Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

December 17, 2019

Ideas for teaching when operations are suspended

When the snow began to fall in Winter 2019, instructors across the UW had to think quickly about how to keep their courses on track.

Instructors such as Haideh Salehi-Esfahani and Scott Spaulding, who were already using technology tools in their teaching, were well-equipped to ride out the storm. Others, like Riki Thompson, adapted quickly.

These three instructors tell their stories and share tips about how they ensured instruction continued despite the snowfall. Their best collective advice for people who don’t already use Zoom or Panopto in their teaching is to think about starting now, regardless of the weather.

Whether it’s snow, road closures, a broken ankle, or a conference presentation, faculty are making good use of teaching technologies to keep students on track when missing class is unavoidable.

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Scott Spaulding, senior lecturer, education

When familiar, Zoom conference calling is an easy back-up

During Winter 2019, Scott Spaulding was teaching a graduate course in which Zoom conference call technology is a regular feature.

When class was cancelled due to snow, Spaulding wasn’t sure if he was allowed to hold class remotely when campus was closed. “I wanted to have class and the students did, too, but I didn’t know if we could,” until a provost message clarified that classes could meet. “That was good to have that guidance from the provost’s office.”

Many of the students in Spaulding’s program are teachers who join the class remotely from work. As a result, the program sets guidelines for how students use Zoom in the course.

“We ask them to connect from a place that’s distraction-free. What’s behind you? What’s your connection speed like? We emphasize this for our program at orientation, before they come to any class. Students might be running late and want to connect via phone while they’re driving. We say don’t do it.”

When the snow hit, students were familiar with the tool, although they had to figure out how to set themselves up at home. Spaulding suggests patience with the unexpected, “You can’t prevent everything from happening—a kid walks on camera, a cat—one day we had six cats wandering around on screen.”

When Zoom is not an option, try Panopto or Canvas modules

Spaulding was prepared in 2019 for the snow, but knows what it’s like to be caught off-guard.

A different quarter, he had to miss the second day of class to attend a conference. He says, “I thought we could meet via Zoom.” But since it was early in the quarter, students didn’t know how.

Instead, Spaulding created a Canvas module. “It was super-explicit with discussions, readings, and the need for them to comment.” He made a Panopto video from his hotel room of slides and uploaded the video to the Canvas page. “I told students to engage in discussion at the same time we would have met in class. I don’t normally use modules but it worked great this time.”


  • Be familiar with how to use tools yourself before asking students to use them.
  • Make sure your students know what to expect. Tell them, for example, ‘If we have inclement weather, we’ll use Zoom.’
  • Set expectations for access to a computer with a strong connection and a camera—and a quiet place. Tell students, ‘Don’t call from a coffee shop.’
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Riki Thompson, associate professor, Rhetoric & Writing Studies, UW Tacoma

Seminar students led discussions via Zoom conference calling

When the snow started to fall in Winter quarter 2019, Associate Professor Riki Thompson was leading a group of graduate students doing independent study. She quickly looked for alternate ways for the group to hold their seminar discussion.

Students had prepared to discuss the reading and facilitate a conversation—a conversation that if done remotely would require conference call technology.

Thompson recalls, “We thought about Skype but didn’t know if it had multiple screens. We talked about doing Google Hangouts, but one of the students had trouble with it. Just trying to identify the tech we could use took some time.”

Thompson had a free, personal Zoom account. It seemed the best option with one important exception: sessions time out after 40 minutes. But Thompson found a creative workaround. She told students, “We’ll talk for 40 minutes and then take a five-minute break—like in face-to-face classes—and then return.” Building in a five-minute break gave her time to start a new Zoom session, while avoiding feeling rushed.

The students set to present during the session emailed handouts, and the class took advantage of Zoom’s chat function during the discussion. “If someone had a burning question, they could add it to the chat feature, so we could return to it,” says Thompson.

While the group didn’t use the shared screen because everyone already had the handouts, Thompson reports that next time she would use that feature to highlight elements of the document.


  • Check to see if you have access to a Zoom account…before the snow starts falling
  • If you don’t have access, encourage your department to get Zoom or set up a personal account
  • Tailor your use of tools such as chat function and screen sharing to the discussion
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Haideh Salehi-Esfahani, principal lecturer, economics

Posting a recorded lecture kept a large class on track

When a winter storm shut down UW’s Seattle campus in 2019, Haideh Salehi-Esfahani had not prepared but regardless was ready. Her ECON 200 Principles of Micro-Economics students—all 450 of them—watched a video recording she posted of the lecture she had given on the same day the year before.

Salehi-Esfahani, a Principle Lecturer of Economics, uses the lecture-capture tool Panopto in her larger classes, whatever the weather, as a matter of course. Every lecture is recorded and then posted on the course web site. The video shows both the instructor and everything she projects on the screen during the class.

According to Salehi-Esfahani, posting lectures regularly supports her students’ learning and “gives students a chance to review the lecture, even in a small class.”

Posting lectures has the added benefit of maintaining continuity when a class is unable to meet. “What’s really nice about this,” says Salehi-Esfahani, “if you have consistent lectures, students don’t miss anything.”

For those who don’t have a handy archive of last years’ lecture videos or are teaching a new course, it’s possible to use the same technology to record a lecture from home. Faculty can even learn how to use Panopto remotely, as well.

That said, Salehi-Esfahani suggests taking advantage of available training—before you need it. “It’s worth spending a few minutes with the guys at Learning Technologies to learn how to do this.”

Snow can close a campus but is not the only reason a class can’t meet. “You may go to a conference or you may get sick,” says Haideh, “this is not just for winter weather.”


  • Plan ahead for how you’ll teach when your class can’t meet
  • Practice with the tool before you need it
  • Attend a Panopto training by Learning Technologies