So You Want to Be Flexible: Canvas Can Help

Article by Luke Konkol

In a time when students might require extra flexibility, it’s important to remember that it should not come at the expense of instructor bandwidth. Providing extensions on student work, alternative assignments, or dropping work can have a positive impact on students, but how can we best find the sweet spot between an inflexible structure and ‘anything goes’? Some answers lie in Canvas features. In this post, I’ll share a few ideas of how you might set up Canvas for your own benefit, in addition to students’.

“I Just Need a Little More Time.”

By default when you make a Canvas assignment, it’s assigned to every student and the due dates apply accordingly. However, you can also get specific and assign different dates to individual students. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of emails asking for extensions, and masses of sticky notes and spreadsheets suggest that no method of tracking them has been totally effective. By updating the assignment dates for each student who gets an extension, Canvas will track this for you and the student alike.

Some instructors also don’t realize how late work shows up on the student side. When work is late, Canvas is overly clear, marking it with a big red “LATE”. This can be off-putting to otherwise achieving students—especially when the work is not actually late. Adjusting a student’s individual due date means their work will only be marked as late if it is submitted past their specific due date.

A Usable Gradebook

An indication of ‘late’ work also shows up in your gradebook. Unfortunately, Canvas doesn’t make their cacophony of symbols and highlights transparent anywhere within the gradebook itself, so those individual cells just turn into noise. This is less true if you can use these features of the gradebook to their full potential. One first step is using individual due dates as described above; when you do, the highlight for “late” work starts to mean something.

Excusing and Dropping

Canvas grading is also not as “all or nothing” as it first appears. What seems like a flaw can work to our advantage: anything un-graded does not count against students in the way a zero would. But it’s sometimes difficult for students (and the future you) to interpret this lack of data. Canvas has thought this one through. You can make it explicit which assignments will not be counted towards a student’s final grade by marking such assignment as “excused”.

Excusing work is a good option if the dropped score doesn’t apply to everyone, but what if you want to discount a graded item for the entire class? You can tell Canvas to drop certain assignments, such as the lowest in an assignment group, by setting up assignment group rules. The thing to remember is to enter those zeroes for missing assignments—otherwise Canvas will drop the lowest scored assignment instead.

Assignment Groups

In fact, there are several tricks you can use so the Canvas gradebook tracks scores but assignments ‘count’ differently. For example, some instructors prefer to manually assign scores elsewhere but still want Canvas to serve as the interface for student work. A rather extreme example (using labor-based grading) can be found here. Whenever you use unconventional grading methods, the key is to be transparent with students about what Canvas (and you) are doing. This guide on group weights is enough to get you started on this advanced topic, but we recommend setting up a CATL consultation if this is something you’d be interested in exploring further.

The Learning is in the Doing “So Far”

These tips demonstrate the way in which, at first blush, Canvas seems to focus its flexibility on the student side of the equation. This is to say, instructor errors (like forgetting to enter a zero) seem to unduly benefit the student. But these effects are just symptoms of a wider philosophy underlying the way Canvas works. Like any learning management system, Canvas is based on the idea that a certain transaction is taking place, but instead of focusing on a raw accumulation of points (like other LMSs) Canvas’s approach to scoring is a reflection of how students are doing “so far”. If a student only does one of ten assignments but does it well, Canvas tracks this as success.

What does this do for us? For me, it clues us into a different way to think about student progress—and one that speaks directly to students achieving objectives. If we want students to be able to X, why have a dozen assignments asking them to do so if they succeed in doing it in two or three? Despite a distaste for ‘busy work’ shared by instructors and students alike, it tends to creep into the online environment. The silver lining is that the boost in remote learning (where the necessity that we clearly articulate the work we expect from students is highlighted) has revealed the craving we all seem to have for objective-centered student work.

A Note on Objectives

So, you want a student’s grade to reflect their meeting objectives instead of a raw accumulation of points. Now what? That’s a good question—and the answer is bigger than we’ve got the space to address here. My temporary answer is a cop-out: keep your objectives in mind as the driving factor for using the techniques I’ve provided above.

But give it some further thought. If this idea of objectives-based grading is intriguing to you, consider that Canvas has a spot for you to create outcomes and that you can then attach these outcomes to assignments.

