Guiding Principles

Teaching Online

UBC is supporting educators in exploring advances in online teaching, while continuing to offer high-quality learning experiences for students. We strive to offer an equitable experience to all students enrolled in our courses, and this includes minimizing and mitigating barriers to student access and success that may be experienced with online teaching and learning.

In mid-2020, as the university community adapted to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 100 faculty and a number of student leadership organizations from across UBC Vancouver were invited by the Office of the Provost & Vice-President Academic to think through some of the widespread, pressing issues in online course design and delivery.

The resulting guiding principles document, initially prepared for fall 2020, offers guidance and suggestions for designing and teaching courses online. It includes six high-level guiding principles, accompanied by implications for instructors, UBC, faculties, and programs. The principles are supported by summary reports on specific areas of focus.

The six guiding principles for online teaching, a summary of the implications for instructors, and the areas of focus are explained below. You can also download the Guiding Principles for Online Course Adaptations (Fall 2020) (PDF) or an editable Word version of the principles.

High-level guiding principles

The implications noted under each of the following high-level guiding principles are intended to prompt careful and thorough consideration, rather than prescribe specific approaches or solutions with limited applicability.

To learn more about each recommendation and a summary of the implications for instructors, expand the sections below. The full recommendations, including implications for UBC, faculty, and programs are available in the full report linked in the paragraph above.

We are not suddenly choosing to work from home. We are working remotely due to the global pandemic emergency. We are all contending with new concerns, anxieties, and potentially changing circumstances, while we attempt to engage in the work of teaching and learning online. Embedding flexibility is key for all of us.

Implications of this Principle for Instructors

  • Consider all decisions in light of their impact on the wellbeing of ourselves, our students, and our teaching assistants (TAs).
    • Review your course adaptation plan with a lens of wellness. Is the strategy sustainable for you, your students, and TAs (if applicable)? What options and safety-nets are in place?
  • Ensure required resources (e.g., textbooks) are accessible to all students.
    • Domains of access include cost, logistics of shipping worldwide, offline options to accommodate eye strain, and online options that accommodate screen readers.
    • Consider using or creating Open Educational Resources (OER) where possible and appropriate: see Open UBC for resources around open scholarship, the OER Fund and the OER Champions initiative.
  • Build flexibility into your course, which might include:
    • assessment strategies - more frequent, lower-stakes assessments may help students keep on track while avoiding intense stresses brought by fewer higher-stakes assessments.
    • policies for work submitted - for example, consider offering a few “free passes” for late work, or count only the best 10 out of 12 quizzes.
    • synchronous classes - students will have different living arrangements to contend with as they learn remotely. Synchronous attendance for long periods of time, or even turning on a web camera, may not be possible for some.
  • Design and delivery of assessment must consider the workloads of the instructor, support staff, TAs, and students.
    • Always keep in mind the demands of students mastering material, learning skills, and dealing with multiple learning technologies in the context of a full course load.
    • Structure assessments for efficient grading. Seek advice from colleagues and learning support teams for ways to do this.
  • Consider alternate ways to engage students in some course material that encourage variety in students’ interactions and the ability to complete or take lessons off-screen. For example, invite students to walk outside (at physical distance, as appropriate) and identify relevant course concepts. Offer the option to complete a corresponding reflection as an audio or video file rather than typed text.

Ask for the support you need to do your work as well as possible under the circumstances. Caregiving and other contextual constraints will affect faculty, TAs, and students. People who are pre-tenure and who teach on contract for UBC may feel particularly vulnerable in these times. Please reach out to share your concerns and ask for help from whomever you feel comfortable approaching.

Implications of this Principle for Instructors

  • Ensure course Learning Objectives are clearly articulated from the start of the course. They typically take the following format “By the end of this course, you [a successful student] will be able to…” and offer a priority list for how students are to engage in learning, and what needs to be measured.
  • Are the Learning Objectives achievable for students at this time? There may be some that could be adapted, altered, removed, or deferred until later in a degree program, in light of the current conditions.
  • Use your Learning Objectives to guide your decisions about where to invest your and your students’ time (e.g., with respect to content, assessments). Backwards Design can be a helpful course design model to achieve this. Reach out for help developing creative solutions.

Implications of this Principle for Instructors

  • "Keep It Simple"—that is, keep your course design and delivery simple—whenever possible.
  • Minimize the number of different applications required by students, especially those that go beyond the Canvas environment. Every time you add an additional tool or platform beyond Canvas, it adds to the learning load for students (as well as potential additional privacy/FIPPA compliance concerns).
  • Check that all necessary applications are FIPPA-compliant or that you clearly communicate to students how to anonymize their identity for non-compliant applications that are deemed important for facilitating student learning.
  • If the course design relies heavily on specific synchronous sessions of uninterrupted high-quality internet, consider alternatives for students who may not have access to this.
  • In your syllabus, be explicit about the technological requirements of the course, including hardware, software, applications, and alternative/support options. Offer accommodations, such as recordings, for students whose technology fails. (Likewise, consider preparing a plan for when your own technology fails.)
    • Report to your unit/program/faculty any essential technological tools (e.g., specialized software) required by your students to succeed, and devise a plan for support options. Effectively communicate this information to students as soon as possible.
  • Check in with your students regularly to ensure you understand if they are facing any challenges relating to bandwidth, and to help them mitigate problems (with support). Invite students to tell you if their technology/network connections are getting in the way of their ability to participate in the course, so you can work with them on solutions.
    • Students can also reach out to their faculty advising office or Enrolment Services advisor to discuss access to required technology, including bursaries and other work-arounds. By advertising these options, students can avoid disclosing to you if they are not comfortable doing so.
  • If you, as the instructor, do not have remote access to essential technology to teach your course, please reach out to your department administration for support.

