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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *