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This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education 

Efficiency is important, but online educators must be mindful not to sacrifice student relationships for the sake of efficiency. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares eight strategies to consider when working to improve your efficiency while also building relationships and connections with 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.

Hello, there, I’m Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’m here to talk with you today about a common online teaching dilemma. That is the difference between efficiency strategies and personalization in online teaching. I’ll cover that pair of topics that seem to be in opposition, and then I’ll offer eight ideas to help you streamline special student populations and strategies.

We all know that online teaching can be done anytime and anywhere. And for that reason, many people actually do take their computer just about everywhere they go. Perhaps we’ve got that laptop open while the family is watching TV for the night or hanging out together. Maybe we take it with us or use our smartphone to access the university or school app. And we probably post in discussion forums, answer questions, and meet students’ needs at all hours of the day and night. I’ve been there myself having taught online for 12 years, I have experienced that kind of feeling where it’s great to have the freedom to take your devices everywhere and really be prompt in your responses. And it certainly cuts down on the workload when you’re back in that online classroom. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

The problem is when we’re working anytime, anywhere, the other people in our life get the message that they’re no longer important to us, because while we’re with them, we’re working. Even if we’re sitting next to someone on the couch chatting and we just happen to glance at our smartphone and see a message from a student and answer it. That’s just interrupted the relationship at hand. An unanticipated outcome might be that our lives fall apart because we’re teaching anytime, anywhere or all the time and everywhere. And really, it’s about the work life balance and strategies to maintain efficiency so that we can do a great job, to meet our students needs and really help them along their path of learning without overwhelming ourselves or destroying all of the time outside the workday.

The idea that online education can kind of permeate everything we do, it makes me a big fan of efficiency strategies. I’ve also presented several sessions at conferences and university webinars at my institution about this. And in my full-time job, I have in the past led large teams of online faculty and coached many of them on efficiency strategies.

One of the tips I regularly offer is to always have at least one day of the week where you do not check your messages or go into that online classroom, because we need to refresh. That that gives us renewal, and we need the space away from the classroom.

While we need work-life balance and presence in our personal lives, there are many strategies and tools now available to help us to become more efficient in our online teaching and do things in ways that reduce the time we spend doing it. At the same time, the most important part of any kind of education is connecting with the learner himself and herself, connecting with that person that we’re teaching, and the whole group. And ensuring that those people are having a transformative experience, that they’re learning, that they’re growing, and that they’re feeling connected to us as their mentor and teacher, and really getting somewhere with their education. That flies in the face of setting limits and using efficiency because efficiency by its very nature can often use strategies that sort of depersonalize our online teaching approach.

And efficiency is all about speed and effectiveness, running through things quickly. So, I advocate efficiency strategies with relationships in mind, those relationships we have with our students who are critical. And we should not sacrifice the relationships in the name of efficiency.

When I talk about relationships with students, what I’m referring to is the connection in the classroom, but also the availability we have outside of the class. And where does that availability show up online? It can often show up in the message area of a learning management system, it can show up in your email, it can show up in a question area. It might also be that we’re picking up the phone to speak with a student or while we’re video chatting, or maybe we have an open office hour where we have the video open, whether it’s Zoom or some other platform.

So, there are a lot of ways we can connect with our students well formally and informally. The critical element is that they feel they can trust us and know who we are. They’re feeling guided by us. And we’re taking the time to actually learn what their needs and challenges are and see them as people not just names flying through the classroom.

Now, if you moved a live class online recently, you might already have a physical, face-to-face relationship with your students. Unless you have a super large class like a lecture-style class. So, if you have a small group, even up to 30 people, chances are you know who they are and you may already have that rapport. But what if you’re just teaching online for the first time, and have never met those people in person? That takes a little bit more effort.

Some of those things that we do to get to know our students in those circumstances are going to happen entirely in that online space. We might have like an icebreaker discussion or an introductory discussion during the first week, where people can share things about themselves. And we can get to know them better. In situations throughout the class, we want to look back over that discussion and remember who they are, where they’re living, what their situations are.

In a class I’m teaching right now, I made a list of my students in a notebook and added comments to help me remember their preferred names and other details that might be relevant like where they are living, whether they mentioned that they are working or serving in the military, and what they are majoring in for their degree.

And if a student comes to us with a special circumstance, like an illness, or an emergency, that’s something I would take the time to make a note of that. So, I can be more sensitive in the way that I follow up about assignments or outreach efforts.

Balancing the personal connection we make with people, and the efficiency strategies is really kind of the happy medium, the teeter totter of online teaching.

Now that we have touched on this basic area, I’m going to share a few things about working with special kinds of students or special situations. And some of this is based on my own teaching experience and expertise as an online educator, as well as my years of supervising and observing online faculty.

