Getting Started: Basic Online Teaching Tools

Getting Ready

In this time of uncertainty, remember that a rough start is a normal part of the process. Many of us are learning as we go, and concerns you may have as an instructor are likely shared by your students.  Compassion in Our Courses During Uncertain Times offers some strategies for doing this. You might also review students' reflections on Canvas sites they find most useful

Before attempting to use online teaching tools, make sure the operating system and internet browser on your home computer and/or tablet are on the latest versions. These tools will work best when systems are up-to-date. Additionally, due to high demand some platforms and tools may not work perfectly. To check system status, visit Penn's system status page.

If you have a student who has accommodations that may limit their access to digital learning materials, contact Student Disabilities Services.


Accessing Canvas

Canvas provides a number of options that will allow instructors, faculty, and TAs to teach online.

Contact Instructional Technology support for your school if you cannot locate a site for your course in Canvas.

If you are new to Canvas, begin with Getting Started with Canvas.


Strategies and Tools for Teaching Remotely

When thinking about how to teach online, begin by looking at any guidelines established by your school.  Then, there several issues instructors will want to address: 

Communicating with Students

Indicate to students ahead of time (if possible) how you intend to communicate. Explain how you expect students to contact you and/or course TAs, the time frame when they can expect responses, and the availability and preferred format for office hours and individual student support requests. Also, consider how you will coordinate with TAs. 

If you already have a system in place for contacting students (such as an email list or Canvas Announcements), use what is already working. If not, you can email all students in a given class from your Penn email account using the following format:

[subject course number]-[section]-[term]

For example:
Emails all students enrolled in Econ 1, section 1, spring 2020


Recording Lectures

Penn has several tools that can help you to teach class material online even if you or your students cannot come to campus. 

To record a lecture, use Panopto. This tool is available in Canvas and allows instructors to record themselves speaking (with or without slides or documents). Review the Panopto guides on uploading videos and recording screencasts to get started. Students will be able to access your recordings from the Class Recordings menu item in your Canvas course.

If you typically use a whiteboard or chalkboard in your teaching, you can explore these whiteboarding tools that work with remote teaching technologies.

You can also turn on automatically generated captions for students. This will help all students to access the material.


Asking & Responding to Questions

To allow students to participate in online class discussions, exchange ideas in writing, or ask questions about your lectures, you can use Canvas Discussion Boards.

Visit Using Online Tools for Discussion to learn more about how to engage students in asynchronous online discussions.

To get started, watch the Canvas Discussions tutorial video or review the following guides:


Live Online Sessions and Office Hours

To hold a live online session with your whole class or meet with groups or individual students, you can use conferencing tools, which allow for live lectures, discussions, small group work, text chats, and 1:1 conversations. Consider recording the session for students who cannot attend.  

If your students have difficulty accessing any of these platforms, consider recording a lecture, holding discussions in the discussion boards and using live sessions for optional group office hours.  

There are a number of options available across campus. Click to learn about the how to use the conferencing platform available in your school and the capabilities it offers:

Currently, everyone at Penn has access to BlueJeans and Zoom (If you are already familiar with BlueJeans or Zoom and your current platform meets your needs, you can stay with the platform with which you are most comfortable). Canvas Conferences is an option available directly in Canvas for most schools. While it is not recommended for instructor-led sessions due to it's inability to save recordings and poor performance with larger groups, it is an option to recommend to students for collaborating on group projects and study groups.


Distributing Class Materials

If you have documents, problem sets, homework or readings, you can post them to Canvas Modules to organize your materials and make it easy for students to find them.

Create a module for each session or topic and add files or links to the modules. If using Modules, don’t forget to publish modules when you are ready for students to access the material. You can learn more about modules from the tutorial video.

If you want students to share material with each other, consider using Canvas Discussion Boards for this purpose. You can allow students to post attachments to Canvas Discussions or students can link out to documents on Box, Google Drive, or elsewhere.  To get started, watch the Canvas Discussions tutorial video or review the following guides:


Exams and Assignments

If your students need to take an exam, test or quiz, you can use Canvas Quizzes. Proctored exams are not practical in this context. The University does not encourage the use of remote proctoring services or using tools like Zoom or BlueJeans for this purpose. 

Using timed tests, shuffled answer choices or more open-ended questions (all of which Canvas can do) and considering open-book formats may mitigate academic integrity issues but will not fully alleviate them. It can also be helpful to remind students of the Code of Academic Integrity prior to any online exam and to be clear about your expectations.

Review exams and quizzes when teaching remotely for more strategies for designing and administering assessments for the online environment. We also provide options for adapting your final exam for the remote teaching environment.

To get started with Canvas Quizzes, watch a video tutorial on creating quizzes in Canvas or review the guides:

If your students need to turn in papers, essays or homework, use Canvas Assignments. Instructors and TAs can grade using Speedgrader. If students need to show work with equations, formulas, charts, or other visual representations, ask students to take pictures of their work and upload that to Canvas. You can suggest they use the free Canvas mobile app which makes this process simple.

To get started, watch a video tutorial on creating assignments or review the following guides: