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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.

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.

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.

#121: Three Interactive Platforms to Consider Using in the Online Classroom

This content first appeared on APUEdge.com.

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

Want to increase engagement in the classroom, but not sure where to start? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares three interactive platforms to add a creative approach to student engagement. Learn what platforms work best for asynchronous, synchronous and hybrid classes.

Listen to the Episode:

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

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 Online Teaching Lounge. I’m Bethanie Hansen your host, and I’m here to talk with you today about three interactive platforms to try in your online teaching. With so many things to try out there, it can be very difficult to decide what will work for you and for your students when you’re teaching online.

Today, we’re going to look at three interactive platforms. The first one is called Knovio: K-N-O-V-I-O; you can learn more about it at Knovio.com. And I’ll talk about it here today. The second one is called Vimeo: V-I-M-E-O and, of course, you can look this one up at vimeo.com. It’s a little bit like a YouTube-style hosting platform, but with some additional interesting features. And thirdly, we’ll look at Mentimeter M-E-N-T-I-M-E-T-E-R, at mentimeter.com. This one can have interactive slide presentations, and quizzing features, and all kinds of different questions and polling that you can include.

Each one has its own place in your online teaching. And some of these work well asynchronously. Some work well synchronously, but still online. And some can work for both. So, we’ll check out all three of these interesting interactive platforms and give you some ideas of things you might want to try in your next online class.

What to Know about Knovio

First, if you’re interested in helping your students create their own interactive presentations, where they can video record themselves next to some slides that they are also presenting, a great platform would be Knovio. Knovio.com has a lot of different options. There is the educator pricing and the educator platform. But more specifically, today I want to talk about the student version of this product. So, this is an opportunity for your students to create presentations that they are featured in with video and slides side by side.

It’s easy to use; they can narrate their slides, or they can record the videos side by side, or they can just do audio with no video and those slides. They can share it with their friends, they can share it with the entire class, send it to their professor for grading. It can be featured on a web page in your online classroom as part of a showcase when you have students submit projects. It’s mobile-friendly and, of course, there’s a free version. So, students can make a seven-minute video, and it’s free. Or for a longer video or more of them, they can have a very inexpensive student plan, I think it’s something like $5 per month.

So, there’s student pricing. And there’s the opportunity for students to save these and share them. And of course, they can continue to edit them and work together with others in a group if they’d like to do that. So, the Student Edition gives all the Knovio Pro features, but at an inexpensive price your students would be able to invest in, it gives the five hours of storage for students, unlimited video presentation lengths, up to like a five-hour presentation. And also high-definition video exports. So, they can either export the entire video, or they can share just through a link.

When students use Knovio to make presentations, they’re much more interactive than just a simple PowerPoint alone. They can have that live video next to it and it’s really engaging, just like being in a presentation in a live classroom. So, it brings that personal touch into the presentation.

They can use different languages and have it translated. Or you can have it narrated and just in English, whatever works for your students. So, if you’re doing another language, like teaching a Spanish class, it might be interesting to have the translation there. And you can also post these online, upload them to your favorite hosting service.

You can also check out the statistics to see whether they’ve been viewed, how many times they’ve been viewed. And you can also give it a bookmark so that you can move from slide to slide and each one will play the narration and then just stop there so you can skip around. So, there are a lot of options available in the student version here and its very user friendly.

I myself first was exposed to Knovio years ago through a colleague at American Public University. After I first tried it out at the time, I was also teaching at the local community college, so I brought it into my face-to-face music appreciation class. And I had students make their presentations using Knovio. And then in the web version of our class where we had our grading, and we could also store things, I had students upload their Knovios in there so there was sort of this showcase. And between class sessions, students could look at all the different presentations and share their comments and study more than they would get in the live class.

So, there are a lot of options here with Knovio. It works great in live classes, hybrid classes, and asynchronous classes. Now, what if you want to use Knovio as the faculty member? There is also this ability to put quizzing in between your narrated sections. So, you can have yourself on video talking through parts of a lecture, and you can have a slide up there with the different pieces of information, then you can have your students pause and take the quiz questions in between and then move on to the next slide. So, if you like it enough to try the teacher version, you’ll find there are a lot more features, especially if you try the pro version. And it might be worth keeping and using over and over.

And, of course, you can save your work and use it in the next session of that class. So, once you’ve invested the time to build this big presentation and put your video up there, you can use it repeatedly. So that’s one option to you, Knovio. It’s an interactive slide presentation type of application. And we’ll go on to the second option for you today, which is Vimeo.

Considerations for Using Vimeo

Now, what is Vimeo you might be wondering? Vimeo is an all-in-one video hosting platform. So, you can make, manage and share your videos, you can have live virtual events that you engage your audience with. And you can also send out these videos, keep track of the statistics and know who’s watching them. You can password protect them, you can have them listed or unlisted, you can put them as part of a showcase, you can embed them anywhere.

There are a lot of ways to use Vimeo. And there are a lot more personal controls that you can employ in your Vimeo hosting. One of the reasons people use Vimeo now, of course, is for all kinds of video marketing and video monetization. But, as an educator, you can see that there would be a lot of benefit to tracking the views of your videos and adding captions and different things.

You can use them to teach a lesson, you can also embed them in your LMS. So, if you compare this to YouTube, there’s just a little bit more in terms of control and features. I encourage you to take a look at Vimeo and see whether it might be something that you want to try out. There are various levels of plans, and it just might be something that your students connect well with.

Now, why would you want to try Vimeo instead of YouTube? That is an interesting question that really depends on the user. Some people use YouTube and like to use either private or unlisted videos. Unlisted is probably the best way to go, because then you can use those videos that you’ve created and you can do them without the whole web finding them. The problem with unlisted videos on YouTube is that the date that you created them, and the number of watches is public. And if you try Vimeo, you can hide a lot of that information, you can hide the branding, you can hide the statistics.

And you really can choose how much about the video other people can see. So, there’s a little more control there. And as I mentioned, you can embed it anywhere, link it anywhere and use it whenever you see fit. So, all kinds of great things can happen with your Vimeo videos. And, even though, there is a small cost associated with that, you might find that it’s helpful for interactive things, screen recording, and also editing videos in a professional way with very little learning required.

It’s user friendly, easy to learn. And you can also with the same link, if you decide you want to change out the video or or add an updated version, you can have the same link to the video but replace it with a newer version of your video without changing the URL or the address of that video. So, that’s a bonus of Vimeo, it preserves that address for you and allows you to use it over and over, even when you’ve subbed out to a new version of the video.

So, Vimeo is worth trying in your online education experience. It’s especially good for asynchronous learning where you’re building a class and putting lots of different videos in there that you have created. And it’s also good for hybrid situations if you’re teaching some live and some of the work they’re going to be doing at home. So, look at Vimeo and see if it’s a video solution you might want to try in your online teaching.

What is Mentimeter?

And lastly, today we’re talking about Mentimeter. Mentimeter is a fun way to interact with your students either synchronously or asynchronously. Mentimeter is a platform where you build presentations. You can build your entire presentation on this platform, you can prepare it to be interactive, you can use the online editor to add questions, polls, quizzes, slides, images, GIFs, and all kinds of exciting things. And you can make these really engaging presentations that your students will view.

Additionally, you could just use it for one or two slides to create a poll that you insert into your classroom. Now, your audience, your students, are going to use their smartphones to connect to the presentation and answer the questions. So, if you send it out for the engagement feature alone, you could just post the link or embed the Mentimeter presentation in your online class. You can send the link in your announcement, or you can put it in there as an actual piece of content. They can see their responses coming together as more and more students respond. So, when one student adds information, they’re going to see in real time, the interactive responses pop up there. And the more students come in throughout the week and participate asynchronously in this engagement, the more those answers are going to change.

For example, if you have a word cloud on one slide, and Sarah goes in on Monday and adds her answers, and Johnny goes in on Tuesday, the existing parts of the answer will be there. And the next student’s answers will be added to it. And it’ll become more and more rich, engaging and interesting for everyone, as the week goes on. Then at the end of the week, you can close out the Mentimeter and it’ll save all those responses. So, you could send that out as a follow up that everyone can view and see the collective contributions to that presentation.

So, it’s a very interesting way to get people to interact, whether it’s synchronously or asynchronously throughout the week. And then you can just close that off and have everybody take a look together and have a fun closing product. So that’s mentimeter.com. And I really believe that it works well for both synchronous and asynchronous audiences. And I encourage you to try it for the fun interactivity that it might provide to your online students.

So, today, we’ve just looked at three different media applications. The first one was Knovio. A great way for students to create presentations that have live-looking video next to their slide presentation narrated or faculty members can also do that, and even embed quizzing in the middle.

Secondly, we have Vimeo, which also allows you to add some interesting interactivity, including quizzing, if you have one of the paid versions of that plan. And then lastly, Mentimeter, which also provides a lot of different types of interactivity in a slide-based application that you can either share the link, you can use it on a smartphone or you can embed it in the classroom, and it can collect all kinds of responses. And you can use a creative approach to share this engagement with your students.

This coming week, I hope you’ll try at least one of these new and interesting ways to engage and find a way to liven up your online teaching and increase the engagement through an interesting media app. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#118: Using Explainer Videos in Online Classes

This content first appeared on APUEdge.Com.

