I remember the first time I really connected with an instructor online. It was late at night and I was very tired from a long day. She had asked the class a question about working with students with disabilities. I had little experience with students with disabilities at the time, so I wrote about my cousin, who is legally blind. I told her how my cousin was my hero because she never let her disability get in her way. In fact, she used it to see the best in everyone. She told me she couldn’t see people’s expressions, so she assumed everyone loved her. She taught me to knit and she also taught 4th grade and used PC’s and MAC’s. I wrote it without really thinking about it and hoped my professor, who was a bit of a stickler for protocol would not be offended.
The next morning, I checked my e-mail and found a message from my professor. I was a little worried it would suggest my topic was not appropriate. Imagine my surprise when I read her lovely message which thanked me for my words. She told me that she had a hearing disability and it made her a bit rigid in her work and that as a result of some bullying as a child, she was very cautious with people. She said my words made her cry and that she realized she needed to make some changes. I admit that I also got teary eyed as I read her words. She ended up sharing our exchange with the class and we found that another student also had a hearing disability. It created a very lively exchange among the group that profoundly changed the class and our interactions with each other.
Later, I thought about how I often would hear that online classes are impersonal and there is no connection. Whenever I hear that, I use the course I mentioned as an example of how that is not only untrue, it can be even better than a face-to-face course. All it takes is for someone to put themselves out there. It is generally the instructor who needs to do this, but not always. It really depends on the makeup of the class. It also requires a method for students and instructors to connect with each other. A lively forum question can certainly help. By lively, I mean something other than, on page two of your text the author said blah, blah, blah. Do you agree and give examples of why or why not. I realize this type of question is sometimes necessary, but it requires very little original thought and will be unlikely to get the class to really stretch their minds and/or start a lively discussion.
So, how do you get your class to interact on a higher level? Here are some suggestions:
- Ask questions related to the text/module topic that might elicit an emotional response. For example, in a class on the psychology of aging I taught a module, death and dying. The chapter in the book was great, but I cited two poems with very different attitudes on the subject and asked which one resonated with them and why. I also asked them to use the text to back up their opinions, thereby ensuring they read the text. The response was swift and passionate and the responses to the question and each other were wonderful to see. They shared intimate details of their own experiences, thoughts and worries about their parents and their own immortality. It brought them together as a group and they finished the class as friends.
- Be present in the class. Don’t ask a question and disappear. It is easy to ask the question and return to grade. So many points for each response, check. Look for that extra leap of understanding or the student who questions you and the text and be sure to respond. It isn’t important that you agree, just that you noticed and appreciate their work. Many students are uncomfortable in the online setting, particularly if it is their first course. It is up to you to make it an experience they find worthwhile and worthy of repeating. It may not work for every student, but you can make the difference for many of your students simply by being present.
- Make yourself available for one on one conversations. It can be difficult to find the time, particularly if you have a large class, but it can be the difference between someone completing the course or dropping out. Often, they just need someone to listen. It can be difficult to do the work while working, taking care of family and friends and doing all the other tasks adults have on their plates. Give your students some flexibility with their work if possible, while ensuring they keep up with the class as much as possible to ensure it is a true learning experience. They will often surprise you with their commitment when you do so.
- Have a system in place to check their learning experience. I using a learning check at least once during a course. In my five week courses, I add one in week two and four. It is a series of three questions about the experience, material, etc. to see how they feel about it and if they are having any issues. It is requires, but not graded except for a complete/incomplete. I stress that there is no right or wrong answer, just a means for me to ensure everyone is feeling comfortable and if not why and what I can do to help. I respond to each comment, which can be time consuming, but lets them know it is not just something I make them do for no reason. It helps me to help them and gives them a place to share their feelings with me outside the normal class structure.
- Make sure you check in with anyone who isn’t in the class on a regular basis. I had one student last semester that suddenly stopped in week three of a five week course. I e-mailed her to check in and found out she had been very sick and in and out of the hospital. I assured her that I would do what I could to help and she was very appreciative. Ultimately, she was unable to complete the course, but we made arrangements for her to do so in the fall. If I hadn’t checked with her, I would never have known what happened and she would be unlikely to complete the course.
- Thank the students for their participation. I create an announcement thanking the course members for their participation in the course and asking them for any feedback they wish to share. I also send them individual messages to reiterate the announcement but on a more personal level, i.e. your work on brain anatomy was wonderful, thank you for your hard work, etc. Such a small thing can really make a student’s day if not semester, much as it does when a teacher receives a message of appreciation. We all want that pat on the back and are better for it, so why not take a few minutes to make it happen?
These are just a few ways to enhance the communication in your course. Let me know if you have some suggestions you would like to share. Until next week….