6 Simple Ways to Connect to College Students Online

photo credit: shixart1985 Young woman with laptop holding a hot coffee closeup. via photopin (license)

One of the things I’ve heard over the last 11 years as an online professor is that there’s no way that I could possibly be connecting with my students or developing real relationships in an online setting. I can understand why people would assume this; for many people, online learning calls up for them images of papers emailed to an unseen professor and endless discussion boards. If that was my brand of online learning, I’d agree with them!

But in this new world of social distancing, we have an opportunity to give real, human-centered online learning a try. Of course, we are still in a traumatic and stressful time, so new online courses aren’t going to be perfectly designed. But we CAN implement a few simple practices to allow for community building in online classes during a time of chaos.

  1. Build in community check-ins that have nothing to do with your course content. In my 3+ hour live classes, I build in 10 minutes at the beginning of each class session for students to just chat and see how their peers are doing. Sometimes I give them a suggested topic like “What podcasts are you listening to?” Sometimes I just let them talk about whatever comes to mind. I do not listen in on these conversations; this is time for my students to engage with each other. If you’re doing asynchronous instruction, you can use something like Slack to engage in conversations with students and allow students to engage in conversation with each other.
  2. Let your students talk to each other in private chat that you can’t see. I know, I can hear you loudly protesting this one. Isn’t this like letting students pass notes in class? Well, yes and no. Students might be talking about you, or talking about things that aren’t pertinent to class; they were going to do that anyway. But they also might be helping each other keep up with class, clarifying points, sharing resources, or numerous other things that a backchannel can support. You don’t need to control every aspect of how students interact. Let them be. We’re in a really stressful time, and it’s okay to let students connect.
  3. Be open with your students. Share who you are with them. My students know about my kids, my love of cooking, TV shows that I like, my impostor syndrome, my own struggles and victories in life and in my career. I’m a whole human being, and I want them to know that I see them as whole human beings too. I am vulnerable with my students, because I believe vulnerability is a requirement for real relationship building.
  4. Allow your students to be open with you. Let them tell you they need a little extra time on an assignment because they were worried about a family member without scolding them for not sucking it up and getting it done. Let them tell you they’re having a hard day and they might need to not be on camera during a class session. Let them share with you when they get a new job, or a family member recovers from the virus. There’s an argument that we need to be tough on students. Hold them to deadlines, because the real world won’t give them compassion. I’d argue, though, that if we ever want the real world to be compassionate, then we have to send people out into the world who have received compassion themselves and are prepared to build a compassionate world.
  5. Set norms in your virtual classroom that allow people to be human. In their space, they may want or need to hold children, cuddle pets, nurse babies, eat a snack, drink some coffee, pause to answer the door, etc. Students’ homes will never be the same as the austere and controlled on ground classroom. You cannot force that. Instead, work WITH these unique extensions of your virtual classroom, and trust students to manage their own learning space within the reasonable boundaries you set. Does it really hurt anyone’s learning if someone has a child on their lap? Of course not. I ask my students to make sure whatever is going on in their space isn’t loud, and if it is, to remain muted. I ask them to make sure we don’t see anyone naked in the background. I ask them to make sure that we can hear them when they speak, and if possible have their camera on. Outside of that, my students are adults, and I treat them as such. Not to mention, it brings joy to the classroom when we get to see someone’s adorable baby or cute dog. We wave at moms and dads who want to peek over shoulders and see what’s going on. Work with the student’s environment and not against it.
  6. Make yourself available for support. Your students might have to miss a class. They might not understand what’s going on in a class. They might need assignment support. They might want career advice. They’re more likely to need these things during this chaotic period; they’re going through trauma and living in uncertain times. You can support them by being available for support via virtual office hours. I use Calendly to allow students to automatically schedule office hours, which are added to my Google Calendar. I then meet with students via Zoom. I have no standard office hours, so I never sit in an empty Zoom room. Instead, all of my office hours are by appointment. I choose a couple of days a week where I make appointments available all day. I’m available for office hours for around 15-20 hours a week. However, I only actually end up with office hours appointments for an hour or two a week. Occasionally I will get very full days of meetings, but I can generally anticipate those (e.g. this week final projects are due for some summer courses, so I have had lots of meetings). But the fact that I am available if they need me is comforting to students and makes them feel more supported.

It may not be feasible for you to do the above things, depending on your situation. We can all only do the best we can with what we have. However, I hope that we can try to build connections with our learners in whatever way works for us as we progress into the fall. What have you done during the pandemic to support your students? Do you have ideas to add? Share below!

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