Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Instructional Continuity: Strategies

Instructional ContinuityAn array of events can disrupt faculty’s ability to teach courses via on-campus, in-class sessions. Cal Poly is committed to providing students the opportunity to complete courses despite disruptions. Steadily advancing communication and instructional technologies have greatly enhanced faculty’s ability to provide quality virtual learning experiences.With  planning, training on selected user-friendly technologies, and mentoring on effective instruction, faculty can continue instruction through many forms of instructional disruption.


[Adapted from Indiana University]


A variety of circumstances might require you to temporarily take your class online with minimal notice: a campus closure, increased absenteeism during a flu outbreak, a family emergency requiring your presence elsewhere, etc. This guide will provide you with some actions to take when making that shift quickly. 

The resources listed here provide multiple options for keeping your class running—likely more than any one instructor could use. In order to make the course run smoothly during this time, focus on the most basic elements you need to put in place to meet your short-term instructional objectives. If the situation continues, you can add more activities back in, finding ways to accomplish them online as well. 

During any significant crisis, various support units across campus—particularly in ITS—will have their own plans in place in order to support your emergency teaching needs. Watch for announcements from these groups about assistance they can provide. 

Specific strategies to meet your teaching goals 

As you make plans for moving your class online during an emergency, focus on what tasks you are trying to accomplish: 

Communicate with Students

Whether at the beginning of the quarter, or in the event of an emergency, be sure to let your students know how you will contact them. Let them know where they can locate your messages (Canvas Inbox, Email, Canvas Announcements, etc.) 

Canvas has announcement and communication features that allow you to post timely information to your students. This method also has the advantage of directing students back into the Learning Management System where they can locate course materials, a copy of the syllabus, or other activities. Canvas Support 

Helpful Tips:

  • Communicate early and often: Let students know about changes or disruptions as early as possible, even if all the details aren't in place yet, and let them know when they can expect more specific information. Don't swamp them with email, but consider matching the frequency of your messages with that of changes in class activities and/or updates to the broader crisis at hand (for example, the campus closure is extended for two more days; what will students need to know related to your course?).

  • Set expectations: Let students know how you plan to communicate with them, and how often. Tell students both how often you expect them to check their email, and how quickly they can expect your response. Let them know, too, if you are using Canvas Inbox, since they may need to update their notification preferences (details in the next section).

  • Manage your communications load: You will likely receive some individual requests for information that could be useful to all your students. Consider providing an "Ask Questions Here" discussion forum in your Canvas course for students to post questions. This can help prevent multiple emails with the same question, and all students can read the replies. Additionally, keep track of frequently asked questions and respond with an announcement. This way, students know they might get a group reply in a day versus a personal reply within an hour. Also, consider creating an course information page in Canvas and then encourage students to check there first for answers before emailing you. 

Hold Online Office Hours

Online office hours work the same way in-person office hours do. Whatever your style with your students, it can be translated to a synchronous video format. Cal Poly recommends Zoom for live, synchronous office hours as it is the official collaborative web application for the campus. If you are new to Zoom, you can find helpful workshops on our Canvas Workshops and Events page. Visit this page to learn more about a few things you can do to prepare for successful online office hours. 

Deliver the Course

Cal Poly has a Learn by Doing approach to education, and this philosophy can translate to the online environment as well. If you are unable to hold a class in person, you have options available for continuous teaching.

(For a more extensive discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each of the below instruction delivery formats, and when to use which, please visit this webpage devoted specifically to this topic: Asynchronous and Synchronous Instruction.)

Synchronous Virtual Teaching

To hold a synchronous (all are present at the same time) class session, we recommend using ZOOM, which allows for video, audio, and screen sharing between up to 200 participants. It can be used from any computer, laptop, tablet, or phone, and it works on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices. Any Cal Poly user can schedule and initiate a video or audio meeting, allowing ZOOM to be used for any online meeting, whether between two or many people and ZOOM offers live-captioning features for students who are deaf and hard of hearing if you record to ZOOM's cloud. Please enable those features during synchronous recorded sessions. ZOOM Help Center. Additionally, if you have a student who has a visual impairment, provide clear descriptions of visual information. Since many students do not self-report their disability, consider sending a communication to your students before the presentation begins, inviting them to share any learning challenges they might anticipate.

Asynchronous Virtual Teaching

Asynchronous learning environments provide opportunities for students to log in when they choose, to read materials and complete assignments. In other words, all students are not required to participate at the same time. Although assignments, activities, discussions, and quizzes must be completed by a particular due date; students can access the information as needed. The benefit to students is having instant access to course materials and assignment instructions at all times. The benefit to instructors includes efficiencies in updating course information. Canvas is a great platform for asynchronous instruction. Consider building your course content directly in Canvas even if you teach in-person classes. Then, if the need arises to replace face-to-face instruction with virtual instruction, you will be fully prepared to use the online environment as a temporary replacement. If, however, you have to build the environment under crisis conditions, the following information should help.

Cal Poly provides a robust Learning Management environment, Canvas, which hosts a fundamental set of tools for providing academic content to students. Every course has a course shell, where you can post your syllabus, contact information, assignments, readings, and resources. Additionally, you can help students get started by providing directions and essential information for each week or topic. Be as specific and clear as possible.

Canvas Course Template

If you are new to Canvas, please take advantage of our basic course template, available for you to revise as you see fit: Cal Poly Course Template from the Canvas Commons. You can download the template or import it directly into a current course shell. The template provides a basic course structure, including a syllabus module and weekly or topical content you can easily revise for your students. Placing course information directly in Canvas pages, rather than documents, is infinitely more accessible for students. This is also an environmentally friendly way to provide resources for your students rather than printing out handouts when teaching face to face!

Distribute Course Materials and Readings 

You will likely need to provide additional course materials to support your changing plans, from updated schedules to readings that allow you to shift more instruction online. In a pinch, providing some new readings and related assignments may be your best bet for keeping the intellectual momentum of the course moving. And remember to keep things phone-friendly. In a crisis, many students may only have a phone available, so make sure you are using mobile-friendly formats, PDFs being the most common. Consider saving other files (for example, PowerPoint presentations) to PDFs, which are easier to read on phones and tablets, and keep the file size small. It is fairly easy to reduce the size of PDF files using Adobe Acrobat, and there are online tools that do the same thing (for example, search Google for "PDF file size" ). As mentioned above, if you place content directly in Canvas pages instead of documents, students have instant access, and instructors can revise more efficiently. Videos take lots of bandwidth, so only require them if you are confident students will have access to them during a crisis. We recommend hosting your videos on a video hosting platform such as YouTube or Screencast.com (Camtasia) or Screencast-O-Matic.com. These sites have privacy settings that do not allow public access, and your videos can then be added to your course without using bandwidth.

If you do not have resources readily available online, you may also opt to provide students with valuable and relevant external links to teaching resources or publisher materials via your class email, with instructions on how to access the materials and a reflective prompt for discussion, or information about further related activities. There are many Open Education Resources (OER) available online - check with your college Librarian for more information.

Canvas offers the following tools that can be used to create a collaborative experience for your students:

  • Assignments
  • Files
  • Discussions
  • Group Activities
  • Grade book
  • Pages
  • Quizzes
  • Web Resources

Training is provided by the CTLT on these tools, plus you can access online resources at the Canvas Support site, as well as the Canvas Guides. In the event of a campus emergency, CTLT staff will be available for virtual teaching and learning consultations and workshops.

For Canvas-specific support, please use the following resources:

  • In Canvas, click on the HELP button to see the Chat and Phone for faculty.
  • Training Services Portal Access Canvas training videos and courses

Every Cal Poly student, faculty and staff receive a OneDrive account (found within the Portal) with 5 terabytes of cloud storage, which is ideal for asynchronous virtual teaching and learning. OneDrive is an app in the Office 365 suite that allows users to upload and share files and create and edit Microsoft Word and Excel documents via web browser, mobile or desktop app. Multiple people can work on a document in real-time and OneDrive provides automatic versioning and document history. OneDrive for Teachers 

Deliver Lectures

Depending on your course, you may need to deliver some lectures to keep the course moving along. Be aware, though, that a 45-minute live lecture sprinkled with questions and activities can become grueling when delivered online without intellectual breaks. Here are a few suggestions to improve online lectures:

