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!

Yes, actually. I AM a teacher.


In a recent blog post for the Huffington Post, Professor Keith M. Parsons from the University of Houston – Clear Lake sends a message to his students.  It’s gotten a lot of attention on social media, at least in my circles, and as a professor myself, I was interested in what he had to say.  After reading his post, however, I am disappointed that this type of teaching (yes, I said teaching), is being advocated by someone in an influential educational position.  Perhaps it is because I am a teaching professor in a school of education, but I couldn’t let this one slide.

Professor Parsons makes a few points in his blog post that he wishes to drive home to his students, and I’d like to address each one in turn.

First, Professor Parsons states, “I am your professor, not your teacher.”  He goes on to explain how teaching and professing are two completely different things, and that “it is no part of my job to make you learn.” He makes the case that teachers are measured by learning outcomes and standardized tests, and are held accountable for their students’ learning.  He argues that he has no obligation to ensure learning occurs for students.  So his argument appears to be that since he isn’t going to be held accountable for it, then student learning is none of his business. Rubbish.  Is this really the ideal to which we, as professors, should hold ourselves?  No one is going to check and see if your students are learning, so they sink or swim?

Professor Parsons also states that universities are old fashioned institutions, and that the idea that professors should make learning accessible to students, or, heaven forbid, student-centered, is “hogwash.”  He tells us that students need to “learn to listen.”  Professor Parsons needs to learn to listen to the vast body of research on student learning that says that student-centered learning is more effective than teacher-centered lecture; listen to those who are actually experts in the field of education who tell you that student centered learning improves student outcomes (Kember, 2008; Wright, 2011).  (Professor Parsons, I tossed in a couple of citations for you there, even though this is a blog post, because as a professor, I do share your love of citations.)  Yes, lectures can be captivating, but student-centered learning approaches are far from “hogwash.”  They help us create critical thinkers and patient problem solvers of our students.

Finally, Professor Parsons argues that the university is a different culture with different values.  In this, I agree.  The university setting does have different norms and values than the K-12 setting.  However, I disagree with the implication that the norms and values of the university setting are better.  The university setting is beginning to take lessons from the K-12 setting in ways that are beneficial for everyone; we’re improving teaching and learning, and providing a higher quality experience for our students, and the research supports that.

Parsons argues that students see the university as a place to get a credential, while he sees the university as being about education. I am baffled as to how Professor Parsons can refuse to accept the mountain of educational research on good pedagogy, and then state that universities are about education.  Professor Parsons, while he may choose to deny it, is most definitely a teacher, as are all other professors with students in their charge.  When you take on the honor of holding the education of a group of young people in your hands, you must also take on responsibility for their learning, even if no one will ever check up on you to see how well your students are learning.  If you choose to take on a profession that involves teaching students, then I beg you: teach them.  Engage with your students.  Listen to what they have to say.  Involve them in projects and experiences.  Make them argue ideas and invent solutions to problems.  Talk with them, not at them.  Support them.  Set high expectations, but provide support to reach those expectations.  Deeply reflect on your own teaching practice, and examine what you can improve.  Teaching should be a process of learning for both you AND your students.  For many years, the university system did an excellent job of meeting the needs of a very limited and privileged subset of the population, in a very different world.  Students today are not like the students of 30 years ago in some critically important ways.  Stop complaining about your students and accept that postsecondary education is, at least in this one respect, changing for the better.  Change with it, or become a relic of a system that doesn’t meet the needs of the population it purports to serve.

Kember, D. (2009). Promoting student-centred forms of learning across an entire university. Higher Education 58(1): 1–13.

Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 23 (3): 93–94.

7 Tips for New Teachers


It’s that time of year again!  Time when the backpacks are full of fresh school supplies, the desks are clean, and the bulletin boards eagerly awaiting student work.

More importantly, a newly minted group of teachers is welcoming their students, ready to change the world.  With all of my recent graduates in mind, I share these words of wisdom for the new teachers out there:

1. This year is going to be hard. Really hard.  You are now going to be faced not only with applying all of that knowledge you soaked up in your certification program, but also with managing the ins and outs of a working classroom.  Manage your time wisely, and leave your classroom each day with everything ready to go for the next morning.

