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.
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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. 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.
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.
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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 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?
- 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.
- 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.”
- “Does the forum prompt specifically guide students to the content, concepts, topic and other elements to be included in their initial post?”
- “Does the form prompt state how many details or sources or what link is to be included in the student’s initial post?”
- “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?
- 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.
This content originally appeared at APUEdge.Com
Online students often need extra help and support from teachers. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen outlines several scenarios when students need extra assistance including disability accommodations, unfamiliarity with online classrooms, and unexpected life events. Learn tips and strategies to communicate with students, extend flexibility, and provide support to help them succeed in the virtual classroom.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: 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.
A lot of students need extra help or assistance in your online class. Now, if you’re new to teaching online, this is a whole area that might also be new to you. If you’re a veteran online teacher and you’ve been doing this awhile, perhaps you’ve run into a lot of different scenarios where students need your help. Maybe you just want to brush up on some new strategies. Whatever it is, I’ve got some strategies for you today, some ideas that are going to help you with helping your students. So let’s jump in.
Challenges of Providing Help to Students Learning Online
Online students often need extra help or assistance. Now, when you have your face-to-face classes, you can speak to them often, send them emails as a backup plan. And when you have that face-to-face interaction removed and you start just working online, there are some problems that creep in that you don’t anticipate.
Adult learners, these are a high percentage of online students nowadays and they may be away from school for a long time, maybe many years. They may struggle to navigate the online classroom, struggle to maintain confidence in their academic abilities, or struggle to balance the time commitment of going to school while working, being parents, and doing all those other things that they’ve been doing for quite some time.
Some people still yet will have other special needs related to disabling conditions they might have, and they might need a disability services accommodation in their interaction with you.
As in live courses, students who are new in the subject matter you’re teaching might specifically struggle to comprehend the subject matter itself. Maybe particular concepts are just new and unfamiliar to them. They might need additional tools to understand and apply academic terminology, or maybe just to make their way through the content itself.
Online students might need general help learning how to communicate with each other and with their instructor authentically, because distance and separation of the online setting create a sense of anonymity, some isolation, and there’s no real clear way to communicate in the classroom. That is to say, netiquette does not come naturally to us when we’re taking an online class.
Especially in the world of text messaging, it’s easy to write in less formal language. Online students might need help navigating the classroom itself, or they might have unexpected life events come in, like an accident, an illness, a natural disaster, divorce, or some other surprise.
Sometimes those circumstances are anticipated and students can plan ahead. For example, if they’re in the military and they’re going to be taking a break for a special assignment for a week or two, they might know that in advance. And in those cases, they can plan ahead and work with you.
But what about those unexpected events where the student has to be absent for a short time and they don’t know this is going to happen? In every case, there are a lot of situations. It’s helpful to know that it’s possible for these things to happen. Interruptions do occur when students are taking an online class. And when you have a plan for accommodating individual needs, you can respond in a timely manner without having to consider every single case as a standalone situation.
So I’ve just gone through a whole lot of things that can happen to students when they’re taking an online class, or challenges they might face just bringing their own situation as it is. Let’s go ahead and start with the adult learner.
Adult Learners Face Challenges with Online Learning
There are a variety of difficult situations for students of course, online, but more particularly for the adult learner. For example, these students might have technology challenges finding their way around the online class. Maybe they’ll have a little bit of difficulty operating certain parts of the learning management system.
Some students, even though they’re technologically savvy in their personal lives or in their work, they struggle to learn a new system in which the course might be hosted. There’s a lot of ways to reach your students where they’re at when they’re adult learners. Maybe they’re new to the online experience, or they’re coming back to college after many years.
You could think of guidance assets, like giving them a PDF handout that illustrates steps of an activity. For example, if you’re going to have the students go to the online library, to conduct a bit of research to write an essay, you might create a PDF with step one, step two, three, four, and so forth, and screenshots of the different places they might go online.
Another idea is to actually make a screencast. There are a lot of different ways to do this. There’s Kaltura, there’s Camtasia, a paid platform. There’s also Screencastify on the screencastify.com website. And perhaps there is a built-in screencast recorder in the computer that you’re using. Whatever the method, a screen walkthrough recording is a great way to help your struggling students who don’t know exactly where they should be looking, and it could be a preventative measure that you’ve simply share with everyone.
The more you give help like this, the more students feel like you’re right there with them. You care about their success, and you really want to help them find the things they need to succeed. You could have a walkthrough of navigating the classroom. You could have a walkthrough with a screen cast showing the library, of course, clicking through those things.