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

Explainer videos are a great way to share information with students in a highly engaging way. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides insight into tools to create explainer videos, content options, video length, and more.

Listen to the Episode:

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

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.

Explainer videos are becoming more and more common across the Internet and the world wide web. And we want to talk about these today and figure out how to do them. This is an interesting thing to explore.

First of all, what is an explainer video? And what is it not? And then, how do you do it? The first thing about what an explainer video is, is that this is a tool often used in marketing areas. In fact, it’s a very common thing in marketing one’s products. You might be wondering, “how does that connect to online education?”

Well, of course it connects. Your students are watching YouTube, they’re on the internet all the time, and they’ve seen good explainer videos. So, they’re familiar with this mode of conveying information. And an explainer video is just a short, concise way of describing something, telling what it is, what it isn’t, and then how to do it or why it’s important.

Options to Make Explainer Videos

There are a lot of resources available to you on the internet about how to make them. And there are many different platforms you can use, such as TechSmith’s tools. They have Camtasia. They also have the Snagit application. You could try either one of those. Canva also has a great way to make explainer videos. And then again, you could make a standard video of yourself talking at the camera, with or without any kind of animation. It could be you talking for just a few minutes. And it can be that simple.

Or you could take it to the far end of animated complexity, where you have animated screens and animated explainer components and different words popping in and out and a lot of things moving at once.

It’s up to you how simple or complex an explainer video will be. I want to talk a little bit more about why explainer videos can be so effective. And it’s this idea that great communicators are also great explainers.

Explainer Videos Help You Communicate Well with Students

As online educators, we all want to be great communicators. We want to speak effectively to our students, teach them effectively, and guide them to use this subject matter in their lives and in their careers. There’s an article in “Harvard Business Review” by John Bell Dhoni in 2009, called “Great Communicators are Great Explainers.” And in this article, he simplifies the process as I’ve already explained it, three ways to be an effective explainer. And I’m proposing here that these are the three main parts of an explainer video.

Step 1: Define “What it Is”

The first one is defining what it is. So, the purpose of your explanation is to describe an issue, an initiative, a concept, a problem, something that students need to know about or understand in your online class. For example, if you’re pushing for cost reductions, explain why they are necessary and what they will entail. That’s the example used in the “Harvard Business Review” article.

You could also be telling about a concept, such as in the music appreciation class, an explainer video might easily teach the term tempo and discuss that it is the speed of the music, how fast or slow it is, comparatively, tempos can change, etc. So, we’re going to define what it is in that first part of the explainer video.

Step 2: Define “What it is Not”

The second part, as we learned in the “Harvard Business Review” article, is to define what it is not. And this is where you go into that advanced level of thinking. Never assume anyone understands exactly what you mean by what you have said. Define exclusions. And, in the example from the article I referenced here, it is returning to our cost reduction issue. If you’re asking for reductions in cost, not people, be explicit. Otherwise, employees will assume they’re being terminated. Don’t leave any room for assumptions. It’s just not true for potential layoffs, but for any business issue, or teaching issue, for that matter.

So, if I were doing that same example from the music appreciation class of what tempo is and what it isn’t, I would then say tempo is not the steady beat, the pulse alone. It’s not the color of the sound. It’s not the texture. It’s not going to be that single melody that’s popping out to us, that we can hear on top of everything. There are a lot of things I could say tempo is not. And then in defining what it is, I can circle back to that if needed.

Step 3: Define What to Do or the “Call to Action”

And lastly, we need to define what we want people to do. This is the opportunity to give them a call to action. And in an online class, it is the opportunity to engage them in what they’re going to do, to demonstrate their learning or practice their learning. Establishing those expectations with others is absolutely critical, otherwise, your video is useless.

Now, in that example from the “HBR” article, cost reduction means employees will have to do more with less. And you’re going to explain what that will include in clear and precise terms. You can also use the expectations step as a challenge for people to think and do something different. Your explanation becomes more broadly significant when you do that.

And another tip is to not overdo the details, especially in what, it is what it isn’t, and what you want them to do all three of these components. Really, hitting all three points should not take a very long time, we want to do it clearly, concisely and in a way that grabs our listeners’ attention.

You will have many students who don’t want to sit for more than a five-minute video, so I would suggest that that’s your cap for any explainer video. Keep them small, brief, concrete and under five minutes.

In defining what you want people to do, you could give them a task to take outside of the classroom and try out their learning. You could also introduce an assignment and discuss what you want them to do on that; you could also use this explainer video approach to define the assignment itself. And define what it is not, what it should not look like, and what students should not do. And also define what they should do to submit it at the end.

So, initially, you might give them an overview of the assignment, maybe it’s an essay, maybe it’s a PowerPoint discussion that they’re going to put together. Whatever it is, you want to define it and give some clarity to that so you’re really guiding people. And then, of course, define what it isn’t. We’re going to describe what that would be.

And then, lastly, what you want them to do. You want them to attach it, submit it by a certain day, whatever that is. So, explainer videos can be used for a lot of things, and they can be very simple. You’re just telling what it is, what it isn’t, what you want them to do.

Now, as you look across the internet for different resources, I want to tell you to stop by the Canva site, canva.com. You’ll find a free explainer video maker. In fact, it’s very simple. You can put this together very quickly using their formula here. They walk you through a five-step outline of how to create an explainer video. And it starts with choosing a template, then customizing the video with stock images or recording yourself speaking or cropping the videos, whatever it might be. And third, you’re going to add text and captions. If you’ve written out what you’d like to say in advance, this part’s really easy. But you can also do it at this point in the creation. Fourth, you can add music voiceovers or animations. And lastly, download the video and share. When you download it from Canva website, you could then upload it into any LMS. And you could put it in your course announcements, and it’s pretty portable and very easy to do. So Canva is a great resource if you use.

If you use the TechSmith Camtasia product or the alternative, which is the Snagit–it takes pictures and screenshots, but Camtasia puts them together in like a longer video. So, you could use those things to grab videos, grab images, and then put them together in Canva. Or you could build the whole thing in TechSmith’s Camtasia platform. So, they have seven steps that they recommend.

And similar to the Canva site, they (TechSmith) suggest choosing a video style, which would either be a whiteboard, drawing a screencast video, or live action. They suggest then writing a script. So, you’re explaining something, focusing on your audience, solving a problem in some way through your explainer video and also telling them what they should do to get started at the end of the video.

And they actually suggest keeping your explainer videos one to two minutes in length, which is much shorter than the five minutes I recommended. So, you have a choice there, have a range of really short to moderate, and definitely be conscious of your student’s attention span.

Third, you’re going to record and edit the audio narration. Fourth, you will collect graphics, video and other assets and put those together for the video. And then, lastly, you’re going to edit and arrange the media. If you want to, you can of course do the bonus round, which is adding music, and then you’re ready to go. You can publish, share, or just share out from this area. You can download as a local file. You can upload it to screencast.com, YouTube, Google Drive or other places. So both of these are really great ways to share out an explainer video. And you have, of course, your three components that make a good explainer video. And, lastly, your call to action where you ask students to engage with you in some way afterwards or engage with the content.

You can share it with your students and track the views through some of these different platforms. For example, screencast.com and YouTube, you might be able to see how many views you’ve got. And then, of course, you also can take a look at what you’re doing with the students to really engage them over the course of your instruction through this method.

So, they’re going to retain what you’re teaching because they’re listening, they’re reading they’re watching. And you’ve covered also some of your accessibility areas by having a transcript on the screen or captions on the screen. By having visual and auditory components, you’ve got a lot of pieces that are going to reach a lot of learners. And it’s going to be a really high-level piece that you can put in your classroom.

Now, as I share the explainer video concept with you, I don’t recommend this everywhere throughout your class. I recommend this for some specific ideas that you think are most important, or some key assignments that you find students really struggle with. As you put those things together, you’re going to have a solid piece that you can use from course to course and your students are going to get more engaged and more information from you.

And then, of course, you can ask them for their feedback. Was it helpful? Did they like it? Would they recommend any changes? And you can always modify and improve your videos as you go. Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion of explainer videos, and I especially hope you’ll try it out in your online class. 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.

#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:

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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.

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.

#115: Why It’s Important to Know What Online Students Are Thinking

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

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

Many students have self-doubt and concerns about taking online classes. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares insight she recently learned from talking to a recent graduate at Commencement. Learn why it’s so important for faculty members to understand what causes students to have self-doubt and worry about pursuing an online education.

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 the podcast. This is Bethanie Hansen, your host, and I’m going to share with you a thought about what students are thinking when they’re taking your online class. Especially your adult learners who are working full time, or perhaps they’re serving in the military, but online learning is not the only thing in which they’re engaged.

This experience I had recently took place at the APU commencement. Now, our university has a sister institution, we have American Public University and American Military University. I happened to be at the commencement weekend, and I met one of our students at the evening reception where we welcome our students and celebrate with them in between the convocation day, and the commencement exercises.

[Podcast: Voices From Commencement 2022]

I met this student at the buffet table. He was getting some hors d’oeuvres, and we happened to see each other. I just greeted him and said, “Hello,” and then we struck up a conversation. And I learned two important things about what our online students are thinking a great deal of the time. I want to share them with you today to just provide insights from this one student’s perspective and also to generate a little conversation around these two ideas.

Building Confidence in Online Students

The first idea is this sense of self as a learner. A lot of our online students approach online learning with a complete lack of self confidence. Many of them are coming into their first class, their second class, even their 10th class, wondering what they’re doing there.

Their inner thinking is about self-criticism. So they are doubting their capacity to complete the courses successfully. They might even be wondering if they are college material, especially your adult learners who have been away from school for a long time. This student that I met had just completed a two-year associate’s degree.

He was super excited. And he told me that when he began the degree program, he wondered if it would even be possible for him to do this. After all, he had not been in college for several years. Now the person I was talking to happened to be serving in the military. And every time he wanted a new challenge, he would take the new challenge and move up in rank and move up in opportunity. He was out there doing things that I personally would consider very difficult.

I have not personally served in the military. I admire people who do. And I believe that is a very challenging pursuit. It takes a lot of self discipline, a lot of courage, and a lot of motivation to keep at it every day, day in and day out. And I respect greatly our nation’s military servicemembers.

This person was confidently serving in the military and did not find that too difficult. But his choice to return to school and take college classes while serving in the military, this brought a lot of fear for him and a lot of self-doubt. He said each time he took a class, he wondered, “Could he do this?” And as he got through another course, then signed up for another and took another course and signed up for another one, he would say to himself, “I think I can do this. I’m going to try my best to do this.”

And pretty soon, he learned that he could do it. And he reached the end of that two-year degree, and looked back at it and said, “Wow, look what I accomplished, I did it.” He was thrilled with himself and I could see this in his face, hear it in his voice, in the things we talked about. It was a huge sense of accomplishment in an area he did not previously think he could accomplish something. Many of our college students working online with us think the exact same things.

I have read in many research studies, many online learner tip magazines, from faculty who have engaged with students saying these very same things. And I’ve heard it from students myself, time and time again. Our online students are afraid of taking classes online. It’s a big challenge. And one thing that makes it such a big challenge is that we don’t have that sense of camaraderie that we get from classmates when we’re a student taking a class.

We’re not entering the space where we can maybe make a casual connection with someone else who we could study with or maybe feel like we have a friend or two who are going through this with us. Nope, it’s just us and that online class with those people who are also virtual, who we never really get to see in real life. And when you think about it, approaching an online class with that sense of disconnectedness and fear, can already put the odds against you, as an online student.

As online teachers, it’s our job to be thinking ahead, to understand what our students are thinking. That there is this huge sense of self doubt, some worry, some fear, taking an online class. And for some students, it happens every single time they take the class, the next one and the next one.

So, I’m bringing this to your attention to just share the experience I had speaking with this student. It was my first time meeting him and he had no reason to be bragging or self doubting or any of those things in front of me, he was just being honest and sharing his story. And it was very exciting to see him celebrate at the end of that degree.

The insight that I personally gained is about working with students when I’m teaching my next online class. I’m thinking, “How can I put them at ease? How can I review the way I write my commentary in the announcements, and the way I set up my course, to really invite them into that space?”

Sure, they signed up for the class, and they’re there. But there’s a lot I can do to invite them into the space, reassure them that they belong there, and offer a helping hand as they’re trying to learn the ropes of getting through that course.

This does not mean that we water down our content or lower the rigor of the environment. What it does mean is that we show that we’re human beings, too. That we understand what they’re going through, and that we want to help. I can do that, through my words, through my actions, the quick way that I respond, my responsiveness. I can do that through the way I explain things in my grading comments, and in my discussion board interactions. And, I can also do that in this another way, which is the second thing I learned from the student I spoke with.

Consider Online Weekly Zoom Office Hours

His suggestion across the board for every single one of his teachers was that he would have liked to have a weekly Zoom call or weekly web call of some kind. He suggested this, because many times students have lots of questions they want to ask, and they feel very awkward reaching out with an email or even a message, just to ask that one question. And even when they do, apparently, a lot of students ask the question, and they wait and wait for several days before they get an answer.

So, to solve that problem, if students know what day and time that they can just drop by and ask all their questions, they can come to that space, ask their questions, or even listen to their classmates who are also asking questions, and learn the little tips and tricks to get through that class. Maybe someone will ask a question about the next assignment. And that student will be able to understand through hearing the answer to that other student. This student’s suggestion was a weekly 30-minute call, which really is not that long. You’re not going to sit there for a whole hour staring at the screen, you’re not going to do this four or five times a week, just once a week.

A good suggestion would be to look at your students and where they are located in the world and decide on a common time zone. Like what seems to be a range in which they could potentially meet you. If you have a lot of students on the East Coast, and you live in Hawaii, then you might need to do it earlier in your day to catch them while they’re still awake.

Whatever it takes to get your students at a day and time that seems to fit everybody, if you extend that invitation, and you just regularly present yourself on video, then you’re inviting your students even more into a conversation, something sort of informal. And, if nothing more, you could just talk about what the lesson material is for the day.

You could come with a few points you just want to share. Or you could open it up to Q&A. And remember your students are adults, they are human beings, they might even want to hear about what you’re thinking about doing in the coming week. You know, if you have a dog, or if there are things coming up for you. Anything that will bring authenticity to your teaching, as you think about the very human things that would be common and normal to share, generally speaking, maybe you’ll have conversations about that.

For example, if a holiday is coming up and you’re looking forward to a special meal, you’re going to cook or something, you can always have a little bit of small-talk conversation, and get to know your students even better when they share their own thoughts. It can even go farther, if those kind of side comments and social connection commentary goes with some of the content.

Like, for example, if you’re a Spanish teacher, and you’re going to make a special dish that comes from Spanish culture, and share it at your next holiday, maybe that’s something you just want to chit chat about during your 30 minutes of live connection.

Whatever it is, students need to need to know that you’re there for them. They need to see you as a real person and feel like you have a reliable pattern of being approachable and of responding to them. This suggestion the student made about the 30 minute, I guess, office hour, for lack of a better term there, it really sounded a lot more like his suggestion was more about having regular, open communication and responding quickly to students than it was about the video.

Of course, video is always a good thing. It helps your students to see you and trust you. There is so much more students get from a short video of you, especially a live one than they will ever get from a paragraph of your words. You’ve heard that saying, “A picture’s worth 1,000 words.” Definitely true in the online space.

So think about how you might integrate a live video connection with your students no matter how short. Or if that’s not feasible for you, how you could do some kind of videos on a regular basis where students can at least help bridge that gap and make connections to get to know you. If you think about those two things that the student shared with me, you’re going to have a lot more ideas, even beyond those that I’ve shared here.

And hopefully the ideas that you come up with are going to work for you in your online class. And perhaps you’ll share those out and tell us about how they worked for you. You can do that by visiting BethanieHansen.com/Request, and just putting a comment on that form to let us know what’s working, what’s not working. What would you suggest we try?

I love speaking to our students, especially at the end of a program when they really are thinking about what went well for them, and what could have been better. That kind of advice is priceless. And I feel very fortunate to have heard it, and to be able to share it with you here today. I hope you’ll think about it and have a great week in your online teaching coming up and also share some thoughts that you’re having about what’s working for you and we can talk about it on our upcoming episodes.

Thank you again for being here and for being loyal listeners of the Online Teaching Lounge at American Public University. It’s been a great year having you and celebrating, at the time of this recording very recently, our commencement and convocation weekend.

I hope that you have the time to pause and reflect on the past school year, what you’ve learned, what you’ve taught, what you’d like to celebrate, and what you hope your students will take away. And make note of some of those milestones that have occurred over the past year for you.

And then begin thinking about ways to refresh throughout the coming season, and hopefully take a small break or even a larger one if you’re one of those folks who has a summer vacation. Either way, it’s a great time to pause and reflect on your teaching practice. And also consider your students’ input when you’re doing that. Again, thanks for being here. And I wish you all the best this coming week in your online teaching or whatever adventure awaits you.

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
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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 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.

#112: A Guide to Dealing with Challenging Students 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

Online educators sometimes face challenging students who disagree with a grade or are argumentative in the classroom. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses ways to help online educators deal with such conflicts. Learn how to implement de-escalation tactics to meet in the middle, work with colleagues or administrators to get additional support, and finding ways to recover after a stressful situation.

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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. This is your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. I’m very happy to be with you today to talk about difficult students online. There are a variety of situations in which you might find yourself working with a student you might describe as “difficult.” And by difficult, I’m talking about a variety of things. It could be that student is challenging a grade and persisting after you have provided additional feedback. Or the student might be arguing throughout the class, creating a tense atmosphere. This might seem like it is escalating. It might seem as though your student doesn’t like you and resists the teaching approach or even your personality. And with a lot of tense events are happening in our world, so it’s likely that you’re going to encounter challenging students more often in the future, as our students face unexpected stressors, trauma, world events, natural disasters, and uncertainty.

While you’re working with challenging students in your online teaching, your own stress level increases. The experience might drain your energy and might make it harder to notice the students who are having a good experience in your class, and all the positive moments happening. We can easily become defensive when a student reacts poorly or challenges us, and our own response might add fuel to the fire.

To address all of this, in today’s podcast we will first look at ways to meet the student in the middle. To focus on de-escalating the tension to find a potential step forward.

Then, we will look at options available to you when a solution is not reached. This might include other departments at your educational institution, members of your team, or colleagues. Although we may teach alone, we are not alone in managing serious challenges, and we can reach out for support.

And last, we will explore supportive habits that can help you to get through the stressful time you’re experiencing and to recover from what might be a traumatic experience. When a serious challenging experience occurs in the online classroom, it can shake your confidence and make you feel depleted. Focusing on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress can give you the space to regain energy and zest for teaching. And we will close with those ideas.

Focus on De-Escalation and Meet in the Middle

A lot of times, students escalate quickly when they don’t understand, or when we’ve made a comment to them that they have taken as a judgment instead of an evaluation of their work. While it might surprise us when this happens, especially if it happens quickly, it also makes sense that not all our students will immediately understand what we say to them.

As you face a challenging student in your online class, I recommend looking backwards. Consider your past teaching moments and any challenges you might have faced. How did you work through those challenges? When we reflect on our past challenges, we can identify key skills we developed that are now available to us in present challenging situations. Looking at past teaching challenges can also help us consider new perspectives about the current problem. There is a lot we have already learned from working with difficult students in the past, and we can draw on what went right in those previous scenarios, as well as what we would have wanted to do differently.

To meet students in the middle, we can draw upon the skills we have learned from our past challenges. And we can try to understand our student’s perspective. From their vantage point, what might have been more helpful in the assignment instructions, or in my grading feedback? And where they are sitting right now, what will be most helpful to move them forward in the class?

Meeting someone in the middle suggests that I consider how I might be part of the problem, so that I can be part of the solution. One way to learn about the student’s perspective in order to meet in the middle could be to have a phone call or video chat and ask them: “What is you understanding of the situation?” or “What might help you most right now?”

As we hear what students will tell us, the most important part of this conversation is to listen with a true desire to understand their viewpoint or their perspective. As this begins to take shape, it is tempting to jump in with comments or assume that we’re ready to make a compromise of some kind. However, I would encourage us to keep listening to ensure that we have the full story from our student. And then, we can summarize or paraphrase what we heard to make sure that we understand. Only then, the student feels fully heard are we able to take a step forward to resolving the situation.

Be Authentic and Present

Now, if you have a problem that you can’t de-escalate with a student, and you really do feel like you’ve put in the steps needed but things are not improving, authenticity can be one additional resource available to you. Authenticity is a combination of awareness, behavior, relational orientation, and unbiased processing.

When we think about being authentic in a moment of tension or conflict with a student online, we might find that to be just the opposite of what is possible for us. But, if we can stay grounded to our personal values, what we care most about, and the humanity of that other person we are dealing with, we can bring ourselves back down emotionally and become mindful of the moment that we’re in and be able to let those really tense thoughts just stream on by.

The most important thing we can do in a tense situation with students is to think clearly and to be able to be back in the moment that we’re living in. By doing this, you can be authentic, you can present yourself as your best self, even when there’s a tension there. Most people that we’re engaging with, even if they have a complaint, will be less aggressive when they feel that we’re being non-judgmental towards them and inviting them.

Pause to Refocus

If you start to feel inflexible, resistant and defensive towards the student, I want to encourage you to pause, take a step back and see if you can understand what the student is experiencing. Just giving that pause can give you a little bit of space to see it in new light and understand if the student has missed something along the way, then a simple clarification can help get things right back on track.

Of course, not all students are going to respond openly when they initially are defensive about something. Again, if you sense yourself tensing up and resisting the student or starting to argue back and forth, a pause or silence to breathe and refocus can help. Letting go of that sense of resistance may be the tone that invites your student to do the same. And once we are meeting in the middle and understanding what is going on, we can take a step forward towards solutions, no matter how small.

In my experience, I notice that when someone is being challenging or difficult, it’s like I’m being invited to get defensive in return. It’s like an unwritten invitation to get defensive right back. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to be sucked in quickly. It’s easy to do that when we’re not seeing the people face to face that we’re teaching, and if we read the question or complaint in an email. If we take the invitation and get defensive back with a student who’s having a challenge experience, it becomes very difficult to see the student in a positive light or present ourselves in a positive way. And we might invite more of what we don’t want.

Another problem that we might face is feeling that we need to be right. If we have seen the situation from an objective viewpoint, and we feel that we’ve communicated very well with a student, we might feel like we know the answer, we are right and the student just needs to accept it. The problem with that is that the firmer we get, the more we’re sort of inviting that fight in return. If we’re willing to hear the person out and be a little bit softer in our presentation, and really listen, sometimes that alone will de-escalate the situation and invite your student into a discussion.

Some things we can do to invite the other person to de-escalate and join us at the table for a conversation are to ask open-ended questions and just wait. And listen. If we’re able to do that, and just give silence and take it in, then another thing we could do is to restate back to the student what we’re hearing. To validate that, yes, they must be frustrated with that understanding, whatever that is, and to ask them what they’re hoping that we can do together to resolve the situation. Sometimes it really is a small thing that’s just a huge misunderstanding. If you find yourself in this situation, slow down, and see if you can get yourself present in the moment to be your more authentic self and invite that student to the table with you.

After focusing on de-escalation strategy, slowing down, listening, and learning about what the student is experiencing, and working toward a solution, we might find that this student continues to challenge. In some cases, it begins to seem as though everything in the class starts a new challenging conversation, and the student is not interested in working with us to resolve it. When this happens, there are options available to you when a solution is not reached. This might include contacting other departments at your educational institution, members of your team, or colleagues. Although we may teach alone, we are not alone in managing serious challenges, and we can reach out for support.

Consider a Partner or Department to Support You

One helpful partner we can contact might be a department chair, a manager, a partner teacher, or another team member who can be on the phone or on a Zoom call with us and our student. Having a second party there can bring in neutrality to help us to have the conversation in a less emotional manner than we might otherwise have. The team member can add value to the conversation by sharing additional ideas or perspective that can help both you and your student to move forward. And after the call has ended, this person might be able to share perspective with you that you’re not seeing, because you’re very close to the situation.

In any challenging situation, whether we are alone in the conversation or with a team member on the call, we can listen to the student’s story, their experience, and their complaint, and then let the student know we need some time to think about what they have said, and a second conversation to respond. It’s like we’re scheduling two different meetings, that first one will be to hear this student and really understand their situation. And the second conversation will take place after we have had the time to consider how we want to address the complaint or concern.

And be sure to respond in a prompt manner as much as possible. The wonderful thing about this approach is that it takes all pressure off you. In that first call, you can be open, a good listener, and just focused on learning as much as you can about the student’s perspective and experience. You don’t have to give any answers during the first conversation, and you can have time to think before responding.

If you work with another department, the representative from that department might be able to suggest alternatives and additional solutions to help you and your student. Some departments you might consider contacting include the student conduct department, a faculty advocate, a student services or advising team member, the university chaplain, or the disability services and accommodations office. Each of these teams has a slightly different approach when meeting the students’ needs, and you may find that aligning your approach with one or more of these teams gives you strength and perspective to respond well. If you have any suspicion that your student could use these services, you can even recommend them to your student, that they reach out to those departments. And of course, you can as well for a little more insight and support in dealing with a very challenging situation.

We know that online teaching can itself be challenging at times and a bit isolating. But with these ideas, we hope that you’ll be able to reach out to your students make some personal connections, feel that you’re able to really reduce the tension in a situation that might otherwise escalate and help your students to get right back on track.

During the conflict, it’s possible that you will feel unable to relax and consider the student’s perspective if this student has approached you in a hostile way or a threatening manner. If that happens, don’t wait to reach out to others for help and support. It’s difficult to know what to do in such a situation, and other team members and departments will be able to help you.

If the challenge is a tough one, but it does not seem that you’re being threatened or treated in a hostile way, it might still push you a bit. You can know if you’re feeling stress if you start to firm up your grading practices in response or if you feel like suddenly becoming strict with grading timelines when you were previously more flexible. If you start to notice yourself getting into more strict absolutes, which we call all-or-nothing thinking in terms of your deadlines and your grading, this serves as a red flag to let you know that you’re under a lot more stress than usual. And you might unintentionally invite more resistance from students, instead of less. When you notice these kinds of red flags in your approach, I encourage you again to pause, step back, and continue to treat that challenging student as you would any student in your class as much as you can. And at the same time, contact other colleagues, a manager, or one of the departments available to help you, and ask for back up.

If you need a break from your classroom, you can also talk to a partner teacher, a manager, or a leader in your institution, a department chair, a principal, or wherever you’re working for some backup for some help. Perhaps there might be a day or two, you could be out of that class to get some space if the situation has escalated.

Take Care of Yourself and Recover from Stress

For the final topic we explore today, we look at supportive habits that can help you get through the stressful time you’re experiencing and recover from what might be a traumatic experience. When serious and challenging experience occurs in the online classroom, it can shake your confidence and make you feel depleted. Focusing on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress can give you the space to regain energy and zest for teaching.

And you might truly experience stress and trauma when you’re working with very challenging students. Especially if there’s been a traumatic event. There is a resource one of my wonderful colleagues shared with me from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is linked here in the podcast transcript. And from it, we are taking some helpful tips to notice normal and natural reactions you might experience when dealing with a traumatic event or a disaster, and emotions you might have. Physical reactions you might also have, and then some suggestions on how you might manage your workload afterwards.

For example, one of the suggestions is that if you realize you’ve been injured, you need to seek medical treatment, of course, and if you’re not injured, focus on completing only one task at a time, just slow down in your work. And that will help you feel like you’re getting some control back and getting on top of things as you’re getting back in the game of working with your students.

Pause and take deep breaths. Take the time to gently stretch to calm yourself before you tackle each task. And plan to do something relaxing after work. Be patient with yourself if you notice that you’re having trouble remembering things, difficulty thinking clearly, worrying a lot, of experience more difficulty making decisions. All of these can be normal effects of stress or trauma. So do your best to exercise self-compassion.

And look at those tips for survivors of traumatic events. Talk with others who can understand you and understand what you’re going through. Listen to uplifting music, music that can help you relax and calm yourself. Of course, use what you know to be good coping skills, healthy coping skills that work for you.

As you work with challenging students, you know, because you’ve been teaching online, that there are many types of students that we work with, a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds. Hopefully you’ll be able to get through that experience and take the skills you have gained in the challenge to apply in other scenarios in the future. And if you’re not able to finish the class with that student, you will still be able to care for yourself and work through the stress and trauma of the significant challenge you might be experiencing. Regardless of how the situation ends, taking the time to focus on your wellbeing and recovery from the stress is important. And adopting habits to sustain your wellbeing will help you regain confidence after the conflict.

The ideas we have considered today around working with challenging students have focused on de-escalation efforts to meet in the middle, working with colleagues and other departments to get support if the challenge isn’t improving, and finding ways to recover once the stress has subsided. Although these ideas are a good start, there is no substitute for your own experiences and intuition about how to resolve challenging situations and relying on your own insight can be helpful throughout the process.

Thank you for being here today and for your desire to help challenging students get back into learning in your online class when possible. We wish you all the best in resolving tough situations in your online teaching and in your work 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.

#108: Bringing Authenticity to the Online Classroom

#108: Bringing Authenticity to the Online Classroom

This content originally appeared at APUEdge.com

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Teaching online can be inherently depersonalized, so it’s important for online teachers to share enough about themselves so students feel a connection. In this episode, learn about the value of authenticity, building teaching presence and social presence, and how to keep from oversharing with students.

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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. In online education, we all face the problem of being authentic. After all, getting to know anyone online passes through that filter of the online platform, which can become a barrier to letting your personality and your expertise shine through. Distance learning and online work are inherently depersonalized. This modality of education more than any other way, takes the “you” out of the situation the most. It makes it difficult for people to really get a sense of who you are.

In today’s episode, we’ll look at what authenticity is. We will also explore why it’s so important in our online teaching. We will take some guidance from Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly.” And, I’ll give you a few examples of online educators I’ve observed that bring wonderful authenticity into their work to help you think about where you’re bringing in authenticity to your online teaching effectively, and to give you ideas about areas in which you can take it further.

What is Authenticity?

Authenticity is that state of feeling safe, secure, and comfortable showing up as your whole self. To fully show up authentically, we all need a deep sense of belonging and psychological safety. And we help others be authentic when we create that sense of belonging and psychological safety with them.

As human beings, we all have fears, hopes, struggles and joy. And as online educators, we might have good examples from our own lives or our experiences that illustrate some course concept, some topic we’re talking about. If we share those little bits of ourselves with students in brief examples, and, more importantly, what we’ve learned, what we thought about it, and how it connects to our students in their learning, we build beautiful, authentic connections throughout the learning experience.

Another way of thinking about authenticity would be through the lens of social presence. There’s a framework often discussed in online education called the Community of Inquiry, or the COI, which includes teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Teaching presence includes the aspect of guiding students through their learning experience. And those things might include the grading, the course announcements, and other guidance to successfully complete the course.

Why Is Authenticity Important in Online Teaching?

The social presence is where authenticity comes out. It is an indicator of who you are as the educator, and as a human being.  Where teaching presence tells them you’re there, social presence is this sense of who you are. It’s the “you-ness” in this experience. And your students really, really want that online more than in any other type of learning. They need to know who you are to gain psychological safety and try, and to engage in that classroom. And they need the positive emotions coming out of authenticity to build connections that help them learn.

Authenticity has a strong link to wellbeing. And being authentic brings positive emotions, greater life satisfaction, feelings of autonomy and control, a sense of purpose, and self-acceptance. Authenticity is important with all of our students, but even more with adult learners who need emotional connections to their learning experience.

If there is ever a doubt on your grading, or if there’s ever a misunderstanding in the classroom, students can be incredibly forgiving when they know who you are, or if they feel like they know who you are. Likewise, if they don’t have any sense of you, they are very quick to complain, reach out, drop the class, ask for a refund, and disengage. There are a lot of things that happen when students cannot latch on to your identity. Just a little bit goes a long, long ways.

The problem is, it’s nearly impossible to do that online and be comfortable. It’s really difficult to know what a good balance is, when you’re doing this virtually over the internet, maybe it’s asynchronous, you’re making your comments, and other people are seeing those comments later on. They’re not going to see your facial expression, they might not hear your tone of voice, especially if it’s text based, if it’s written, they’re going to take your comments, your presence, the thing you do to show up in that classroom online. And they’re going to interpret it however they like.

Because your communication is asynchronous, if you show up as the best you, the real you, the incredible educator that you are, this doesn’t always land as intended. At the same time, if you hold back and don’t let them really get a sense of who you are, your students will resist that much more. There will always be someone who responds poorly or disappears in your online classroom.

It can be so easy to take all of this personally. But if you wonder why put in the added effort it takes to bring in photos, instructor videos, and other parts of your teaching that help you be authentic in the online classroom, keep in mind that when you make the effort to let students know you, you will make genuine connections with many of them, and you will see benefits.

Guidance from Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly

Being authentic in online education is the critical step to success with your students, and it’s worth the time it might take. As the educator, you have so much to offer. You’re a unique human being. And you’ve got your own experience, your own educational background, your own beliefs about things. And your students benefit from your knowledge and experience, no matter what their age or their situation. If you hold back on those things, it will be very difficult for you to make the kind of impact you might like through the work you invest.

In her book, “Daring Greatly,” Brené Brown shares tips and strategies about how to be authentic. And she acknowledges that it can be very difficult. We want to show up with our whole selves, but we might not know how much to share. How much is too much?

Tip 1: Share Something About Yourself and Be Open

The first tip is to share something about yourself. Your fears, hopes, struggles, joy, in a helpful way that is connecting to other people.

Be willing to keep learning and to not have all the answers. This takes some degree of vulnerability. To let others see your humanness.

Tip 2: Don’t Overshare

And a second tip is not to overdo it. Brené Brown calls it “floodlighting” if you take advantage of the loyalty or tolerance in your situation to make yourself feel better by oversharing something too detailed and private about yourself.

It’s way too intense, and it can also be inappropriate. Floodlighting is intended to discharge your own discomfort, and in return, it makes people feel uncomfortable. It can make people recoil, shut down, and it compounds shame and disconnection. And it creates a lack of trust from your students. This kind of sharing will lead to students feeling confused, manipulated, depleted, and just generally uncomfortable.

Tip 3: Be Direct and Clear

A third idea is to avoid being indirect, zigzagging around a conversation without getting to the point. “Serpentining” is hugely energy draining. And it’s this way of maneuvering around, zigzagging through a situation and not going straight for what is needed.

This might be like making comments that are indirect, and suggesting, or in grading comments when you give feedback in your essays and forum discussions that only ask questions and use just a word or two with a question mark. I’ve even seen a few people write the word “really?” which is kind of asking the student, “like, do you mean to say this?” But it’s such shorthand and abbreviation that it’s not helping the student to know you at all. And doesn’t help them understand what they have done wrong.

In contrast to serpentining, the opposite is being present, paying attention and being clear and direct. When we are being present with students, we are responding to exactly what they need. If they’ve written an essay about a completely wrong topic, we are letting them know that, unfortunately, they have interpreted the essay directions incorrectly and have written about a wrong topic. Maybe it would be even helpful to say, “I understand it happens sometimes. You might be stressed or busy. I’m happy to work with you on a rewrite.”

Whatever it is, you need to say it in a clear, direct, and kind manner, and really pay attention to what’s going on. This takes less energy, and you can save yourself a lot of time.

Tip 4: Don’t Be Cynical or Critical

A fourth idea from Daring Greatly is to avoid using a shield of cynicism, criticism, coolness or cruelty. When you are being your most authentic self, not everyone responds. Sometimes people misinterpret what we do or say, because they’re assuming, or they are not engaged. Online, our intentions can be misinterpreted.

We have to take great care, to avoid getting cynical or critical, and to avoid hint-dropping or cruelty. Comments that attack or insult students can be part of this cynical, critical shield.

If we believe the student has approached their work with a lack of care, while tempting to respond about our thinking, it can be helpful to take a break, pause, and assume the best intent while responding in a helpful, authentic way.

Ideas to Review Your Authenticity Online

For seven years, I supervised online faculty in the Faculty Director role, and over that period I observed several hundred educators. I did not lead these faculty all at once, this was over the course of time in two different schools and seven different departments. And among all those faculty that I have observed, I’ve noticed a variety of engagement styles and approaches to online teaching. And, occasionally, I’ve observed an educator who seemed absent, without any social presence.

