When meeting with instructors for the first time to discuss online and blended course design, I almost always begin with some version of the following three questions:
- What lasting impact are you most interested in this course having on your students?
- What do you like most about teaching (regardless of modality)?
- What about the learning environment, if anything, are you most worried about losing in the transition to teaching online?
…and in my experience at Wake Forest, faculty responses to numbers two and three typically include some reference to community and connection. This isn’t unique to Wake, but I do think that we are fortunate enough to have a large number of instructors who care deeply about fostering meaningful interactions with their students while advancing their knowledge. This matters, because conventional wisdom (and research) suggest that instructor presence and community-building are both important to the success of online learners…and not always easy to create. Moreover, the reality is that establishing a significant sense of community at a distance is particularly difficult when students and professors alike have been thrust into remote learning situations for which they did not sign up in the midst of a global situation that presents very real and unique challenges to everyone.
The good news, however, is that effective strategies for generating social presence and a sense of community in remote and online learning contexts already exist. In fact, professors at Wake Forest have been implementing many of these successfully with several hundred students every term in fully online courses or programs for some time now. Even among the undergraduate student population – a group that typically values Wake for its highly relational, residential learning experience – student sentiment about community and communication in fully online courses has been generally positive (consider responses to the Community & Communication section of the survey sent to undergraduates enrolled in online courses during Summer 2019).
Regardless of which techniques one chooses to employ, virtually everyone benefits from some structured self-reflection. The Week Three 3×3 (Faculty Engagement Rubric) is a tool we provide to instructors in some of our online programs to assess their own activity through the first three weeks of 10 or 15-week online courses. While our present move to remote learning has many differences from planned online course design, the delivery strategies included in this rubric provide a good benchmark for assessing our level of engagement. Consider some others below.
Keeping in mind that the following list is far from exhaustive, here are seven strategies one might adopt to establish instructor presence and create a sense of community in remote and online courses.
Perceived access to professors, demonstrated at least in part through valuable instructor feedback, is a central component of both student perception and success in online learning environments. Feedback can take on many forms in remote learning situations, but it needs to be prompt, substantive, and specific. One faculty member writes a weekly business memo that summarizes the previous week’s learning, highlights valuable student comments, and connects things to the upcoming week. Another records informal video responses at the conclusion of each class discussion (whether synchronous or asynchronous). A third provides audio feedback on every submitted assignment. Whatever one selects, establish clear expectations about what students can expect from you and then endeavor to meet them.
Non-task Specific Conversations
Quality social interactions can have significant, positive effects on student success in online courses. Social interactions are one of the things most absent when students are isolated from instructors, peers, and other support services on campus. Such interactions don’t have an immediate connection to instructional learning, and with limited time together they can seem superfluous. However, providing students a chance to engage in non-task specific interactions with their peers and professors can establish a sense of normalcy, increase motivation, and engage learners more deeply in the instructional process. Consider setting aside an online discussion for less formal interactions, beginning or ending each synchronous session conversationally, or scheduling brief one-on-one check-ins with all of your students.
Virtual Instructor Hours
Many of us are familiar with the scheduled office hour that is rarely attended by students, and it is a lonely feeling to inhabit an empty Zoom room for 60 minutes. Virtual office hours can provide a level of access to instructors that students crave, but these same students are not always certain of how and whether to engage. Set up times where students can connect with you synchronously and less formally, then give them a reason to attend: address specific questions about problems or assignments; request that students attend one or more of these sessions; record sessions targeting specific skills and instruct students to refer to them as they complete a future assignment; task students with submitting questions in advance and use these to direct your time.
Informal, non-graded questions/quizzes can help direct attention and solidify learning for students. Leveraging digital technologies (i.e. email or SMS) to send such questions as informal attention-grabbers (or Nudges) can help student performance. It also can keep students feeling connected. One or two question quizzes can be generated and scheduled for periodic delivery using Canvas Announcements (remind students to check their notification preferences) or Qualtrics (email or SMS delivery).
Small Group Discussions
Connecting meaningfully with everyone is a challenge in both online and face-to-face) settings, which is why many active learning strategies leverage small group activities. Online, there is not a specific group size that fits all circumstances, but creating smaller groups for discussions provides students with increased connection to some of their peers and better ensures that everyone’s voice is heard. Appropriate sizes can vary: 15-member groups might work for asynchronous discussions in an MBA course with 60 students, while 4-6 might be more appropriate for an undergraduate seminar. Groups might be assigned, random, or self-selected. They can be applied to live class sessions or asynchronous discussions. Conversations that benefit from immediate responsiveness and oversight can thrive in the synchronous space. Async discussions generally do a better job of cultivating reflective and equitable engagement.
Several online classes at Wake engage students in the process of leading or facilitating course discussions. In more than one course, students are assigned discussion topics in advance to create short VoiceThread presentations. These presentations include video discussions prompted by the student facilitators that serve to extend the instructor-led discussions also occurring each week. In another course, students are tasked with leading social reading exercises using Hypothes.is. A third class engages students in video roundtables embedded as formative quizzes in the LMS (Creating a Video Round Table). These roundtables require students to articulate their thoughts on a topic in a way that provides the instructor insight into student understanding before their live class sessions.
Create a Sense of Place
A unique feature of developing online courses is that one designs not only a syllabus and a course, but the very classroom itself. Dynamic online learning experiences create a sense of place for everyone in the learning community. Students should know where to arrive and what to expect because you’ve communicated these things to them and allowed them room to practice. Course interfaces should be easy to navigate and free of clutter. They should create a feeling of familiarity and refuge while enticing students into new learning horizons. Work to establish a consistent practice, then develop a feel for when to depart. Invite feedback from your students; integrate a new strategy or tool to a unit; remix your content delivery methods. Post once, reply twice works…until it doesn’t. Additionally, while these spaces are digital, do not be afraid to extend them into the analog realm. One instructor I have worked with in the past sends a welcome note with a pack of tea through traditional mail to all of her students each term. She then prompts them to brew the tea (or their drink of choice) as they settle in for the course’s introductory task. Others integrate mindful learning practices into all of their class sessions, reminding students that they remain embodied learners across these digital interfaces.
Regardless of the strategies one chooses to employ, continue to practice reflective teaching and reach out for further support.
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