So, a lot of times in my previous supervisory role, I would occasionally receive a student complaint about something and through the investigation of that complaint, it might have come to light that maybe the student misunderstood, or the faculty member was not clear, or something happened in between. It regularly seemed like a lot of those things could be alleviated with a proactive approach to meet people where they’re at, recognizing that not all students are at the same stage of life or readiness for the online class. In fact, there are eight special situations that might each require a different type of response in order to more effectively work with the student in a positive relationship and also manage your educator’s efficiency strategies, these range from special student populations to teacher practices.

The eight areas I’ll mention today include:

  • Adult learners
  • Students with disabling conditions
  • Communication plans
  • Reaching out to missing students
  • Guide students with time and task management
  • Notice students new to the subject matter
  • Plan ahead to accommodate potential interruptions
  • Expect challenges and misunderstandings

1. Adult Learners

Adult learners are actually a lot different than younger students. When we have a population of say, 18- to 20-something-year-old students that we would call our traditional students, these people typically come right out of high school and go to college, or they might come just within a few years. They’re fairly young. And often they’re already in the mindset for learning. So, they know what to expect about schooling because they’ve recently been involved in school. And maybe they’ve even prepared for college and set a goal to get there. Now, of course, that’s not everyone, but that’s kind of a general understanding.

An adult learners, in contrast, are 25 and up. But we find that like the average is usually in the mid-30s and older. The university where I teach, we do have a large population of adult learners. So, I have a lot of experience with the stories they bring and the ways they learn and also their chief concerns, when they have concerns, about teaching and learning in the online classroom.

To help adult student online learners, first, I would make a screencast to walk through all of the critical parts of the classroom before the first day. There are a lot of free apps out there, such as Screencastify and Loom. Both of these have free options and are worth exploring to help you record classroom video walkthroughs and to show students where discussions will be held, where announcements might be, where assignments can be found, and the main way to contact you. All students really want to know how to contact you and what they need to turn in for credit and for a grade, not only adult learners. But creating a video guide is especially helpful for this group.

Another thing I suggest throughout all the classes you teach, if you do have adult learners in your classroom, is to provide step-by-step instructions for everything, so they understand exactly what the process is going to be as well as the purpose of the assignment. Explaining the learning goals and objectives and how the assignment will meet their own goals is important because adults want to know the value of every activity. They really don’t want to do anything that would be considered busy work or work without a clear purpose. It is a waste of time for them and to make it meaningful and to get their buy-in, all you need to do is tell them what it’s for and what it’s all about. It’s really that simple. So, helping them out by seeing their needs and giving them those step-by-step instructions and video guides will go a long way towards helping adult learners.

2. Students with Disabling Conditions

Students who have disabling conditions or need accommodations vary in their needs, and some students will come to you with accommodation requests from a Disability Compliance Office. Or maybe a student will just tell you they need something broken down into steps, they need an example, they need additional help. But either way, you will have students who might need this kind of help because either the student will tell you or a disability office representative will tell you.

One way to help them is to get to know them and what their needs actually are. Another way to help a student with a disability is to observe the way they’re participating in learning activities and the way they show up in your classroom. Do they log in every day? Do they participate in dialogue? Do they post close to the end of the week? Do they seem like they need a little additional time with things? The more observant you are about all of your students, the more you can connect with them and help them. And students with disabilities especially need your help because you’re the first point of contact and noticing what kind of help they might benefit from. And, also, they’re expecting you to be kind, kind and alert to their needs especially if they’ve communicated those things. So definitely work to be aware and observant.

Anyone who does have a clear need for accommodations of some kind will benefit from your regular outreach and your follow ups. It’s not only going to help them academically, but it’s going to make a huge difference in their lives, as knowing you’re a person who cares about their wellbeing and cares about their learning. We all need that, don’t we? And then lastly, if there is a disability plan given to you, no matter what age level or grade, it is very important to follow that disability plan. It’s critical and can actually be a legal compliance issue.

3. Communication Plans

Communication is a third area when you’re trying to assist students who might need additional help in your online classes and get that personal connection so that efficiency strategies can work and not distance you from your students. Communication plans help you connect students to anything out there that’s going to help them be part of a community, and to give them support services, like tutoring and writing labs if they exist. If they don’t exist, there are a lot of things you might find on the internet you can refer them to. And it’s definitely worth your time to communicate those out. Now is a great time to think about different kinds of tools and things that students can benefit from and communicate those things to your students.

Another communication consideration is to provide coaching-style comments, in your announcements, in your messages, and in your feedback on assignments and other things. Every time you communicate with students, communicating with them as a coach will remind you to include tips on how to be a great student, how to plan ahead for the next assignment, how your students can check in with you about how they’re doing in the class, how to prepare for whatever they’re going to do with this knowledge, and many other topics.

