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Ideas for going online

The purpose of this page is to share some ideas and tips about teaching online: tools, options, how to get started quickly, lessons learned, and links to useful things.

The suggestions herein come from: (1) my experience putting together a few online courses; (2) taking an online-course workshop from GW; (3) following the SIGCSE discussions on teaching online.

Caveat emptor: (1) I'm not an expert in the "tech tools", nor have the experience of teaching across a variety of online modalities. (2) My experience is on Mac OS. So, most often I'll try and point out what others, more experienced, have told me (including Windows tips).

High-level things to remember




Some options for high-level organization of your course:


Third, some examples of "easy" to "hard" (which I'll get into later):


My general approach is to mimic flipped-classroom with active learning in class:


Lastly, a few thoughts on getting started:


Making and editing videos: the basics


Making videos:


Uploading videos:

  • Where do you want to have your videos hosted?
  • Suggestion #1: youtube. This is what I'm using (in the non-public option so that the link is not posted by youtube, nor is searchable) because I think it's the most accessible and likely to scale to survive the upcoming national surge in video usage. Also, youtube has automated captioning, which might be useful for those who need to read.
    • You'll need a non-GW gmail account (because youtube uploads are not part of our GW gmail).
    • Sign in, go to "create video" at the topleft, drag your MP4 file in. Then youtube walks you through a few steps. The upload takes time, because youtube processes the video frame by frame.
    • Copy the URL into your materials, and you're done.
  • Suggestion #2: Blackboard. I'm not a fan of BB, but it is supported by GW and you have access to a helpline.


  • First ... if you have only a few glitches, you probably don't need to worry about editing. Students are very forgiving and it even makes you look human. You can also recover "live" by saying "whoops" and making light of it.
  • But let's say you want to edit. Keep in mind that video editing is a profession and so you can get deep into this, or as I'd recommend, avoid getting deep into this.
  • The most basic things you need to do in an editor:
    • Add a title slide (they all provide samples you can edit).
    • Snip out segments that did not work out.
    • Adjust the volume if needed.
    • Slightly more advanced: layer text on top of video, add special effects (like a text balloon), insert images/other videos.
  • There are many free editors, and nearly every one of them is excessively feature-rich and initially overwhelming.
  • I use one that I paid for, Wondershare-Filmora, because I found it really simple and intuitive to use when I researched this a few years ago. These tools have evolved and there are new ones.
  • Echo360 offers basic editing.

Math-y courses:

  • I use the Sony Digital Paper device. It's not cheap but it's terrific - it feels like writing on paper, and you can mirror its display on your laptop (which is how I use it in-class or video).
  • If you have an iPad, two popular writing apps for math are:
    • ExplainEverything. This will also do recordings for you. It has a very intuitive interface and the pen feels good.
    • Xournal and Xournal++. I haven't used these but the SIGCSE community has recommeded these.
  • How I use the Digital Paper or iPad:
    • Attach the device to your laptop via USB
    • Mirror the display of the device. For an iPad, use Quicktime ("new movie recording" then select the source as the iPad). The Sony has its own (easy to use) app that has screen-capture mode.
    • Either way, I have my regular materials up (one window), my demos (programs, terminals etc), and the Sony window. I go back and forth while talking.
  • Friends who've used the Microsoft Surface tell me the feel is superior to that of an iPad. One advantage of the Surface is that it runs Windows so you can attach a keyboard and that's all you need.

Other video tools I've found useful:

  • One tool I've really come to like is Ink2Go. This lets me draw anywhere on screen to highlight text, or emphasize something with a box or arrow. It's super easy to use (takes 2 minutes to learn). Ink2Go costs $20 and has its own screen-recorder (but I've had problems with the audio before and prefer to use OBS).
  • And of course, VLC is considered the best tool for dealing with a variety (and converting) of audio/video formats.