As if this weren’t enough, Canvas even has an alternative gradebook based on what they call “learning mastery” which tracks this very thing using benchmarks for mastery you set. I didn’t advertise this above because the focus of this post is on practical action you can take now to save yourself some work, but if this is something you’d like to explore further, please don’t hesitate to schedule a consultation!

What Do You Think?

How do you manage flexibility in your courses? What Canvas (or other) ‘hacks’ do you have to share with your colleagues? Let us know below! I’ve also been thinking a bit lately about how some of these practices (e.g. objective-based grading) might be worth keeping around even once things “go back to normal”. I’m curious to hear from you on this. How have your grading practices changed? Is there anything you’ve started doing that you plan on keeping going forward?

An example of Student ePortfolio from Ntxhee Yee Thao

Are ePortfolios Right for Your Students?

Are ePortfolios right for your course? Spoilers: we think so. ePortfolios (web-based managed collections of artifacts or ‘evidence’—here of student learning) are one of the Association of American Colleges and University’s (AAC&U) 11 High Impact Practices (HIPs). ePortolios, and assignments tied to their creation, often fulfill a number of the eight key characteristics of HIPs. Most importantly, ePortfolios also help students integrate their learning and make connections between other HIPs.

Different types of ePortfolios help articulate how students must consider different audiences when demonstrating their learning. You can also blend them together for a customized student experience. You might do a course portfolio, a programmatic portfolio, or introduce students to the idea of a developmental or professional portfolio demonstrating their progress over time.

ePortfolios for Reflection & Assessment

Using ePortfolios for learning and reflection encourages metacognitive connections between skills, assessments, and learning outcomes. Reflection, which can be done either publicly or privately, can take many forms within a portfolio. When reflection is built into the assessments that may become artifacts of a portfolio, students will have already done some of this reflective work, making it easier for them to draw connections between and among course work.

Example of student portfolio from Cheynne Ver Voort
Example of student portfolio from Cheynne Ver Voort

Kris Vespia, Associate Professor of Psychology, adds mini reflections to the end of some assessments which ask students to write a few short sentences about the skills they learned while working on the activity, how they see themselves using these skills outside of the classroom, and which learning outcomes they see this activity or assessment fulfilling. Later, if a student takes Kris’s Psychology senior capstone course, they can use those assessments and reflections they’ve been accumulating to produce a programmatic portfolio. These portfolios contain artifacts of learning from across their educational careers that meet the Psychology departmental learning outcomes. The Psychology programmatic portfolios are intended for a public audience, so each item includes a short paragraph describing the artifact and the skills demonstrated through its creation. Here is one example of a student’s programmatic ePortfolio from Dr. Vespia’s capstone course.

After a few semesters, this project has given the Psychology department some very strong assessment data from which they can draw. Might your department or program benefit from a similar practice?

If assessing such a thing seems like a heavy lift, consider that the AAC&U recommends aligning ePortfolios with the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) and the General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) to articulate explicit connections between student learning outcomes and the work they’re doing. This may afford instructors and programs the opportunity to utilize the AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics as a starting point for assessing ePortfolios as an authentic assessment which can be particularly challenging to assess at scale.

ePortfolios for Professionalization

Example of student ePortfolio from Andrew Ransom
Example of student ePortfolio from Andrew Ransom

ePortfolios and a curated digital identity can help students demonstrate their abilities to integrate their learning across disciplines and feature digital literacy competencies making them marketable to employers and graduate schools. Portfolios are central places where collected work publicly shares the formation of career readiness. The process of creating a portfolio allows students to practice discussing the academic work they’ve done in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences. In this and other ways, a portfolio can better inform graduates for when they enter the job market as evidenced by The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). While NACE is somewhat proprietary, you can get a feel for the sort of competencies they’re after—all boxes ePortfolios help check—by looking at results such as these (in this case from California University of Pennsylvania).

If this is of interest to you, feel free to expand the list below for details on some skills closely associated with ePortfolio work.

One thing that will likely influence students' success, whether they are continuing their education past their master’s degree or entering the job market right away, is their comfort level with computers, applications, software, and social media. Employers often have some unrealistic or misaligned expectations for new hires who are just leaving college—they assume that because students use technology and social media in their personal life, they’ll understand how to use it for professional purposes, too! This is assumption is often incorrect, but an ePortfolio project can help give students some experience with using technology for professional purposes. By creating a portfolio, students can also start thinking about their professional digital identity, which has become crucial in a world where networking on sites such as LinkedIn is instrumental in finding a job.

