A sample online university language course setup for summer #COVIDcampus #remoteteaching #remotelearning

This won’t be about 100% online free open etc. courses. Our beginners’ French courses use a textbook, which is not free, though some of its components are online and it is available in a digitized form. We are not using open free materials for the following reasons:

  1. There are none in current existence that are fit for our purposes and immediately ready to use, that follow the CEFR/DELF.
  2. There are open free CEFR/DELF materials online, but turning them into a structured university undergraduate course would necessitate about 200 hours’ work = 3 months’ work / 1 term with a 1-course teaching release.
  3. The timing of decisions on course materials is tied to the university bookstore’s ordering procedure, so changes can’t be made at a week’s notice.
  4. Nothing could have been done about this course at all until last week, due to yours truly working full time + for the previous six weeks on: emergency-COVIDising my own teaching, creating COVIDised assignments and final exam, writing a non-USA honour code, marking work, marking late work, making sure to have read and marked all late work submitted in three different places (Canvas assignment, Canvas inbox, email), keeping vigil as online support for remote exams (vs surveillance-culture invigilation) for a total of 30 hours, and finally marking final exams and calculating and submitting final grades. I did start to keep a tally of extra hours worked—just for fun and mental health relief, you know, given how the concept of a working week with a set number of hours, and the associated concept of paid overtime, do not exist in academia—and gave up in horror when it was already about 100 hours by the end of the teaching term.
  5. It would be unthinkable for me, as one coordinator of one course, to make and impose a sudden change. In our department, we work together on curriculum changes, including considering new course materials for multi-section courses: research, reading and analysis and commentary, consultation, discussion, and decisions. We take our time so as to do it properly. It took a year to do this, in a coordinated and cooperative fashion, for a whole connected sequence of French language courses and that decision included taking into account UBC recommendations on textbook costs (the one for FREN 101+102 is well within these guidelines, at the low end, works out at $30/term and can be resold).
  6. See also: On textbooks, midterm blues, and other truths of social justice (October 2017)

I did this here course setup in around 30 hours total (including consultation meeting with team and email discussion back and forth) in the week after the end of last term’s exams (ended 29 April), between the submission of their final grades (last day 5/6 May) and the start of the next term next week (11 May).

From last term and its onlinised courses’ covidification a little over half-way through (and not, as some media coverage might seem to suggest, at the end of the term: some of us were teaching online for five weeks) …

For courses designed to be online, in our summer term 1 / spring term, six weeks’ double-speed semi-intensive,* which starts on Monday …

(*) vs intensive = at least daily Monday-Friday, 3h class/day every day + 4-6h outside class/day, a.k.a. working full time on that one course

If you’re teaching something similar and any of that is useful for you, feel free to use and adapt and adopt whatever suits you. The online setup I built is based on my own usual setup (usual = off and on, and across assorted Learning “Management” “Systems” over the years) combined with the UBC Faculty of Arts (Arts ISIT, Angela Lam) Remote Teaching Template (UBC Commons, shared within UBC under CC BY 4.0 licence) which is superb and recommended. More about that sort of thing and more on online course design and teaching: the UBC Remote Teaching Institute.

Besides its excellence, another reason for using the Arts Remote Teaching Template is that if lots of us in our Faculty and University do so, it gives a sense of place and continuity; some stability and pattern; a coherent identifiable virtual space. That could be useful for students.

This Canvas FREN 101 MASTER is shared with everyone who’s teaching the course or has taught it (and therefore might teach it again), plus course coordinators and others in the general CEFR/DELF A1-B2 French teaching collective. They all have “Teacher” access and can change anything there. I trust colleagues to behave responsibly and not to do anything foolish or destructive (though you’ll see some areas of files marked “don’t touch” and, from past experience of accidents, anything there is in PDF; any HTML pages can be rewound to an earlier version). It’s also in institutional Canvas Commons, so that colleagues at UBC can visit, read, and import the whole thing or parts.

