Strategies for Course Continuity

August 2020: Your Stearns Center team has created a new set of resource pages to support faculty teaching in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. All of the relevant information from this page has been relocated to that new resource, along with lots more updated and new material!

Many different scenarios can interrupt instruction, such as weather-related campus closures or shutdowns due to emergency situations, such as the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak. 

In the case of such an event, you should plan to maintain course continuity, creating a plan that includes a variety of tools and pedagogical approaches.

If you started the term by telling students what your emergency communications plan would be, your first steps should follow that plan.

Your plan should involve 

(1) Communication with your students about options, schedules, expectations, and contingency plans, as well as ways to contact you;

(2) Evaluation of your immediate and longer-term needs, and of resources available to you and your students;

(3) Changes to course materials, activities, assessments  and/or assignments so that you can deliver instruction from a distance; and 

(4) Strategies for using  instructional technology and tools  for your course to support student learning and engagement.

Whether you have extensive teaching experience or you’re just getting started, the information and resources here will provide you with some practical tips for preparing your instructional continuity plan. 

Create Your Communication Plan

  1. Check the official status: You first need to be aware of the University’s official status regarding the emergency, so please check your Mason Alert Account and direct students to their accounts as well.  
  2. Set expectations early: Clear and consistent communication is essential in setting student expectations and should be done early and often. Even if all of the details are not yet in place, let students know about changes or disruptions to your class schedule as early as possible. You can always follow-up with more specific information as it becomes available. As a best practice, developing an announcement in Blackboard and sharing it via email provides students with multiple opportunities to review critical information. However, regardless as to how you decide to best communicate with your students, be specific in how often you expect them to check their email, and how quickly they can expect your response.
  3. Create an FAQ: You might also consider creating a Frequently Asked Questions thread in the discussion forum of your Blackboard course, and encouraging students to check there for answers before emailing you. When you get questions more than once, post the replies on the discussion, and direct your students to it.
  4. Schedule your communications: Set an initial schedule for when and how you will be available, and let students know when (and how quickly) they can reasonably expect to hear from you. Good practice in an online course is for you to be providing new information or feedback to the class at least 3-5 times during a week.


Evaluate Resources and Limitations

Distance instruction strategies must consider student access to applications and technology used to support instructional continuity strategies. Instructional continuity strategies should not present (technical) disadvantages to students. 

Consider the following questions when planning for instructional continuity:

  • Duration: How long is the interruption expected to last, and under what conditions? If you are planning for a weather cancelation of one or two meetings, you might simply delay complex or highly interactive class sessions and substitute other relevant but more straightforward learning. If you need to plan for extended online learning, you may need to create a quick “first class” to buy yourself time to create a more substantial revision.
  • Access: Do all of the students in your course have access to computers and reliable internet service?  If not, what alternatives will you offer to students who don’t have computer and/or internet access?
  • Training: What additional instruction is needed to make your students familiar/comfortable with the technology you plan to use for instructional continuity in your course?

In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act section 508, information technology resources and applications must be fully accessible. Please contact the Assistive Technology Initiative office  ( if you need guidance with making your course compliant.

If you use any public applications (such as Google Drive, DropBox, etc.) do not use student full names, grades or other records protected by FERPA.


Plan Your Class Using Fundamental Teaching Principles

An engaging and informational class meeting usually includes three kinds of actions:

(1) Presentation of new course content

(2) Student engagement with class content and with each other

(3) Feedback and/or assessment provided from the instructor to students

Please check the following table for ideas about how to incorporate a balance of these elements throughout the class or classes you are redesigning.

GoalBasic Tools within BlackboardExamples & Advice
Conveying Information or Course Content Kaltura Capture for mini-lectures 
Videos: Create a brief lecture video using Kaltura focused on explaining a basic concept that learners usually find challenging. Online videos shouldn’t follow f2f lecture lengths, but use short segments to focus more on essential/important concepts that students may struggle with in the course.