Digital Technology is #4 on the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) list of 8 core skills for career success. Employers are looking for candidates who have demonstrated competency in existing digital technologies and the ability to adapt to new and emerging technologies. 

Learning how to use a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, which is one of the tools that we recommend using for creating an ePortfolio, is another skill that students can add to a CV or résumé. Even though students may not imagine themselves using website builders or CMSs in the future, they may find that these skills will still come in handy. Ask your colleagues—some of them are even asked to add things to our campus websites using a CMS called Kentico in order to fulfill public posting requirements for grants!

Career Management is #7 on that list from NACE: The ability to identify and articulate skills, strengths, and experiences in a way that's relevant to the position students desire is a skill that a portfolio can help students develop because they can practice thinking and describing projects and assignments to different audiences; proficiency in exploring and pursuing job options and the ability to self-advocate in the workplace can stem from this kind of practice.

Explaining how projects and assessments from undergraduate and graduate academics apply to skills listed in a job posting is one of the things students will likely be asked in an interview. Students might want to express how they could potentially grow into that entry-level position by sharing the skills they’ve cultivated in a project that indirectly relates to their field of study.

Communication is #2 on that NACE 8 core skills and competencies list: the ability to articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in both written and verbal contexts. Think about how appropriate it would be to be able to share how courses, course work, and projects from undergraduate and graduate careers can apply to the skills in a job description. Creating a portfolio is basically practicing those interviewing skills so that students have some vocabulary and examples to pull from directly.

Getting started with recommendations for students

Getting started with an ePortfolio project or assignment can sound like a daunting task, but it’s not so bad if we keep in mind that what we’re really after is helping students collect and describe the work they’ve already done. The list below summarizes some of the key considerations to start with.

As an instructor, you can guide students in this process. You can also use the structure of your course to establish baseline groupings—e.g. “Theory, Research, Practice.”

Ask yourself: what patterns are you seeing? Hopefully your work is at least linked by your major, minor, and/or emphasis. How might you articulate these patterns using portfolio sections, categories, or pages? 

Don’t forget about group work. Are any of these projects the result of group work? If so, you must get permission from your team members to share the work publicly (if that’s your plan). It might be necessary to redact or remove other student names from the work—but don’t mischaracterize or pass off their work as your own. Alternatively, feature only the sections you’ve worked on by yourself. In your portfolio, you’ll need to articulate how these are a part of a larger project. 

Who is your portfolio for? Peer reviewers? Instructors? Employers? Graduate Schools? If you want a public, web-indexed portfolio, consider choosing a medium like WordPress (see below), Wix, Weebly, or Google Sites.

As an instructor, make it transparent what you anticipate students will do with their portfolio. Is it just for this class? Do you intend for it to go beyond the course? How will this influence the way you have students engage with it as a medium?

As an instructor, this is a great first assignment for ePortfolios.

Write a résumé or CV. Make a “web safe” version if you’re making a public portfolio so that it doesn’t have your home address or phone number on it.

Meet with Career Services for feedback!

Each time you finish a paper, project, grant proposal, or other artifact that you’re proud of, save it somewhere (see Collect your work and think of how it fits together above) so that you can add it to your portfolio. A you make progress, you can also add it directly to your portfolio if you’ve already started one.

As an instructor, consider how your existing assignments might fit into a scheme suitable for a course or program-level portfolio.

Claiming a UWGB Subdomain & Installing WordPress

One way students can create an ePortfolio is by building a UWGB-hosted WordPress website in which they can add pages, images, documents, and other educational and professional artifacts. This starts with claiming a UWGB web domain and installing WordPress. The steps for doing this are available in this document.

Below are some examples of student portfolios built in this way:

Stay in touch.

Have you or your program used ePortfolios in the past? We’d love to hear about your experiences. What tips do you have for other instructors starting out with this sort of assignment? Or perhaps you’ve never used ePortfolios before, but are thinking about incorporating them into one of your courses—what questions do you need answered to get started?

Drop us a line via email or comment below!