In this kind of observation, I could find no trace of personality or personal experience or educational experience. I found no image of the instructor and no written notes to the students outside of the course materials. There were no stories or examples in the announcements or discussions.

In these cases, the instructor’s presence throughout the entire course was very light. And it seemed as though that educator really could be just anybody. There was nothing that indicated who that person really was. And if I’m observing that, and I’m getting that sense from the observation, I would suppose that students are too. They likely have no idea who that person is, when this approach is used.

In this kind of approach, authenticity is not apparent. One solution would be to begin sharing some of those ideas and insights the instructor brings to that experience, and along with that, to share a few details to introduce themselves to the students.

At one university, it’s encouraged to give a brief background of their educational and professional expertise in language students will value, meaning that we are not listing this in the same dry manner we might in our resume or vitae. And, it’s encouraged to add some points that humanize the instructor, like telling about a skiing hobby or writing something about a love for digital photography.

If you wonder whether you are authentically coming through to your students, consider whether you could add greater personalization to help your students get to know you and feel your presence.

On the flip side, I’ve had the very delightful experience of observing faculty who have a strong social presence. They appear to be “all-in.” They are showing up.

Some things I might see include a video on the front page that introduces the educator, and they’re speaking in their own voice. There are images to illustrate different points. There are comments that bring in their insights and their expertise.

And there are really thoughtful questions. And they’re not the same for every student. They’re based on what the students are saying. There is a sense of personality there. And that personality is incredibly clear.

If you look over your online classroom, check for these aspects that bring your presence into the course. What do you do that helps students get to know you at the beginning of class? And how do you keep your personality in the course throughout the session?

On the idea of floodlighting or oversharing, I’ll first share an example of this, then a checklist from Brené Brown that can help us all keep it in check.

Several years ago, I observed an online instructor who had a personal situation that kept her from solid online teaching. I’m not really sure what was going on with this person. But the story was in the course announcements, weekly. And she posted announcements to her students explaining her internet problems. On one occasion, she talked about how the internet company had constant interruptions, and they just didn’t have good service in her area and she couldn’t get online last night because her kids were doing something. And then today, there was an outage. And last week, she had a lot of explanations about why she wasn’t in the classroom.

It appeared to me as the observer, as if this overly detailed personal backstory was intended to relate to the students, to connect to them. And to help them feel sympathy for their instructor. Perhaps she wanted them to be forgiving about her late grading or her absences.

Instead, it just looked like a bunch of personal circumstances and a lot of comments about her grading and absences. Because of the level of detail and the regularity of the announcements about this, it really was oversharing in the extreme with way too much detail. Students may have wondered why this educator did not seek out the appropriate people to help solve the problem and deal with the issue.

It’s always human and authentic to let your students know generally, due to circumstances outside your control, something happened with your grading or whatever, and when to expect it. But overly detailed stories about the circumstance at home are unnecessary and can end up oversharing. We all need to have good outlets to talk about things we’re concerned about, complaints we have, grievances we have, and usually not in the classroom.

Here is a short checklist Brené Brown shares in her chapter on the vulnerability armory in “Daring Greatly.” If you have a copy of this book, it’s around page 162. And these are the good questions to think about when authenticity comes up when sharing things with online students.

  • First, why am I sharing this?
  • Then, what outcome am I hoping for?
  • And what emotions am I experiencing?
  • And next, do my intentions align with my values?
  • Is there an outcome response or lack of a response that will hurt my feelings?

If you’re provocative as a human being and you seek responses all the time to your comments in the classroom, if you feel like you need this kind of thing in an approval-seeking way, students are eventually going to complain about that, so it’s something to be aware of.

Another question: is this sharing in the service of connection? Will it help you build relationships with your students? And lastly, am I genuinely asking the people for what I need?

If it’s still a challenging idea to build authenticity into your online teaching, you might consider asking your students questions about how the learning materials connect to their lives. That could promote an education-based agenda and help them think about something more deeply. In doing so, you might share some of your own thoughts about it. And that could be a really great way of being authentic and yet making connections with your students.

Authenticity might mean sharing the mutual struggle you might be having. For example, when COVID-19 was going on and everyone was struggling to get a sense of routine, like remembering whether it was  Monday or Friday, that’s something where a comment sharing the experience and conveying understanding to students would be a great way to authentically show up.

One way to show up authentically is from the very first day of your online class, share some things about yourself. One instructor I really loved, shared this image of herself in another country. She was sharing the fact that she had a particular love for this country and had done some research there. It was just one way to help her students get to know her. And I just loved that approach.

Another one had a tandem bike that he and his wife would ride, and there was a picture he placed on the homepage of the course of the two of them with their tandem bike. Again, it humanized him. And it showed a very authentic person there.

Anything you can do to bring the “you” into the classroom without oversharing adds social presence and authenticity while being direct and avoiding cynicism or criticism. When you can be direct, assume the best intent of your students and share the authentic person that you are, you’re going to get a much better return from your students. And, you invite your students to bring their authentic whole selves to class as well. It’s a much better experience for everyone.

In closing, I encourage you to think about some of those things that help you enjoy life and enjoy teaching, and most of all, enjoy the subject matter that you’re teaching. Find ways to integrate those naturally into the comments you post into course announcements and include any videos and images you can share. And explore ways that you’re already bringing your authenticity to the classroom, and what you can do to add to that for your students.

Your authenticity will keep growing until it’s natural and inviting. And as you do this, you will enjoy yourself in your online teaching more, and feel a greater connection to your students, regardless of the innate ways that online modalities create distance. Best wishes this coming week bringing your authenticity into your online classroom.

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.

#82: Be Present: Best Practices for Authentic Teaching Online

#82: Be Present: Best Practices for Authentic Teaching Online

Be Present: Best Practices for Authentic Teaching Online

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Being present is one of the most important elements driving success in the online classroom. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares two practices that help online educators establish trust and set the tone for faculty and student success. Learn how instructors can establish their presence, share their personality and expertise with students, and build relationships with students so that everyone has a great experience in the class.

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 the Online Teaching Lounge. We’re going to talk today about being authentic. We talk a lot in higher education about faculty success and student success. These two best practices I’m going to share with you today are part of both of those endeavors.

Being authentic in your online teaching is absolutely critical to your success. And the challenges of bringing your authentic self into your online teaching are great.

We’ll start with talking about those challenges, what comes up when we teach online that may not be obvious in the live classroom, and then I’ll give you the first best practice on helping students get to know you and the second about you communicating with them. Let’s dive in.

Best Practice #1: Be Present in the Online Classroom

The first best practice that I emphasize in my own teaching, as well as with all of the faculty who I work with, this best practice is to be present. Well, what does it mean to be present?

Being present means that you literally are logging into the course regularly. It could be every day during the week. It could be every day during the week plus a weekend day. It could be seven days a week. It could be every other day; maybe you go in there four days a week. Whatever you do, you literally are present in that online space regularly and you are there often.

When we talk about being present, there’s a lot more to presence than then just showing up. One of those things is that you help students get to know you early in the class so they can feel like they know who you are. They trust you and they can go to you with problems when you have questions. One of the things that comes up in my job, I’m a faculty director at American Public University, I often have fantastic faculty. Occasionally, I’ll get a compliment about a faculty member. Many times, they share that comment with the faculty member who then passes it on to me.

Just today, I got an email where classroom support sent me a compliment about a faculty member that a student sent them. That was really a joy to get. Unfortunately, we usually hear about the complaint faster than we ever hear about a compliment, and probably for every one person that complains there are 20 very happy customers and you don’t hear from a lot of those.

But the one thing that prompts the complaint is that there is a low instructor presence or that the faculty member is there, but the student doesn’t have a sense of who they are, they don’t really know them.

There are some beautiful things you can do to establish your presence, your unique personality, your expertise and your position as the instructor.

The first thing I would recommend is to put a picture of yourself in the course. Make it a professional one. Help them understand who you are, what you look like. You don’t have to love the picture, just pick a good one. And as they see you, they’ll start to get a sense of you. Who are you?

And then put some kind of introductory thing, whether it’s on the homepage, a brief summary of your academic background and one or two personable things about you. You could put this in the forum discussion area if there’s a place where people are introducing themselves.

You can make a video. I’ve seen several faculty do this, where they’ll put themselves in the video they’ll talk, they’ll introduce themselves, they’ll greet the students. Very personable. Really nice.

And, of course, you’re going to write announcements, especially that first week. I want to put a word of caution in here. When you’re creating this beautiful instructor presence so critical to your online teaching, be careful not to stack the deck against your students that first week.

So those first announcements you put in your course should be friendly, encouraging, and welcoming. Give them step-by-step, some guidelines about how to begin participating and engaging in the course. Avoid giving lots of warnings or criticism early on during the first week about how to use citations, how to format their papers. You can give all that information along the way, but the very first day of class is probably not the best time. It’s off-putting and it can create sort of a confrontational feeling between your students and you.

As part of your presence, another thing is showing your personality, your passion for teaching and your expertise in your subject matter. If your online teaching is relatively new to you, if you haven’t done a lot of this, might feel kind of weird to tell your students anything personal about yourself.