Exams and cheating


Here are some options:

  • Take-home exams.
    • Advantages. A take-home exam that's complex and deep enough creates a barrier to answer-googling, and makes it highly unlikely that two students working honestly will submit very similar exams.
    • Disadvantages. They take longer to grade and one has to carefully examine them pairwise for cheating, not possible in a large class.

  • Blackboard randomization. Blackboard lets you create a bank of questions, from which students get a random selection (you determine how many), and within questions, you can set it up so that multiple-choice answers are randomly permuted.
    • Advantages. It's easy to grade, scales well, and if timed carefully, makes it difficult for two students in the class to compare answers on every question.
    • Disadvantages. Students could potentially complain that their particular questions were harder/unfair. A student can still consult other students or tutors. It takes an instructor a fair bit of effort to create lots of questions, especially to create well-crafted multiple-choice questions that force thinking.

  • Full-on remote proctoring. Solution providers include RPNow and Proctor-U, among others. A real person watches students by video.
    • Advantages. While not foolproof (because a student can hide a cellphone), it is a high deterrent.
    • Disadvantages. There is a per-student expense. Students find this highly intrusive, and some students from disadvantated backgrounds may not want to show their spaces.

  • Oral exams. Two options to consider:
    1. Full oral exam. This is like the Italian system where most exams are conducted orally, or like some American PhD qualifiers. The entire exam is conducted one-on-one, with follow-up questions to see if the student really knows what they're talking about.
    2. Oral follow-up to written exam In this version, there's a standard written/online exam and the oral follow-up is to ensure that the student knows why they answered questions the way they did. In this case, the oral part is more like an interview to assess the authenticity of the written part, and can be brief because you don't have to interrogate every answer on the written exam.
    The advantages of an oral exam are: it's easy to tell what a student really knows, and you can even give valuable feedback. The disadvantages are that it takes time and skill, and students may challenge the results. However, the second version is brief (less time than it takes to grade a non-multiple-choice exam).

  • Alternatives to exams. One popular alternative is to require individual and group projects, whose grading can be made easier by asking students to "demo" and present. Then you can grade a brief demo/presentation, creating teams for large classes to reduce the overall time. However, students often don't like working in teams because they know they have to cover for the team's least contributive individuals.

Suggestions from others, and advanced tools


Please send me your tips and suggestions. I'll include them here. Here are some I know of:

  • Gabe uses Twitch (the popular game-viewing platform) to do office-hours, which allows shy users to open up (it's anonymous).
  • Many in the department (Gabe, Pablo) use Piazza.
  • Tim recommends Slack as an asychronous/synch tool to communicate, with the advantage that, unlike email, the whole history is available to see.

Suggestions from the SIGCSE community:

  • Tips for synchronous:
    • Frank Vahid (creator of Zybooks, and who teaches CS1 online to 1000+ students at UCR) calls "chat" the unsung hero of online-synch. What he means: invite students to be commenting and questioning all the time during synch lectures. I tried this on Friday last week, and I could see students communicating who never say a word in class.
    • Open a public google-doc and allow anyone to type in, or paste code snippets, screenshots. Students love seeing the work of others.
    • Use a polling app to increase engagement. But this means you have to prep the clicker questions ahead of time.
  • (Advanced) If you want students to comment on video and track their video usage, people have recommended Techsmith (their Snagit/Camtasia screen-recorders and their Video review tool) and Scalable-learning for students commenting over videos (and to let you do the same).
  • (Medium) Voicethread for sharing all kinds of media with students. Recommended by GW's IT (and supported by them).
  • (Easy) An inexpensive document camera if you like chalk-and-talk, such as this one
  • (Easy) Some people have also suggested buying a cheap whiteboard for your home and simply pointing your laptop's webcam while doing a synchronous lecture. A LOT of math on youtube is done this way, and some of it is pretty good.
  • Audio Technica microphone.
  • In lieu of Webex, I see more people recommend Zoom or BlueJeans. Zoom has polling.

© 2016, Rahul Simha