If you’re interested in beginning a portfolio project in your course, request a consultation with CATL and one of our team members will get back to you about how to get started if you would like some guidance.

 

Up and Running with Remote Group Work

A Case for Group Work

Group work can elicit negative reactions from instructors and students alike. Often enough, students groan about doing it and instructors dread grading it. The process is ripe for communication breakdowns resulting in stress from both perspectives. On top of this, the digital learning environment tends to compound these issues. Why then is group work so prevalent?

The answer is that, when done well, group activities help foster engagement and build relationships. Collaborative work helps students develop important skills like effectively articulating ideas, active listening, and cooperation with peers. Collaborative assignments correlate strongly with student success positioning them as one of eight high-impact practices identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Making group work a worthwhile experience for students requires extra consideration and planning, but the positive gains are worth the effort.

Designing Group Work for Student Success

How can we design collaborative activities that are a quality learning experience for students? Scaffolding makes sure students are confident in their understanding of and ability to execute the activity. UW-Extension has created a helpful guide on facilitating group work that outlines three key suggestions to get you started. First, be sure students understand the purpose of the activity, in terms of what they are supposed to learn from it and why it is a group activity. Second, provide support so students have the necessary tools and training to collaborate. You are clear how and when students are to collaborate or provide suggestions. You ensure students understand how to use the needed technologies. Finally, providing opportunities for peer- and self-evaluation can alleviate frustrations of unequal workload by having students evaluate their own and their peers’ contributions. As challenges arise, guide groups toward solutions that are flexible but fair to all members. When embarking on group projects, be prepared to provide students with guidance about what to do when someone on the team is not meeting the group’s expectations.

One example of this as you design your group projects is to ask yourself whether it’s important students meet synchronously. If so, how might you design the project for students with caregiving responsibilities or with full-time or “off hours” work schedules? These students may not be able to meet as regularly or at the same time as other students. See below for how this might play into assessing the group project. You might also consider whether all students need to hold the same role within the group, or if their collective project be split up based on group roles.

Consider how the group dynamics can impact student experiences. Helping students come up with a plan for group work and methods of holding one another accountable promotes an inclusive and equitable learning environment. Consider any of these tools to help your students coordinate these efforts:

Assessing Group Work

Equitable, specific, and transparent grading are crucial to group-work success. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence of Carnegie Mellon University has a great resource on how to assess group work, including samples. This resource breaks grading group work down into three areas. First, assess group work based on both individual and group learning and performance. Include an individual assessment component to motivate all students to contribute and help them to feel their individual efforts are recognized. Also assess the process along with the product. What skills are you hoping students develop by working in groups? Your choice of assessment should point to these skills. One way to meet this need is to have students complete reflective team, peer, or individual evaluations as described above. Finally, outline your assessment criteria and grading scheme upfront. Students should have clear expectations of how you will assess them. Include percentages for team vs. individual components and product vs. process components as they relate to the total project grade.

Tools for Working Collaboratively

Picking the right tool among a plethora of what is available is an important step. First, consider how you would like students to collaborate for the activity. Is it important that students talk or chat synchronously, asynchronously, or both? Will students share files?

The following suggestions include the main collaboration tools supported at UWGB. Click to expand the sections for the various tools below.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these tools, consider scheduling a consultation with a CATL member.

Canvas discussions are one option for student collaboration. Operating much like an online forum, discussions are best suited for asynchronous communication, meaning students can post and reply to messages at any time, in any order. If you have groups set up in Canvas, you can create group discussions in which group members can only see one another’s posts. You can also adjust your course settings so that students can create their own discussion threads as well.

If you’ve never seen VoiceThread, imagine a PowerPoint presentation in which students can leave audio, video, and text comments on every slide. It is a great tool for virtual presentations, as students can pre-record narration for slides and then embed their projects in Canvas pages, discussions, etc. to share with the rest of the class. Keep in mind however that it may take students longer to grow comfortable with VoiceThread than a tool like Canvas discussions or Office 365, which they may already be familiar with using.

Office 365 refers to the online Microsoft Office Suite, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Students can work collaboratively and asynchronously on projects using online document versions of any of these software, which updates changes in nearly real time. Microsoft Office 365 has partial integration with Canvas, allowing students to set up and share Office documents from within Canvas using the Collaborations feature. Students will have to log in to Office 365 through their Canvas course before they can use most features of Canvas and Office 365 integration.