Coaching type of behaviors can include addressing things we consider soft skills, whether it’s communication habits in the discussion area, or it could be professional skills like time management and how to format assignments for professionalism. But all these kinds of things you share with students will help them in life and work and definitely in your class. If you can share them in an encouraging way, it goes a long way. If it’s just critiquing and feedback, it kind of misses the mark. So, tone is very important in the way we communicate to all of our students and especially when they need our help.

4. Reach Out to Missing Students

A fourth thing to think about when assisting students online, is missing students. It’s a best practice to contact everyone individually during the first week of your online time together. If you’ve just recently moved a class online, and you haven’t had a chance to check in with everyone, now would be a great time to do that. If your class started out online, hopefully that happened during the first week of class. I know a lot of folks who would like to use the first week for an academic assignment and an academic topic in the discussion area. If you do that, you still might add something separate that allows people just to socialize, to get to know each other and share a little bit of something so that they feel kind of special and actually look forward to being with others in the class. Finding a way to connect everyone builds the community feeling and it sets the tone for the rest of your class.

After week one, some students may slack in their participation or disappear from your online class with their name still showing up on the roster. Another best practice is to reach out by email, message, or telephone to contact students if they disengage in the class. So, after the first week is the best time to begin looking for abnormal participation or missing students because online a lot of time can pass before we might otherwise notice a disengaged student or reach out. And when the student stops participating, they might feel like they are quickly falling so far behind, they lose hope about being able to catch up or complete the class. Any time you start seeing people disengage in a class online, that’s a critical time to reach out, whether it’s a message or a phone call. And this contact can make all the difference. And at lots of schools, there is an advisor somewhere to whom we can also forward that student’s details to ask for some backup, some support.

I’m currently teaching an online course that is in week 3 of the class. And it’s my habit to write down students’ names and a few notes that help me remember their unique situations. Along with that, I’ll write down whether I connected with each student during the week to be sure that every two or three weeks I’ve had a substantial connection, replied to their discussions, or had some other method of engaging. And in my current class, I noticed one student did not participate in the week 2 discussion. At the beginning of week 3, I sent her a note to tell her that I missed her in the discussion and ask if she needed help. Within a day, she replied with an explanation of some unexpected things that kept her from class and she committed to be more involved. And she did a very nice job of participating in the third week. I’m not sure what her participation might have been like without the outreach, but I feel good about helping her reengage and believe that the contact made a difference.

5. Guide Students with Time and Task Management

Another thing that we can do to help our online students in a personal way, while we’re coaching them and helping them, especially if they are new to online learning, is we can help them with their time and task management. Time management has to do with how students are regularly entering the online classroom, completing their learning activities, and managing their discussions and other assignments.

And task management is how students break down the things they need to do to get them done. An example of this might be when you have to read 100 pages, you might have to break it down over two or three days if you don’t sit well and read for hours. If you’re going to do a big assignment, you might have to break that task down and work on a draft, and then an outline, and then write the entire assignment. We can go a long way working with our online students in managing time and tasks.

In this area, I would suggest that you give a sample work plan in weekly announcements so that your students kind of know what to expect. At one institution where I was a part-time faculty member, I used to give them Monday through Friday outlines. On Monday, I suggest that you read this and take this quiz; on Tuesday, I suggest that you do this; by Wednesday, I suggest you post in your discussion forum and take the second quiz. And everything’s due by Friday. But I would give these suggested days to kind of break it down for them.

And I had a lot of students thank me and tell me that they really appreciated that kind of support and suggestions because they weren’t necessarily good planners. And it was very helpful to see how it could look. Other students didn’t need it and probably disregarded it and did it their own way and that’s okay too. But giving that kind of help for time, and task management is definitely a real benefit to help all types of students succeed.

6. Notice Students New to the Subject Matter

We also have, whatever the subject matter, students newer to the subject area and how they might struggle on the class. In my subject, music appreciation, I provide students who have absolutely no music background or experience with additional links and video guides to help them better understand terms like tempo, melody, and harmony. And in your subject matter, whatever it is you’re teaching, there are going to be folks that are familiar with the subject matter or very good at it. And there are always going to be people who are either anxiety riddled about what they’re going to learn, or they just are inexperienced in that subject matter. So, whatever it is, provide ample resources to define, illustrate, explain, and teach basic concepts in that academic discipline. In my case, I would give a lot of music examples to find the music terms and kind of give some idea of how to use and apply them.

Another way to help students who struggle more with the subject area would be to provide live lecture opportunities. These could either be replacements for the week’s discussion, whether you give them the grade for being at the live lecture, and don’t have the requirement for the discussion or make the discussion optional for those who can’t attend the live lecture. Or you could do the live lecture and record it so that everyone who can’t attend can still get the information.

