Crash Course in moving a class online

The recommendations I’m seeing for faculty are overly complex. So here’s some completely unofficial advice for faculty as we all scramble to move on-site class sections into the Canvas online environment.

What to do first

Send a Canvas announcement out from inside the class letting students know this is where the class will be and that you are creating all the resources they will need there. Assure them you are on the job and in control!

Three things to know about going completely online:

1) The process by which you inform students is diluted in the online environment. Thus reminders and deadlines should appear in multiple places.

2) Students will access the class in different ways. Some will struggle to access a computer. Others will attempt to use their phone and the Canvas app. Simplicity of tasks helps everyone.

3) Students who choose on-site classes sometimes do so because they cannot stay motivated on their own or need personal help. Individual contact with these students may be important.

Here are some basic steps for moving your classes:

Determine priorities
Set up the Canvas shell
Set up Readings
Create Discussion
Adapt Assessment
Be kind

Determine priorities

1) Students

Keeping in touch with students might seem to be a first priority, but colleges are already sending out many emails, and many students don’t use email. Use the Announcements and the Inbox in Canvas to contact students, but keep in mind:

Announcements by default go to student email, so they could miss them. You might recommend that students go into their Profile and change their Notifications if they want to receive class communications another way (such as by text).

The Inbox is tricky to use. You might consider sharing your email directly with students in several places on the site.

For students who do check email, they read the subject line, not the email. So be sure your Announcements have a subject line that contains the main point (for example, “mid-term due Sunday!”).

2) Technology

Many of us know that each class has a Canvas shell already. Perhaps we’re using it for the gradebook or to post readings. In this case, students are accustomed to going there, which helps.

The key with an emergency situation is to keep things as simple as possible. Since each class has a Canvas shell, use the Announcements feature to tell students this is where the class will be. That way, the link is included already in the email.

3) Pedagogy

There are basically three aspects to what we do (yes, I think in threes!): Presentation through readings and/or lectures, discussion, and assessment.

In Canvas, presentation elements can go on Pages. The syllabus can go in Syllabus. Discussion is in Discussions boards. Assessment is in Quizzes.

What to work on first:
If you have a big test coming up at the start of the transition, work on Quizzes first. If you have readings they must do, work on getting them uploaded using Pages and Files. If the whole format of the class is having to change (new deadlines, etc), do the Syllabus first. If you promised a discussion right away, set up a Discussion forum first.

Setting up Canvas

We refer to each instance of Canvas for an individual course as a “shell”. Shells all contain the things in the menu items. Here’s the order I recommend for set-up (adapt as needed!):


Unless you are in a hurry to start a discussion or get readings uploaded, I recommend starting with your syllabus. You have two options:

1) Upload. If you already have it in a .doc, keep in mind that not all students have Microsoft Word. You might want to save it as a pdf first. To upload, go to Files, +Upload a new file, select it on your computer, and upload. It will then appear in the Files list for you to link.

2) Create it on the Syllabus page. You can copy all the text from your word file, then click Edit on the syllabus page, and paste.


The Assignments page is what determines how much each of your syllabus items counts for a grade. Quizzes are also assignments. Anything that gets graded is an assignment.

If you have standard percentages:
First we need to set up assignment categories, called “groups”. So let’s say you have a standard 10% for each of 5 quizzes, 20% for the midterm, 20% for the final, 10% for participation.

Using the plus sign, create an assignment group for each of these, indicating the percentage. You can come back later and put in the actual assignments.

Doing this does two things: makes a category in the gradebook, and makes a list for students on the Syllabus page.

If you do cumulative grading, ungrading, points based grading:
Do not set up Assignment Groups. If you have a highly complex grading system, or one which adds points as you go, you don’t want to use the categories. You’ll want to spend more time directly with the Gradebook. But consider using the simplest system you can.

Course settings

Go to Settings at the bottom of the near left menu. It will open in the Course Details tab. We’re only going to change the important stuff.

Make sure the dates match your course dates, and that all the availability boxes are unchecked so your class is fully open.
If you are using standard grading (A, B, C, D, F) be sure to check the Grading Scheme box.

Click More Options at the bottom. This is the important list. I recommend showing the Announcements at the top of the Home page. Choose how many Announcements you want showing all the time (I prefer one!). Decide what permissions to give students, for uploading files, starting discussions, etc. Decide whether you want them to see the total of their grade all the time (I do and check), and whether you want them to know the grade distribution of the class (I uncheck).

Menu Items

Each Canvas class has two menus. The blue on on the far left is the Canvas menu, and you can’t change it. The one with a white background, on the near left, is your class menu.

There are too many menu items. Do you want students directly looking at your list of Files, or do you prefer they only access them from the pages you create? Do you want them jumping around the Quizzes in any old order? Are you even using Conferences, UDOIT, Outcomes? Let’s simplify the menu.

Go to Settings at the bottom of that menu. Click on the Navigation “tab” at the top. Drag and drop anything off the menu you don’t want to be seen by students. Then click Save below.

Students can still get to all these places. For example, if they take a Quiz, they will still see the Quizzes link (a breadcrumb) at the top, and can go to a list of all the quizzes. But removing Quizzes makes it invisible on the main menu, where they don’t need it and can get confused.


If you have a textbook, or are using a course cartridge or system, you may already be set up.

Posted readings

If you have already posted readings in Canvas, it may just be a matter of linking them to a Page with assignments.

Uploading readings

If you have readings you want to upload, go to Files, +Upload a new file, select it on your computer, and upload. It will then appear in the Files list for you to link from Pages or the Syllabus.