Collaborate Ultra is one of two web conferencing tools supported by the university, the other being Teams. Collaborate Ultra has full integration with Canvas, meaning students can access meetings and recordings from within a Canvas course. As such, it is generally easy to for students to access and use. One downside to Collaborate Ultra is that it is a purely synchronous meeting tool, so students will have to coordinate their schedules or find other ways of including members that may not be able to attend a live meeting.

Microsoft Teams is a collaboration tool that combines web conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous text communications (in the form of chat and posts), and shared, collaborative file space. Students can create a new team in MS Teams for their group project or operate in a channel of an existing class team. Microsoft Teams also has partial integration with Canvas, meaning students and instructors can create and share Teams meeting links within the New Rich Content Editor of Canvas (in pages, announcements, discussions, etc.).

Putting It into Practice

When we ask students to work collaboratively, it’s important we reveal the “hidden curriculum” by building in the steps they should take to be a successful team. As a starting point, asking students to answer these questions helps clarify the work of the group:

  • “Who’s on the team?”
  • “What are your tasks as a group?”
  • “How will you communicate?” (Asynchronously? Synchronously?)
  • “How will you ensure everyone can meet the deadlines you set?”
  • “If or When someone misses a meeting, how will you ensure that everyone has access to the information they’ll need to help you all complete the project on time?”
  • “When will you give each other feedback before you turn in the final assignment?”

For a ‘bare bones’ group assignment, take the above considerations on designing and assessing groupwork into account and create a worksheet for the student groups to fill out together. Create a Canvas group assignment to collect those agreements, assign it some points that will be a part of the whole project grade, and set the deadline for turning it in early so that students establish their plan early enough for it to benefit their group. Scaffolded activities that give students enough structure and agency is a delicate balance, but these kinds of guided worksheets and steps can help students focus their energy on the project, assignment, or task once everyone is on the same page.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

Do you have some tried and tested strategies for helping students coordinate and complete group work online? Send them our way by emailing: CATL@uwgb.edu or comment below!

CATL Vlog: Make Your Videos Engaging

Our first blog post on videosUsing Video Responsibly, focused on some guiding best practices to consider when creating videos for your class. While the bulk of that previous post focused on ways to add low-bandwidth alternatives to your videos in order to make content accessible for students without reliable high-speed internet, the end of the post teased strategies for keeping your students actively engaged while watching the videos. We know that many of you have found ways to use video to not just share information with your students. You are using video to check comprehension, frame discussions, and support student success initiatives. Today, we’re following up on that tease and spotlighting some of the ways UW-Green Bay faculty are transforming videos from passive learning to active engagement with their students, and, to do it, we’re turning our blog into a vlog! 

Low-Tech Solutions 

The idea of adding engagement to your videos may seem daunting, but there are a few low-tech ways built right into Canvas that can make it easier. We’ll demonstrate how to use quizzes and discussion boards with video, and the CATL team would be happy to brainstorm solutions with you specific to your teaching style and course content.  

Student Success 

Another low-tech way to help your students engage with you and your videos is to teach student success skills. One of the challenges of teaching and working remotely is not seeing your students in person. It can be hard to have conversations about success strategies. But short videos on success tips specific to your class can help students engage with your course and feel supported by you, even when they are at a distance. This video specifically showcases notetaking of a video lecture, but you could build a library of short success strategy videos tailored to your class including reading and annotating texts, providing peer review feedback, posting to discussion boards, and preparing for exams. 

 

Medium-Tech Solutions 

Those who feel a little more adventurous and confident with technology, may want to explore two tools that integrate with Canvas. Both tools can take an existing video from your My Media library and add interactive elements to the playback experience, transforming that experience from passive to active. Instead of placing your video into an active context like a Discussion or Quiz as suggested above, these tools let you place the action into the video. The first tool we’ll demonstrate is Kaltura Video Quizzes, a simple tool built into My Media in Canvas that enables you to prompt your students with formative quiz questions in your videos. 

