Email Is All You Need to Teach Online: A COVID-19 Response

By Jim Shimabukuro

For some instructors who have never taught online and are unfamiliar with their college’s LMS (Learning Management System), email may be the simplest and quickest way to move a course online. This approach would eliminate the steep learning curve for both instructors and students who are expected to move F2F courses into LMSs within the next week or so. The advantage of email-only is that everyone has an account, everyone knows how to use email, and students who don’t own a computer can get by with their smartphones1.

This email-only approach will work best with lecture-discussion courses that rely on papers and projects rather than quizzes and exams. For those requiring tests, a simple adjustment would be to require a paper, instead, that’s submitted via email2. For this approach to work, the instructor and students would need to have the email address of every person in class3

Here’s a schedule of activities that might be doable for a hypothetical class. All of this is done asynchronously via email. The seven online sessions could be distributed across two weeks. If the online stint is only a week long, then sessions 4-to-7 could be conducted in the in-person classroom.

Session 1: The instructor sends a list of required readings (in the textbook or at a website) to the class. Students are encouraged to send comments or questions to the class and to respond to them.

Session 2: The instructor converts her/his lecture to text and sends it to the class. Students are encouraged to send comments or questions to the class and to respond to them.

Session 3: The instructor opens a discussion on the readings and lecture by sending a set of questions to the class. Students are required to respond to the class.

Session 4: The instructor introduces a paper assignment, based on the readings, lecture, and discussion, via email.

Session 5: Students share their plans for the paper with a small email-group (e-group) of classmates. Students have been assigned to the groups and are required to provide suggestions on how to improve each plan.

Session 6: Students share a draft of their paper in their e-groups and exchange feedback with members.

Session 7: Students submit their final drafts to the instructor.

This is a jury-rigged, online version of an in-person course. If the move to online is only a week or two long, then this temporary fix could suffice. If longer, then this pattern of activities could be extended, but the downside is emailboxes filled with dozens if not hundreds of course-related messages. This may be overwhelming.

Thus, for longer online stints, a limited-use LMS may be preferable. See my Barebones F2F-to-Online Transition: A COVID-19 Response for an idea of how this might be done. For an option that bypasses LMSs, see Davin Kubota’s Google Classroom to Transition to Online: A COVID-19 Response.

This no-frills email model could be enhanced in many different ways. For example, the lecture could be videotaped and shared on YouTube4 or delivered live via a platform such as Zoom. Discussions could be held asynchronously in the discussion tool that’s part of most LMSs or synchronously via Zoom. Quizzes could be set up in LMSs. But these require skills and knowledge that some or many instructors don’t have, and acquiring them may be difficult in the time frames that have been imposed by COVID-19.

If the shutdown of in-person classes is extended beyond a week, then instructors could buy time with this email model to gradually transition to LMSs.

199.8% of College Students Have Cell Phones: Ball State Study,” HuffPost, 25 May 2011.
2 For instructors requiring exams, there are proctored services that could be incorporated into this basic email model.
3 Email adresses are usually available in the instructor’s course roster. A possible refinement is to form a listserv or email group, but this adds complexity.
4 See Ray Rose’s comment re the need for captioning.

6 Responses

  1. Hi Jim,

    Everyone should be taking one of the paths you suggest in this crisis. In science, that can be difficult. Here at Smart Science Education Inc., we are offering free subscriptions to our online science labs/lessons for 90 days (effectively the remainder of the school year) to aid in weathering this storm. These lessons use real experiments and hands-on measurements entirely online. More information on our online lessons is available at

    I wish you and all readers good health in these difficult times.


    • Harry, your generosity in this time of crisis is heartwarming. Thank you — on behalf of teachers and students in the US and around the world. I know about the quality of your Smart Science labs, and this is really good news! Please write up a short announcement re this offer for publication in ETCJ. -Jim

  2. Jim:
    Some helpful information, but I think down the road, the language may create some problems. What you describe shouldn’t be called online learning. Remote learning might be a better term.

    My concern is that the remote learning you describe, will end up, for some faculty as their only online teaching experience, and then, they’ll feel this summer, or next semester: “I taught online and it was not effective, online just doesn’t work.”

    Folks need some simple ways to teach remotely, and suggestions like yours can be helpful for the folks who say, I’m never going to teach online — and now their institution says — there is no on-campus face-to-face close contact instruction.

    Be well

    • Hi, Ray. As always, thank you very much for your response! I’m guessing that you haven’t read the second half of the article. My bad. The “continue reading” feature is easily missed. Click on it to read the remainder of the article, which addresses your points.

      I consider this “online learning” since all of it is done online — regardless of the platform, LMS or email.

  3. One more thing Jim: You mention producing video — ideally that video should be captioned — or at least a transcript provided. You might be surprised at how many people, even those who are not hearing-impaired turn on captioning on their TVs. I did some experimenting with captioning when we were doing online teacher professional development and comparing comprehension of video with and without captions. You can guess the result. Oh yes, one more thing; legally all digital educational resources need to be fully accessible (WCAG 2.0 AA).

    Be well

    • Excellent reminder, Ray. I’m going to add a note to this article to reference this comment. Thanks! -Jim

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