Consider how you communicate with your family, friends, and colleagues through technology. Have you learned from a discovery a colleague shared online? Participated in a community? Connected with a family member who isn't local? A potential pitfall of an online course is students feeling isolated and disengaged, but creating a course promoting natural kinds of interaction can be engaging and full of meaningful experiences.
How you choose to interact with students will depend on many factors:
- the class size,
- the types of student you have,
- the subject matter,
- your intended learning outcomes,
- what technology you're comfortable with, and
- your personality.
It is crucial, though, that you establish a human presence as the instructor and help your students make personal connections.
The following are some examples and best practices.
Connection: Establishing presence
The first key is to help students make initial personal connections with each other and with you. Many online courses begin with some sort of apost a short bioa activity. As the course progresses, try to connect with students meaningfully through coaching and feedback.
Group introduction discussions are almost universal in online college courses. This activity is an effective way to initiate interaction and personal connection in the class. Even if it's a graduate course with an existing cohort, it will be worth their time and yours to reconnect this wayato break the ice for ongoing discussion and collaboration during the semester.
The directions can be fairly simple:
Feel free to be creative, though, and let your personality come through. If technology allows, you might encourage students to introduce themselves with photos or videos.
Although the role of the instructor in an onine course differs in many ways from a face-to-face course, your presence and personality can be crucial in making students feel connected and engaged.
From Tina Stavredes, Effective Online Teaching, here is a list of the types of interactions that depend on your communication and presence with students:
|Purpose of interactions
||Types of strategies
- Introduction activities
- Welcome messages or videos
|Encourage knowledge construction and critical thinking
Discussion posts that
- stimulate more conversation
- include personal opinions and real-world examples and ask students to do the same
- ask for elaboration
- ask for clarification
- weave together topics
- take or ask for alternative perspectives
- ask students to follow a line of reasoning further
- ask students to examine the assumptions in a line of reasoning
- ask students to examine the implications/effects of a line of reasoning
- summarize a long debate or conversation
- Mid-week or end-of-week checks on student activity and progress in Carmen
- Announcement or discussion message with additional resources or clarification on items or problems students are struggling with
- Proactive phone call or e-mail communication to students who are not participating actively or performing well
|Communicate feedback on performance
- Actionable feedback during the first few weeks on each student's discussion participation
- Prompt and actionable feedback on all assignments
- Rubrics for all assignments, including participation in discussions, with encouragement for students to review these ahead of time
- Prompt gradebook updates
- Weekly "road map" or overview pages that introduce the content and assignments
- Due dates listed in the calendar for each assignment
- Links to just-in-time resources for major assignments (technical help, style guides, secondary sources)
- Weekly question-and-answer forums where students are encouraged to ask any question
Adapted from L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2013):
High-quality feedback in an online course is
Frequent: To maintain your presence as instructor and keep your students connected, try to give them some sort of meaningful feedback at least once a week, whether it's feedback on an assignment or simply a thoughtful, personal response to a student's discussion post.
Immediate: Try to deliver feedback as soon as possible after a student submits work. Again, for the purposes of maintaining ongoing connection online, most best practices for online teaching recommend turning around assignment feedback within a week.
Discriminating (based on criteria and standards): As much as possible, provide specific feedback about the student's performance based on predefined criteria, such as by using a rubric. Provide corrective advice instead of identifying strengths and weeknesses.
- Delivered Warmly (supportively, personally): Use feedback as an opportunity to encourage, even if the feedback isn't all positive. Write personalized feedback whenever possible.
This kind of feedback is a critical component in establishing a positive studentainstructor connection, in providing a positive human presence in the online course.
Collaboration: Having students to connect through course work
Then, as the course progresses, you can use group activities to let students learn from each other and engage in peer review. This works particularly well with ill-defined authentic tasks.
A small-group discussion forum can be an excellent place for students to reflect on their learning and share their successes and frustrations. This has benefits for helping students develop metacognitive skills and for more practical sharing of tips and technical help.
See the page on Active Learning for examples of collaborative online projects.
From Palloff and Pratt (2007), Building Online Learning Communities (e-book available from University Libraries), the following are some questions to consider as you plan your course:
- What is the content of this course? What aspects of the content lend themselves to collaborative group activities?
- What are the goals of the small-group activities?
- What size groups or teams should be formed in order to achieve those goals?
- How should groups or teams be formed? By the instructor? By the students? Dependent on interests? Dependent on strengths?
- Should the groups be homogeneous or heterogeneous?
- Will the participants remain in the same groups throughout the course, or will new groups be formed for each activity?
- How will activities be structured to ensure participation by all members of the group?
- Should roles be assigned to various group members?
- What rewards or motivations will be built into the process?
- How will accountability be built into the process?
- How will individual and group performance be evaluated? Who will evaluate this performance? The instructor? The participants themselves?
- Is there an expectation that students will provide feedback to each other on their work? How will this be built into the course?
Community: Nurturing a community of inquiry
Last, create an environment where your students can interact as a community. Require class-wide discussions and encourage students to share comments and questions with each other. Be present, but donat be afraid to let the class work through questions as a community before you intervene.
Regular class-wide discussions are usually a major component of online courses. The most effective questions (see below) are usually open ended, with the possibility of differing opinions and lively discussion.
Online course discussions can be excellent opportunities for encouraging critical thinking.
By offering challenging open-ended questions, you can engage in a sort of asynchronous online Socratic questioning with students.
1. Provide a setup
Present a statement, observation, or scenario that requires students to re-examine or apply what they're learning.
2. Ask students to commit
Ask a specific question, one that won't have an obvious right answer, likely in one of the following categories:
- Ask for personal reflections: aWhat do you thinka|?a or aHow do you feel abouta|?a
- Ask for past experiences aIn the past, how have you responded whena|?a or aHave you ever had an experience wherea|?a
- Ask for a rational conclusion: aWhat conclusion do you drawa|?a or aOf a, b, or c, which choice makes the most sense givena|?
- Ask for a process or order: aHow would you go abouta|?a or aIn what order would youa|?a
- Ask students to guess or estimate: aWhat would you do ifa|?a or aWhat might have happened ifa|?a
- Ask for their opinion in superlatives: aWhat is the worst approacha|?a or aWhat is the most appropriate a|?a
3. Ask students to defend their commitments
Give students clear directions for defending or explaining their response.
- "Why or why not?"
- "Explain your reasoning."
- "Defend your response through one of the theoretical frameworks in this week's reading."
- "Explain your response using data from this week's field observations."
Carol B. MacKnight (2000), "Teaching Critical Thinking through Online Discussions"
MurchAo and Muirhead (2005) "Insights into Promoting Critical Thinking in Online Classes"
It may be useful to plan your online course activities around the normal phases of community building in this kind of environment.
From Conrad and Donaldson, Engaging the Online Learner ( available from University Libraries):
||Provide activities that help students to get to know one another. Bring up issues of etiquette and expectations about participation in the course discussions.
||Provide paired student activities that require critical thinking, peer review, and reflection.
||Provide collaborative group activities, projects, or debates.
||Initiator or partner
||Community member or challenger
||Set up student-designed and student-led presentations and discussions. Allow students to reflect and discuss without intervening too forcefully.