  • Record in small chunks: Even the best online speakers keep it brief; think of the brevity of TED talks. We learn better with breaks to process and apply new information. To aid student learning, record any lectures in shorter (5-10 minute) chunks, and intersperse them with small activities that give students opportunities to process the new knowledge, make connections to other concepts, apply an idea, or make some notes in response to prompts. Smaller chunks also lead to smaller files, especially when using voiced-over PowerPoint presentations.
  • Be flexible with live video: Lecturing live with Zoom is certainly possible, and it best approximates a classroom setting, since students can ask questions. However, a crisis might mean some students won't have access to fast internet connections, and others may have their schedules disrupted. So, record any live classroom session, and be flexible about how students can attend and participate. For brief video presentations that can be sent via an email link or embedded into Canvas, Screencast-O-Matic is an easy, intuitive and powerful software tool for your screencasting needs. Create quick and easy audio and video files (short lessons) with this free tool. Screencast-O-Matic tutorials
  • It's not just about content: If a crisis is disrupting classes, lectures can mean more than just providing course content; they also establish a sense of normalcy and a personal connection. In online courses, we talk about the importance of "instructor presence", and that's just as true during short-term online stints. So, consider ways that you can use lectures to make students feel connected and cared about: acknowledgment of current challenges, praise for good work, and reminders about the class being a community. This effective work can help their learning during a difficult time.

Run Lab Activities 

One of the biggest challenges of teaching during a building or campus closure is sustaining the lab components of classes. Since many labs require specific equipment, they are hard to reproduce outside of that physical space.

Considerations as you plan to address lab activities:

  • Take part of the lab online: Many lab activities require students to become familiar with certain procedures, and only physical practice of those processes will do. In such cases, consider if there are other parts of the lab experience you could take online (for example, video demonstrations of techniques, online simulations, analysis of data, other pre- or post-lab work), and save the physical practice parts of the labs until access is restored. The quarter might get disjointed by splitting up lab experiences, but it might get you through a short campus closure.
  • Investigate virtual labs: Online resources and virtual tools might help replicate the experience of some labs (for example, virtual dissection, night sky apps, video demonstrations of labs, simulations). Those vary widely by discipline, but check with your textbook publisher, or sites such as Merlot for materials that might help replace parts of your lab during an emergency.
  • Provide raw data for analysis: In cases where the lab includes both collection of data and its analysis, consider showing how the data can be collected, and then provide some raw sets of data for students to analyze. This approach is not as comprehensive as having students collect and analyze their own data, but it might keep them engaged with parts of the lab experience during the closure.

Encourage  Participation, Communication, and Collaboration among Students

Alternative course delivery should not imply that students are not participating. Students can find wireless access points at varying locations if they do not have access to services at home, and creating a backup plan at the start of each term is recommended for both students and faculty. 

Fostering communication among students is important because it allows you to reproduce any collaboration you build into your course, and maintains a sense of community that can help keep students motivated to participate and learn. It helps if you already had some sort of student-to-student online activity using the learning management system, since students will be used to both the process and the tool.

Consider these suggestions when planning activities:

  • Use asynchronous tools when possible: Having students participate in live Zoom conversations can be useful, but scheduling can be a problem, and only a few students will actively participate (just like in your classroom). In such cases, using asynchronous tools like Canvas Discussions allows students to participate on their own schedules. In addition, bandwidth requirements for discussion boards are far lower than for live video tools.
  • Link to clear goals and outcomes: Make sure there are clear purposes and outcomes for any student-to-student interaction. How does this activity help them meet course outcomes or prepare for other assignments?
  • Build in simple accountability: Find ways to make sure students are accountable for the work they do in any online discussions or collaborations. Assigning points for online discussion posts can be tedious, so some instructors ask for reflective statements where students detail their contributions and reflect on what they learned from the conversation.
  • Balance newness and need: As with any changed activities, you will need to balance the needs and benefits of online collaboration with the additional effort such collaboration will require on everyone else's part. Learning new technologies and procedures might be counterproductive, particularly in the short term, unless there is clear benefit.

Assess Student Learning

Collecting assignments during a campus closure is fairly straightforward since many instructors already collect work electronically. Canvas allows for receiving, assessing, and grading all learning activities, including assignments, quizzes, exams, and essays. The main challenge during a campus disruption is whether students have access to computers, as anyone needing a campus computer lab may be unable to access necessary technologies. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Require only common software: Students may not have access to specialty software located in on-campus computer labs. Be ready with a backup plan for such students.
  • Avoid emailed attachments: It may be easy to collect assignments in small classes via email, but larger classes might swamp your email inbox. Balance what is simplest for students with what is easiest for you to manage.  
  • State expectations, but be ready to allow extensions: In the case of a campus closure or other crisis, some students will undoubtedly have difficulties meeting deadlines. Make expectations clear, but be ready to provide more flexibility than you normally would in your class.
  • Require specific filenames: It may sound trivial, but anyone who collects papers electronically knows the pain of getting 20 files named Essay1.docx. Give your students a simple file naming convention, for example, FirstnameLastname-Essay1.docx.



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