Communicating clearly with students is important in any teaching and learning scenario, but it is a unique skill to apply masterfully in a fully online course. Since students will not be seeing the instructor live, face-to-face, it’s important to establish a teaching presence and offer students a sense of who the instructor is and demonstrate that, though at a distance, the instructor is there to support student learning.
Barbara Murck has been teaching fully online courses for many years and in a recent survey of her course, she found that 93% of her students identified that they felt as connected with her, and their peers, as a regular face-to-face course. Her key to success is varied communication. She offers many ways for students to engage with her as she engages and messages them in multiple ways and through multiple channels.
Some of her techniques to communicating with students and encouraging community include:
Taking a consciously informal approach to lecturing online
Although she has much experience teaching online Barbara admits that she is not that technologically inclined. She embraces that and produces online lectures that are somewhat informal and low-tech. However, she sees that students relate more to her videos when, for example, her dog wanders into the room and she says hello to him.
‘Clickbait’ material that offers fun connections to the course
Barbara tried a number of – what she refers to as – “clickbait” approaches to engage students. These were intended to get students to click through to course-related material, some of which was fairly serious but much of which was just for fun (e.g. “Test yourself…” links).
Virtual office hours
A staple in her course is to hold virtual office hours every week. Using webinar software she finds they have been well attended. She notes that she has set up the virtual office with a picture of her actual desk at home, which feels “homey” and welcoming to the students.
Timed regular announcements
Barbara also utilizes Announcements on Quercus. She delivers a lot of the course structure by way of timed announcements. For example, she has timed announcements every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 9 am. These really help guide the students to where they should be in the course at that point. Monday is “what’s happening this week”; Wednesday is the “Challenge” for the week; Thursday is “see you soon in my Virtual Office; and Friday is a “Weekly Checklist.”
Responsive to questions
Finally, she is also responsive to student questions in discussions. Being responsive means students feel that if they reach out that she’s going to answer them quickly which also means that they understand that she’s there with them.
Of course, a balance of some or all of these techniques can help any instructor connect more fully with students. While communication is key, it is also important to manage expectations with students at the beginning of the semester (e.g. indicate how long students should wait before they can expect a response). Understanding the when, where and how of communication goes a long way to establishing a teaching presence and connection with your online students.