The next tool we are demonstrating is PlayPositPlayPosit takes the concept of in-video interactions and expands it far beyond what is capable with Kaltura Video Quizzes. It’s something of a Swiss Army knife for adding interactive elements to videos. PlayPosit introduces an in-video-player note-taking interface, in-video discussion boards, polling, attention-drawing video hotspots, and several additional quiz question types. Learn more about PlayPosit and how you can join UWGB’s pilot of the tool by watching the PlayPosit “bulb” below: 

UWGB started its PlayPosit pilot in Fall 2020, and it has already won over a couple of faculty champions. UWGB’s own Jolanda Sallmann, Associate Professor of Social Work, was kind enough to record a video testimonial about her use of PlayPosit for inclusion in our vlog. 

Going Deep 

There are A LOT of tools out there for working with video, and we want to wrap up this vlog by quickly highlighting a few more. Our last video shows two tools available for dipping your toes into the world of video editing and highlights toolthat can let your students comment on your videos with videos of their own. 

Stay in Touch!

We want to thank you again, in text-form this time, for reading and watching this vlog post. Please reach out to CATL if you have any questions about engaging uses for video in your classes. We’d love to hear about what you do with your videos to keep students engaged and what excites you the most about these strategies, so please leave a comment below, or check out the discussion boards in CATL’s Solidarity Café. 

A chat bubble made of yellow note cards

Connecting Online

By the time this post is published, we’ll be past the halfway mark of the fall semester. Adding the spring semester to this fall, that’s around a full semester of mostly online, virtual synchronous, and blended/hybrid instruction. These are instructional modalities that some instructors and students are disinclined to use. But here we are, nonetheless, making the best of things. Students are continuing their educational journey in what are for many new and uncomfortable environments, while instructors are wrestling with providing an equitable learning experience through technology and perseverance.

Illustration of a giraffe with text which reads "Giraffes have enormous hearts" and a speech bubble from the giraffe saying "I care too much."It is perhaps because of the focus on providing remote students all of the same information and activities that we can sometimes forget to include “us.” Online  education can often devolve into a series of tasks that one checks off. We meander into holding virtual correspondence courses, silently reviewing student homework, assessments, and discussion posts and assigning scores.

When we’re teaching in-person, having a side conversation with students before or after class or an informal chat during group worktime can be a trivial task to complete and also be rewarding for students and instructors at the same time. Office hours, although perhaps underutilized, provide another opportunity for ad-hoc in-person engagement with students. But what happens when we don’t actually see our students? Where do ad-hoc and interpersonal conversations go? Some people may argue the lack of that type of engagement with our students and them with us is part and parcel of online instruction.

Online students choose this environment.”

—Made-up instructor used for narrative purposes

Even if one does subscribe to that approach, the nature of our current educational environment includes many remote students who did not choose their current learning environment. They prefer in-person education, talking with their peers and instructors, and a structured educational experience. Online students prefer personal interactions with their instructors as well! In fact, it’s been shown to positively relate to student grades (Jaggars, S. & Xu, D., 2013)

So how does one recreate the feeling of connectedness, ad-hoc conversations, and interpersonal engagement with remote students? We’ve provided some examples of how instructors can do this while increasing their “there-ness” in courses, below.

Provide timely feedback on student work

Assignment and assessment feedback can serve double duty for instructors. First, feedback allows students to correct misconceptions, assess the amount of effort they’re putting into the course and perhaps increase it, and be better prepared for subsequent assessments. Second, feedback allows instructors to form an interpersonal connection with students. Depending on the subject matter and the course, feedback may be the only personal connection instructors form with students. Feedback can provide an opportunity to provide personalized instruction to students that may not be available through other means.

Consider including the student’s name when providing feedback, even if the feedback is somewhat canned. It personalizes the feedback, lets students know they’re “seen,” and communicates nonverbally that the student is “part of the community of people…” (Willemsen, 1995, p. 15). As Kent Syverud (1993) points out, “who is the one teacher in your entire life who made the biggest difference for you — who taught you so well that you still think about him or her as your best teacher. I bet that for almost all of us, that best teacher was someone who knew you by name” (p. 247).

An animated GIF of Fred Armisen in character toasting a bird on to a piece of bread.
“We put a bird on toast.”

