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#126: Tips for Educators Starting a New Online Class

#126: Tips for Educators Starting a New Online Class

This content first appeared on APUEdge.edu.

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

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.

#117: Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

This content first appeared on APUEdge.Com.

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

The goal of culturally responsive teaching is to help students feel more comfortable, connected and understood in the classroom. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides guidance to help educators invite students to share more about themselves, their background, and their culture to create a more inclusive learning environment.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

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.

Welcome to the podcast. Today we’re going to be talking about culturally responsive teaching and learning. Have you ever heard of this term? It’s sometimes abbreviated CLR, which would be “culturally and linguistically responsive” teaching. There are many different kinds of approaches and there’s a lot of information out there. So, I would just like to share a few tips and tidbits with you today, just to get you started on this topic.

The first tip is coming from a book by Shell Education called “50 Strategies for Your Virtual Classroom,” by Jennifer Jump. And in her book, she has a section called culturally responsive learning, if you have that book, it’s page 13. And I’m just going to quote her here. She says:

“Culturally and linguistically responsive teaching expert Dr. Sharroky Hollie (2020) defines a culturally responsive mindset in the following way: ‘Being culturally responsive is an approach to living life in a way that practices the validation and affirmation of different cultures for the purposes of moving beyond race and moving below the superficial focus on culture.’ When educators use culturally responsive teaching strategies, students are more engaged, which in turn helps them to be more successful, academically.”

So, there’s our start today, to be thinking about and talking about. The goal is to bring out students’ real identities and who they really are, to help them feel more comfortable, more connected, and more understood in the classroom. But I think it goes a little bit beyond this. And that is how we can appreciate and understand our students from whichever place they come from, and whatever beliefs they have, and whatever understandings they have. And we can also show up ourselves.

We, too, have an identity and a background and a culture that may be part of sharing. Maybe it’s part of our social presence; maybe it’s part of our invitation, to invite our students to bring in who they are and be themselves in the classroom as well.

And when we talk about culturally responsive teaching and learning, there’s an article out there by Laura Rychly and Emily Graves in the magazine, “Multicultural Perspectives,” volume 14, number one from 2012. I realize that’s about 10 years ago, but these concepts are very much relevant today. And I’m going to just read from the summary here some pertinent ideas you might care about.

“Culturally responsive pedagogy, as defined by one of the most prominent authors in the field. Geneva Gay (2002), is, ‘using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively.”

Cultivate Four Practices to Implement Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

So, we’re understanding that culturally responsive teaching and learning means that we are using some “teaching practices that attend to the specific cultural characteristics that make [our] students different from one another, and from their teacher.” Cultural characteristics might be things like our values, our traditions, and our language.

And those are kind of on one level, then if we go a little bit deeper here, we’re going to also can include the concepts of how we communicate, what we communicate, learning styles we might have; things that are traditionally done in our method of learning, culturally, might even include group versus individual work, for example. And also relationship norms. There are a lot of specifics from one culture to the next about how various relationships speak to each other, whether it’s teacher-to-student, student-to-peer, student-to-other leaders, etc.

Culturally responsive pedagogy means that our main objective is that we’re going to be able to reach everyone and educate everyone in the way that we can reach them best. So, in this chapter that I mentioned by Laura Rychly and Emily Graves, this is actually a literature review about a lot of different research that’s been done on multicultural or culturally responsive pedagogy. And there are four practices that come out, which I’d like to highlight for you here.

Being Empathetic and Caring

And that is first, that the teacher is empathetic and caring. And of course, that means that when we hear our students, when they communicate to us, we’re going to be able to validate their experiences, different from our own or similar to our own, it doesn’t matter. We can validate. Validating is just affirming and legitimizing that someone else’s experience is every bit as real as our own experience or someone else’s. So, all those experiences are valid, valuable and worth contributing. And, of course, we can give a lot of upfront instruction and guidance to communicate that empathy and that caring to all of our students and help them to know how to engage.

Be Reflective about People from Other Cultures

The second point that comes out from this article is that they are reflective about their beliefs about people from other cultures. And this one’s particularly important, it’s a pretty obvious point that we might have implicit bias about groups of people or cultures. Interestingly enough, we might even have biases about our own.

For example, if we find a student from our own cultural background, we might assume we know how they think and feel or what they might understand. And that’s really not true. We didn’t grow up with these people, we’re not in the same household, or even the same person that they are.

And as clear as that may sound, we want to question our assumptions about groups, about individuals and even about our own, when we run into students who come from similar backgrounds. There can be areas on which we can connect to students, but there can also be assumptions that are not correct, that become barriers if we believe these things. So, reflecting on our beliefs about people from other cultures is a solid practice that will help us with culturally responsive teaching and learning.

Be Reflective about Assumptions Regarding Culture

Third, they are reflective about their own cultural frames of reference. Again, looking at our own world from the inside out, and then trying to be objective looking from the outside in so that we can understand how we might present ourselves to others, and what assumptions we have.

Be Knowledgeable about Other Cultures

And lastly, that they are knowledgeable about other cultures. This requires a little bit of learning on our part. Those of you who have been to many places in the world, interacted with people of many cultures and backgrounds, you have already some helps in this direction. And if we’ve really developed over time in a single place, and we haven’t traveled much, or known very many cultures outside our own, this could be an area for growth. Something we need to stretch into and learn more about others.

There’s some data shared in this article about teacher characteristics for culturally responsive pedagogy that might be useful to you. There is a diverse student population across the United States that needs more education and education that reaches them where they are, especially our adult learners. Many people grow up into adulthood, and when they come to college, they’re already wondering, should they even be there? They’re wondering, is it a good fit for them? Can they do it? Can they make it?

And having some culturally responsive approaches in our teaching, meeting students where they are and learning what their needs are to best connect with them and help them engage in the discourse or the academic content, that’s going to help them a lot. So, we have some ideas around who we can be as teachers, what we can do to help reach students best through a culturally responsive approach, and then we also have some specific strategies we can use.

Try Strategies to Become More Culturally Responsive

The first one I already mentioned, validating our students. A second one would be affirming. Affirming means that we are just giving some acknowledgement to the student’s experience and allowing them the space to be who they are. We don’t necessarily need to correct them on what is right or wrong, based on their own background, but we do need to teach the content in a way that they can connect to it, use it, and grow from that content and from that experience.

Through validating and affirming students throughout the classroom and our activities, we’re going to be building relationships with them by showing them we care—that’s that empathy and caring that was mentioned in the teacher traits. And we’re also going to be able to build bridges from where we are or where our students are to where we are. So, we’re going to be able to help them connect to things that might be outside their norm, or outside their realm of experience.

Now, what we know about adult learners is that they want to bring their own experiences into the classroom. If we come at our teaching with a culturally responsive approach to teaching and learning, we will be expecting that and inviting it. And the more we can invite our students to be who they are to share their own experiences and we can be more aware of our attitudes, our cultural understanding, and also what our students may need to be invited out and share those things, the more we’re going to be able to build those relationships that support students’ learning and success.

Whether or not you already have the experience with culturally responsive teaching and learning, we can all start now and take the step to invite students to share. It’s something we can do through sharing our own background, through using culturally responsive language and the way we communicate that is inviting and open to sharing across students, and students to faculty, and faculty to students as well.

And we can also include resources, images, videos, from a variety of cultures. In selecting the materials that we put before our students, we can use largely diverse groups of people in those materials, and diverse approaches to give plenty of examples and things that students can connect to. The more we do this, the more we can celebrate the uniqueness of each person in our classroom and we can meet them where they really are.

Now, the more we think about multicultural teaching, or culturally responsive teaching, the more we can think about the invitation to have confidence and be oneself. There’s sort of a motivational framework that exists, whether you’re motivated to have a job, motivated to take a class, motivated to do anything, really. And the motivational framework has to do with being able to contribute, first of all, so you have some kind of special value there or meaning in the experience. And that would be a great foundation for culturally responsive teaching.

If students are asking the question, is this work meaningful to me? And if they’re able to say yes to that, then that means we’ve bridged that gap in some way or helped them to do so.

Secondly, is this experience going to give me a chance to develop? So, when we’ve reached our students in a way that connects to what they already know, and what they like to continue learning, and is somewhat in a context that meets them where they are, then they will continue developing and they will have that opportunity. So, we want students to be able to say yes to that question.

Third, am I going to learn new things? Which is different from developing, right? Developing means I’m going to grow as a human being. Learning new things could be skills, facts, information, schema, academic vocabulary, any of those things that they need to continue in depth, or breadth throughout their academic experience.

Fourth, will I have an opportunity for recognition and achievement? And that question speaks to their achievement in the course and their long-term connection to their career. Will students be able to pass this class? Is there enough information they can access that’s going to meet them where they are and bridge the gap for them, so that they can be successful?

If we find that students, for example, need some kind of vocabulary database, where they can look up the terms or some kind of tutor to help them revise their essays, or whatever it is. If we provide those things or give them connections to those things at the institution, then they’re going to have the opportunity to achieve in that course, to successfully complete the course, and have some internal and external recognition for their work.

And then lastly, am I going to be given responsibility? We never want a student to have the experience of just showing up and passively listening and walking away. We want to expect rigor and high performance from all of our students. If students are given responsibility for their learning and also expected to achieve at a high level, we maintain those expectations but scaffold the steps to get there. Now we’ve given students a really satisfying experience where they are expected to have some responsibility there and to work for what they’re doing, and to come away with a sense of satisfaction and achievement.

So, we have all these things that come together in culturally responsive teaching. And, in closing, whatever approaches you’re using to encourage your students to discuss their experiences and connect to their backgrounds and the depth of who they are, always remember to invite. Inviting is the best approach possible. The more you invite students to share these things and affirm and acknowledge them and validate them when they do share, the more open and accepting and inviting your classroom is going to be. And that’s going to be a positive experience for our students. That’ll get us a good start on the path of culturally responsive teaching and learning. Thank you for being here today. I wish you all the best 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 switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#114: Using Video to Provide Feedback to Online Students

This content first appeared on APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education and Dr. Sylvia Nemmers, Faculty Member, STEM

It can sometimes be easy for online educators to “hide behind a keyboard.” In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to STEM professor Dr. Sylvia Nemmers about how she uses video to engage her students, provide information and feedback, and build a stronger connection. Learn how she overcame fears of recording herself and realized that using video actually saves her time and makes her more efficient.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora

Read the Transcript:

Dr. 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.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We are here with my guest, Dr. Sylvia Nemmers from the school of Science, Technology, Engineering & Math at American Public University. So excited to have her today. And I would like to just welcome her, and we’ll jump right in. Sylvia, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Well, it’s really great to be here today. And I guess if I were to introduce myself, I would say I’m a person that’s always loved learning. I have a Bachelor’s and Master’s in biochemistry and a Ph.D in environmental chemistry, but I’ve also loved teaching. Of course, I’ve taught at the university level and at the graduate level, but I also homeschooled my kids. And a lot of my kids’ homeschooling happened when we lived overseas and it was distance or remote. So, I’ve really spent time trying to understand remote education as both the instructor, the parent, and I’ve taken courses online too, as the student. So, a broad look at different ways of learning and teaching.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Sylvia, thank you for giving us that little bit of background so our listeners know something about your orientation here to online. You really have a lot of experience and we’re so happy to have you today. Thank you for being with us.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Thank you for having me.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. I’m wondering, in your experience with online education, what is something that you see as a helpful tool that, say, the instructor could use to work with students?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Well, when I think about online education, or even starting from distance, because my kids, we lived in Greece and they were doing homeschooling in Greece through a U.S. program. So it was always engagement. And then we come to online and there is a better way to engage because you can have discussions with other students, or you can have assignments that get graded and feedback in faster than three weeks with the mail system across the ocean.

So, as we make these advances in technology, we have new ways of engaging. And, I think that in the last three to five years with COVID and everything that’s happened, our level of engagement and our technology has even advanced further. So, my theory on getting the most on education in an online environment is trying to stay as current as I can with what’s available and try to see how that can make the experience more fluid and more connected, because I think it’s connection to your students.

I mean, you’ve got to love your material, but you also have to know and enjoy your students. So, I have always tried to say, “Well, what’s new?” And, for me, video has been the thing. So, if I can make an announcement to my students using video, I can connect with them. They can see that there’s a person behind the screen and behind the keystrokes. And I can say in a video announcement in 30 seconds more than I would probably ever type, and I can deliver it with some perspective and some connection.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s fantastic.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: And then beyond a video announcement, I actually really love doing video replies on discussion. So, a lot of online learning is based on discussion boards. In fact, for a while there, when we designed courses, we were feeling that it was really necessary to have a discussion every week. This may or may not be the case going forward for the courses that different people teach or design, but discussion boards are a big part of a very typical online course.

So, when I’m in a discussion, I even do my replies using video. Again, a short video can say a lot. I can do more than critique, but I can pull threads in how this, whatever I’m talking about, might relate to their life if it’s a Gen Ed course, or to their career, if it is one of the more advanced courses.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: All right. And in what you’ve shared here, I heard three different things that I think I’d just like to circle back to you, if that’s okay? The first one was that you mentioned how important it is to really engage with online students. And I’ve had that experience too, both on the faculty side, on the student side, and really there’s no substitute for that sense of connection. Whatever’s going to bring it. So, I appreciate you bringing that out and that this is a tool for helping that to happen.

And second, you mentioned the announcements. Announcements might be an area that some of our faculty would be a little bit more comfortable, like a little blurb in an announcement video might be short, right? Two or three minutes talking about the week. Then when you mentioned discussions, I thought, “Oh, this could be a new area for many online faculty.” So, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about how those work in discussions and maybe what your response has been.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Absolutely. So, to be honest, we all need to have the balance of keeping our students engaged and keeping them successful and also we have our work-life balance. So, part of what I do with discussions is for my own benefit. In that, I can generally reply to discussion boards so much faster using a video reply. And, like I said, I feel like I’m getting more value for my minute, as well. But, what I’m really trying to do when I do those replies is let that student know. Let’s say they have a challenge in their work that needs to be addressed.

In addition to telling them, I would like to see you add this. I can also say, because doing that will give you a chance to find out this or gain this skill. So, rather than taking a long time, and it takes me a long time to type and proofread because as the instructor, I’ve got to have better grammar and put-together format than my students do, because I’m that role model. So, this gives me the efficiency, it gives me the depth of communication and the whole, I think, it makes for a better experience.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: It does sound like it would do that. And, I’m curious, from the instructor side. If we were not thinking about engagement alone and we were thinking just about efficiency, maybe how fast we can give that feedback to make sure we get to everyone. I know we have some faculty in my school who use Dragon Speech dictate. So, it’s Naturally Speaking, I think it’s called. And they’ll type something but if they use the dictation software, they’re going to have three paragraphs versus a couple of sentences and it’s still going to be faster. But then the video could also be used for that purpose. And, I’m curious, what would be maybe pros and cons of those two, if someone was considering those?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Well, I’m actually legally blind. I use more speech to text than most people do, to be honest. And one thing with speech to text is you got to remember to speak your punctuation. And, sometimes you’re saying the word two, like to, and it’ll give you another form of the word to, so you got to still edit that because it’s not always going to get exactly what you mean. Whereas, the video is pretty fidelic in having that fidelity to what you’re saying so I think that’s an advantage to the video. But, like I said, also the connection to your student, actually seeing you there is a big plus for this. And, I actually teach my students. The system I use does have the facility for students to create videos. So, I teach my students to reply on discussion boards using video as well.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. And then they can see each other. That sounds like a great perk of doing that.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Absolutely.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: A little more sense of who we all are. Have you ever been able to compare courses where you’ve done this with those maybe where you haven’t? And do you notice anything if you’ve had a chance to do that?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Definitely, anecdotally from students and from end-of-course surveys. I often hear students tell me that they have never had a faculty member do this before and how much they appreciated the connection. A couple of courses that I do this in also have a team-project aspect, which is a conversation for another day. But, by having teams be able to video each other and leave those video notes, it’s really improved the engagement.

I think it lessens any potential concerns that students have about an assignment when they actually hear the instructor speaking to them and knowing they’re dealing with a human. A lot of it is about connection. And while I don’t have any data that I’ve collected, numeric data, I definitely have that anecdotal response to the students that they really enjoy it.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I can imagine, especially when the rest of the space is a bunch of texts and images. It’s not as engaging as a real person. I’m just curious. We might have some people listening today to the podcast who are super nervous about getting on video.

I remember when I used to make videos for my courses, maybe 10 years ago. I would make a take, I would edit it. I would really get all dressed up for this video and it was a big deal to me. Now, maybe not so much and I’m wondering how we might coach someone or encourage someone to start doing this without all that stress and worry.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: That is such a good point. That is really a great point. I think for me, we’re doing this podcast right now, you and I. We’re having a conversation just like the good old days when we used to sit together and have conversations.

I think of my videos in this framework, in the good old days, actually I think these are the good old days. I really love distance education and reaching to students I would never be able to reach before. But, we used to know that we needed to teach at a particular time of day. And we had our hair brushed and we had some clothes on and we went and taught. We didn’t have a script, usually. We had a frame of concepts that we wanted to cover and we did that and it wasn’t recorded. I kind of keep that mindset.

So, when I’m doing my videos, I actually put myself in the mindset that I’m sitting and talking to my student, as if we were just in the classroom and I was giving them the same feedback. I don’t script it and I don’t over critique it once I’ve said it. As long as the message I was trying to convey got there. I mean, a kind of a plus, because I could hit restart and say it again and I do that occasionally, if I really missed my mark. How nice to have that option as opposed to when it’s directly face to face and you don’t have that “Whoops, can I repeat that?”

So, you’ve got the plus of being able to restart if you need to, but I wouldn’t be over critical. And I wouldn’t think of it as a production of a commercial, but more of a conversation that you’re having that’s going to have some bobbles and imperfections in it. And that helps me a lot.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. I appreciate that. And as you were describing this idea of just imagining having a conversation. It also reminded me of sort of a theme in media right now, where a lot of people are putting their own businesses online. And in selling those things, one of the themes is authenticity and showing their humanness. So, you’ll see a person who started an online business with a picture of their family or their dog or whatever. And if there are mistakes in a video, they just leave them, so everyone knows they’re a real person and it’s not just some canned thing that’s kind of generic.

So, I love the fact that you’re thinking of it as that conversation. No conversation’s going to be perfect and it’s going to be more authentic. And hopefully, that helps our listeners to relax a little bit as they’re making videos and not be quite so worried about the perfect presentation. I appreciate those comments, Sylvia.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I would say rather than thinking of it as a video, think of it as a communication tool.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. And are there needs for worrying about the captions on those videos? What would you suggest there?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Yes. And this is particularly sensitive to me because I have struggled in my life to achieve certain goals due to some barriers and accessibility that I’ve been able to overcome. So, definitely wanting to make sure that your videos are closed captioned is very important. If you are using an online classroom, many of them have video capture available inside of them, with the ability to close caption.

Certain things like Zoom or other commercially available things are also having closed captioning as a part of it. Because as we moved into this brave new world and using these types of things became more necessary, and we knew that we all needed to be able to meet these ADA expectations for closed captioning. And on that, just real quickly, a lot of people think that, well, the ADA captions have to meet a certain percentage to meet the rules for ADA.

And, in fact, I’m not an expert on this, I’m not saying it from that point of view, but my knowledge does extend to the point that what we need to do to make sure that our videos are compliant with ADA and actually useful for our students is that we’re using the most advanced technology available.

So, if you are using one of the larger providers of online classrooms or you’re using Zoom or YouTube or whatever is the major provider of these closed captionings, that is what is needed. If you used a particularly complex terminology and you want to ensure that it’s good that’s a great thing to review those captions, they all have that facility.

But, for the most part, relying on the advanced technology we have available will get you where you need to go. And I don’t want us to not embrace the facilities and the advancements we have in fear of not being able to achieve certain expectations because we can do both.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s very encouraging. And I appreciate you mentioning all that. Now, of course, some LMSs, or some learning management systems, have embedded video recorders. Our system we’re using at American Public University has Kaltura and it also has this space where you could record it outside the platform and upload it, and then there’s the video-note feature. Do you have any ideas about how someone might include a video if their platform doesn’t have a really great way to do it, or they need to think about bringing it in from outside their platform?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: Absolutely. This is not my area of expertise.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s okay.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: So, the best thing I can do is point you to the direction of our major providers, like YouTube and Zoom and the equivalence to these. Because they are doing this en masse and so they have very high standards that they’re holding themselves to.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. And actually, now that you’ve mentioned YouTube, I’m thinking of an instructor I noticed that was traveling, used a cell phone to create the video and then they uploaded it to YouTube and YouTube has pretty good captioning now. Might need an occasional edit, but it’s so much better. It’s come a long ways. So that’s another place where captioning could be automatic, but it does need to be proofed. So, yeah, good. Are there other ideas you have around video that you want to share with our listeners today?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I just would say, I think videoing as communication with your students is kind of like riding a bicycle. We all, at some point, we’re using our voices and our faces to communicate with our students in some form or another. And I think over time we’ve gotten pretty comfortable with our keyboards, but if we move ourselves back, you can do a recording with only audio. You can. It’s possible too, if that’s what you’re more comfortable with. But it’s like riding a bicycle. Once you get started with it. I was a bit hesitant at first, but once I got started, I just don’t go back. I actually, one last thing, I do my grades, if I have detailed grade feedback that I need a student to refocus, I do that with video too.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That’s wonderful. We haven’t really talked about grading feedback by video and I’ve seen a lot of different approaches to that. So, I want to just mention those for a minute. I did have a world language faculty member talking to the student, correcting a lot of pronunciation, because students submitted the video, so, he made videos in return that were quite effective in helping students figure out how to speak. It was a Japanese class, very, very helpful.

I’ve also seen people put the essay on the screen and use a screen recorder that also recorded the audio so they could walk through it and touch things with the mouse. And I’m curious, do you think that the assignment needs to be there? Is it enough just to have that video talking, what would be really the concern or the benefits or thoughts around that?

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I think the answer is it depends, as usual. Because, for example, we also, in our programs in STEM, we have had problems that students, they understood the concepts and the vocabulary. But, like you said, not the pronunciation because maybe they haven’t heard it. So, the more we can talk to our students using the language of the topic that we’re teaching, that helps them.

But, I think it really depends on the particular assignment that is being worked on. And the best thing is to just jump in and see what works. You may say, “Oh, that didn’t go as well as I want.” But guess what? The next time you do it’s going to go much better.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. Well, Sylvia, I want to thank you for being here with us today as our guest, talking about videos and using them in your online teaching. And, we’re going to have you back for a few more episodes in the future, which our listeners should return for and look forward to hearing from you. And as we close out, I just wanted to give you one more chance, if you have any final message for our listeners before we close our episode.

Dr. Sylvia Nemmers: I just want to thank you for having this opportunity to speak with all of you. And I think we’re an interesting bunch as educators because we love our topics and we love our students. And I love to be involved in helping everyone learn new ways to do it and listening to the rest of your podcasts, where I get to learn so much from all of your other guests. Thank you so much.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you. Thank you again for being here. We appreciate the message you’ve shared today and look forward to more. We’ve been here with Dr. Sylvia Nemmers from American Public University and we wish you all the best this coming week in your online teaching.

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 switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#110: How to Bring Creativity into Your Online Classroom

#110: How to Bring Creativity into Your Online Classroom

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

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

Creativity fosters learning so it’s important for online teachers to find ways to encourage creativity among students. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares ways to integrate creative approaches in the online classroom. Learn about designing open-ended assignments, being creative with assessments and more.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This is Episode Number 110: How to bring creativity into your online classroom. 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.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and we’re going to talk about one of my favorite subjects today, creativity in your online classroom. I love creativity. In fact, one of my favorite things is coming up with new ideas and trying them out.

We have to be careful about creativity. As instructors, if we’re too creative, we create a classroom situation that is not coherent for our students. Limited creativity on our part, when we’re putting the course materials out there, can be helpful. Use some creativity all the time in your teaching. Just don’t overdo it. Help things to have a focus so your students know where they are and what they’re doing.

Emphasizing Creativity in Students

How can we bring creativity out in our students? Let’s think about that. The first thing is to look at your classroom as an area where students meet each other and get together. How could you use that online classroom in a way that really fosters collaboration and creativity? Is there easy access to all of the materials? Is there a great way to put that out there that students will naturally navigate? What could you do that is a little bit different to make this even clearer in the next class you teach?

There are a lot of creative ways to do this. Some people do it through a roadmap that students follow where you just click the next thing and the next thing, and it sort of navigates, maybe there’s even a hyperlink that goes directly into the discussion and a hyperlink that goes directly to the announcements, the assignments, and all those things. Think about, likewise, how you navigate that with your students whether it’s through videos, announcements, or little things along the way to help them move from one thing to the next.

What about those students who love to choose the order in which they learn things? Is there a way for that week’s content to be a buffet from which they can choose instead of a sequential order? Some lessons do make sense that way. In fact, some courses can even be taught that way.

When there are themes or topics that don’t necessarily have to be sequential and they don’t necessarily build on each other, they could be chosen in any order. Then an assignment could be based on some of the basic principles, not on the content itself but on the skills.

So, think about your classroom as this communal area where people can access all of the things, and what kind of creativity can make that utilized in a new way? You can also ask your students what they think about your organization. Perhaps they’ll give you some suggestions and ideas that will really be wonderful and you can try out in your next class or in the next week of class.

Building Community in the Classroom

There’s another approach to this community that you can just view in the online classroom. That is to find ways for students to really kick off the week together. There might be an opportunity for you to have everyone do an icebreaker activity on the subject matter or some kind of an asynchronous game.

There’s an online app called Kahoot! where everyone can click on their answers in real time. There are other apps out there that do the same thing asynchronously. Mentimeter does that through the slide presentation and so does Poll Everywhere. I encourage you to check out creative apps and solutions that might allow you to have more community and also more creativity in the classroom generally.

Design Open-Ended Assignments

Another suggestion for building creativity in your online classroom is to leave your assignments open-ended. Now, that sounds a little wild and crazy, doesn’t it? Now, if you actually have your assignments open-ended, this means that students can choose the mode of expression. They don’t have to necessarily write an essay. You could give them several suggestions or several links to ways they could present the assignment, and then students could choose the mode that speaks to them the most.

Some might use the essay. Some might make a video. Others might record their own podcast episode. Perhaps they’ll create a slideshow. Maybe they’ll create something else that we haven’t even thought of here yet. Whatever it is, if you leave the mode of expression open-ended, then you can have the requirements of the content being demonstrated through that assignment and also how much they need to include and whether they need to discuss their sources or give personal opinions or things like that.

I always like to give examples of various formats of assignments whenever it’s open-ended, but there’s this danger when you do that. Some students will just copycat what you put in there. I’ve heard some instructors actually don’t give examples. They just leave it open-ended and list a few suggestions without showing what that might look like. For the creative students in your group, that’s going to be a real invitation, and they’re going to love that.

Change How You Think About Creativity

Third, think about creativity itself in a new way. Some people think creativity means it’s unclear, it’s hard to define, and it’s really just ambiguous and people are invited to invent things. I don’t think that’s really true. In fact, there’s some research out there that describes characteristics of creativity. They are fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and originality. It could be helpful to teach your students when you’re using creative approaches what creativity means to you.

Fluency

Fluency itself is a person’s ability to generate a lot of ideas, solutions, or responses. So, you might have an assignment or a discussion where that is the goal, to come up with a lot of potential solutions and a lot of ideas about a particular topic that you’re studying. Inviting fluency of this nature can really help students get outside of the normal line of thinking, stretch the boundaries, and seek additional learning on the topic. That’s something we would all love our students to do.

An example is when I used to be a music teacher live, face-to-face, I played a lot of recordings of actual performing artists on various instruments. For the jazz kids, I would play actual jazz artists like Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis and different people. I would encourage my students to find good examples out there and bring them into the class.

Pretty soon, my students were listening to jazz at all hours of the day, skimming through examples, finding selections, and bringing in new and different artists that we hadn’t met before, virtually, or on their MP3 players. So, the more you can help students develop fluency on the topic, the more they’re really learning and inventing new areas that they’d like to learn about within that subject matter.

Flexibility

Another characteristic of creativity is flexibility. This is a person’s ability to look at a situation from a different point of view. This is a really helpful skill in life, in business, in professional endeavors, in relationships, and in studying your academic content. The more you can see things from different point of views, the more you can see things with greater insight and greater perspective.

Elaboration

A third aspect of creativity is elaboration. Elaboration is a person’s ability to modify or expand an existing idea. This is known in the Clifton Strengths as the maximizer trait. Basically, we have an idea that we’re learning about and we could stretch it in some way, make it better, expand on that idea. Maybe we can apply it to something new or improve the quality of it. Whatever we’re going to do with elaboration, we’re really helping students to stretch their thinking and become, of course, more creative in the process.

Originality

Lastly, originality. Originality is a trait of creativity. In fact, most people think that’s what creativity is. It’s the ability to come up with a unique idea or a unique solution. So, this framework is going to help us teach our students to be more creative.

Believe it or not, creativity can be taught. It’s a skill that can be learned. I know some people think they are naturally creative. They grew up creative. Maybe they are not creative, something like that. Everyone has a belief about their own level of creativity or their ability to be creative. When you start to add more options about creativity in your online classroom, you help your students to grow not only in the subject matter, but in the ways they think about everything and the ways they live. So, bringing creativity in has so many benefits, and it really speaks to the whole purpose of education.

Now, here’s an example from an article in a book called “Teaching Strategies for the Online Classroom” by Magna Publications. This example is a chemistry instructor who could have students explain an oxidation reaction from the point of view of an electron, for instance. A history instructor could choose to focus on the elaboration aspects of creativity and have students outline a debate that argues both sides of a controversial topic.

An animation application, like GoAnimate. You can go to goanimate.com to check it out. Students could demonstrate their understanding of the course concepts while showcasing their creative approach. So, there are a few of the examples there from the article I’m looking at, and I encourage you to check out more options for bringing creativity into your online classroom.

Be Creative with Assessments

One area that we haven’t talked about is in the assessment area. Assessments don’t always have to be tests, and they don’t always have to be essays. Assessments are the opportunities for your students to tell you what they’ve learned. They need to demonstrate they understand the subject and they can utilize it in some way. So, they’re going to synthesize it, or they’re going to get creative with it, or they’re going to apply it. Whatever that is, the assessment should show their true understanding.

When you’re teaching online, sometimes we focus on objective assessments that are simply easy to grade. Online quizzes are like that. They can be automatically graded if you use multiple choice options. So, it’s easy to design modes like this, and it’s easy to automatically give the feedback, it reduces the instructor grading time.

However, when we use those options, we really reduce student learning down to some very basic modalities. If we include instead creative options, like students creating a video, building a mock interview, having a multimedia presentation, animating it in some way, creating an emoticon that describes it with some prose, some words that talk about it, or some other artistic work, we can really bring out more creativity in our students, and they can have fun while they’re doing it.

Be Mindful of Creative Elements

In closing, while you’re thinking about bringing more creativity to your online classroom, I want to caution you to be careful about your own exploration and what you included in the class. As I started with at the beginning of this episode, it’s really easy to make your online class so creative that it becomes a little chaotic for your learners. So, as you’re including creative elements, review it for cohesiveness as well and the learner’s experience.

You might have someone walk through that course and give you some feedback. Does it look easy to follow? Are the instructions clear? Can students tell what they’re supposed to be doing? Can they follow step one to step two and so forth? Can they figure out what they’re supposed to be clicking on and learning about and watching and doing, whatever that is?

If it’s super clear to your students, then you’re all set for a good experience, and you can run it and have students complete the course and take a look at their feedback. Of course, I always recommend getting student feedback along the way, asking them what they like, what they suggest improving, and what their experience really is so you can adapt. But for many of us, that can be challenging if you have a course that is completely written before you launch it. It’s very difficult to change that along the way, but you can modify it, make small changes, give it increased guidance through videos and announcements, and communicate with your students regularly to help them have an even better experience.

If you think about creativity as simply a method to help your students become owners of their learning, this becomes a really fun tool to use in your teaching. I hope you’ll think about it and explore what it might do for you and what it might do for your students. I wish you all the best this coming week, thinking about creativity in your online teaching.

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.

#109: How to Develop Your Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

#109: How to Develop Your Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

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

Building your presence and persona as an instructor is incredibly important in an online classroom. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about several ways to build your instructor presence. Learn about getting feedback to understand the perception of your personality, actively sharing elements of your personality with students, and making sure you are consistent with your established persona to make students feel comfortable with you.

Listen to the Episode:

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. 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.

Welcome to this week’s episode of the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m going to share with you three reasons we should care about our instructor presence in the online classroom, and also give you some tips on how to do it.

What is Instructor Presence?

The first idea is just to give you some sense of what instructor presence is. This is basically how you present yourself to your students when you’re in the online classroom. It’s a lot like getting into the live classroom. If you think about your presence as a person in the life classroom, you can consider things like how loudly do you speak? Do you come in, start class a certain way? Do you speak a certain way? Do you connect with students, use their names or address the whole group? Do you talk slow, fast, loud, soft, all those things?

When you’re doing this online, we don’t have what some might call that performative aspect of teaching. So instructor presence is the way you present yourself to your online students in the online classroom. We need to go through the steps of what that is just to make sure we know what the target is and how we can build it.

Now you should care about this for three important reasons. One of those is a category of things that everyone in online education cares about, from the faculty to the administrators, to the enrollment department and everyone across the university, and that is student retention.

Building Presence Helps with Student Retention

So, the first reason to care about your instructor presence is that when you have a clear and approachable instructor presence and one that students can connect with, you are more likely to help your students stay in class, keep coming back to the class, and persevere throughout the course. After all, we want our students to succeed and complete the class and keep going on to complete their college degree. If they feel like you care about them, and they get a sense that you’re approachable and able to work with them, they care to stay in the class. This can push them through tough times.

As an online faculty member myself, I’ve had that experience where a student disappeared in the middle of a class, and I sent a message to them to invite them back in, ask them if they were struggling, check in with them, and they came back. So, I know this can happen for you, it doesn’t always 100% happen, but when we have a presence that is intentional and inviting, we can help those students get back into the classroom, should they be struggling.

Enhance Community and Collaboration

The second reason we should care about this is really the sense of why we teach, and that is when you have a clear presence and you are present, you can pull your students together. You can encourage this collaboration, this cooperation, and this academic community that builds cognitive presence in your online classroom. And by cognitive presence, I mean, the work everyone is focused on in that online classroom really is aimed at the subject matter, the experience, the learning, and it’s not just a boredom experience for students jumping through hoops. There’s a real sense of focus and purpose in your online class. So, that academic community is the second reason we should care about instructor presence.

Build Trust with Students

Third, we want to build trust, and that is really a preventative situation. When you’re building trust with your students by having a clear presence, if something should go awry, if something should become unbearable for your student and they start to have problems when you’re present regularly and have a good, clear presence they can approach, they will reach out to you, and you can address problems immediately, quickly and successfully.

I have been a faculty supervisor for many years, and I could attest to the fact that when students knew their faculty members, they seemed much more likely to contact them when they had a misunderstanding about an assignment or about grading or things like that. And where there was less clear faculty presence, those comments instead often came to the complaints department or the appeals department, or somehow escalated to my desk. So, we can prevent that and help build trust, when we have a clear instructor presence. It’s a really good goal to be aiming for, for retention, academic community, and building trust.

How to Build Instructor Presence

Now, let’s talk about how to build an instructor presence. First, you want to figure out who you are as an instructor, as an educator, and then you need to decide what do you want to share with your students to connect with them, and how do you want to do that sharing? Last, find a way to make it part of your regular teaching routine.

There are some people who do this through videos and photos; some do it through sharing their personal and professional expertise; maybe they do video feedback, audio feedback, different approaches.

I know some faculty members who use other apps outside the learning management system like Smore, whatever it is that you want to do, you want to have a routine for that, and it will help you to build it into part of your day, and it won’t be so challenging to build that presence that is so critical to helping build relationships and developing success with students.

Let’s talk about the first one, and that is what your teaching persona really is. So you may not know who you are as an instructor. You know who you mean to be and who you are as a person, likely, but what do students actually experience when they’re in the class with you?

Get Feedback from Students

To know this, we need feedback from a variety of sources. When you’re teaching a live class, you can actually ask your students many times throughout the session or the semester, what their experience is. You can ask them what you should start doing, stop doing, or continue doing, what they like about your class, what they dislike about your class, what’s useful to them, helpful to them, or unhelpful.

There are a lot of ways to get that feedback. When you’re online, you can also use informal surveys during the class several times to get the same feedback. You could do this in the discussion area, if you’re comfortable with it. Say in week one or two, you could ask students to include, with whatever their topic is, some idea of how the course is going for them, how they feel they’re doing learning this subject matter, and what you could do as an instructor to help them all the more.

So, a lot of feedback will help you to determine what your teaching persona will be or what it already is. You can ask yourself, “How do my students describe my teaching? How do they describe their experience with me?” Talk to your students. Find out what they think about your teaching and the feedback you give, read your evaluations at the end of the course, those formal evaluations, encourage students to complete those.

There are so many ways to get feedback. You could also ask peers, supervisors, other people who are informed about online teaching to take a look around your classroom and give you some feedback and help you to focus on identifying what people experience with you.

Of course, peers and instructors that might observe you might do things differently than you will, and that’s okay. But the feedback really should be aimed at identifying your style, your persona, and helping you to know what that is, and then start doing it more intentionally.

A lot of online instructors that I know personally would like to describe their own approach as warm, welcoming, supportive, inviting, inclusive, approachable, fair, and clear. I’ve heard those terms a lot, and if that’s what you’re aiming for, getting this kind of feedback will help you to know if you’re on the right track.

When students give you informal feedback in a message or an email, that’s also really helpful in determining this. So, take a look at all this feedback, collect it over time, and keep looking at it to make sure you’re on the track that you personally want to be. There’s no right answer to this. There are also faculty who want to be very concise, direct, businesslike, and, in doing so, clear with everyone and equitable to everyone. So, there’s no perfect way to be a persona online. You just need to know what it is and think about that. Then you’re going to intentionally share this a little bit more.

Share Your Persona with Students

Once you have the clarity around how you appear in your online classroom and what your persona really is, you can state it upfront in week one. In doing that, you’ll be able to rely on the fact that it’s true. If your students tell you’re very accommodating, you’re very patient, and they love working with you. You can say that in your week one message, the next time you’re teaching online.

You can also continually reinforce it on purpose because you know, it’s part of who you are and who you show up as in the online classroom. You can add to this with videos where you’re talking about things in this way, photographs of whatever you’re doing, teaching or in your profession, maybe those things that you’ve shared that helps students get to know you. Like, if you love fly fishing, and you’ve mentioned it in week one, you could always put a picture of that in there. That helps you to appear like a real person, like the real person you are, and also to be vivid for your students so they get a sense of a human being behind the name.

Audio and video work really well, and of course, whatever tone that you like to use in your speaking, carefully convey that through the words that you use as well. Not everything comes through as well when you’re typing it online, of course. But if you can do those things that help your personality to come through students will get to know you through your words and through the media that you include. I love the approach of using a welcome video on day one or week one. Many people do that now, it’s becoming a pretty standard practice across the board.

When you share a video and introduce your students to you as the faculty member and then walk up around that classroom a little bit, it can really take the edge off for students. It builds trust right away because you’re giving them an introduction to you and the classroom, and it also helps students know how to get started from that very first day.

If you do this, I also suggest telling them where to begin in the classroom with their week one materials and also a general overview of what they’re going to learn in the class. What the main goals are of that class? If it’s a gen-ed class, general education, you might even consider discussing the category of general education that it fills and how it fills that category.

Anything you can do to tie what they’re learning to the big picture at the university, and the degree program and other places, you will be able to help your students to do that for themselves as they move through the course.

We occasionally hear complaints from students that they don’t understand why a particular assignment or approach is used in your online class. You can set that up in the beginning by giving those overviews of the subject matter in the classroom, and then reinforcing it throughout in your own way, with your own persona.

Consider the Font You Use

Another part of the way you show up is the font that you use when you’re typing. Now, this is an interesting thing. Handwriting when people are writing by hand, whether you print or use cursive, tells something about a person. There are handwriting analysts who look at your handwriting and can say things about your personality just by seeing it on paper.

For example, they say, when you’re writing in cursive, if the letters lean to the right, you’re a future-thinking, positive-optimistic person, thinking about possibilities. If they’re straight up in the middle, you’re a deliberate, thoughtful person that likes to consider things deeply, and if they lean a little bit to the left, the handwriting experts out there say that you might be looking towards the past a lot more. That might make sense for certain subject matters like maybe history. Maybe we’re reviewing the past a lot and that’s part of who we are.

Your handwriting says a lot about you, and so does the font that you use when you’re typing. If you change fonts often, it can be difficult to read, and you’ll want to test this out to see if the font that you choose comes up in every situation or if they have to be on a certain browser or something for that font to really come out. And also, how readable is that font? How large is it? How close together are the letters and the lines? Taking a look at that can help you to convey your personality in a specific way by using the kind of fonts that speak to you as well.

Create a Strategy for Conveying Your Personality

Lastly, I want to suggest that you consider a strategy for how you will convey your persona throughout your course. It’s kind of strategic planning in a business setting, thinking through however many weeks your class is, what things will you do in week one? What things will you do every week? What approaches will you take in discussions and grading that will convey your personality?

As you consider these things, write them down, make a plan, and then you don’t have to suffer from repeatedly making decisions about your personality or what you’re going to include. It will also help you to be more consistent because when you consult your plan, it will remind you of the approaches you want to take to convey that consistency to your students.

Wrapping it all up for you, caring about your online persona in your online classroom is very important to conveying to your students who you really are, who you want them to see, that warm, approachable, or direct, no-nonsense person. Whatever your approach, when you bring it intentionally to your online teaching, it can be a lot clearer and it can support all those goals that we care about. The retention, we want to see our students complete the course, their ability to connect with us when they are concerned, and we need trust, a foundation of trust, and also that sense of academic community that can really thrive when we have a clear teaching and social presence.

I have another episode that touches on this topic lightly. It’s episode number 108 on authenticity. I invite you to check it out when you have a minute, and thank you for being here and all that you do for your online students. I wish you all the best in thinking about your online persona, 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.

#107: Managing Sick Time or Emergencies as an Online Teacher

#107: Managing Sick Time or Emergencies as an Online Teacher

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hanseninterim Associate Dean, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

You never know when an emergency or illness may strike. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips and strategies to help online educators prepare for unexpected absences, illnesses, or other emergencies. Learn why it’s so important to keep your class in order, develop a communication plan, provide emergency contact sheet, and more.

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Dr. 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.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Today, we’ll talk about sick time when you’re teaching online classes. I hope you never get sick when you’re in the middle of a class, that could be a difficult time for you. But, it does happen and, of course, there are other reasons we might have to leave our class, like illnesses or other emergencies. Perhaps we have a brief technology failure and don’t have new technology right away. For whatever reason, there are so many reasons we should prepare for sick time when we’re teaching online and this episode will help you to do that.

First, we’ll talk about keeping your class in order before an illness ever strikes. Then, policies you may maintain so that when someone else teaches your class, students will know what to expect. We’ll talk about grading your work, the actual emergency or illness time, and some personal experiences I have in this area. So, let’s get started.

Tips for Preparing Your Classroom for Sickness or Time Away

First, before you ever have an illness, you want to keep your class in order. What are some of the things that you might do to keep your class in order?

Be Proactive

First, be proactive. Guide your students in what they’re habits should be when they are participating in your class. By being proactive and giving announcements up front, having your class set up for the entire course before it begins and having a regular routine, it will be easy to maintain that class in your absence should you need to be out of class.

You can guide students well in advance of any assignment by giving them some sheets of guidance, maybe examples. You can have a video where you walk through the assignment. And, all of these can be prepared before you ever start teaching your class. After all, you handle these assignments regularly and you know that there are students who tend to struggle with the same things every time. Why not prepare those videos before the class begins so that, should you become ill, your guidance is already there in the classroom?

Keep an Organized Classroom

Then, keep an organized classroom. If you have rubrics in place for your assignments, always have them in a space that students can view them before submitting their work. You might also have them in a place where someone else can see them if they should have to step into your class in your absence and grade that work.

You can have the lessons labeled and everything in order in the learning management system. With the way that learning management systems are designed today, it is very easy to have an organized online classroom, well prepared with all the lesson materials before the course starts, and ready to roll for your students and for the entire session.

Create an Emergency Contact Card

Contact information for your supervisor might be difficult to get if you work at a large online institution that is not very personal with you. However, most places we teach nowadays do contact us and let us know exactly who to speak with should we become ill or have an emergency. Create an emergency contact card and keep it in your wallet, on your board at home where you might keep important things, and share it with any loved ones that are close to you. If you have an accident or an illness and you are not able to communicate with your institution or your students, a person in your life can use that information to reach out on your behalf.

Some important details could include your supervisor’s telephone number, email address and name. If that’s not available, maybe there’s a faculty relations or a hiring department or some other management group at your institution that you can speak with.

If you’re a K – 12 educator, there might be a substitute teacher hotline, a principal, an administrator, a colleague, a friend, someone you can contact or have your family and friends contact in your absence. Keep that information close by, always ready in an emergency.

Provide Students with a Secondary Contact in Case of Emergency

One other tip is to give your students information about who they can contact if you don’t appear in class. Should something happen to you and no one in your life is able to reach out to the institution, students should know how they can reach out when they need help. Perhaps we could give them the information to the department chair, the principal or whoever manages your group. Either way, you always want students to have a secondary contact in case of emergencies, so giving them that information could be useful. You might not give them your supervisor’s phone number, but an email address would suffice.

Maintain Healthy Habits to Keep You Well

And then, of course, maintain healthy habits the best you can to take care of yourself during times where you are well and healthy and all is going as planned. When you maintain healthy habits and take care of the sleep you need, the healthy eating and the rest at times when you’re not working and keep those relationships alive in your life, that will help you to be ready to go when it is time to teach your class so that you’re always at your best. Then, when you should have to reduce that effort, you still have something to give and you have done such a great job up to that point.

Classroom Policies to Develop Ahead of Illness or Unexpected Absences

Now that you’ve kept your class in order, a second area to be thinking about is policies you maintain in the classroom. These policies can be very helpful to you in times of illness or emergencies.

Develop a Communication Plan for Students

First one is a communication plan. A communication plan is when you tell your students how often to expect to hear from you. For example, you might tell them to check the weekly announcements every week and you can prepare standard announcements to have rolling out each week of the class automatically. You can update them with any pertinent information as you go, but having these in place is a wonderful part of your communication plan.

A second part of your communication plan is to let students know how often to expect grading feedback. If they have questions about their grade or would like something explained to them or would like to challenge a grade, giving them a communication plan about how to contact you and who to reach out to is very helpful. This communication plan could also include that information I previously mentioned about contacting a supervisor if you are out of class and non-responsive. It may sound strange to tell students what to do in your absence before you ever have an absence, but in case of an emergency, students do need to know who they could reach out to to get help finishing their course.

And, in your communication plan, I would also suggest posting this in the course where it can be prominently displayed so any visitors to your classroom can also see it. Perhaps in a course announcement or the syllabus or both.

You can follow your communication plan regularly and make sure students are updated about what’s going on in the class, and also use the course messaging system. Many schools nowadays use email as well, which is fine, but in your absence, someone will not have the access to your email. If there is a messaging system in the classroom or a question and answer board, I would suggest using that regularly so students’ exchanges can be viewed by others who might need to step into your classroom.

Follow your communication plan. Once you’ve told your students how you plan to communicate throughout the course, stick to it. If something should happen and you can’t be in the classroom, they will be the first to realize something has gone on and be able to reach out if needed.

And, of course, be clear and present in your course activities. A highly engaged instructor creates a wonderful atmosphere and relationships with their students. If you’re clear and present in the announcements and your grading substantive feedback area and also posting in discussions, it’s going to be obvious that you’re there creating a wonderful learning experience together with your students. If something should happen, another person could look into this and see how you have taught them, what your approach has been, and do their best to continue giving those students a positive experience in your absence.

Maintain a Clear and Quality Grading Strategy

Clear and present grading of students’ work is also essential so that your course is always well-maintained but also anyone who must step in in your absence can see what you’ve done with students to this point. And, I would suggest if you have essays to grade that you provide comments directly on the essays that are written. Also, provide students with the rubric ahead of time. Post it in the assignment area and use it in your grading. This makes your grading very clear and others can understand on which you have based the scoring and the feedback.

Now, when you grade your students’ work, it’s important to use rubrics. Rubrics show various ranges of skill levels achieved, categories that you focused on, and so forth. One of those categories should be the content itself.

For example, if you’re teaching a music appreciation class, as I do, there’s a section where we mark about using music terms appropriately. I, of course, have ranges for that but I also mark it and explain to students when they have used the terms well and when they have a misunderstanding. And, I have some different corrective elements that I can put in there to explain what the term means if a student has misunderstood.

The content you are teaching matters the most. Writing style is also important. We want to help students as much as we can learn how to write properly and be able to produce academic essays. But, more than that, we need to know that they understood the subject matter. Unless you’re grading English essays, in any other subject area, grade the content first and be sure to give lots of comments about that content and then provide correction on the formatting, the citation style, and the grammar and other things you might care about.