The Learning Technology (LT) Hub communicates clear specifications for personal technology requirements for incoming and returning students, including baseline technology specification (i.e., minimum processor, RAM, webcam, microphone, etc.) for using common tools (e.g., Canvas) and Internet requirements. See the "Tool Guides" page on the LT Hub site.

Implications of this Principle for Instructors

  • Our students will likely be joining us from around the world, including some from time zones that may be completely inverted to yours. This difference does not mean that you need to be available in all time zones. But it does mean that requiring attendance at synchronous sessions, with no possibility to make up those points, is not fair to ask of students.
  • Consider using both synchronous and asynchronous components. One major decision here is determining what activities are synchronous (i.e., everyone is expected to be in the same virtual space at the same time to do something together) and what activities are asynchronous (i.e., students choose when to complete tasks, typically within an allowed window of days). Asynchronous activities may offer the most flexibility and convenience; synchronous activities may more easily build community.
    • Ideally, strive for a mix of both asynchronous and synchronous activities each week, structured in a reliable pattern. Choose a mix that makes the most sense for you and your students. Consider the activities that are necessary to meet learning outcomes rather than focusing on filling the allotted time.
    • For synchronous activities, ensure you stick to your assigned course timeslots, to help your students avoid scheduling conflicts. Include breaks as appropriate. Plan how students in different time zones can participate (e.g., by adding an asynchronous option, grouping students by time zone).
  • Explore ways to facilitate interaction. Consider how students can engage with content, with each other, with you, and with your TAs (if applicable).
    • For example, use synchronous time to engage students in structured activities in groups, offer a drop-in virtual office hour in Zoom, as well as moderate discussion board threads in Canvas. Reach out to local and central learning support teams for examples and ideas, and see the pages on this site.
    • Consider engaging students in collaboratively developing class guidelines on ways of interacting and communicating online that promote learning within an inclusive class environment.
  • Explore ways to intentionally build community in online learning activities. Students may feel isolated and lonely, and in an online rather than face-to-face environment their particular support needs may be more difficult to identify.
    • Ideas to build community include the following: invite students to create an online (video) introduction, break up a larger class into smaller base groups for semi-private discussion and work, design structured activities or assignments to invite students to collectively share ideas to solve a problem, learn students’ names, and use the Canvas gradebook “message students who… did not submit” to quickly reach out to students who have stopped engaging.
    • Create spaces in Canvas for groups to do collaborative work together, such as group-only discussion boards. Convey the expectation that these be used (rather than a social media platform, for example). Canvas is FIPPA-compliant, whereas other external tools may not be.
  • Consider your assessment strategy. How assessments are structured, weighted, and deployed within an online course can support students in a manageable, sustainable way online.
  • Ensure your course policies are up-to-date and align with your faculty or unit’s student-advising messaging.
    • Consider embedding some blanket flexibility, such as a certain number of no-questions-asked “free passes” offered to everyone. Such flexibility can help students accommodate their unexpected hardships with less stress while minimizing your administrative load.
  • Consider accessibility, inclusivity, and wellness broadly. Provisioning closed-captioning and ensuring recordings are available offline are just some of the ways that course design and delivery can be leveraged to help students with a broad range of accessibility requirements be able to participate fully in the course.
  • Ensure TAs (if applicable) have the training needed to fulfill their roles effectively. Include those hours in their paid time. Consider the CTLT TA Institute, faculty- and department-level offerings, as well as what specialized training you can offer for your course in particular.
  • Ensure that the kind and timing of work being asked of TAs is appropriate given TA Union regulations.

Academic integrity is often discussed in terms of what not to do, and we know from the research literature that breaches such as cheating and plagiarism are most typically the result of feelings of desperation plus opportunity. Another approach to academic integrity is to invite students into the community of scholars, as a way to discuss the values associated with a scholarly community when creating and sharing knowledge.

Implications of this Principle for Instructors

  • Consider adaptations to assessments to minimize both student desperation and opportunity. These adaptations could include lower weighting or regular mini-quizzes on foundational factual knowledge (i.e., that which can be looked up easily) and reserving greater weight for multi-phase, scaffolded, and personalized assignments.
  • Carefully weigh the pros and cons of using remote proctoring software, in light of practical and ethical concerns such as hardware accessibility and student privacy.
  • Explicitly discuss and model how academic integrity is a crucial part of participating in an academic/scholarly community aimed at knowledge creation, including how you manifest integrity in your own work and your expectations for them.
  • Form a purposeful statement of expectations around academic integrity in an online space, specific to the course, presented to students in the course syllabus at the beginning, and discussed with them in the first sessions of the course.
    • Revisit the statement throughout the course. Keep integrity top of mind by including a brief question on each assignment asking students to reflect on how it relates to academic integrity.
  • Embed assessments of meta-cognition, which help students reflect on how they know what they know, while simultaneously revealing insufficiencies. Examples include exam wrappers and (group) oral exams.
  • Consider carefully the implementation and use of academic misconduct detection mechanisms in online assessments. Seek clarity on departmental/faculty policy and procedures on reporting academic misconduct.
  • See the Chapman Learning Commons resource for faculty on academic integrity for more information.

If your course or program has been changed in a way that may impact degree progression, communicate with students clearly and regularly about the changes they are experiencing. For example, some courses that typically have a hands-on lab component may be split such that the lab component will be completed at some future time.

Implications of this Principle for Instructors

  • If applicable, clarify for students how your course has been restructured, and what degree requirements will or won’t be satisfied by your current course. If a face-to-face component is required, relay to your students any information you receive on when and how they can expect to be able to complete that portion.
  • For the remainder of the course, focus on what students can do and learn now, rather than what is missing. A tone that focuses on the missing component may cloud recognition of the learning that can and will actually take place.

Areas of focus