Designing Flexible Courses During COVID-19

An image of Dr. Sinjini Mitra surrounded by art of online students
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Dr. Sinjini Mitra is a professor at the Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department at California State University, Fullerton


Designing flexible courses for both online and in-person learning is essential for the fall 2021 semester. After a long eighteen months and vaccines becoming available, my students and I were excited to return to in-person. But, viral variants and positive cases brought us back to Zoom instruction. With so much uncertainty surrounding how students will learn, ensuring that their courses can adapt to the evolving pandemic situation is key for success.

I want to share my experience returning to remote learning, and help fellow faculty members build flexible courses to preemptively adapt for the semester ahead.

The Return to Remote Learning

In the summer of 2021, things started to look brighter with the availability of vaccines. Students and teachers alike were preparing to return to a fully in-person campus experience. Based on state guidelines and health and safety protocols, my university had scheduled approximately 70% of classes to be in person.

My first day back on campus at the beginning of the fall semester was an experience like no other. Seeing students moving around (albeit wearing masks), chatting and interacting with each other made the whole campus feel almost “normal.” A lot of research and studies found that what students missed the most during virtual instruction was social interaction with peers and instructors.

But, the joy and excitement proved to be short-lived. A couple of positive COVID cases during the first week of classes changed everything again. Some classes were forced to transition to an online format for at least two weeks. Students were surprisingly calm and quickly adjusted to the change. This was most likely due to their experience with online classes over the past few semesters. Some students mentioned that they had anticipated such an occurrence, as the Delta variant was gaining ground in our state.

Flexible Courses That Pivot

As an instructor, pivoting back to online instruction was easier than it was during the spring of 2020. I invested a considerable amount of time developing online course content since the start of the pandemic. Professional training and development also helped me improve my online course design and delivery, which I wanted to adapt and continue to use in different modalities.

I did this by leveraging online course components that I used in previous semesters, such as online videos, assignments and group activities. I pulled this idea from a workshop on online teaching that I attended which focused on how to “keep the good stuff” from online classes to reuse in face-to-face classes. My course material could work both in-person and online, so the switch back to Zoom was far more seamless. Familiar learning management systems, like Canvas, also easily supplemented the transition with many tools and features that facilitated course activities.

When talking with my students, I also discovered that many of them actually prefer online classes, even if they did not have online course experience prior to the pandemic. This is because of the flexibility online classes offer, and the overwhelming experience of returning to a fully on-campus experience after 18+ months of remote learning. Designing a course that accommodates online and in-person learning eases organization for instructors and supports the diverse needs of students.

The Road Ahead

With Delta variant cases rising in the United States, the more prepared instructors are to switch between modalities, the better.

Designing flexible courses with several online components makes pivoting back and forth between different course modalities much smoother. It is also much easier for students to adapt if there are fewer changes to course structure, assignments and assessments. This way, once we return to campus again, we will need very few adjustments to adapt to in-person classes.

For more information on building an online course that works for your students, download the Cengage Guide to Teaching Online.