Many teachers, especially those who are new to online teaching, struggle to figure out how to connect with students. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares ways to establish a relationship and rapport with online students.
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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Every time I start to teach a new class, I remember the students I’m about to meet may not know anything about the subject matter, and they might not know me either. I probably have not met them yet, and I will need to get to know them quickly as we all get into the online classroom space. There might be many other things I want to think about as an online educator starting to teach a new online class, and maybe you have a long list of things you think about, too.
In my experience, I should pay attention to those thoughts I’m having before the first day of class and take action in the most important areas. That will make all the difference. In today’s episode, I’m going to walk you through key areas to address before you start teaching your next online class, and the number one most important thing to set the tone for the entire course session. You may be thinking, “It’s just an online class. What could there be to worry about?” And you would be right, you don’t need to worry. With attention to these key areas and the number one most important thing to address, you can have a wonderful online class. Pretty exciting, right?
Let’s get started with some of the questions I hear most often from online educators.
- What do my students already know about the platform, and how am I going to help them find their way around the class?
- How do I get to know students online?
- What is the best way to contact my students so I know they are getting my messages and announcements?
- How do I get my students help when their technology isn’t working, or when parts of the course aren’t working for them?
- What am I supposed to do when my technology isn’t working for me? I don’t want to look bad in front of my students, but I know I don’t know everything about the technology either.
- How do I help students get excited about this class if I didn’t write the course, and it’s not exactly organized how I would have created it, if it were up to me? After all, what should I do to try to get excited myself about the class?
- If I get it all wrong and just don’t know how to teach online very well, what is the most important thing I should pay attention to?
These seven big questions land into three different areas, and I’ll walk you through these one at a time.
Focus on Communications in the Online Class
First, there are key elements to include in your initial communications, and those communications can include a welcome message sent before the first day of class, a course announcement published on or before the first day of class, and your introduction provided in the online classroom. These communications will focus on answering four of the important questions I hear most often from online educators.
That first question was, “What do my students already know about the platform, and how am I going to help them find their way around the class?” I like to assume that my class is always the very first course they are taking at my university. This way, I provide the kind of guidance a new student really needs. The experienced students can skip past these items, by including them I guide the new student into a successful start.
If my class really is the first one they are taking, it’s common for this student to know very little about the platform and nothing about how to get around the online classroom. I solve this by giving them a video walk-through of the space. This can be done with Screencastify, Loom, Kaltura, Camtasia, or any other video-making app. I have a few earlier episodes of this podcast that focus on making videos in detail, and I encourage you to take a look if you’re interested in more details on how to do it.
My walk-through video is going to be narrated by my own voice to start the relationship with my student, and I’ll show them where to click for the syllabus, the lessons, the discussions, the assignments, and everything else. I’ll usually end this walk-through by showing them exactly where to go to start their first bits of work in this class.
Some schools and universities have their own orientation videos to the platform, in which someone more generically guides the student through the online classroom space. If you have access to one of these and are short on time, you may be able to link to this or embed it into your classroom to save time. If you choose this option, I suggest putting a copy into your welcome message and your first course announcement, and then emailing both of these to your students for the special needs of newer students. After all, if they are less familiar with the platform, they are not going to know where to find the walk-through video if it’s hidden in the classroom.
While we are still talking about those initial communications, I’ll point out that the welcome message greeting your students before the first day of class is one key element for a great start. And, the first week’s course announcement is another key element. Both of these should include details about what students can expect, how to get started in the class, and how to contact you when they need your help. And, in both of these areas, you can find out how you can best contact your students to know if they are getting your messages and announcements. All you need to do is ask them to email you a short message to let you know they received that first communication, so that you know it’s a good way to reach them. And, of course, you’re going to have to follow up with those who don’t connect with you and keep trying different methods until you get it right.
Before your class begins, you have a little more time to find out who to contact about technology problems your students will have, and those technology problems you might have during the course. You can contact the classroom support department, or a help desk, or if you’re really not sure, the faculty HR department to find out who to contact. Believe me, you will need these contact phone numbers and links before that class starts because once class is in progress, you won’t have as much time to try to find out who to contact. You can share the tech department contact information with students in that welcome message and the first announcement, to put them at ease and get them focused help. This is time well spent. Trust me on this one.
