The shift to virtual learning which occurred in 2020 may have changed higher education in a profound manner, even after the crisis that caused the transition to occur is finally resolved. Students who have never taken an online class now realize they can learn in this manner. Yet many educators who never taught in this environment understand teaching online is not easier than teaching in a traditional classroom. A lack of visual and verbal cues presents an immediate learning curve for anyone who is just starting to teach online. In addition, the learning management system alone cannot be relied upon as the reason why students succeed in this type of environment. However, virtual learning has already established a proven track record of meeting the needs of students.
One of the challenges educators must learn to address involves engaging students they cannot see in the learning process. Even the most experienced online educators can find it challenging to do at times, especially for students who are not responsive to outreach attempts. I think about this very topic every time I start a new term, and I’m always re-evaluating how to evolve and inspire students in new ways. As an example, the current time period was a significant factor in my thought process as I set up my new classes and recorded the first week videos. I knew the choice of words and tone could make a considerable impact on students, during a time of heightened emotions. Over time, and with practice, I’ve developed strategies to inspire my students I believe you will find useful as well.
What Creates a Virtual Classroom?
Do you consider what your students feel or experience when they first log onto the classroom? What is the classroom to them? Some learning management systems are fairly user friendly and some are not. The discussion forum is generally the heart of the classroom and where most activity takes place. There may likely be many places for them to look for their course materials and information. Are students frustrated because they cannot find what they need?
I asked those questions to have you think about your students and then consider what you can do to help them better navigate through the required technology. Perhaps you can post an announcement or create a short guide. I create weekly Preparation Guides to help students with the upcoming course week, while also sharing additional resources and my perspective of the course topics for the week. I also post a weekly Course Announcement with a to-do list, to help students keep organized. This may help you and your students as well.
Five Strategies You Can Implement to Inspire Your Students
If you were to itemize those strategies you use now to help engage students in a virtual learning process, which would you consider to be the most inspiring? Which strategies help you feel the most connected to your students as you interact with them? The following five methods may encourage you to try a new approach or re-evaluate how you work with your online students now. I’ve learned these strategies from my own online teaching practice, along with time spent working in faculty development.
Strategy #1: Be Actively Engaged with Your Students
Discussions are the heart of any virtual class and this is where you can add incredible value and meaning for students. Consider how they approach the assigned question or questions for the week. Your students will attempt to read, understand, and interpret the required topics. It is possible they will post a substantive response, something which analyzes the concepts and encourages others to engage with them, while demonstrating what they’ve learned.
More often though, the initial posts are a good attempt at addressing the requirements, with some thought given to the assigned course materials, and general opinion statements infused into what is written. There may be some improvement in the level of writing as students move from undergraduate to graduate coursework, yet I’ve seen the same writing patterns continue throughout all degree programs.
This is why your involvement becomes critical for learning and how you can inspire your students to become engaged in the discussions at a much deeper level. While their initial response may be more reactive in nature, your posts can encourage them to think further, through the use of probing questions, while providing insight and context for the topics being studied. You likely have the experience and knowledge to share with them, to provide a real-world perspective they may not have considered, and they may also have experiences you can encourage them to provide. When you provide substantive and engaging posts, you are establishing a standard for your students to follow, and you are validating their effort or attempt to address the assigned question. I’ve found validation is necessary for many to continue making an attempt or continue with a follow-up post.
Strategy #2: Direct Involvement is Required
There are many words used to describe an online educator. The essence of the work you perform in a classroom is that of an educator. When you are interacting with your students you could consider yourself to be a teacher as you are addressing specific subjects, along with the improvement of academic skills. The word facilitator is used as well, to denote involvement with processes and procedures. I believe the words which involve educating and teaching students are most appropriate as both are indicators of the active involvement of anyone who is involvement in this role. I’m not only involved in helping to educate and teach students, I’m also a coach and mentor.
