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!

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?”

“Reptiles!”

“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.