2. Remember how I said this year was going to be hard?  You’re going to mess up.  Sometimes you’ll see the screwup coming a mile away; sometimes it will sneak up on you silently.  Sometimes that lesson that you put hours into planning will fail spectacularly.  Sometimes you will lose your cool and say something you wish you hadn’t said. It’s okay.  We’ve all been there.  The first year of teaching is, in many ways, like the first pancake.  It’s ugly and a little burned around the edges, but it still tastes okay.  The next pancake is better, and so the next school year will be better as well.  Teaching well, consistently, takes practice.

3. Find your teacher tribe.  You need a community of strong, like minded educators to support you through the tough times and celebrate the successes.  You might not find this community at your school; stay in touch with the teachers you went to school with.  This support system will be critical to your success.

4. Stay in touch with your favorite professors.  They have been where you are, and they will be able to help you with important issues and big decisions. They can also provide you with lots of resources that you might never have thought of asking for during your certification program.

5. Leave your work at work.  If at all possible, don’t take assignments home to grade, and don’t give out your home phone number.  If you want parents or students to be able to contact you after hours, use email and set up a Google Voice number; you can get both voice calls and texts there without having your phone ring during movie night.  Giving yourself uninterrupted time to NOT be a teacher is vital to your mental health.

6. Reflect on everything you do.  I know you have a thousand papers to grade, and you need to set up lab equipment, and you have an inservice meeting to go to, but take 10 minutes and think, write, or talk about your successes and failures each day.  Not only will it reduce your stress level, but being honest with yourself about your teaching practice will help you to consistently improve.

7. If it’s not in the best interests of your students, don’t do it.  This is the dangerous piece of advice.  You are going to be asked to do things that are not in your students’ best interests.  You’ll be told to use a particular book, or give a particular test, or that “this is how it’s done here.”  Use your professional judgment, and critically evaluate everything you are told to do.  If you think it is going to have a negative impact on your students, talk to your administrators.  If they won’t budge, then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Significant change will never happen as long as teachers agree to maintain the status quo.  Be critical, and when you bring up an objection, be prepared to back it up with research and evidence.  Remember that you are not just a teacher; you are also an advocate for your students’ needs; you are often the ONLY advocate for your students’ needs. Know what hills you’re willing to die on.

Keep your chin up, let negativity roll off your back, and start teaching.  You got this.

Beautiful Moments in the Extended Classroom

So, as many of you know, I teach a class online that looks something like this:

Webcams, chat pods, notes pods, graphics, video, etc.  All good stuff.  There’s a unique aspect, however, to this type of classroom.  In a brick and mortar classroom, my room extends to the walls, and whatever the students can see or hear outside.  In the virtual, video based classroom, though, my classroom now extends into each of their homes.  Their sofas, desks, posters, cats, and children all become part of the classroom.  Some professors fight this tooth and nail.  They inform students that pets and children need to remain off camera, and they warn against eating or smoking (yes, smoking!) in class.

I take a different perspective.  I think that, as educators, we need to embrace the elements of this extended classroom.  We need to balance professionalism and comfort.  Acceptance and distraction.
So how do I do this?  I let students know that I have a few guidelines for online behavior:

1. Stuff is going to happen.  Someone is going to ring your doorbell.  A repair guy is going to need access to the attic.  Your dog is going to start barking.  You’re going to need to use the restroom.  A bear will wander into your backyard, and you’ll have to go save your dogs (yes, that happened to a student of mine!). When that happens, just pause your camera, mute your phone, and go take care of whatever it is.  It is no different than running to the restroom during a brick and mortar class.

2. If you start to get sleepy (some of my students attend from across the world, meaning my classes are in the middle of the night for them), first, I apologize for not being more engaging, and second, feel free to pause your camera, go grab a cup of coffee or tea, or just get up and stretch, and then rejoin us.  How great is it that our extended classroom has coffee makers and teapots as amenities?

3. Quiet pets are awesome.  When they get noisy, just escort them elsewhere.

4. Eat, drink, and smoke as needed.  Seriously.  Unless you’re doing a full close up of your mouth chewing on camera, or we’re hearing you slurp a milkshake, then why not?  Get your basic needs met so you can concentrate on learning.  I used to be a smoker.  You know what I’d think about if I needed a cigarette during class? It wasn’t the course content.  It was smoking a cigarette.  We’re not breathing it, so go for it.

5. If your child is banging on the door to come in, or running behind the camera to catch glimpses of what we’re doing, by all means, PUT THEM ON YOUR LAP!  Let them see what we’re doing, and soak up that great modeling of you pursuing lifelong learning!  Here’s what will happen.  They’ll make faces at the camera for a minute, then they’ll watch and listen to us, and then they’ll either move on or contentedly sit there.  Both of those seem like great outcomes to me.

In general, these guidelines are meant to address the distractions that might arise from these situations, and allow for compromise.  Sometimes, however, something really beautiful happens.

I was teaching a course a couple of weeks ago, when one of my students, who is also a mom, commented on her kids (I believe he is 10 years old) making noise in the background.  I encouraged her to invite him to join us at a class session sometime.  The next week, she turned on her camera for class, and he was sitting right next to her.  He made a couple of faces at the camera (they all do), and then he watched and listened thoughtfully.  We were discussing how we, as educators, can help students become critical consumers of online content, and encourage the New Media Literacy skill of judgment. When I split the students into small groups to discuss, I jumped into her group to listen.  I saw something that made me SO happy!  The other students in the group had engaged this child in discussion about how he uses the internet.

“What is your favorite subject?”


“When you go on the computer, how do you learn about reptiles?”

This resulted in lots of great, first hand information about this child’s experiences.  My students had a thoughtful, nuanced conversation about the content.  This child was FAR from a distraction; in fact, he enhanced our class session in a way that I never could have.

So my advice to those of you teaching over webcams is this; don’t try to replicate a brick and mortar setting.  Embrace your extended classroom, and your students as whole people, so that you can enjoy beautiful moments like these.

5 Tech Tools for the Newly Connected Educator

This one is for the teaching with technology newbies.  I know there are lots of you out there; I find myself teaching you quite often.  Sometimes those of us whose lives are threaded through with technology in every possible way forget that somewhere out there, there is a teacher who doesn’t understand the difference between a tweet and a status update. If the extent of your online activity is looking at pictures of your grandkids on Facebook, this post is for you! As you go through this post, you’ll see words and phrases that are underlined.  Click on those for more resources related to that word or phrase.

So let’s say you’re one of those educators, and you want to know where to start.  Slogging through all of the available information out there is a daunting task, so I’m going to give you the top 5 tech tools I think you should start with; from there, the technology you can branch out to is virtually infinite.

1. Prezi
Prezi is basically like a souped up version of PowerPoint.  You can import slides from PowerPoint, as a matter of fact, but I think that kind of defeats the purpose of this tool.  What Prezi does is allow you to zoom, spin, add images and videos, and share and collaborate with others on the web.  It is really useful for minilessons, because it’s much more visually engaging than PowerPoint, and it’s also a great tool for students to use to collaborate on projects together.  The best parts are that it’s free and easy to learn.  Give it a try and I guarantee you’ll never be going back to PowerPoint.


2. Dropbox
Dropbox is what we call “cloud storage.”  This means that (in very simplistic terms) instead of, or in addition to, saving files on the hard drive of your computer, you can save them to a really safe and secure hard drive that Dropbox manages for you.  The files basically live online, and you can grab them whenever and wherever you need them.  So here’s what you do:

  • Download the Dropbox software and install it on your computer.
  • Start dragging and dropping files into your new Dropbox folder on your computer.
  • That’s it!  Now your files are backed up, and if your computer gets run over by a truck, you can restore your files without losing anything.

If you want to get fancy, you can also create shared or public folders, and put things in them that you want other teachers, parents, or students to be able to access.  One word of caution; I don’t recommend storing student data in Dropbox for security/privacy reasons.  Dropbox is generally very safe and private, but why take the chance?