If you do a live lecture, then you can explain further on the fly. And you can give a lot more detail that people are going to appreciate later. And they can rewind and rewatch that. Most video systems now create transcripts for your live lecture, like Kaltura, YouTube, and others. And you can always turn on a dictation program on a smartphone while you’re doing your live lecture and it will take some dictation as well. I encourage you to explore live lectures. They really don’t always work well as mandatory measures, especially when people live in multiple time zones. But they can be a great way to support what you’re doing and to give additional help to those who are interested.

7. Plan Ahead to Accommodate Potential Interruptions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the students I taught were first responders, and so I expected that they might be intermittent with their participation and they might need extra time at the end of the class to finish. There might be interruptions where they’re not able to show up the way they would normally. But there are also other things, like there could be food or financial insecurity. A student might be a young person, if you’re teaching a lower grade group, they might just need a lot more help and be dependent on their parent or the others at home for their technology or for the time to get things done.

Many adult learners work while taking classes or may have unpredictable schedules. There are so many ways that things interrupt a typical online learner’s life. So, if possible, be flexible with your online learners, it doesn’t mean that you never have a late penalty and it doesn’t mean that you just let students do whatever. You can have guidelines and policies in the classroom and need to support academic rigor. But the more you can work with special situations, the more they’re going to learn that you’re human. And they’re going to get much more out of that experience with you. So, maintain some flexibility with students who have emergencies. And if needed, refer students out to their advisor, the counselor at the school you’re working with, or support services like the chaplain or advising or disability services, whatever seems appropriate and fits your situation.

8. Expect Challenges and Misunderstandings

And lastly, this should come as no surprise, but in any situation, there are going to be people who misunderstand us or take issue with what we’re doing. And I call those challenging students. So, a challenging student is someone who, in the teacher’s perspective, presents as being either argumentative or difficult, or maybe even hostile. And in my former role, as a faculty director, I saw students occasionally appear to be challenging. Based on my experience, the first thing a challenging student wants is to be heard and understood. Even if the message is coming across in a way that seems inappropriate. If we can focus on what they’re trying to say, before we address the hostility, then we can get somewhere because we’re seeing the student as a human being, and they know it. And we might learn something very helpful that de-escalates the entire situation.

Most of the time, I found that the student was very upset mainly due to one misunderstanding that continued over time and was never cleared up. When we focus only on the behavior, it’s very hard to turn that around and difficult to have a productive conversation. And it’s also difficult to make any changes. So even though it seems contradictory to what our instincts might tell us, I would suggest looking for the message first, worrying about the behavior second, unless it’s overly threatening. And then there might be other choices that need to happen.

I always recommend reaching out privately to a challenging student and not shaming them in a public discussion in an online forum form by calling them out in front of others, but actually sending like a private message, or just picking up the phone. And also model really professional and authentic responses and behavior. I see this kind of urge that online educators sometimes have when we feel threatened by someone’s hostility or disagreement or even just challenging a grade, it can be really easy for us to pull back and go in our box and get defensive. And then we’re no longer modeling what we want the student to be doing to us. So, it’s critical to not step back into that box and not get closed off. But really be open to still seeing the student as a human and really meeting them on that level so they can be heard.

And then consider your response before you send an email. Because especially if a student’s being very challenging, it can be difficult to think clearly. And something we might say that we think is coming across clearly actually could sound quite hostile from us. As you work with students who appear challenging, it’s also a good idea to involve your dean, principal, director, or whoever your manager or supervisor is, to seek support and advice. You have very likely a whole team of colleagues out there that you can reach out to. And if you don’t, and you want encouragement with what you’re doing, feel free to send me a quick email. You can reach me on my website at BethanieHansen.com and I’m happy to hear from you.

As we close out today’s podcast, remember that we don’t have to sacrifice connection and relationships for efficiency in our online teaching, and both efficiency and connection matter. When we plan ahead, what our strategies will be, we become much more efficient without losing sight of those we are teaching. And taking the time to get to know our students in the first week will help us carry that into the entire class. I thank you for being here today and I hope that you will share this podcast with your colleagues who teach online. We want to continue supporting online educators in their work and can’t do that without your help in sharing the podcast.

Take some time to subscribe for regular updates as our episodes come out each Wednesday. In the coming week, I wish you all the best in balancing efficiency and personalization in working with your students to ensure their needs are met and you are connecting with them on a personal level. I know it’s going to bring greater meaning and depth to what you’re doing in the online format and help you find more satisfaction connecting with those people you’re teaching. Best wishes in your online teaching this coming week!

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.