From the Digital Innovation Lab and Center for Teaching and Learning at Stonehill College.
Moving to online delivery reveals just how much we rely on the familiar rhythms of campus life to structure our work and student learning. As you transition into an online context, your courses benefit from the intentional establishment of consistency and structures that are lost when meeting face-to-face is not possible.
A shift to online learning necessitates clearly articulating expectations for students, much as we might at the start of a semester. These are highly unusual circumstances: everyone is experiencing an additional burden of stress. In addition, students will be anxious about what a shift to remote learning will mean for them. They will be concerned about grades and their ability to access the internet. By the same token, this is a new experience for most faculty. This shared common ground, especially when discussed openly, can ease student concern and set the terms for going forward with this new mode of course delivery. Simply stating that we are all learning as we go along will go a long way towards creating a shared community.
At the outset, tell your students how you can be reached and how they should expect to hear from you. If email will be the primary form of communication, say so. If you are using another platform, make that clear. But tread cautiously when using digital tools outside the standard toolset (Blackboard, Skype for Business). Students will inevitably lose non-College login credentials or need help with unfamiliar tools. Stick with the tools the College provides, which can all be accessed using their College login credentials and have robust online support.
Tell your students how often you expect them to interact with the course. For instance, if you will be holding synchronous sessions online in Blackboard Collaborate during class hours, you may want to ask students to check the course site for announcements or tasks at a regular interval between sessions. If you are using a more asynchronous approach, then you might ask students to interact with the course by doing specific tasks on a regular basis. For instance, asking students to log in to comment or otherwise engage with online material five times over the course the week will allow them to plan and structure their learning. Some students might not know that eLearn offers instructors helpful user tracking, making it easy for instructors to see who has been engaging with the course material. This might provide students with additional incentive to develop their own regimen of online learning.
Create structures that support two-way feedback:
When possible try to create feedback loops that establish a discursive community in the course, where student responses to material are incorporated into the course. For instance, instead of just responding privately or directly to individual student contributions to a course discussion board, assemble responses (even anonymized) and incorporate them into a course video. (Grab screenshots of responses and drop them into your Panopto capture). After watching the video, student can then be asked to respond collectively or in groups to the new synthesis you offered, moving the conversation forward. Giving substantive advance thought to opportunities to enhance communication will likely improve both students’ sense of belonging and their academic achievement in your course.
Keep it simple:
Going online is not as easy as “flipping a switch.” When possible, stick with existing tools in the IT technology stack. When creating new content for online delivery, keep in mind that time works differently in the online space. Shorter videos (ten minutes has been shown to be an optimal length) have better results than long video lectures.
Learning online is a bit different:
Consider whether your students are best served by the same proportion of class-to-homework time you would deploy in an on-campus course. Consider options such as reducing the amount of time reserved for ‘class’ and instead offering students more time for independent or group learning activities like online discussion, writing exercises, problem sets, or creating visual representations of knowledge acquired from reading materials. Consider making a series of brief videos to be watched asynchronously, interspersed with synchronous interactive segments. Think too, about where extant video materials, such as TedTalks, might complement your own materials. Make, sure, however you set up your class, to consider communication student-to-student as well as professor-to-student.
Text is universal:
Keep to best practices for accessibility. This is especially important when using visual materials. Always enter a descriptive phrase in the “Image Description “ box, so users with a screen-reader can understand the purpose and content of a visual asset.
Clarity in communication:
Try to be as clear and intentional as possible in your communications with students. Our students’ informational landscape is about become more complex and rapidly so. Try to be deliberative when communicating with students, thereby avoiding some follow-up correspondence that might prove clarifying to some and confusing to others. It can be very helpful to have a second set of eyes on any key instructions before you send them out to students.
Make sure students feel heard:
In the rush to respond to inquiries or deliver information, it is easy to zip off an email response to a question. When our interactions with students are confined to digital exchanges, it can be helpful to include metalanguage that signals you have heard a student. Phrases like “Thanks for writing” or “Good question” can serve as helpful prefatory remarks that make it clear you welcome their questions. As we all know, tone can be difficult to detect in the flurry of text communications. By intentionally deploying a language of understanding and care, you can possibly avoid ambiguity as well as signal your openness to clarifying questions.