Preparing for Emergency Online Learning


As COVID-19 continues to spread, educational institutions are updating their contingency plans. Italy has ordered the closure of all schools and universities. Inside and outside the US, responses from universities have varied from completely canceling classes to putting lectures online, while public school systems are considering shutting down completely. 

The implementation of social distancing in education parallels the actions taken by businesses to encourage or require employees to work from home. Workplaceless has pulled together a Guide to Preparing for Emergency Remote Work full of immediately actionable resources to specifically meet the urgent remote work needs of those organizations. Yet, we also recognize the immediate need for resources and guidance across higher education institutions.

A sudden move to online classes may help with academic continuity, but just as the sudden shift to remote work may be detrimental without proper preparation, suddenly shifting all classes to an online format can have equally harmful consequences. Truly effective online learning is carefully designed and delivered using industry best practices, which takes a lot of time. The decisions to shift learning online are happening too quickly to develop those kinds of learning experiences. This reality, combined with the fact that most teachers do not have experience or training in delivering completely online classes, results in a situation that is far less than ideal. 

But nothing about this situation is ideal, and if your school does choose to move classes online as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak, below are some guidelines for making the transition as smooth as possible for you and your students.

Universities have the twin problem of shifting their course offerings online and also shifting as an organization. Remote learning also means remote work for faculty, staff, researchers, etc. Reference our Preparing for Emergency Remote Work Guidelines for organizations to help support staff needs.  

1. Modify Your Expectations 

While using the resources available here (and at your institution) can help, it’s also important to adjust your expectations during this uncertain time. Your students may not be in a mindset conducive to learning, and some of them won’t be in an environment conducive to learning, either. Modify your expectations, and be flexible and prepared to deal with ambiguity. Uncertainty is extremely stressful, both for you and your students. Model flexibility and empathy for your students. Here is some wording you can use in your communications: 

“I realize that you will have questions. I may have answers to your questions, but I may not. I know that is frustrating—it is frustrating for me, too. I promise to be as transparent as possible and communicate information that I do have quickly. I hope you’ll do the same.”

2. Prepare to Teach Online 

For many teachers, this will be the first time delivering classes fully online. It’s critical to be as prepared as possible—that means accessing all the resources that you have available. If your school has a center for teaching and learning, connect with them to find what kind of training, tools, or materials they provide. Your institution may already have expectations and templates laid out for fully online classes. If not, collaborate with other instructors to coordinate a collection of best practices. 

For educators who have never taught online before, we’ve made our Trainplaceless Remote Facilitation module available as a standalone mini course.

Purchase the Trainplaceless Remote Facilitation Mini Course. In order to provide this at a temporary discount, specific course parameters include:

  • Curriculum access will be limited to a two month period.
  • Assessments will not be graded, nor feedback provided.
  • Enrollment for this specific mini course will only be available through April 30, 2020 in response to the immediate educational institution needs.

3. Practice 

If you have the time, consider hosting an online class with your students even before it’s mandated. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the technology you’ll be using to deliver your course online—you will be the first point of contact for your students, so you’ll have to field their technical questions. If you don’t have time to practice with your own students, coordinate a mock class with other faculty members who will also be teaching online classes. 

4. Prepare Your Students to Learn Online 

Remember that your students will have a range of previous experience with online learning—ranging from those who have never taken an online class to those who have taken completely virtual learning experiences or even degree programs. Prepare your students to learn online by creating a guide for them. 

Download the Emergency Online Learning Checklist to create the guide. Above link is a copy-able Google Doc. Download a Microsoft Word version here.

Specifically, consider the following: 

Learning Online is Different 

Placeless learning is a skill in itself. You can’t assume that your students know how to self-direct their learning and make the most of an online learning experience. Prepare your students by clearly communicating this, as well as providing resources to help them learn online, like How to Learn Online, written by Workplaceless CEO, Tammy Bjelland. 


What is the minimum amount of equipment your learners need to access course materials, complete assignments. and submit assignments? Examples include: 

  • Computer (e.g., laptop or desktop)  
  • Mobile device (e.g., phone or tablet) 
  • Webcam
  • Microphone 
  • Internet access 

If your school does not supply each student with a laptop, will all of your students have access to this equipment? If students do not have access to this equipment at home, what should they do? Do you need to prepare packets or work ahead projects?


Use tools that you already have access to and are familiar with. If your school already uses a Learning Management System (LMS), then use that platform to post materials and communicate with learners. In some situations, students may not have as much experience using the LMS, or they only use it very rarely. If this is the case for your students, make sure they know how to use the platform, and be very clear about how you will use it. Give them resources to get help if they need it, such as platform FAQs, community forums, and contact information for the help desk. If you yourself are not fluent in the platform, familiarize yourself with the functionality as much as possible. If your LMS includes a web conference tool, you can use that for synchronous classes; if not, use the preferred web conference tool for your school (e.g. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Blue Jeans). Collaborative tools like MURAL and Klaxoon can be used to make synchronous sessions interactive.  


Will the class be synchronous (live), asynchronous (self-paced), or blended (a mix of both)? When will the synchronous sessions be held? How will students access the schedule? What are the attendance and completion expectations? What kind of activities will you organize? What are the expectations for participation?


How will assignments be administered? Do you need to change the format of any assignments? How will students complete group work? 

Exam season is around the corner. How will you administer exams virtually? How will these exams be scored? Will you make any adjustments to submission requirements or timelines to accommodate learners who may not have consistent internet access?


For students with disabilities, what accommodations need to be made to ensure they can access all elements of the course and their needs are met? 


If the materials you use for class are primarily documents, these can be easily made available on an LMS in electronic format, such as a Word Doc upload, Google Doc link, or PDF. When possible, use-mobile friendly options, such as PDFs as opposed to Word docs. There are helpful web resources like videos and tutorials you can utilize for every LMS. If you use physical textbooks, consider that some of your students may not be able to access those books in the event of a shutdown—they may share textbooks with other students or borrow from the library. If books are available as ebooks, share that information with your students. 


How will you communicate the switch to online learning? What communication channels will you use (e.g., your LMS or email)? What expectations do you have for your students when it comes to communication—do you expect them to check their email once a day? More? Respond within 24 hours? What kind of response time can your students expect from you?


As mentioned above, you will have to modify your expectations during an emergency. How will you measure student participation? How will you handle requests for extensions or flexibility? What will you do if students cannot meet deadlines because of illness? What will you do if you become sick?


Remote work and online learning have their own language. It’s likely your learners won’t know all the terms we use here in this article (e.g., synchronous, asynchronous). Refer to the Remote Work Dictionary as well as your school’s resources to create a brief glossary that will help your learners understand the guide. 

Still Have Questions? 

You can always schedule a consultation at any time with one of our Learning Consultants about any of your remote work and teaching needs.

Additional resources that may be useful to you:


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Workplaceless envisions a workforce that thrives in a flexible and digital-first future—where performance and growth are not constrained by location. Our team goal is to share insights and practices that will help professionals and companies achieve this aspiration.
Workplaceless envisions a workforce that thrives in a flexible and digital-first future—where performance and growth are not constrained by location. Our team goal is to share insights and practices that will help professionals and companies achieve this aspiration.
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