Never let a student move on out of your class who has very poor writing without correcting that. It would be a shame for a student to go through an entire online degree and not learn how to write properly. English class is really not the only place where we can do that.

If you provide quality grading in your classroom every time, then should something happen to you and you’re not able to finish teaching the course, someone else will be able to look over your grading, see what your approach has been and give those students a quality experience to the end of the class.

You can also ensure that when you have given your students quality grading feedback, they are learning from you. There are things that you can teach them that no one else can, and giving them your best every time when you are at your best is a really great policy to ensure that they learn what they can learn from you.

And, lastly, decide up front what you care about most in grading your students’ work. What ideas and concepts matter to you? Be sure to remark about those ideas when you’re giving the feedback and let students know as much as possible.

Tips on How to Handle Emergencies or Illnesses

Now, let’s talk about how to handle those emergencies or illnesses that occur. Anything could happen, ranging as small as simply having an allergy situation, like I’m having this week, or you might have something like a hospitalization, a surgery, a major illness that keeps you away from your work. You might have an accident. Perhaps there’s a natural disaster or a car accident. I have worked with faculty who have had all of these things happen. I’ve also worked with faculty who had terminal illnesses or major degrading illnesses that took away their ability to teach online at all.

Issue an Instructor Availability Announcement to Students

There are so many things that can happen during our lifetime, independent of our work. Whatever is happening to you, whether large or small, the first step is to let your students know what to expect. I like to call this an instructor availability announcement. Your students need to know that you’re not going to be on your normal schedule, that your regular communication plan has been disrupted, and that they will need a little more patience than usual.

When you give them this plan, it is not important to give them your personal details about the crisis you’re experiencing or the illness. If you are comfortable doing that and you would like to share it in a brief way, it’s of course acceptable to do so. But, I always suggest that faculty keep their private details to themselves when they feel they want to do that.

So, telling your students that you’re going to be out of class for a few days, or unable to interact with them for a few days is totally fine. That instructor availability announcement could say something like, “I will be offline Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. I will check-in Friday and at that time, I will answer any questions.”

And, you could also give a contact information for your supervisor if they have an emergency or a question that’s urgent in your absence. If someone else is going to step into your class while you’re away, it’s helpful to let students know that as well. Introduce the person, give them their email contact information and, of course, help that person know what to expect when teaching your class.

In an ideal situation, when you’re ill, you’ll have a substitute teacher come in and work with you. In colleges and universities, that is rarely the case. Sometimes you might have a colleague that’s able to teach for you, but that is extremely rare. If you’re going to be out only a couple of days, simply putting an instructor availability announcement and returning and catching up when you’re well again is adequate.

If you’re going to be out a longer duration and someone’s going to teach the rest of your class or a period of time for you, you might want to orient that person, if possible, on what you’ve done with your students and what you would appreciate them doing in your absence.

Communicate with Supervisors, Colleagues and Family

Communicate with your supervisor and your institution about your absence. And, of course, if you are not able to do so, be sure to have your family or friends who are contacting your manager for you do this on your behalf.

If you have a colleague that can teach for you in your absence, communicate well with them what you’re going to be doing and when you can be back and how they can reach you if they have any questions. Then, of course, when you’re teaching and you are just gone for a short time, you’ll have to catch up and let students know about your grading timeline when you’re back.

When others are teaching, you will need to know what they are going to do in your absence. For example, in my institution, if another faculty member steps in and teaches for you, they will manage the questions students have and they might engage in the discussions and keep the class basically moving forward. But, the grading will be the instructor’s responsibility when they return from the illness.

In special situations where an instructor is gone for longer than just a few days, that grading might be done by a colleague. But, it depends on the situation and it’s not exactly clear for every single case. It can be helpful to discuss this with others who might be teaching for you, just to find out what to expect and also to help them know how they can help manage your class.

In the worst-case scenario where you cannot finish the class or even tell your students that you are gone, the best thing to have done up to that point and in any case when you’re teaching is just your best work, to be on top of your game when you are healthy and well and when everything is going the best that can be expected.

If you cannot finish the class or even tell your students that you are leaving, be sure to give your colleague or your supervisor the best guidance you can about what you’ve done with your students to that point and then step out of the classroom and allow them to teach it out.

Tips for Supervisors to Manage Faculty Emergencies

Now, I’ve had some personal experiences with each of these scenarios where I have managed online faculty in the School of Education at my university and in the School of Arts and Humanities. There have been so many situations and they’re all different. They range from just a brief illness where a faculty member just let me know and needed me to watch their class, and sometimes I’ve had a situation where a person had a major illness, they were hospitalized and in surgery and unable to communicate with me. And, the way I discovered it was they were simply absent for class more than a day or two.

And, as the supervisor of online faculty, I’m very proactive and I look at their classrooms and I stay on top of that. So, a faculty member’s not going to be away from class for more than a day or two without me noticing and then I’m going to reach out if it takes three, maybe four days and they’re not back in class and I’m going to see what I can do to help them.

If you don’t have someone like that in your situation, it’s especially helpful to reach out and be proactive whenever you can. I’ve had faculty also have car accidents where some major things were happening and they were not going to recover right away and they really could not teach again for weeks. I’ve also had faculty where their technology had failed, their computer crashed, they were not able to get another computer anytime soon. And, in those kinds of emergencies, it can be especially debilitating to you if you do all your work online.

One recommendation for that is to find a place where you can either get a loaner computer, short-term or maybe there’s a computer work station where you can log in, either on a local college campus in a library or in a public library. And then, of course, log off again and clear the cache and the cookies after you’re done using it for your teaching. If you have a family member or friend with a computer that you can use, you can also do that short term in a technology accident.

If you have a health decline that’s actually going to take away your ability to teach online, and I’ve worked with many faculty in those situations as well who either could no longer type, could no longer speak, could no longer maintain the rigor of grading essays for very long, different things, you might be able to work with your academic institution to teach smaller course loads.

You might be able to reduce your typing by using something like Dragon Dictate, naturally speaking. There are a lot of different ways to accommodate health declines or other kinds of setbacks where you’d like to keep teaching but cannot teach to the full load that you might have in the past. And, I would highly recommend considering those and then, of course, deciding if you are able to teach in the future. And, only you have the answer to that. You can think about your own personal situation and decide.

Whatever happens to you, know that your work is valued to your students and to those that you work with at your school or your institution. As an educator, you make a difference and you matter immensely. I want to encourage you not to be embarrassed if you have a sickness or an illness or an emergency, but to reach out to people around you and communicate what your needs might be. You will be surprised how others can step in and help you and manage your students on the short term at least in your absence and help you make arrangements for whatever needs you might have.

Of course, wrapping all of this up, it’s never fun to be sick when you’re teaching online, but there are so many things you can do to plan ahead before sickness ever strikes or emergencies come, and there are things that you can do to manage those things if you should experience them.

Above all, I suggest that you keep a contact card for your colleagues, your manager, your supervisor, and your institution available where loved ones in your life can reach out and let others know if something’s happened to you, should that be the case. This, at the bare minimum, is really important so that you have an emergency plan as an online educator.

Well, to your health and to your wellbeing, I wish you all the best this coming week and I also wish you a successful experience managing any illness or emergency you might face while teaching online.

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/requests. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

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