Whatever you do, you want to check way the video will be accessed by students. Is it publicly accessible? Does it need to be locked down in the LMS itself? Is it private? If you’re going to upload it to YouTube, I recommend using the unlisted setting so that the video isn’t searchable by everyone in the world, but you can give the address to your students and they will be able to find it more easily. You could also save the video to a Google Drive so they could play it from there. Or if you have a Vimeo subscription, you could also set it to private there and share the link.
Helping Students with Time Management
Let’s talk about time and task management. A lot of online students face challenges planning their work and managing their time, and then doing all of the learning tasks in a timely manner. Sometimes it’s hard to control this because students have so many other commitments. I mean, think about it. When you go to a live class, you sit there and you see the instructor, you see the classroom, and your subconscious brain has this whole recognition system for, “Yep, I’m in school.” You’re seeing that this is a situation where you’re going to be returning, you’re going to be in the classroom thinking about your academic stuff, and you’re going to do the work.
When you’re teaching online and when you’re learning online, these boundaries are so much more ambiguous. You might be the learning in your class or teaching your class in the kitchen, in the living room, or sitting on your bed in your bedroom, doing that work with the door shut so no one interrupts you.
The place that you do your online teaching or learning is not necessarily specific to academics, like it would be if you were in a live class. So when you’re there, you need some things that are going to help you focus. Your students need those things too.
One of the things you can do to help your students is to create a one-page document that just has these block sections stating what is going to be due each week. This would be like a summary of the calendar that might be more expanded in your syllabus or in your course outline area.
You could list these things such as week one, having introductory forum posts due by Thursday, and then put the date. The forum replies are due by Sunday, and then put the date. Then if there’s a quiz or an essay or anything else, list that in the week that it’s due, and put the day of the week and the due date. And then you could give students little check boxes next to each one of those things. Then in the next block, you would list week two items. This is really just a summary so that your students can see, at a glance, what is due that is graded. And they can make sure that they have covered every one of those items.
Students who suffer from time and task management challenges might reach out to you to ask for extra time to get their work done, or they might just stop participating in the course, or they could even withdraw. When you are preventative about that by sending them things like this at-a-glance planner I mentioned, or reminders in advance of due dates, or other tips to help them stay on track, you’re helping retain students in your course. You’re helping them succeed in their goals of taking and completing that class, and you’re helping them stay on top of the little things that are coming along.
Helping Students with Disabilities
What about working with students who have disabilities or disabling conditions? Students with special needs who have disabilities or disabling conditions will likely reach out to you directly to share some kind of accommodation plan if they have developed one with the university or college accommodations office. This is something that would be somewhat official and on some kind of a form or letterhead.
A disabling condition could include some kind of a mental or physical disorder or learning disability. It might be something like post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. A student might have a hearing impairment or a visual impairment. And depending on the course, these things could significantly impact their engagement in the class.
Although students don’t always inform their instructors of specific disabilities, if they have already arranged for a disability services plan, students with some kind of disabling condition may contact you and ask for these accommodations. Occasionally you might have a student who has not reported their condition, but who is asking for some kind of accommodation, and you might want to suggest they reach out to the disability office at your school to ensure that they have a plan moving forward for other classes as well.
Sometimes students will want just a little extra time to get something done, because perhaps they can stay on track most of the time, but just need a little flexibility, which is sometimes just a setting in the assignment due date that you can make for specific students. And it is pretty easy to arrange.
If you have a student who needs extra time and you need to plan this for the whole course, you could go through and set the special access in your learning management system for that particular student to indicate the extra time. If you set this up as soon as you know the student needs this kind of accommodation, it’ll be a lot easier because it’ll be automated and already set up in your system throughout the course.
More common accommodations you might find requested by students who have disabling conditions are:
- to get class notes or additional time on tests and assignments;
- potentially a quiet setting in which to complete quizzes and exams;
- a one-on-one office hour to check in with their instructor.
The general purpose of disability accommodations is not really to water down the course or to change it dramatically, but to level the playing field so the student can still be successful regardless of their personal circumstance. The accommodation is typically designed for specific students and intended to make their learning outcomes achievable and attainable for them. Be thinking about how you might make those things fit in more easily for you so that you can meet students’ needs the best ways possible without making it overly time consuming to make the adjustments on your end.