It’s a very simple shell and doesn’t include anything that isn’t already available within Canvas (or, like files, that can be uploaded there). I am not a fan of multiple tools all over the place, nor of bells and whistles, gimmicky gadgets, and dingley dongly things dangling around and making a fuss and tangling in my hair. Metaphorically and otherwise. I am not using anything that requires students to log in (UBC’s campus-wide login) multiple times in multiple locations: Collaborate Ultra is my limit, as it opens automatically in a new window while keeping the Canvas one open. I haven’t included any external tools that require students to create accounts specifically for them (even if there are ways for this to be OK for FIPPA / privacy law here, using dummy email addresses and suchlike) or any other faff. If students specifically ask to use something, if it seems like a good idea, if it does something that nothing on Canvas already does or can be tweaked to do, if it’s legal, and better still if they know of a smart way to make it easy and comfortable for all to use: if they’re all agreed, then sure, we’ll use it (and change the syllabus to include it in the LEARNING ANALYTICS section).

In my own classes (FREN 102, July-August) here’s a quick rough version of what bits I’ll be using for what purposes (more on that early next week). Much of this is stuff I’ve been doing anyway so no change or extra work:

  • Canvas Announcements:
    • welcome to the whole class at the start of term, before the first class (I usually do this using the Faculty Service Centre too, just in case)
    • messages after class on preparation, practice, and anything else to do before the next class; I usually also add class notes / slides (which are also stored in Modules > that week)
    • anything else more urgent; but otherwise trying—this is hard, I don’t always manage—to do this about the same time every teaching day, also as a sort of regular check-in; following the example of our local hero Dr Bonnie Henry
  • Canvas Assignments:
    • for student to submit their term-long small group project
    • for students to submit their term-long individual eportfolio
  • Canvas Calendar:
    • for scheduling individual appointments
    • for scheduling the oral component in the midterm and final exams
  • Canvas Chat:
    • for synchronous individual chat, for example in virtual open-door hours or individual meetings; use it like any other chat or like text-messaging; as fast as or faster than speaking or video and less bandwidth-intensive
  • Canvas Discussions:
    • this will be where most of the class takes place; which makes sense, given that most of a class and the work in the humanities is discussing: talking, explaining, commentating, analyzing, presenting, reading, writing, …
    • this is where a lot of the synchronous class work will be happening: setting up a fresh Discussion (with question / prompt) for each shorter activity in class; students can add to a thread later, reread for revision, etc.
    • synchronous class work in small groups: a group would work together and post the fruits of their labour here; this could be combined with peer evaluation
    • asynchronous small group work on, for example, a Task Of The Week (which, in the case of this course, would combine elements from the task at the end of each textbook leçon being done that week)
    • possibly also other synchronous and asynchronous individual and group things along the way
  • Canvas Grades:
    • where grades will appear, some magically, some by human means
  • Canvas Inbox:
    • for communications with individual students and groups of students
    • this is something I’m considering changing my use of; I used to use it for emergencies only, as it has not out-of-office reply function and seems politically opposed to such a thing and to humans (including faculty and students) not being 24/7 cogs in a corporate machine, so I use institutional email instead
    • on the other hand, it helps to centralise all the course in one place
  • Canvas People:
    • small groups (maximum 4) for group projects
    • small groups for interactive work in the live synchronous class: these might be the same groups as those for the projects, they’ll be people in the same time-zone and/or with similar schedules and availability; they’ll be doing some work outside class too, so their anthroposynchrony as individuals and as a group is important
    • for each such group, Canvas creates a whole area within that course site, with announcements and discussion boards and a file area and so on; and students see that group in their main navigation; it’s not an exact alternative to Google’s collaborative working areas (docs, slides, drive) it offers similar components and is both FIPPA-compliant and all within Canvas
  • Canvas Quizzes:
    • for the midterm and final exams (which I’d prefer to be honour-code, closed book but with faculty keeping supportive vigil in “ask me anything” mode: if COVID-19 can teach us anything, it’s inter-connectedness and trust and mutual aid)
    • for teeny tiny mini-quizzes, like 1-2 questions, on readings for the next class (set up to be automatically marked)
    • for teeny tiny mini-quizzes, again 1-2 questions and maybe with the task of finding an Easter Egg, at the end of the week on that week’s recorded lecturesque teaching (ditto)
  • Collaborate Ultra:
    • for virtual open-door hours: drop-in and scheduled, individual and small group (students NOT RECORDED obviously); I’ll be there on video as a massive gurning head, up to students whether they want to use video, audio, or text/chat
    • for some parts of live active synchronous classes:
      • students in small groups in breakout rooms working with a whiteboard, image, or file (more often a single slide, which students will meet again in a set of slides at the end of the week; so in fact probably just an image anyway), but some-to-most of that small group work will be on Canvas Discussions (as you can’t record breakout rooms so that work would otherwise be lost, though you can also have a representative from that group report back to the main room);
      • using the poll/survey tool (anonymous voting, with simple “OK so far? yes/no” type questions) and chat in lieu of eye contact and body language, for pace and as a surrogate for ambiance, a sense of the room, and to add interaction and improvisation (which are crucial to any live performance art);
      • think of this as being more a practice session, working on a problem or a task, or feedback and questions on practice exercises and the previous week’s task (students NOT RECORDED)
    • for individual conversations, the oral component of midterm and final exams (the only time when students would be RECORDED)
    • for me to record, while in a synchronous class or after it, summarized segments of slides and/or whiteboard, including for example working something out on the board, or annotating and commentating live on a text or image, including live-action reading (Massive Gurning Head talking to herself asking questions); while there are many ways of doing live-action annotation including on a blank background like a board, this one is cheap and cheerful and, my favourite pet peeve, in one place
    • for me to record lecturesque content:
      • at the END of the week: a classroom “flipped” in several senses: (1) NOT Educationally Leaderly (And Probably Manly) Sage On The Stage l/hectoring at the beginning of the week, and the rest of the week is “unpacking” and explaining and practising and parroting the Content that was Delivered; (2) in line with our course materials’ and most CEFR methodology and pedagogy: inductive learning, often perceived as a form of student-centred learning; (3) not instructor-centred learning with a prescriptive authority declaring rules (yes, languages have rules; yes, we teach and learn them; yes, there are as many ways of doing so as there are humans individuals with their wonderful human minds) and imparting facts, but instead a summary of interactions, weaving in student examples and questions, knitting together relationship and community: that is, knowledge-centred learning and learning-centred learning
      • videos (plural: in shorter segments) commentated slides on the week’s work: there are many ways of doing slides + voice-over, using Collaborate Ultra to share the slides on the screen and pressing “record” is one of the simplest that allows you to concentrate on what you’re saying and the actual content
      • short video or animation or podcast introducing the next week’s work (but not Sage On The Stage)
    • video welcome message for the start of term, hopefully including as many bloopers as humanly possible, so as to set the tone: this is a humanities class in which we’re going to be humans (but in French, which as we all know makes all humanity much more chic, elegant, et debonair)

I do not propose to spend time and other resources on making shiny glossy edited videos. This is going to be raw and real. This is university academic intellectual imaginative critical creative work. Live action thinking out loud. Like in a physical classroom. And for the students too (minus recording). We’re in this together: a class is what a course becomes, translated from theory to practice, from design to doing it: a social creature, an adventurous cooperative, a living community of fellow knowledge-seekers.

Teaching is more than “providing content.”

Learning is much more than passively purchasing pre-packaged and processed “content,” to consume and regurgitate in an exam, in exchange for a quantified grade.

A course is so much more than “content.” For a language, that “content” is already a whole culture. And the class itself is our co-creation of a living organic culture.

Possibly also useful:

Definitely useful, and indeed de rigueur for anyone who has ever used the phrase “task-based learning” and meant it and meant every word in it:

  • TASKMASTER: Greg Davies and Alex Horne:
    • YouTube channel: “Taskmaster Greg Davies, assisted by Alex Horne, has set a series of devious tasks for five hyper-competitive contestants. Expect cheating. Expect arguments. Expect both cheating AND arguments.” 2015-present, 9 series
    • Book! The old 200-task edition is a core item in the Educational Theory, Critical Pedagogy, and Practical Manuals section of my library. It lives with A Book of Surrealist Games, Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, bell hooks Teaching to Transgress, and some old sets of Rory’s StoryCubes (that’s another thing to recommend, and its electronic version is one of the only apps that I have and use for teaching)
      Alex Horne, Taskmaster: 220 Extraordinary Tasks for Ordinary People (London: BBC Books, 2019) ISBN 978-1785944680
    • #HomeTasking: “Alex Horne here, the Taskmaster(s assistant), to make self isolating and social distancing slightly more bearable […] Keep an eye out on Twitter for each task, send in your attempts, and you could feature in a highlight reel of all my favourites here on YouTube. And remember to #StayAtHome.” (See also, though not all are relevant nor intentionally amusing in the same way, the Twitter hashtag #HomeTasking.)


  • shorter assignments: activities within class and weekly tasks, and more detail on teaching plans: Monday/Tuesday
  • the big hairy creature that is the online teaching annotated bibliography from hell is now running at more items than most MA and some PhD bibliographies. So … more like Wednesday/Thursday for that.


Please note that this bibliography is based on my own reading, and what guided it was my own judgement, informed by training in research and advanced reading and by a lifetime of general reading practice starting with childhood hyperlexia. It will be subjective and idiosyncratic. I am a human and a humanities scholar, and that is what we do and are. None of this mechanical objective self-deluding make-believe BS. I will not be retracing every cognitive step in slow motion nor mapping every item to its appearance in a course design or syllabus or individual assignment.

Assignments will similarly not be anchored in / chained up to footnotes referencing whatever some named authority once said about them in an authoritatively-approved publication if they’re blindingly obvious and/or have been in standard practice and use by communities and generations of teachers, especially if that includes invisible unacknowledged work by women (like my granny, who was a teacher) and unwritten cultural transmission and historical erasure. This is a matter of feminist intersectional social justice. And decolonization and anti-colonialism. And against gate-keeping, which includes any attempt to turn the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning into an excuse for credentialisation. (In which I include made-up qualifications to create make-work jobs and projects for parasitic para-academic administrators and consultants who are not in the active practice of the front-line academic work of teaching, on which qualifications and their training courses faculty then spend precious time and professional development money, to have an official stamp of approval that says that they are doing their job properly … when they were already doing so and have not necessarily learned anything new, except of course how to translate what they already knew into Corporatese NewSpeak. But I digress. Besides, some of these courses are worthwhile and I wouldn’t have learned the same material by reading or watching it in an hour. Or 15 or 5 minutes. But I digress from my own digression.)

Some assignments may have been made up (ex. the exam question at the top of this present post). These, especially, will not include references so as to—in the immortal words of a non-scholarly colleague—”look scholarly.” I do not feel a need for such validation. Being a woman, that will probably be called arrogance rather than self-confidence. Some women do, mirabile dictu, have functioning brains and active minds; scholarship and academic work can include criticism, analysis, commentary, interpretation, and other innovation; and can be actual genuine bona fide independent original intelligent creative work.

UBC Keep Teaching pretty much has us covered anyway, it’s fantastic. Their very first tip on the very first page starts out with “Be kind to yourself and your students.” Their materials are free and open, beautifully organized and clear, and with links to more stuff and their in-house Wiki and, well, there’s lots there and of a sort that should provide something useful for whatever it is that you’re teaching at a university, and be it undergraduate or graduate.

Be kind, be calm, and be safe
—Dr Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia; Clinical Associate Professor at UBC; self-admitted reader of Albert Camus; and living goddess


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