Lectures online may be written out (in which case they are like Readings), delivered in real time, or recorded.

Real Time (synchronous) Lectures

If your college requires real time lectures to comply with student contact hours requirements, the tool to use is Zoom. Zoom is a videoconferencing program. It downloads a version to your computer, and when you enter a Zoom meeting it loads that program. Participants can communicate through video, audio, and text chat.

A lecture can be just you talking on video, or you can use the screen sharing function to show slides while you talk.

If you lecture to slides in the classroom, this may be the best option. [Since you are sharing your screen, be sure nothing is showing on your screen that you wouldn’t want students to see. Some faculty use a separate browser for this purpose, so their bookmark bar doesn’t show.]

Students may be shy about using video or audio, so many faculty allow the chat to be an option for participating. It’s very hard to watch the chat window while you are lecturing. Be sure to pause every so often to read the chat. Narrate what you’re doing (“now I’m going over to read the chat…”).

Zoom lecture meetings can be recorded for later viewing by students.

Naturally, learning to use Zoom may require more time than anything else you need to do! That’s why colleges are offering workshops.

Asynchronous Lectures

Lectures that are recorded or written or can be accessed any time are called “asynchronous”.

Recording lectures can be very time consuming, as can writing them out if you haven’t already. But basically, there are a few ways to do it:

1) Audio record (podcast) yourself talking the lecture, then post the recording.
2) Video record yourself talking, create a screencast using your slides, or do both together.
3) Write out the lecture like a book chapter.

There are many complex ways to do these, too many to go over for an emergency situation. But Canvas Studio (inside Canvas) can be used to record audio and video the quick way. I’d advise keeping individual recordings short (15-20 minutes or so).


There are two kinds of discussion: synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (anytime).

Synchronous discussion: real time

This can be achieved during real time lecture (see above), or as a separate meeting. As always, if assigning any real-time activity outside of class, we need to be sensitive to student schedules. For this reason, I recommend against synchronous activity outside of regular class time when doing an emergency shift.

Asynchronous discussion: forums

Canvas discussion forums are simple, and resemble Facebook forums. Students will likely be accustomed to using them from other classes.

The most important thing to determine is how many Discussions you need. Each one needs to be fairly focused, particularly if you have a large class. Canvas’s design means that individuals posts take up a lot of space, so much scrolling is involved. It is difficult to follow a highly complex conversation.

A weekly discussion forum is traditional. You can set dates for participation when you add a new Discussion.

The simplest form of online discussion just asks a question or set of questions in the initial prompt, then asks students to reply a certain number of times.

There is a lot of literature on how to set up effective online discussions, but here are just a few tips:

1) Ask open questions
If the first one or two students answers the question(s), what’s the point for the other students? Open-ended questions, ones that require exploration but don’t necessarily have a certain answer, can be more useful.

2) Make expectations clear
If you want a particular word count, or a number of replies to other students, or a new term introduced in each post, or a picture posted, say so in the instructions.

3) Choose your own participation level
You may choose to stay out of discussion, but if you’re accustomed to guiding in-class discussion, you likely won’t. Participating occasionally can be better to encourage conversation among the students, while participating frequently can guide the discussion more directly.

4) Consider projects
Discussion forums are the only place in Canvas where students can see each others work. You can even set up forums for groups of students. Canvas also allows implementation of Google Docs for this, if you’re comfortable learning about that. But for quick group work or projects, forums may be used.

5) Consider using the discussion forum as an assignment board
Discussion forums can be set so that students cannot see what is on the forum until they post. Keep in mind, of course, that students may work together on forums. Even so, this may be a good way to turn in assignments where you want students to see what each other has done, or you want to use the initial post as a jumping off point.


We all have our own ways of doing assessment. Quizzes/tests and Zoom lectures will be the biggest technical challenges for moving a class online.


Assignments can be submitted online, uploaded, even automatically graded. Setting this up requires spending some time in the Assignments category.

Multiple-choice questions

If you do Windows, the program Respondus can help create your quizzes into a format that Canvas can use and adapt. See your campus resources.


Essays can be Assignments turned in just to you, or they can be questions on a regular Quiz. They can even be items posted in a forum. In all cases, essay questions may need to be copied and pasted into the system.

Be kind

An emergency is not the time to worry about strict deadlines, gate-keeping, or “no exceptions” policies. It is an exceptional time. Students are not just sitting at home, eager to participate. Some have jobs that are now demanding overtime, family members to care for, and concerns about feeding their families when people have been thrown out of their jobs. Do not demand doctor’s notes or “proof” of inability to finish work. The least we can do in a time like this is trust our students and help each other. We should be providing the opportunity to go to class, not increasing the stress.

Consider some symbols of online class kindness: deadlines without late penalties, retakes on exams, quizzes graded by the system, and more.

Checklist for moving a class online

____ Send a reassuring Announcement from inside Canvas to all students
____ Determine priorities: syllabus, readings, assignments/quizzes, discussion
____ Post or create the Syllabus
____ Set up Assignment Groups if using standard percentage grading
____ Select Course Settings
____ Remove unused menu items
____ Decide about lecture / learn Zoom if doing real time
____ Set up Discussion as appropriate
____ Create assessments
____ Be kind

3 thoughts to “Crash Course in moving a class online”

  1. Jim Julius and Sean are doing their own thing for faculty, but this came out of my efforts to help those in my department. Feel free to share!

Comments are closed.