Use the webcam video option in Kaltura Capture to record very brief videos for announcements or feedback. This helps to enhance your instructor presence online. 
Advice: Keep your online lecture videos brief and focused. Research shows that videos in online courses should be less than 15 minutes, for optimal student learning & engagement. Work from a script so that you can post the transcript of your video for accessibility.  
PowerPoint for content information (upload presentations to your Blackboard course; consider adding narration and creating a video)PowerPoints: Post the PowerPoint lectures (as pdfs), including those slide decks used for your narrated lecture videos. 
Advice: Keep PowerPoint slides simple and uncluttered; follow slide templates to ensure accessibility. Also limit the number of slides in each presentation, and frame presentations with direct statements of your main learning goals, to maximize  student attention and retention. 
Blackboard Collaborate Ultra for synchronous presentationsIf students have reliable wireless, you can present real-time mini-lectures and record them for future access.
You can use Collaborate for virtual office hours.
Students can use it to schedule group discussions or project meetings.
Advice: Consider using any synchronous online time for questions, analysis, or problem-solving where give-and-take is most beneficial.
Use the Chat function to take questions rather than having students interrupt.
Assessing student comprehension and applicationDiscussion board 

Discussion: Post a scenario, case study, or problem set, and ask students to post to a public discussion board applying the new concepts
Advice: In Discussion Board settings, choose “Viewing Threads: Participants must create a thread in order to view other threads in this forum” in order to allow students to post without seeing earlier answers.

Consider setting a two-part deadline to allow students to post and then to respond to one or several peers' posts 
Blackboard TestsQuiz: Create a brief multiple choice quiz asking students to recall and/or apply key concepts from the assigned materials
Advice: For online quizzes in Blackboard, please see the test option settings recommended by Mason ITS Blackboard Team. 
For longer exams, consider using Blackboard Respondus
Blackboard AssignmentsAsk students to compose short but high-cognitive-level documents: recommendations about a case or a problem, explanations of the decisions and choices an expert would take in analyzing a document or scenario, or a comparative synthesis of two or more examples from course materials
Advice: Provide organizational and formatting instructions to students in advance, and focus your rubric on articulating the key analytical or critical thinking moves you want students to engage in. Share your rubric and explanations with students ahead of time; consider asking them to include a self-evaluation based on those criteria.
Providing opportunities for engagement and/or feedbackDiscussion board

Ask students to select the best two answers posted by peers in their group and explain their reasoning.
Maximize your feedback time by responding once or twice to a completed discussion, identifying the most insightful answers and correcting any misunderstandings.
Advice: For maximum student engagement, use a two-deadline system, one for students’ initial posts and one for their replies to or syntheses of peers’ posts. Also consider creating threads for small groups of students, so that they read and respond only to a select number of peers’ responses.
Use a simple rubric and basic score system (5=excellent, 4=complete, 3=incomplete, 0=absent) to assess posts.
Collaborate Ultra synchronous videoAssign rooms to student groups or teams, and give them a case or problem to solve.
Try a jigsaw discussion: assign different parts of a problem to students in rooms (AAA, BBB, CCC); remix to rooms that include at least one student from each initial team (ABC, ABC) to assemble a complete answer
Advice (Collaborate Ultra): Make sure that your students test out the synchronous technology before the technology, providing information from Mason Information Technology Services (ITS).
Exam/QuizQuick comprehension-check low-stakes or completion-credit quizzes let students see how their learning is going
Advice: Remember that frequent quizzes hold students accountable; that quizzing promotes long-term memory; and that even multiple-choice quizzes can ask students to perform and receive feedback on evaluative or applied cognitive skills
AssignmentPartner or team assignments--to create analyses, research and report on key concepts, or produce explanations for a peer audience--can increase engaged learning
Advice: Collaborative learning works best when students are guided through clear tasks on a schedule.

Check Additional Resources

We recommend the following Stearns Center resources as you consider how to transfer your course meeting(s) to an online format:

If you need help with Blackboard or its associated technologies (such as Kaltura video recording), contact Mason technical support

We also recommend the following outside resources that address specific questions you may have: