How to personalize an online class on lockdown?


Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Online Learning in Higher Education

One of the many impacts of COVID was the rise of online learning. As colleges and universities shifted from in-person classes, many faculty and students discovered online learning. For those of us who have been doing this a long time (since 2000 in my case), we know that one of the benefits of online learning is that you can create a class once and re-use it multiple times, even with different faculty teaching. Often online courses are designed by someone else and the teaching faculty have little to no control over the set-up of the class. I refer to this as a class on “lockdown.” It can be frustrating to the faculty who feel that they do not have the ability to personalize the class with their insights and experience. What most people miss, though, are the many ways that lockdown can be bypassed to allow personalization.

Professor as Facilitator

In a class on lockdown, the assignments, course content, discussion questions, and virtually every other element of the course comes pre-built and unchangeable. In this model, the professor is regarded as a facilitator who answers student questions, participates in discussion boards, and provides grades and feedbacks on assignments. While these are important valuable tasks, they also limit the ability of a faculty member to inject the course with their expertise and subject matter knowledge. They also prevent the instructor from personalizing the course to reflect their personality and the needs of the students.

For most of my higher ed career I have served as an administrator. We have very good reasons for locking down a course. It saves time for faculty as they do not each need to design a course from scratch. It helps ensure a consistent curriculum and student experience across sections. In this model, instructional designers can be used to create high quality, multimedia content. The practice of a pre-constructed, master class used by all instructors of a class provides a quality foundation for online learning. The problem is when that foundation also becomes the ceiling, and individual faculty do not have the ability to change anything in the class to go beyond the supplied materials.

Announcements, Email, and Discussion Boards

In a locked down class, teaching faculty usually have three tools available to them: announcements, discussion boards, and email. The limitation to each of these is that if you stuff too much content into them, they become overwhelming for the student. Instead, external content tools can be used to create and share content, while an announcement/email/discussion board can be used to let students know about the resources you have created for them. Alternatively, you can also embed these links in feedback to assignments.

For example, in a class I teach now I have a welcome video that I link to in the welcome announcement to the class. I could also email the students a link to the video or include it as part of my introductory discussion board post. Sometimes content can be shared through multiple streams to maximize student exposure. When I taught the course the first time, I discovered that students could use some guidance on how to decode an assignment. I created a video that I linked to in my grading feedback to students.

Free Tools for Creating Content

There are many tools for creating instructional content. I am going to focus on a small set of these that are all free and very easy to use. This not meant to be an exhaustive list. Most of these are offered by Google, which reflects Google’s approach to give services away in exchange for advertising. You do not need to teach at a school that has a relationship with Google to use these tools. Everything I share is available to anyone with a Google account. I also favor approaches that do not require students to have their own Google account.

Document Sharing

A standard way to share content with students is through long form, written documents. One way to share these with students is Google Docs (, Google’s word processing program. You can create and format documents like any other word processing program. The key is to use the share button in the upper right corner. You can share your document with others via email. In this case, only people with the specified email addresses will be able to access the document. A more flexible option, though, is to click on “Get shareable link” which will give you a link to share in your class. Usually you want the default that anyone with the link can view the document.

The other options allow the option that anyone can comment and that anyone can edit. These each might have applications. For example, if you want students to ask questions or comment on the document, allow them to comment. If you allow editing, Google Docs has version control that will allow you to revert to earlier versions.

Keep in mind that anyone with the link can access the document. Generally, it is unlikely that the link will be shared but keep this in mind. You probably won’t want to share test answers after a test this way. If you are concerned about keeping content private, sharing using student email addresses will give more control. For the most privacy, though, do not post anything outside of the learning management system. I personally value transparency and openness. You must make your own choices for your own reasons about what you share and your level of comfort that it may be shared beyond your class and students.

I have an example of a document I created for a course on an assignment. Originally I posted it in the class as a download, but if I make any updates, students who already downloaded the document will not receive updates.

An alternative to Google Docs for sharing documents is to use another Google product, Blogger. Blogger is a free blogging platform. The advantages of using a blog over Google Docs include that it provides more visbility to a collection of documents and tends to make the content discoverable by search engines. For example, I published a book on college advice that I want to make available to my students. I could put each chapter into a Google Doc, but unless I put in links to each of the files, it will be difficult for students to find a list of all chapters. In a blog, though, students can easily navigate to the list of all documents. I can also tag documents to connect related content. While I can make a blog invisible to search engines, one of the advantages of the platform is to make my work universally available.

One additional option when using Blogger is that you can allow comments. This allows you to create a place where students comment and respond to the content. Personally, I would prefer to keep discussion in the discussion board, but this is another way that you can personalize the course.

You can view an example of a Blogger site I created based on my college advice book.

Surveys and Quizzes

Another Google tool that can be useful for faculty is Google Forms ( I use Forms for surveys. In the classroom, you can use this to create your own surveys to collect information from students. You can also use this tool for assessment applications like a “one minute paper” where you provide the students with a prompt to a short written response.

Building on this use case, you can also make a Google Form into a quiz. Under settings (the gear icon), you can select “Quizzes” to create a quiz. You can make the quiz auto graded and even to provide feedback on incorrect and correct answers. Personally, I would not use this for graded assignments. You may not have the flexibility in a locked down course to change assignments for grades. As a study and assessment tool, though, Google Forms can give you access to data on where students are having issues in learning the course material. You can also create study guides to promote student success in a class.

This is a sample form used for a one-minute paper. In addition to providing a link, you can also try making the form embeddable so that in can be posted within an announcement or discussion post without requiring students to link to it.


Sometimes rather than a text narrative, we want to deliver content using a presentation slide deck. Google Slides ( is Google’s tool. You can use this in a variety of ways. You can make each slide stand on its own with text and graphics on the slide. You can also include additional information in the notes section of the slide to avoid burying the slide in too much text. You can also insert recorded audio into a slide that can be played back when a student views the slide. The audio recording must be created separately outside of Slides, and I recommend Audacity as a free audio recording program. You just need to save the recording in mp3 or wav format, one recording for each slide.

You can also use LinkedIn’s Slideshare ( to share presentations. Slideshare will accept videos, documents, presentations, PDFs, and other files types for upload. You can make the file public, or you can limit access to those with the link. If you have presentations in Microsoft PowerPoint, Slideshare provides an alternative method to publish these presentations online.

This is a presentation I created years ago that demonstrates a basic presentation shared via slides. No audio and no speaker notes. This is the same presentation but published online so it automatically does a slide show.


Another way of sharing content with your students is through video. You can use your cell phone or laptop camera to shoot your own video. You can also use Microsoft PowerPoint to create a video. You can record narration for your slides within PowerPoint and then export the presentation as a movie. One of the easiest ways to publish a video online is by uploading it to YouTube (, which is also owned by Google.

Within YouTube you can click on the small icon of a camera to create your own video. Once you upload the video, you can restrict access to people with the link or make it publicly available. In either case, you will publish the link to your classroom.

An added benefit of YouTube is that it will automatically create a transcript of the audio portion of the video. The transcription will need to be edited, which you can also do within YouTube. The transcript will help students who have difficulty hearing or when English is a second language. For students who are visually impaired, it is important to describe any graphics or purely visual elements with the video.

If you want to see a PowerPoint presentation exported into a PowerPoint, this video is my discussion about how to breakdown an assignment.

Why should I do this?

The primary reason to do any of these things is to help your students learn. In addition, most of the thousands of faculty I have worked with over the years are motivated by a passion to share what they know. The facilitation model of teaching does not provide many opportunities to share our experience and wisdom in our classrooms. The tools and techniques I have shared provide an alternative approach that allows any faculty to inject their course with their own personality.

In some cases, you could accomplish this purpose by using long announcements, discussion board posts, or emails to students. Not only are these not the most effective way of receiving content, they also have other drawbacks.

First, when you post something in an online classroom, you may be giving up some or all your rights to that content. When you create and publish content outside of the classroom, you are more likely to retain ownership and control the content. If you stop teaching for a school, you can unpublish the content. I am not a lawyer, and I know every school has a different policy on intellectual property. You will want to consult the policies that pertain to your employment. Generally, though, you are in a stronger position when content lives outside of the school’s platforms.

Second, many of the tools I have described allow you to track usage. You may not know who specifically has accessed resources, but you can see how many times a document or video has been viewed. This helps you know what resources resonate with your students.

Third, in applying for other teaching opportunities, the work you do within a school’s learning management system is private. Content you create outside of the learning management system you can include as part of your portfolio of your work. This can help you stand out in a competitive job market.

Promoting Your Work

Another opportunity from using these tools is the ability to promote your work for a wider audience beyond your classroom. Once you publish content on one of these platforms, you can make it discoverable by making it public. The next step is to share your content using LinkedIn and Facebook posts. If you publish items in a blog, you can also use Medium ( to share your blog posts with the Medium community.

As an educator, our purpose is to create new insights that we share with the world. The students in our classes maybe our primary audience, but they do not need to be our only audience.

A Note of Caution about Office 365

I prefer office 365 over Google Docs. I pay for my own license in addition to the one supplied by my university. Office 365 offers some of the same sharing features that Google Docs do, but I have discovered issues. If you are using a license from your school or work, sharing maybe limited to users within your domain. Students using another email address may not have access. Also, by using school supplied software, the school has a stronger claim to your work. Even if you are at a school that supplies Google Docs, I would use a personal account for creating materials.

Ethical Use of Other People’s Content

Over the years I have seen too many cases where someone has uploaded content from another school or someone else. Sometimes the content is from a publisher. Whatever the source, the ideas here are for your own original content. Fair use and copyright are beyond the scope of this article. Error on the side of caution and do not upload anything that you did not create. Unless something has been explicitly published as an open educational resource or under a creative commons type license, you may not have the right to use this content. Remember the Golden Rule and treat the work of others as you want your work to be treated.

How to Get Started

My recommendation is to start small. As you teach a course, identify opportunities where additional content could help students. Create that content and share it with students. Then you will have it to share earlier the next time you teach the course. In some cases, make a note for something to work on during a break when you have more time. Remember the idea here is to build on the foundation provided by the course and instructional designers. You do not need to create a whole course from scratch, and it is more efficient to see where students struggle and work to fill those needs rather than try to anticipate where those issues will be.