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Creating Connection when Teaching Online

By Dr Rachael Dickson

The move to online teaching across higher education due to Coronavirus comes with many challenges. There are new platforms and technologies to master, changes to assessment and delivery methods, and how to keep the dog/cat/children from invading your camera space. One thing that is concerning many of us, is how to establish connections with students, support them in their learning, and ensure they don’t fall through the cracks. While continued learning is important, the wellbeing of students during this time is a parallel concern.

I began teaching on online-only LLB degree pathways three years ago, simply because it was a flexible way to make money as I finished my PhD. Having only taught in a physical classroom before, I was apprehensive and, frankly, a bit sceptical about the online student experience. The institutional steer on how to teach online is minimal and focuses on service-level delivery e.g. post three times a week, hold one live session a week, rather than how to create connection. My practice was developed ad hoc and through trial and error but in this new normal we find ourselves in, here are my top tips for creating connection when teaching online.


1. Show you are human, and encourage your students to also

Online learning platforms often contain an overwhelming amount of information. I see my role as the teacher to humanise this. I never meet my students in person and they come from across the world so I always begin modules and online sessions on a human level. Yes, I tell them about my research interests but I also tell them about the weather in Belfast (rainy, 99% of the time), my hobbies (cooking, hiking, yoga), and things I’ve been up to that week. I encourage them to tell me about themselves and sometimes exchanges of recipes, weather diaries, and daily amusement will ensue.

In uncertain times like this, collegiality may develop by acknowledging that it is not business as usual and that we all may be engaging in activities or habits we don’t usually do. Taking 5 mins at the start of live sessions to chat about this before getting into the materials might help students to focus and get in the headspace for learning. Starting separate discussion threads for introductions or casual discussions will help students feel ‘at home’ in their new classroom.

It is an idea to be mindful that just because this transition is occurring halfway through the term that students will know each other or automatically feel comfortable on the platform. Some maybe haven’t attended class much, or are feeling anxious and isolated. Reorienting through informal chat might help break everyone into this new way of working.


2. Help with task prioritisation

This tip is linked to the point above on the wealth of information available on online learning sites. Seeing all the materials collected in one place can be daunting and students can sometimes find it overwhelming. For some, this can result in them becoming disengaged whereas others will overwork and burn themselves out.

I find helping the students to prioritise their tasks at the end of sessions useful. It gives them direction (even more relevant in this time of crisis) and emphasises that they are not expected to know everything immediately or do everything at once. I’ll summarise what they need to learn and direct them to the reading. If there is an assessment deadline approaching, I will tell them what needs to be done and advise on breaking this down into manageable tasks. I don’t give timeframes because everyone works differently and has different time pressures outside the classroom, but identifying specific tasks will help students manage their own workloads.

Talking about how I conduct my work also helps, it shows that learning and research is a process and even though we are working online, we aren’t robots who are expected to know/do everything immediately.


3. Let them know you are there to help, over and over again

Another challenge of teaching online is showing that your students that you are approachable. Setting up online office hours or designated question and answer sessions on Zoom, Skype, etc is one way of providing support that would have existed in the physical university.

However, some students are reluctant to ask for help and might feel that they don’t want to be a nuisance or their queries aren’t worth the bother. This may be exacerbated in the current climate, when official comms are detailing how much work everyone is putting in so teaching can continue.

In addition, the access to assistance we take for granted in the physical classroom may not be as obvious in the online setting. It is important to be explicit about what channels are available for help and guidance. This doesn’t mean being available round the clock but reminding students how you are available to them (direct message, email, office hours) and in what timeframe they can expect a response. Posting announcements of general queries is also useful or making recordings of Q&A sessions available so they can come back to them for clarification (Zoom is good for this as it produces shareable links).
It may also be useful to signpost other avenues of support beyond the module materials, particularly for pastoral or mental health issues.

Some students might not ever get in contact with you, but will find it reassuring to know how they can if they need to.


4. Give feedback and encouragement often

Finally, given the changes to assessment and progression, students may benefit from more informal feedback and encouragement. This will help them feel like they are adjusting to the new way of learning and possibly spur them to keep focused.

A simple, but easily overlooked, way of doing this is to thank people for their contributions, whether that is speaking out or written posts. This indicates participation is welcome and valued.

In providing more substantive feedback on the quality of work, I have found this needs to be clear and directed. Focus on providing active steps the student can take to deepen their engagement with the topic, improve their communication, or demonstrate their understanding. Offering vague or open-ended advice may not be useful, particularly if the student lacks the skills to take it on board.

Asking for feedback from your students, during sessions, will also help develop your online style. Showing them that this is new for you too and everyone is in a period of adjustment will also establish human connection and make clear that the student perspective is valued at this time.