Faculty members at colleges and universities across the country, including Spalding University, have been quickly thrown into teaching online due to the impact of the coronavirus and COVID-19, which has led to the suspension of face-to-face classes in order to promote social distancing. Even those who have been teaching online for a while might need to be reminded about the most important aspects of engaging with students through the online modality during this challenging time.
Once your online content is built, here are five pedagogical practices to keep in mind as you begin connecting with your students in the virtual environment.
1. Keep it simple – let your subject drive the technology needed. It seems that every book publisher and higher-ed organization has sent notice of free, new, virtual resources, along with advice for building them into courses. While some of these might be helpful, now is not the time to unduly burden yourself or your students with learning new technology. Keep to simple options available through your LMS (Moodle or Canvas at Spalding) unless you are teaching a subject that requires something different. In that case, keep the expectations on yourself and your students as simple and easy as possible. Don’t feel as if you have to try to incorporate special resources, when existing simple ones will often facilitate learning just as well.
2. Be clear about how and when you will respond to students. Best practice is to respond to students within 24 hours if possible. Let students know in the syllabus or announcements what your response time will generally be (whether 24-48 hours) and whether you prefer to use email or the LMS messaging system. Address students by name when you respond to them. If possible, have and announce an “open-door” policy for setting up virtual meetings or calls with students or hold set “office hours” where you are online waiting for students to contact you. The important thing is to make sure students know that you are approachable and that your goal is their success during this unprecedented time.
3. Be prepared to provide assignment directions in various formats. According to Media Richness Theory, communication needs change based on the purpose of a task. Lean media such as emails and text are appropriate when conveying a simple assignment description. However, if there is equivocality, or room for variance and misunderstanding in a more complicated assignment, (virtual) face-to-face or other communication mediums may be required to gather feedback, see nonverbal responses, or account for personal variance in understanding. If communicating about a high-stakes or complicated assignment that might be unclear from text alone, you may want to add to the written text of the assignment: (1) a short video with verbal directions; (2) an FAQ discussion forum for students to post questions; or (3) a scheduled online chat time or “office hours” through Go to Meeting or Canvas Conference to virtually talk with students face to face.
4. Lay out a calendar for managing the course. Once the online coursework has been created, the instructor’s role is just beginning. Build a schedule for yourself and block out time in your own daily calendar as to when you will need to grade, check into or post in discussions, make additional short videos to introduce a module or assignment, and/or host open “office hours.” Be realistic about the expectations, and don’t unreasonably overload yourself, especially if you are teaching more than one course and have other obligations during this time. Change dates for assignments to be due or adjust the expectations for how quickly you can provide feedback to students accordingly and let them know.
5. You don’t have to do this perfectly, and neither do your students – just keep communication open! In this time of uncertainty and challenge, do not expect to teach the perfect course, even if you are experienced teaching online. Be kind to yourself, knowing your ability to focus, your ability to respond or your ability to keep up might be less than usual during this time. Also, give your students the same grace. Be thoughtful about extension requests, assignments that miss the mark, or frustrations students may voice. You may want to incorporate experiences that students are facing during this crisis into discussions or activities of the class if possible. But above all, keep the lines of communication open between you and your students.
Dr. Donna Elkins is a professor in Spalding University’s School of Communication and the Director of Spalding’s Center for Teaching and Learning.