Helping Students with Communication or Writing Challenges
Another type of student help you might need is for students with poor communication or writing skills. Now, depending on your institution, you might come across students who have not taken a first year English class. Maybe they still need to take freshmen-level composition, or maybe they took it 20 years ago and they’re coming back to college, and they were able to somehow transfer their credit and they’re not going to take the writing class.
Many schools that offer online courses, don’t have a minimum entrance requirement for certain classes. So if you’re teaching a class that doesn’t have an entrance requirement or a writing requirement as a prerequisite, you may find that students come in and really do not know how to write an essay in paragraph style or where they should look for citing their sources properly.
Online students often need assistance and support with writing and communication, or generally need help learning how to communicate with others authentically in the online environment. The distance and the general separation online naturally create some kind of isolation. And for some students, this complicates their ability to write in discussions effectively as well.
There may be services and supports available at your institution in which you can involve your students. For example, at the institution where I teach, there is a tutoring service in the online library, and there are also lots of different writing services available in an asynchronous format. So students can look there and they can learn all about how to write a thesis, how to formulate their essay, how to cite sources, even if they have not taken their first writing class.
It’s worth your time to take a look around your university or college and find out where the resources are, what kind of tutoring exists, and what you can really send your students over to find. The more you use these services, the easier it’s going to be to help your students when they struggle with writing and communication.
Likewise, you might consider certain kinds of grading feedback comments that direct them to the same services. I saw another faculty member in their grading who also attached a handout of certain skills that students needed. For example, if students had a weak thesis or didn’t appear to have a thesis in the introductory paragraph for whatever class, this faculty member had a one-page guide on how to create a solid thesis and support it throughout an essay. So when returning the grading feedback, this faculty member would also attach this document for additional help.
If you find common errors happening with your students, it’s worth your time as well to create these kinds of assets that you can attach to grading feedback and return to your students. The more you help them, the better they’re going to be in their writing and communication skills over time.
Helping Students with Unexpected Life Events
Let’s talk about students with unexpected interruptions and life events. Students might need some flexibility or support due to unexpected life events like accidents, major illnesses, natural disasters, divorce, work or military scheduling changes and other surprises.
In some cases, students will reach out right away, as soon as they have a problem and they’ll probably work with you to try to resolve it and submit whatever missing work they have. In other cases, the students simply disappear and they stop participating in the course at all until some future time, at which point they either reach out to you or you have reached out to them. And somehow you reconnect.
If you can have a little bit of structure and flexibility at the same time, you’ll give yourself the space to accommodate students with these kinds of unexpected needs. Now, if you have a student who is just telling you they have a little problem and they need another day or two on their assignment, in the online world, it’s much better to give them one full week because the student may not be able to check their email or their messages tomorrow. So if you give them just one day, it might be a day or two before they get your answer. And by then, the time has already passed. So to make it work best for your online students, I do recommend setting that extended timeline a full week at a time, whenever you need to.
There are unusual cases where a student repeatedly disappears from a class, stops participating, and despite your flexibility or helpfulness, they really do fail the course. This does sometimes happen. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen. And you just need to know that sometimes in online learning, a student does feel that they can’t move forward and they do fail to reach out to you or respond to your messages. It’s typically not fully your fault. Sometimes it’s beyond your control. Circumstances happen in the student’s life and they will follow up at some other time.
Outreach Strategies to Help Students
When you use your outreach effort and your communication with students who appear to be missing or less engaged in your course, this might actually prompt your student to re-engage, especially if the student was simply discouraged and they started to think they were too far behind to complete the class at all. The more you reach out to a student, the more they are likely to re-engage and eventually finish the course. Your outreach could be an email. It could be a message in the classroom. It could be a phone call. When you reach out to your students, hope can be restored for them and you might even be able to remove some roadblocks to their success.
If you have a pretty harsh late policy, you might consider waiving it in cases like this where the student really has given up, they’ve lost hope. They think they cannot get enough credit to pass and you’re trying to work with them to get back on track.
Most academic institutions actually request that their instructors do reach out to some kind of academic advisor or student services or academic support or some other early-warning team to follow up with the student and help him or her in their future direction. So be sure to contact those departments as you’re doing these outreach efforts.
When you contact your students early the first week of the class, before things are really underway, this is a really effective way to help get a connection right from the start before any problems arise. Now, by the second week, you might notice that a few have stopped participating. And that’s also a good time to reach out and ensure that students know they can contact you, they can move forward, and you can help them navigate between decisions they might be making about dropping or withdrawing or persevering.
