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!

Reflections on AERA: Where Do I Fit?

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I’m in the air right now on my way from San Francisco, to Dallas, and then home to Louisiana, after 4 days at the American Educational Research Association conference, and my brain is full. I experienced (and live tweeted!) many great sessions, spoke with a number of very interesting people researching important questions, presented my own research findings with a colleague, and did a little sightseeing. However, throughout my trip, I kept returning to one thought over and over. What is my role in all of this educational chaos?

For those of you who don’t know me, and what I do, I was a bit of an educational jack of all trades before getting my doctorate and becoming a professor at USC. I’m currently an offsite clinical professor, which means that I do my work from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, even though I am employed by the University of Southern California. A few years back, the Rossier School at USC began an innovative program, in partnership with 2U, called the MAT@USC. It’s a hybrid program, meaning that our students do academic coursework online, in a 70% asynchronous and 30% synchronous format, and also do observations and student teaching on the ground in physical classrooms wherever they are located in the world (which includes students in 43 states and 27 countries, last I heard). One of the greatest misconceptions about this position that I hold is that I don’t see or interact with my students. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Each course I teach holds a 2 hour, live class session each week, where my students and I can see each other over our webcams (all at the same time, Brady Bunch style), and we can hear each other speak over a teleconference line. We also use a chat box, video, PowerPoints (non-boring ones only!), poll questions, virtual whiteboards, and a number of other technologies. Our classes are dynamic, interactive, and student-centered, involving lots of small group work and student led discussions. I’ve been teaching in this program for almost 4 years, and I think I’ve maybe lectured for 2 hours TOTAL over that entire time. My students engage with me via our Learning Management System, but also through Twitter, Facebook, and via texting. I review draft after draft of papers and projects, and meet with students individually to talk about their work, their families, their hopes, and their fears. I stay in touch with them, and encourage them to pursue doctoral work or to find classroom placements in high needs schools, or to come back and serve as mentor teachers once they’ve got some experience under their belts. I grade, grade, grade, and actually enjoy it. I watch the “game tapes” of my classes (every session I teach is recorded) and continually try to improve my practice.

What do I do outside the classroom? I engage with other faculty on curriculum development. I serve on school wide committees. I mentor new faculty and doctoral students. I create and distribute technological tutorials for faculty and students. I read and make decisions on applications to our program. I present at national and international conferences on the best practices we’ve honed in on through our teaching, and even do a little research here and there, though its not technically part of my contract. In fact, my first publication should be coming out shortly, and I’ve got 2 other research projects in the works. Not bad for someone who teaches 32 units a year and has no research funding or grad assistants.

Above all, though, I am a teacher of teachers. Sure, I dabble in research when I have a question I need answered that the literature hasn’t addressed (and in my field at the intersection of education and technology, those questions are many), but primarily, I’m a teacher. It is what I love to do, and I dearly hope that this is a job I’m able to retire in. Teaching is my passion, and working with adult learners via innovative technologies is my niche.

So why is it that, when I come to a conference of educators and researchers, I am often met with puzzlement or disdain when they find out what I do? Is it that they aren’t aware that people like me exist? Is it that they aren’t able to fathom something between an adjunct and a research professor? Is it that they believe that, because I don’t have a long list of publications on my CV, my voice doesn’t matter? It occurred to me more than once during this conference, that if, instead of pursuing a doctorate and becoming a teacher educator, I had continued in my position as a classroom teacher in a high needs school near East L.A., I would have commanded far more respect from some of the people I met.

They were often surprised to see me at a conference like AERA. Surprised to hear that, when I encountered an area that desperately needed research in my field (finding articles for the lit review was a challenge), I worked with another offsite clinical colleague and did some research. Surprised that my school would support me in doing this, since it “isn’t my job.” I am fortunate, I know, to be at an institution that DOES value my contribution. That hired me on full time, compensates me competitively, gives me resources like technological tools and faculty funds, and allows me to participate and be a voice in the department, and not just in the classes I teach. What I don’t understand is why this is such a rare and shocking thing.

OF COURSE we need clinical (teaching) professors; we are educators, after all, and having highly skilled and effective teachers in a school of education is critical. I think we all know that there are some research faculty who do not fill this need (nor should they; they are brilliant at answering questions I couldn’t even begin to address). OF COURSE we should provide a voice for these clinical professors, so that they can engage fully as stakeholders in the process of educating teachers, and bring their teaching and content area expertise to program and course design. OF COURSE we should support them to be part of the research community, either as critical consumers bringing back best practices from conferences, or as small scale researchers answering questions that might be overlooked by the larger scale research community.

I don’t think I have an answer yet for this question of where I fit in in the educational chaos. I know where I fit in my school, and I am deeply satisfied with that role. So for now, I don’t think I need to know where I fit in on the larger scale. I do think, however, that this is a question that will need to be answered by the larger educational community very soon. People like me are important to the equation, and are becoming more prominent; I hope we continue to be for a very long time. And I hope that, as the years pass, and I visit AERA again and again, that the attitudes shift from incredulity, confusion, and occasional disdain, to acceptance, support, collegiality, and a focus on how we can all help each other do what we do best.