on my time. Because we don’t have to go to class and face a professor and classmates, it’s a lot easier to put an online class out of mind. Now that’s not to say that everyone lacks the self-discipline to take an online class. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other factors that have to be considered when judging the success of an online class.  How engaging is the class? How present is the professor? How is the relationship with the other students in the class established and nurtured?

Quite a while ago, I signed up for an online class that sounded interesting on paper. However, upon logging on, I realized that this is a class that I would never be able to finish successfully.  The way this professor envisioned the class would never work for me because of my lack of self-discipline. He expected that we read the book and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. If we didn’t hear back from him, it meant that everything was great and we could move on. Mind you; I doubt that anyone ever heard from this professor. To me, this is not an online class.

So, while I knew what I didn’t want in an online class, I wasn’t quite sure what an online class should look like, so I started doing some research into best practices.  It turns out that there are quite a lot of recommendations out there that would make the online class much more engaging and accessible than what my old professor was suggesting.  It also turns out that if you want to create and run a successful online class, you probably have to put in more work than when running the class on the ground.

You shouldn’t just take the on the ground class and try to transfer it online. While on the ground lectures may take up an hour or more, in online, best practices advise to keep lectures in 15-20 minute chunks.  You have to make sure you’re available and present in the classroom. If a student has a question make sure you establish a reasonable amount of time that you’ll get back to them, best within 24 hours. If you have online discussions, make sure you let your students know that you are present. Encourage them and ask probing questions but do not take over the lecture.  Encourage group work whether it’s an assignment or discussion groups. Make sure that you detail your guidelines and your expectations. Hold virtual office hours. Consider whether you want to incorporate synchronous activities. Make sure your class is accessible to all learners, including those with disabilities.

Preparing and teaching an online class is a huge responsibility. It’s not a way of reducing your workload.  It does offer the same flexibility to professors as it does to students: the ability to work from where you want and when you want, as long as you are engaged and present.

picture of 1800s classroom with blackboard, seats and a teacher's desk.

Technology adoption is tricky. What technology should we use and for what purpose? Should we use something just because everyone else is using it? Should there be another reason? What is that reason? What is the technology that fits best in my classroom, with my students, and for what I want to do?

In the field of assistive technology, where IDEA talks about individualized educational programs, we use a great framework developed by Joy Zabala ( It’s called SETT, and it stands for Student, Environment, Tasks, and Tools. It says that rather than starting with the tool (a way too frequent approach), we should first consider the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs; we should consider the environment that the student is operating in; and we should consider the tasks we want the student to accomplish. Once we’ve considered that, identifying the tool becomes much easier and more appropriate.

While it’s hard to consider the strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of every student in a school, there’s nothing stopping us from at least examining the environment (the WiFi, the classrooms, whether the device is going home with the student or not, etc.) and the tasks (what are the educational goals? What are we trying to accomplish in the classroom? What do we want the students to learn?). Once we do that, maybe we can do a better job of selecting the appropriate tools rather than having closets full of technology that once was hot and now it’s not.