The shift to e-learning that occurred in 2020 may have changed higher education in profound ways, even after the crisis that caused the transition is finally resolved. Students who have never taken an online class now find that they can learn this way. However, many educators who have never taught in this environment understand that teaching online is no easier than teaching in a traditional classroom. The lack of visual and verbal cues presents an immediate learning curve for anyone starting to teach online. Furthermore, the learning management system alone cannot be relied upon as the reason that students succeed in this type of environment. However, virtual learning has already established a proven track record of meeting student needs.
One of the challenges educators must learn to address is engaging students who cannot see in the learning process. Even the most seasoned online educators can find it difficult to do so at times, especially for students who do not respond to outreach attempts. I think about this same theme every time I start a new term and I am always re-evaluating how to evolve and inspire students in new ways. As an example, the current time period was an important factor in my thought process when I set up my new classes and recorded the videos for the first week. He knew that the choice of words and tone could have a considerable impact on students during a time of intense emotions. Over time, and with practice, I have developed strategies to inspire my students that I believe will also be helpful.
What creates a virtual classroom?
Do you consider what your students feel or experience when they first log into the classroom? What is the classroom for them? Some learning management systems are fairly easy to use and some are not. The discussion forum is generally the heart of the classroom and where most of the activity takes place. There are probably many places for you to look for course materials and information. Are students frustrated because they can’t find what they need?
I asked those questions to get you to think about your students and then consider what you can do to help them better navigate through the required technology. Maybe you can post an ad or create a short guide. I create Weekly Prep Guides to help students with the next week of the course, while also sharing additional resources and my perspective on the course topics for the week. I also post a weekly course announcement with a to-do list to help students stay organized. This can also help you and your students.
Five strategies you can implement to inspire your students
If you were to detail the strategies you use now to help engage students in a virtual learning process, which would you consider to be the most inspiring? What strategies help you feel more connected to your students as you interact with them? The following five methods may encourage you to try a new approach or reevaluate how you work with your students online now. I learned these strategies from my own online teaching practice, along with time spent working on teacher development.
Strategy n. # 1: Actively Engage With Your Students
Discussions are the heart of any virtual classroom and this is where you can add incredible value and meaning for students. Consider how they approach the question (s) assigned for the week. Your students will try to read, understand and interpret the required topics. They may post a substantive response, something that explores the concepts and encourages others to engage with them, while demonstrating what they have learned.
More often, however, the initial posts are a good attempt to address the requirements, with a bit of reflection on assigned course materials and general opinion statements infused into what is written. There may be some improvement in the writing level as students move from undergraduate to graduate courses, however, I have seen the same writing patterns continue in all degree programs.
This is why your participation becomes critical to learning and how you can inspire your students to engage in discussions at a much deeper level. While your initial response may be more reactive in nature, your posts can encourage them to think more, through the use of probing questions, while also providing information and context for the topics being studied. You likely have the experience and knowledge to share with them, to give them a real-world perspective that they may not have considered, and they may also have experiences that you can encourage them to provide. When you provide substantive and engaging posts, you are setting a standard for your students to follow and validating their effort or attempt to address the assigned question. I found that validation is necessary for many to keep trying or go ahead with a follow-up post.
Strategy n. 2: direct participation required
There are many words that are used to describe an online educator. The essence of the work you do in a classroom is that of an educator. When you interact with your students, you could consider yourself a teacher as you address specific topics, along with improving academic skills. The word facilitator is also used to denote participation in processes and procedures. I believe that the words that involve educating and teaching students are the most appropriate as both are indicators of the active participation of anyone who is involved in this role. Not only am I involved in helping educate and teach students, I am also a coach and mentor.
Regardless of the words used to define yourself, direct participation in a virtual classroom is required. In my experience, you cannot register two or three times a week, answer questions, complete the minimally required feedback, post the minimally required discussion responses, and hope that this will inspire your students to become very involved in the learning process. If they observe that you are minimally involved in the class, what do they perceive to be your attitude and how are they likely to respond in return? As an example, my goal is to post a response for each student at least once for each discussion. I want to make sure that I have helped each student to continue their original post in some way.
Strategy n. # 3: create comments that connect with your students
There are two forms of feedback. The first type of feedback meets the basic requirement of telling students how points were earned. This may include some comments and / or a rubric that is returned when the gradebook is updated. Students get minimal value from this type of feedback as it does not teach them or address their developmental needs.
The feedback I recommend is deeper. For a written assignment, the first step I take is to download a copy of the student’s work. I then use my comments as a teaching opportunity by inserting comments that include my knowledge, suggestions, and questions. Then when I return the document, I will also include a rubric to support the comments provided in the document. For discussions, I make sure to avoid canned comments and try to personalize them. As an example, I will provide video comments to connect with students directly. I want you to feel like you are having a conversation with them, even if it is a one-way conversation, since they can see and hear me. This also encourages them to contact me after reviewing it for further discussion.
Strategy n. 4: create a person in the virtual classroom
As an online educator, you want to create some kind of persona or develop an online identity in which you have a visible personality. If you can upload a photo of yourself to your profile, a professional photo will be of great help so that your students see you as a real person. Next, consider how you want to be portrayed or perceived by students in the classroom.
While you want to remain professional and academic in nature, can you afford to share something of a personal nature? For example, in my introduction I will share something about my favorite hobbies, TV shows, and movies, along with my professional accomplishments and accomplishments. I find this helps me connect with students and creates a positive image online.
Strategy n. # 5: use words to represent it carefully and carefully
Any educator who “works” or “teaches” in a virtual environment quickly learns the challenge of communicating in this type of classroom. You are using written words instead of verbal communication, and those words can be easily misinterpreted as you are not there to explain what was meant, in case students do not understand your message. Also, they are likely to be online and working at different times than you, given the accessible nature of most learning management systems.
This means that you have to think about every message posted and email or message sent. If you feel any emotional reaction to what you are writing, test what I am doing and create what you want to communicate first in a Word document. Then, if you need time to think more about the message, put it aside and allow a short period of time to focus and feel good about sending it. If you are not sure how to respond, the best solution might be to ask the student to call you. The more careful you are when sending your communication, the more you will continue to develop productive relationships with your students, and in turn, this will inspire them to stay involved in class.
Virtual learning should never feel distant
When students are first assigned to your class, and they have never been assigned to one of your classes before, they know nothing about you. The way they get to know you is through perceptual cues, which include posts and messages they read. An inherent challenge that makes meeting an instructor even more difficult is the separating factor. At the beginning of a class, students may feel separated, until there are signs that their instructor will be easily accessible and available to them. Using welcome videos at my school is a very helpful strategy to bridge the virtual gap at the beginning of a class. I also set Office Hours and provide a direct contact phone number for students to call. For classes that involve complex course projects, I share an appointment scheduling link, making it easy to find a convenient time for your schedule to make an individual appointment.
Regardless of which approach you use, every instructional strategy you implement must be done with the purpose of closing the virtual gap. I found that students who feel connected to their instructor, due to the instructor’s responsiveness, meaningful comments, engaging discussion posts, thoughtful communication, and ease of access, are the ones who will be most involved in the process of learning. When they feel challenged by the class, they will be more likely to reach out and ask questions because of the report developed. A bond is created and a feeling that the instructor cares about their continued development. If you haven’t taught in this environment before, I can tell you this: You must earn your students’ commitment in a different way. When you achieve this goal, it becomes extremely rewarding and personally satisfying to affirm: You are an online educator.