Put a bird face (or voice) on it

Although not for everyone, instructors can add presence to their course through the incorporation of brief videos. We’re not referring to hour-long PowerPoint presentations, but rather short webcam recordings. These recordings can be used to introduce units, particularly challenging topics, or to serve as a way to deliver announcements to the class. In an example below, Prof. Matt Mooney (History at Santa Barbara Community College) uses videos at the start of a new modules to help students through sticky topics. Mooney visually communicates a historical phenomenon included in an upcoming module that students are known to struggle with.

An additional or alternative way to reinforce your course presence is through “video postcards.” The example below is from Fabiola Torres, Ethnic Studies professor at Glendale College, who uses video postcards to communicate with her students when she’s not readily available. In the example provided, Dr. Torres is at a conference and using her smartphone to record a brief message to her students.

Recordings like Dr. Torres’s reinforce to their students that their professor is in fact a real person and their course is not led by a robot. This process of “humanization” is shown to increase positive traits like trust and psychological safety in student-instructor relationships, which can help keep your students engage with the course long-term (Gehlbach et al., 2016).

For those disinclined to recording video of themselves, recording just audio may provide a happy middle-ground. Besides providing a human connection that written text cannot, audio recordings can also help prevent misinterpretations in tone that reading text can lead to. Because of this, audio recordings are often paired with feedback to students on their work. However, audio recordings don’t need to be restricted to feedback. Some experienced online instructors choose to use audio recordings throughout their courses to introduce topics, explain difficult concepts, and provide and additional way learners can engage with content.

Communicate regularly

Another way to engage and build rapport with remote students is through regular communication and announcements. This messaging can help students not accustomed to being in a less structured learning environment to stay on track, and also allow for ad-hoc responses from students that may be silently struggling. Irregular communication was identified as a large problem by students following the spring semester and is often over-looked as a simple way to address student disengagement and feelings of disconnection.

Some areas that can lend themselves well to regular communication are introducing new units or topics, shining light on a difficult concept or something that came up in discussion or through private communication, kudos to share with the class to call out quality student work and call out what quality work looks like for those that aren’t quite there yet, and recapping units that the class is finishing up to reinforce critical concepts.

Message students who…

When working with students in-person, it can be fairly trivial to let students know it would be in their best interest to contact you regarding their graded work. However, when teaching remotely this can seem much more challenging. Did they read the feedback that was provided? Who knows?

Regardless of whether they read your feedback, you can still make it clear they really ought to get in touch. This can be accomplished through the Message Students Who feature in Canvas. This feature allows instructors to message any students in their classes that meet certain criteria for a particular graded activity. Options include students that have not submitted anything for the graded activity, those that haven’t been graded yet, and those with scores lower or higher than a specified threshold. More information is available here.

Office hours

Although instructors aren’t likely to be offering office hours in-person this year, it’s still possible to hold “live” office hours through virtual meetings. Consider providing a recurring virtual meeting to your students during your scheduled office hours. This can allow your students to take advantage of the focused help that office hours provide, along with the non-verbal cues a video call can provide and include the tone missing from textual communication.

The meeting could be set up as a Collaborate Ultra meeting in Canvas, an open Teams or Zoom meeting link provided in your course, an Outlook Calendar invite to your students containing the room link, or through some other method.

If Discussions are used, use Discussions

The discussions area of Canvas can be another place where instructors can engage with their students. If you’re already using Discussions in your course but don’t participate, consider how you could. This provides another opportunity for students to connect with you as sage or guide and gives you an opportunity to turn the discussion in the proper direction when needed and correct misconceptions.

Sound like more work than you’d like to take on? It can be. That’s why it’s important to manage the time spent in discussions. Set aside twenty or thirty minutes a couple times per week with the intent of replying to discussion posts. In the time you’ve set aside,  post where you feel you’ll have the greatest impact, not in response to every student.

Two people looking at a digital display of information on flight times.

Make a schedule

Veteran online instructors often integrate a to-do list for their classes into their own weekly schedules. This can help in keeping oneself accountable and on task and help segregate class-time from other responsibilities. A schedule might include things like, ready/post in weekly discussion, make weekly announcement, contact at-risk students, send encouraging email, etc.

How do you “connect” with your students?

The information above is far from an exhaustive coverage of methods to make oneself visibly available and connected with one’s course. What methods do you implement? What has and hasn’t worked well? Questions about implementing something above or seen elsewhere? Drop by the Solidarity Café and share.