We like to encourage safe sharing, so something that you would tell just anyone on the street. Not of something especially private. For example, I like to tell my students, because I teach music appreciation online, I like to tell them that I went to Brazil once, and I bought a pandeiro there. I might be saying that wrong but it’s basically a Brazilian tambourine. And I’ll put a little link to the video, maybe an image of me playing it in that first week’s announcement.

Because I teach a lot of military students, I’ll occasionally run across someone who has been there and has seen one. And they love connecting to that. I also presented at a conference in Scotland and saw some guys on the street playing bagpipes. So, I took a small video of that, one guy even had bagpipe with an attachment on the end of the pipes where flames were coming out. It was pretty neat. I like to tell them about that, show pictures, and again if I have any students who have served in the military in that part of the world or have lived over there or have ever visited, they like to connect to that as well.

That’s one way I share my personality online. You can also share your expertise. For example, I’ve seen occasionally we’ve had another music faculty member who is a classical performing musician, and they’ll put a short video clip of themself playing.

I knew one here locally at the community college who is a concert pianist. She would invite her students to attend her live piano recitals, the ones who were in her online class, so they would get to come and see her and meet her, meet each other. It was quite a wonderful experience because the school was local and many of the students were too, even though they were taking it online.

So, in your instructor presence, you want to establish this early. Help them get to know you. Post regular course announcements every week of class. You might even consider a second announcement midweek with some reminders, some last-minute advice. Any announcements you want to share. And then of course, participate in the discussions.

Discussions are a really great way to have your students practice their learning and talk to each other; but you should be there. Not to give them the right answers, but to engage. To talk. To discuss the subject. To ask them questions that are thought-provoking; and really to just help that discussion unfold. That is the first best practice that if you had nothing else going for you in online teaching, that instructor presence could really carry you well.

Best Practice #2: Communicate Early and Often

The second one, I chose this as number two out of two for this podcast because it is so critical and it will solve a lot of problems too, so that second best practice is to communicate regularly and effectively. And some of the things I suggest you communicate are norms and expectations.

Norms are standards of behavior. So a norm would be something like, “When you’re posting in a discussion forum, I want you to sign your name at the bottom; if you’re replying to somebody else, please put their name in the post,” etc.

And when you suggest that students do these things, don’t dock their grade for little errors that have to do with netiquette or norms. Grades should be based on the content itself, not habits or behaviors or little nitpicky thinks like that. But these are definite protocols we should teacher online students.

We want to communicate norms for how to reach out if they need help, how to contact you if they have an emergency, what they should do if they have to submit a late assignment, how to ask questions, a lot of different things have norms and you want to communicate all of these to your students.

And then you also should communicate due dates, assignment expectations and learning goals very clearly upfront. If you’re new to teaching online, it’s possible this first go round that you might have to adjust the assignments a little as you go, once you realize how the students are responding. So, you could have a more general syllabus the first time you teach the course and then a more clear, well set-up program the next time. Either way, definitely communicate the expectations to your students clearly and effectively, and with kindness.

A detailed syllabus is the best way to go. Include due dates and the schedule and assignment directions, and also how to find things. If you want to make it clear like a video a screen cast to clarify where things are in the classroom, how to find your grading comments you are going to give them, where they can find all of the assignments and learning materials, definitely point them around.

Prioritize the Two Best Practices

So, you don’t have to be perfect especially if you’re brand-new to teaching online and if it’s short-term for you and your just trying to get by till you can get back to the live class. Whatever you do, be present and communicate often and professionally as much as possible with your students.

Once you establish that you are responsive, trustworthy and present, your students are going to come to you with their questions. They’re going to have a relationship with you. It’s a good thing, and you’ll be able to follow up if there’s a change. If you need to change or adjust something.

That communication channel you have established early on is going to really help everyone get through this experience and have a really good experience with you. Online teaching does not need to be overwhelming or super difficult. If you focus on being present and communicating often, you’re going have a good experience.

As we close out today’s episode, I’d like to thank you for being with us for the Online Teaching Lounge. We’ve had this podcast going for the past year and a half, and it’s been a pleasure to be with you sharing teaching excellence tips, strategies, some ideas for balancing your work and your life while you’re teaching online, and also ways to connect with your students for their success. As well as best practices.

Take a look at our past episodes and you’ll learn a lot of things about forum discussions, professional development and other areas. We also have an episode that highlights courses and degree programs in the teaching area in the School of Arts, Education and Humanities at American Public University. If you’d like to get some professional development or take certificate program, or even an entire master’s degree, come check it out. It’s worth your time, and it will help you get even more skills and confidence under your belt while you’re teaching online. Again, thanks for being here for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Best wishes in your online teaching this 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.

#81: Enhancing Online Discussion Forums to Improve Student Learning

#81: Enhancing Online Discussion Forums to Improve Student Learning

Enhancing Online Discussion Forums to Improve Student Learning

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Discussion forums are where most interactions happen in the online classroom, so it’s critical that educators use this area strategically. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides insight into enhancing discussion forums to encourage student engagement, foster connections, exercise critical thinking skills, and offer further learning into the topic at hand. Learn how to improve discussion forums by writing open-ended questions, clearly setting expectations with students about when and how often they should participate, and more.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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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 today’s podcast. We’re going to talk about forum discussions. Discussions, discussion forums, they’re called a lot of things, but these are the places in the online classroom where students and faculty, peer-to-peer, peer-to-self, peer-to-content, peer-to-faculty, this is where everyone is going to speak about the content and interact. This is the main conversation space.

Forum discussions can be used as a place for pure discussion, basically it’s about the academic content. It could be a place where you have students place their graded work or they’re going to put it there and have something like a peer review. Or they’re going to post a blog and it’s got to be graded. They could be assignments posted to share and discuss before their due date, to be a draft for peer review.

They could be assignments shared after the fact just to share, say, it’s a PowerPoint presentation. And talk about concepts together. It could be a space where students teach each other. Whatever it is, forum discussions in my opinion are an optimal thing to really engage formative assessment strategies. Help students through learning and get them really engaged in the class.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said that “If a civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships.” This is a great place to do it. There are different places in the typical online classroom for these other elements. There’s usually, in a learning management system, there is an assignment space to submit essays and blogs and things like that.

There are also other tools in certain learning management systems where you can have students write a journal and submit it privately. For that reason, today I’m going to discuss only conversational elements of discussion forums. I’m going to give you a few strategies, some tips you can use, some best practices, some based on research, some based on experience and observation.

Why Should You Care About the Discussion Area?

First, every learning management system comes with a space for conversations. Many of them, and some of the older models especially, called them a forum. And a forum is a space where conversations can occur. If you change that name to discussions, it makes it even more specific to what you’re hoping to achieve in that space. A discussion is back and forth, it isn’t one person setting everyone else straight, and it is an opportunity for varying levels of engagement and participation in that discussion.

This is a great space where students can have some formative practice with learning the material that you’re teaching. It is also a place where they can have guided practice, which anyone new to the subject area is going to need, to develop their thinking, to develop their descriptive abilities for terms that are going to be used, to develop their analytical abilities, and so forth. They’re the best locations where students can try on new ideas. Try on new terms and concepts and write about them to further develop and adjust their thinking.

You should care about discussion forums not only because there’s a space to do them in an online class, but more because when you have students learning from you and from the content, you want to see the results of the learning. One of the best things we can do as educators is see the result and determine if our strategies are working. The discussion is a space where we can help nudge people in the right direction, help them explore those ideas more fully and learn from each other and us as the teacher so that we can get them to a place where they’re ready to do more.

The discussion could be excellent preparation for an assignment. For example, if you had an essay you wanted a student to do, to write about their understanding on a particular subject, that discussion the previous week could’ve been focused on the topic to explore ideas. Test them out. Apply them in a soft way. Then, in the following week, if the student writes the essay, they can be prepared because they had a chance to talk through their ideas.

General purposes of a discussion space are to foster this connection between people and give people a space to check in, converse. Most online classes are asynchronous in many universities, which means that a student goes in, participates, does their work, and leaves, and then you as the faculty member might be in that classroom at a different time.

If your courses are synchronous–meaning that they’re taking place in real time–then maybe a discussion is just a space where you might have a little follow-up conversation to whatever happens in that live space. And in that kind of situation, it makes sense that maybe the faculty member is checking on the discussion and facilitating it, but less active.

When there’s an asynchronous situation where students are to guide themselves through the learning material, through the lesson content, a more active role for the faculty member or teacher is super helpful to help the students stay on track.

In an online class, forum discussions can serve as the space where students have a voice for initial comments. Every single student has a voice. Now, if you think about your typical university lecture class, you might have one faculty member at the front of the room, lots and lots of students especially if it’s a general education class, you might have 300 students in there. Unless you give the students time to talk to each other during part of that class to discuss the ideas, many times students really don’t have a voice at all during the class. There’s this learning cycle where we take in information, we think about it, we talk about it, we write about it, and eventually we’ve formed our understanding of the content. Simply hearing it doesn’t really help us to change our ideas, be transformed by them or deeply learn things.

In the forum discussion unlike the live lecture class, you’ve got this opportunity for students to really have their own voice, have a choice about what they contribute to the dialogue. It’s a super huge benefit of online education and something that makes online learning unique and very special when you compare it to the live class with very little participation.