There are a lot of messages you can send students in cases like this. One would be a sample outreach message that I’ll share right now. My message might say something like this:
“Welcome to the class. I’m so glad you’re here and I hope that you enjoy our new course. We recently wrote a new textbook and redesigned the learning activities to help you have a better experience in the class. I might occasionally send you a note here in the messages area to share information with you or to communicate about the course. Please reply to this message to let me know you received it so I can be confident this is a good way to communicate with you.”
And then I’ll check back to see if the students have replied. I might send it a second time to their email if they don’t respond soon in the messages area. So I want to make sure from the very beginning of the class, that I have a really great way to contact them that’s reliable and that they got my messages.
Nothing’s worse than you and the student reaching out to each other over and over, but missing each other because one of you is using one platform and one’s using the other. For example, one of you is sending it to email and the other one’s using messages and you’re not checking those places. So be thinking about how to get a response before anything comes up.
Then in week two, if you see somebody missing, you might send something like this message:
“I noticed that you didn’t post or reply to peers in the week two discussion. Please go back to the forum and participate. It’s very important to post every week in our discussion forums to keep making progress in the class. I’m worried that you might be falling behind. If something has come up, I’d love to help you out. Please reply to let me know if I can be of help. I want you to succeed.”
The more you contact your students, again, as I’ve mentioned, the more you have a good chance of connecting with them and reengaging them in the class.
So we have a lot of different tips today that I’ve shared with you on helping adult learners, helping students manage time and task, and trying to follow up with students who have unusual experiences that take them away from the classroom and might interfere with their success.
Focus on Being Proactive, Flexible and Supportive
In summary, as you’re teaching a variety of online students, it’s normal to have to work with your students who have special needs, experience interruptions in their progress, or somehow go missing from your class. This can be discouraging for you if you haven’t experienced this. And at first you might wonder what’s wrong, but the most important thing is to reach out to these students. Focus on being proactive, flexible, and supportive so you can communicate and also follow up as much as possible.
When students have challenges, you might also have other departments that can support you with a whole team effort to refocus the situation and help the student deal with whatever problems they’re having as well. There are so many steps you can take before losing a student in your online class, as well as before the class even begins to already reach out to your students and connect with them. Take the time to look ahead and think about potential problems. It’s well worth the effort, and it will help you have a more successful experience with your students as well.
Thanks for joining me for this discussion of how to connect with your students so that they can be more successful in ways that will also work with you and the way you’re teaching online. Hang in there. It’s a challenge to reach out to struggling students, but you can do it. And the more you do, the more you can help. Best wishes in your online teaching this coming week.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week and your online teaching journey.
Are you helping inexperienced students who are new to online learning?
Students come into our online classes with varying backgrounds. Yet one group needs extra structure. And they are inexperienced students, who are new to online learning.
There are many ways to meet the needs of students who are new to online learning.
Some need additional structure, tools, and help.
Others just need a guide to learn how to navigate the online classroom.
Regardless of the tools that will work best for your own students, this podcast brings many ideas to help you prepare.
Near the end of a session, you might need to consider accepting a course extension request
in your online class. A course extension is also known as an “incomplete.”
Students request extensions because they cannot finish the class within its allotted time. They might be delayed by illness, an emergency, or a military deployment.
During difficult times, a flexible approach can help the struggling student finish well.
What Should I Consider Before Accepting a Course Extension Request?
When students request course extensions, consider these points:
- Have they completed any work?
- Do they have a plan for completing the course?
- How will you communicate during the extension?
- When will you finalize the grade?
Given the many disruptions COVID-19 is causing, extension requests may become more common.
How Can I Partner With Students on an Extension?
If you plan for this kind of arrangement, you can guide students in advance. And, a plan can help you manage your own time better. A plan will also give you reduced stress and confidence partnering with students who need your help.
Planning might include early outreach efforts with students who are not logging in regularly during the class, or who fail to submit assignments on time.
And guiding students means that you communicate the school’s extension policies before the last day of class, then work with anyone who needs help requesting the extension.
Another way to partner with students is to guide them to create a schedule to complete the remaining classwork by the end of the extension date. This might mean sending out reminders, messages, and e-mails to keep up the relationship.
While many colleges and universities offer their own arrangements for accepting a course extension, in today’s podcast I’ll share strategies I have used in my own online teaching that can be adapted for your situation.