Regardless of the words used to define yourself, direct involvement in a virtual class is required. From my experience, you cannot check in two or three times a week, answer questions, complete the minimally required feedback, post the minimally required discussion responses, and hope this will inspire your students to become highly engaged in the learning process. If they observe you are minimally involved in class, what do they perceive your attitude to be, and how will they likely respond in return? As an example, my goal is to post a reply to each student at least once for each discussion. I want to make certain I’ve helped each student continue their original post in some manner.
Strategy #3: Craft Feedback which Connects with Your Students
There are two forms of feedback. The first type of feedback fulfills the basic requirement of telling the students how points were earned. This may include a few comments and/or a rubric being returned when the gradebook is updated. Students gain minimal value from this type of feedback as it does not teach or address their developmental needs.
The feedback I’m recommending is more in-depth. For a written assignment, the first step I take is to download a copy of the student’s paper. I then use my feedback as a teaching opportunity by inserting commentary that includes my insight, suggestions, and questions. Then when I return the paper, I’ll also include a rubric to support the feedback provided within the paper. For discussions, I make certain to avoid canned comments and try make it personalized. As an example, I’ll provide video feedback to connect with students directly. I want it to feel as if I am having a conversation with them, even if it is a one-way conversation, as they get to see and hear me. This also encourages them to contact me after reviewing it to discuss it further.
Strategy #4: Create a Persona in the Virtual Classroom
As an online educator, you want to create some form of a persona or develop an online identity in which you have a visible personality. If you are able to upload a photo of yourself to your profile, a professional photo will go a long way towards helping your students seeing you as a real person. Next, consider how you want to be portrayed or perceived by students in the classroom.
While you want to remain professional and academic in nature, can you also allow yourself to share anything personal in nature? For example, in my introduction I will share something about my hobbies, favorite television shows, and movies, along with my professional accomplishments and achievements. I find this helps me connect with students and creates a positive online persona.
Strategy #5: Use Words to Represent You Thoughtfully and Carefully
Any educator who “works” or “teaches” in a virtual environment quickly learns of the challenge for communicating in this type of classroom. You are using written words in the place of verbal communication, and those words can be easily misinterpreted as you aren’t there to explain what was meant, should students not understand your message. In addition, they are likely online and working at different times than you are, given the accessible nature of most learning management systems.
This means there must be thought given to every message posted and email or message sent. If you feel any emotional reaction to what you are writing, try what I do and create what you want to communicate first in a Word document. Then if you need time to think further about the message, set it aside and wait for a short period of time, to center yourself and feel good about sending it. If you are not certain how to reply, the best solution might be to ask the student to call you. The more careful you are about sending your communication, the more you will continue to develop productive relationships with your students, and in turn this will inspire them to stay engaged in the class.
Virtual Learning Should Never Feel Distant
When students are first assigned to your class, and they have never been assigned to one of your classes before, they do not know anything about you. How they come to know you is through perceptual cues, which includes posts and messages they read. An inherent challenge that makes getting to know an instructor even more difficult is the separation factor. At the start of a class students may feel separated, until there are cues which indicate their instructor is going to be easily accessible and readily available for them. The use of welcome videos at my school is a very help strategy for bridging the virtual gap at the start of a class. I also establish Office Hours and provide a direct contact phone number for students to call. For classes which involve complex course projects I share an appointment scheduling link, making it easy to find a time convenient for their schedule to arrange a one-on-one appointment.
Regardless of the approach you use, every instructional strategy you implement should be done with the purpose of closing the virtual gap. I’ve found students who feel connected to their instructor, because of the instructor’s responsiveness, meaningful feedback, engaging discussion posts, thoughtful communication, and ease of accessibility, are those who are going to be most engaged in the learning process. When they feel challenged by the class, they will be more likely to reach out and ask questions because of the rapport developed. There is a bond created and a sense the instructor cares about their ongoing development. If you’ve not taught in this environment before I can tell you this: You have to earn the engagement of your students in a different manner. When you do accomplish this goal, it becomes extremely rewarding and personally fulfilling to state: You are an online educator.
Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an inspirational author, writer, and teacher.