Now, if you’re a more active instructor and in your live classes you tend to engage people a lot, that’s normal and usual for you. I tend to do that as a strategy because of my background, but not everyone sees teaching that way, so this is the opportunity for a totally different experience that student’s going to have.

On the flip side, there are students who don’t want to participate in the discussion. They want to show up, they want to get the very minimum of what they need to do in that online class or that live class–whatever kind it is–they want to get a grade and move on. For these students that class is not a subject they particularly like, they don’t really want to learn it, they’re busy working and this is a part-time thing going to school, for whatever reason there are many students who just want to move as quickly through as possible.

But I want everyone out there to know there are also people who deeply want to learn the content. Many, in fact. It might surprise you how many students really do care and want to really understand what you’re teaching. So, this is the chance that they can contribute their ideas and they can engage with other people and they can get new insights and have a lot of different experiences. Caring about this matters because whatever attitude or perception or belief that you bring to the experience as the faculty member or the teacher, that predisposed disposition–that’s a little redundant–by your disposition about forum discussions, this is going to greatly influence the students’ experience.

It doesn’t really matter how the discussion is set up, what it’s prepared to do; if you are against doing discussions online, it’s going to be very difficult to utilize these to their full potential. Now if you really like to engage with students, love to hear what they have to say, love to challenge them and prompt them to think more deeply and share your insights, experience, and questions with them, then a forum discussion might come more naturally.

One of the ways to be most successful setting these up in your own attitude and thinking is to consider what you view the value of education, the core philosophy of what you’re doing. What you hope to accomplish by being a teacher. The big picture. Do you hope to change people’s assumptions? Do you hope to open doors for them so they can move in new directions? Do you hope to help them transform themselves as individuals? Are you trying to promote social change?

There are a lot of different roles that education can serve. Whatever your belief is about it, chances are, you’re going to find something you can really bring into that discussion in a way that’s going to be uniquely you and make a difference and really have somewhere to go with it.

The problem of online education is the lack of face-to-face, especially in asynchronous classes that don’t meet all at one time. In a synchronous class you’re still held back by this digital interface, but even then, you’re seeing people and you’re hearing them in real time. So, the problem of teaching online is partially overcome through that discussion, where we start to get to know each other, we start to dive into ideas.

Now why does that matter? If you have a disengaged student or have a lack of connection, it’s very difficult to feel like moving forward with the content. Many times, people need that connection to feel like they’re part of a school, part of a class, engaged in learning, moving forward on something. It’s going to matter to you long-term to learn how to develop discussions because these can serve you incredibly well and very soon in the online teaching side of things your interest in online teaching will increase if you will engage more fully in those discussions.

You can derive your own purpose and meaning of education and why you are a teacher from the way you participate and the way you approach your students’ participation. It can matter to your students deeply in the future because they need to connect to the concept to learn it and to move through whatever the purpose of your class is.

I have had a variety of discussions. Some of them are teacher-led forum discussions. Some of them are student-led. There have been some I’ve engaged in with courses I’ve taught online that have been group discussions, where maybe there were five or six people in the group and they were discussing or planning a project or something like that. There are a lot of different ways to set this up. I don’t propose that there is only one “right” way, but there are some guidelines that will help you be successful establishing solid discussion forums in your online teaching.

Considerations for Setting up an Online Discussion Forum

First, determine how many discussions you want to have and what is going to overload the student. There is no real perfect answer to how many discussions are optimal during an online class. If you consider how long the class is, for example, if it is a 14-, 15- or 16-week class, it would make sense to have one discussion per week. That keeps it manageable and helps students to stay focused on the topic during the week it’s happening.

If you have a shorter class, maybe you have a four-, five-, or eight-week class, this could be a little bit more difficult. It might cause you to think that you must cover a lot of topics in those discussions, and it might lead you to have many discussions going on at one time. You can either have two separate conversation spaces, two entirely different forum discussions, if you need more than one. Or you can have one discussion with the option to choose from many topics that you offer.

Again, if you approach forum discussions as a space to practice the ideas and to really manipulate them to understand them, then it does not require every student to discuss every topic, every week. Options on those topics can be very helpful.

Also, you’re going to need participation requirements. So, telling your students how often or how many times they should engage at a minimum for whatever you’re going to expect and, again, think about the topic. Will it require them to come back many times? Will it require them to give each other feedback? Will they need to come back a different day to do the feedback?

Whatever your desire is, be specific about how many times, how often during the week. And, should they have a day when their initial post is due and a different day when their peer replies are due? There’s often this idea that students are going to put an initial post in there of their ideas, and they are going to go back and respond to the ideas of their classmates.

During this whole process, of course, you can also put some initial posts to guide them. You can reply to the students just as the peers would reply, and converse just like you might in a live discussion. There are some other ideas like threaded forums, where you post that initial prompt and everyone responds along one single thread. They can be difficult to manage, they can also be interesting to see how the class unfolds along the idea. There are a lot of benefits to using what we call a threaded discussion.

There are also a lot of benefits to posting these separate discussions as individual posts students have. Whatever kind you want it to be, you want to tell students how it will unfold, how they should engage, how often.

As you design the form prompt that you put there telling students what they should write about or talk about, you want some different statements that will guide the content about what students are going to discuss. What qualities should the initial post include? How long should it be? How timely should it be? What are the directions you are going to include for sharing content and source materials? Will students need to refer to a source that they may have used in the form discussion? If so, can they give you a link? Can they simply mention it? Do they need to give you an actual formatted citation in MLA (Modern Languages Association), Chicago or Turabian or APA style?

Whatever those different details are, be specific with each forum that you post. And yes, I do advocate being repetitive on that part, including every week what the posting guidelines are. Keeping them fairly consistent can help students to engage better.

If you want your students to post in the normal font that appears, just remind them of that. You can also suggest that they use the spell check or grammar check. If you do use word counts for your forums, and if your learning management system does not give you a way to naturally do that, you can also suggest they type their forum in Microsoft Word, copy and paste it into the forum afterwards.

As you’re developing the prompt for the discussion, think about the qualities that students need to provide, whether they’re going to specifically give their take-away, their reflection, what they need to include in terms of the dialogue they’re sharing, and if they should ask each other questions. This can be a helpful way to get the discussion going. I have a little checklist that I’m going to share with you now that has six different elements and it comes from a book I wrote called “Teaching Music Appreciation Online,” (page 119), if you have a copy of that.

And this form prompt quality checklist is just to determine: Does the form prompt have the elements needed to help students know what to do and have the best chance of engaging well?

  1. The first question is, “does your forum prompt include a specific active verb indicating the action students will take developing their initial post in the discussion?” And some active verbs might be: define, describe, identify, compare, contrast, explain, summarize, apply, predict, classify, analyze, evaluate, critique, create, and design.
  2. Second question, “if guiding questions are included, are they written as open-ended questions that allow students to exercise critical thinking to create, to explore and otherwise apply their learning?” For example, does the question you have given students use the words “how” or “why,” and avoid closed ended yes/no questions, like did, do, where, or who? Closed ended questions make it very difficult to have a discussion, and most students will copy each other. There are only a few responses possible, so open-ended questions are much more useful, like “what,” “how,” and “why.”
  3. “Does the forum prompt specifically guide students to the content, concepts, topic and other elements to be included in their initial post?”
  4. “Does the form prompt state how many details or sources or what link is to be included in the student’s initial post?”
  5. “Does the forum prompt appear appropriate for the level of the course that you’re teaching?” For example, if you’re teaching a college level course at a 100 level, does the prompt address general elements and then draw students into deeper thinking. And at the 400 college-level does it identify complex ideas and analyses and different types of application you would want at that level?
  6. And lastly, “are clear posting instructions included, such as the due date for the initial post, the number of replies and the due date for those replies, and any other pertinent requirements?”

Think about these as you write forum prompts and examine the forum prompts that exist. If you’re teaching a standardized course. And as you’re looking at the forum prompt, if you’re teaching a course someone else has designed, it’s very easy to change the wording slightly to make it even more effective. And if you’re at a university where there’s some collaboration or the chance to improve the course, you can also suggest those changes to the course designer or the faculty member who has initially organized that class.

So open-ended questions can invite a lot more thought.

The last point I am going to share today is about how students should bring in their own ideas, reflections, opinions, and experiences. There are a lot of subjects where we’re working very hard to help students argue and analyze without opinion. In those subjects, I would suggest separating out the personal reflection, opinions, and experiences part to a second half of the forum post. Maybe you’re going to have them analyze and argue a point, and then come back and share their reflection about it or their opinion about it.

One reason I’m heavy on personal reflection, opinions and experiences is that these are the ways students personalize their learning, and this is what helps them to make something new out of it for themselves. It creates connections in the brain and soon the student’s going to care a lot about the subject, or at least have opinions on it and be able to think about it later. So those personal reflection elements are critical.

In future podcast episodes, I will discuss ways to apply critical thinking, interpretation, problem-solving, persuasion, and analysis, debates, and different topics so I hope you will join me again in the future for additional thoughts about discussion forums online.

Until then, I wish you all the best in starting your discussions, engaging with your students, and creating form prompts that really work for you. Best wishes teaching online this 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.

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