A section of my Dropbox folder in the online interface.

3. Twitter
Ah, Twitter…To the non-initiated, Twitter probably seems like a neverending stream of random, disorganized thoughts.  However, Twitter is probably the most powerful way for you to connect with your fellow educators to engage in professional development, discussion, and debate.  Go set up an account on Twitter, and you’ll have the option of “following” people and organizations.  This means that every time they “tweet” something (or share an idea or resource with their fellow Twitter users) you will see it.  You can then share it yourself or reply to it.  You can also share your own stuff; the one restriction is that you only have 140 characters in which to do so.  At first this seems restrictive, but what it actually does is forces people to post only the most important part of what they’re trying to say.  The key to Twitter being useful is that you need to carefully curate who you follow.  If you load up your Twitter feed (the ever changing list of things people are tweeting) with celebrities and teenagers, Twitter is going to quickly seem useless.  However, if you follow political figures, scientists, organizations, your students, your colleagues, authors, etc., then all of a sudden the Twitter feed becomes this amazing real-time source of information.  You can also engage in real time conversations with other users by using “hashtags.” A hashtag is like a label for your tweet to let other people know what it’s about.  People can then search by hashtag and find all of the tweets about a given topic.  Take for example, one of my recent tweets:

In this tweet, I shared a link, and added hashtags to it so that people looking for tweets about certain topics could find it.  I used the hashtag #teaching for people who might be searching for teaching tweets, the hashtag #edchat, which is a popular hashtag for general discussion about education, #edtech, which is for discussions about educational technology, and I also did something called “mentioning,” where I put the name of another Twitter user in my post so that people that follow that other user would see my tweet as well. Here’s what a quick search for people tweeting about #edchat brought up for me:

I know this seems like a lot to take in, but trust me, once you get the hang of it, this will be a great source of information for you, and an invaluable way for you to share your expertise with the world.  You can even set up hashtags and get your students tweeting about lessons.  It’s a great way to communicate with students in a medium with which they are already familiar.

4. Facebook
You’re probably already on Facebook.  I bet you have an account where you “like” pictures of family, share things, and post status updates.  However, you probably don’t have a Facebook group set up for your students.  You have the ability to, for free, set up a closed or private group for your students to interact with.  If you already have a schoolwide LMS (Learning Management System) then you don’t need this; of course, if you already have a schoolwide LMS, you’re probably not a newly connected educator.  The benefit of using Facebook with your students is visibility.  Just like with Twitter, you can connect with students in the way that they are already communicating outside the classroom.  You can share files, post information, links, photos, and videos, send out reminders, etc.  Take some time before you do this, though, and read about the difference between a closed Facebook group and a secret Facebook group.

Image courtesy of Facebook for Educators

5. YouTube
You’ve probably also already been on YouTube.  YouTube is ubiquitous these days, with even 95 year old great-grandmas commenting on cat videos.  However, you can harness the power of YouTube for your classroom.  YouTube offers you the ability to upload videos to the website for either public consumption, or for specific people.  You can create videos of yourself explaining concepts.  You can create videos of yourself walking students through the syllabus, or addressing questions about assignments.  You can have students record themselves talking about topics, or presenting projects and post it for the world to see.  This tool allows a level of collaboration and sharing of ideas that is unprecedented.

Now here’s the sad part.  Many of you are working (or will be working) in districts or schools that block some or all of these sites.  If that is the case, you have a few options:

  • You can fight it.  Take it to the school or district level, and challenge the policy.  Here’s a good article to get you started on why you should fight it.
  • You can use these tools at home, and encourage students to do the same.  However, if you’re in a high needs school, this may be a challenge.
  • You can break policy and use a proxy server to do it anyway.  Of course, if you choose to do this, all potential consequences fall on your shoulders, and you risk your job if you get caught.  I will tell you, however, that most of your students already know how to do this, and are doing it on a daily basis.

I know this is a lot of information, if you’re not currently a “connected” educator.  I encourage you, however, to try one of these technologies at a time.  Use what works for you, and make an effort to become connected globally to your fellow educators.  We can’t wait for you to join us!