One additional tip I have for you is to build relationships with colleagues and supervisors in your institution. You might not know everything about the technology and can get some great ideas from these people who are in the same boat with you. It’s always better to get the help you need to make technology work for you, so you can continue to be effective with students and focus on relationships with them, rather than learning the technology. And if you are still learning, don’t be afraid to tell your students just that. That you are still learning a few things in the online space, so you know how they feel being in learning mode—you’re right there with them. Owning this helps you encourage and connect with students, instead of making excuses and feeling like it’s totally out of control.
Ways to Get to Know Students
The second question online faculty ask is, “How do I get to know students online?” If you’re very experienced teaching face to face, it might seem like online classes couldn’t possibly bring you the same relationships and connections you might get when you’re in the same room with your students. But with some creativity, you can. Answering the question means that you’re going to think about the type of activity you might use to build rapport and relationships. And, you will also consider what kind of technology will make that happen for you. Will it be live, synchronous video meetings? Asynchronous video clips posted in the discussion space? Images each person posts, with some written introductions?
A basic way to get to know students is to think about what you really want to know, and then ask. And be sure to share it about yourself, too. I’ll give you an example of this. When I’m teaching music appreciation online, I like to know about students who have heard traditional music in other parts of the world. In my own introduction, I’ll tell them that I went to Brazil for a music teacher conference and describe some of the instruments I saw and heard. And I tell them that when I went to that same conference a few years later in Scotland, I saw informal groups of people in local pubs playing instruments and singing together. And I also saw a man in a Scottish traditional kilt standing in the center of town playing the bagpipes. And this man had a fancy attachment on the top of the pipes that made fire come out of them.
After sharing these examples, I ask them whether they have traveled, and if so, what kinds of music they might have noticed in other parts of the world. In the process of talking about the music, students who are musicians will usually share that information, tell us what they like to sing or what they like to perform, and what instruments they play. And some will even share sound clips or videos of themselves creating music. This is the beginning of getting to know my students in the online space, and we’re going to keep building on that each week in our discussion. Ultimately, to get to know your students, we have to be willing to share who we are as human beings, and invite them to share a little that brings them into the class and helps us see them as human beings, too.
When I get to know online students and bring in details about the subject we are going to study in the course, this can generate some excitement for the class. I know, it’s sometimes very difficult to get excited as the teacher if you didn’t write the class and you’re teaching what we call a standardized online course. But you can bring in those things that do excite you about the topics and the subject matter itself, and weave them into your weekly approach to that class, even if the structure of the class and the main content cannot be changed. By finding ways to relate to what you’re teaching, you will have a better chance of getting students excited about that class. And this will build positive momentum to help you keep going each week, and to help your students want to complete that course successfully.
I’ve shared some ideas here around getting ready and jumping into the first week of class, and about guiding your students around the course. And, I’ve also touched on some ideas to help you get relationships going with your students and with a course you didn’t create. In the end, some of you listening might be thinking, “If I get it all wrong and just don’t know how to teach online very well, what is the most important thing I should pay attention to?”
The answer is that the most important thing isn’t a thing at all. It’s the people on the other end of the screen. Your students are all there for a reason, and they all have their own, individual needs and challenges while they are in your class. They need support, encouragement, and above all, understanding. When you’re struggling to get through to them, remember that they are human beings who want to be successful, and they need you. Even if you have no strategies for communication plans, and you don’t know exactly what the best ways to reach your students are, if you stay in touch with empathy for your students and really want to help them, you will do well in all of your efforts. You don’t have to get everything right, and you don’t have to be perfect. But there is no replacement for caring about your students and being kind in your approach.
As you focus on the people you’re working with, this will invite you to sometimes be more flexible with them, or give them a few more resources to guide them. And maybe it will mean that you pick up the phone and try to reassure them when you’ve noticed that they didn’t log into the class at all this week.
Whatever you feel inspired to do in your care for your students, acting on those ideas will make you an excellent online educator. It will also help you enjoy teaching. Because the focus isn’t going to be about you and whether or not you’re doing it right. The focus will be on your students, and how you can guide, support, and love them. And as you prepare to teach your new online class, getting to know and caring about your students really is the most important thing.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.