Teaching online can sometimes be a scary departure from the norm for faculty who have spent years teaching in the face-to-face classroom. Questions around community engagement and interaction in the online environment are well-founded and necessary.
However, with the right actions and strategies, online faculty can foster a thriving, high-quality online or blended classroom that maintains the experience felt on campus. See how Wiley Fellow, Kim Weller of Queens University of Charlotte, built an engaged community within her own online classroom. Read about her experience below.
Is it possible to foster a sense of place and community engagement between faculty and students in the online environment? Can online faculty motivate students to learn and feel curious (if not passionate) about course material when we are not face to face and when we are not online at the same time?
The Bottom Line: Yes! My experience has shown me that you absolutely can have excellent faculty-student interaction and student engagement in the asynchronous online learning environment.
Below are my top five tips for fostering social presence and community engagement. I call them “Points of Contact”, or touch points, between the faculty member and students.
But before I begin, I want to note that these tips are only effective after a strong foundation is built. No online course will be effective without a strong curriculum, measurable student learning objectives, and clear assessment mechanisms.
Top 5 Points of Contact for Creating Faculty-Student Engagement
1. INCORPORATE INSTRUCTOR VIDEOS
For students, seeing the professor as much as possible helps to build social presence. That’s why I’m not shy about using video in my online classes.
I recommend creating a weekly kick-off video where you, the professor, describe the goals and key learning objectives of the weekly content. However, make sure it’s a “throw-away” video; in other words, personalize the video for that course and that moment. Many online instructors create a weekly kick-off video and fall into the trap of overly scripting it. Instead, create a video that is unscripted, personable, casual, and customized for each particular class – don’t worry about it being perfect. Insert timely information about current events, such as the weather, an upcoming holiday, or what you did over the weekend. Maybe commend a particular student for a major milestone like running a marathon. Students greatly enjoy this “real” contact with the instructor.
2. OFFER QUALITY (OVER QUANTITY) FEEDBACK
The reality is that we’re all super busy and you’re not alone if you worry that teaching online can take over your life. To fully engage, you need to be present—participating in discussions, providing multiple forms of feedback, and responding promptly to emails and messages. My first time teaching, I’ll be honest; I over did it. But then I learned to work differently—smarter, more efficiently.
So what does this look like? It looks like feedback that is specific and personalized. While it’s okay in my opinion to copy and paste some standard comments, each touch point should include an item of feedback that is highly personalized to the student’s post. It should be direct and relevant to the student’s interests, goals, and major course project.
Work smarter. Take your time with this quality feedback. Quality over quantity. I found that students still consistently report in my evaluations that they enjoy my classes specifically because my comments make them feel that I’m present and committed to helping each student succeed.
3. BE (PERCEIVED AS) AVAILABLE
Similar to Tip #2, while it’s important to be there for your students, the reality is that it’s most important that they perceive that you are there for them. Students want to know that you are watching, participating, and leading the group. They want to feel that if they need you at crunch time, you are there and available.
I do maintain frequent contact with students, both formally (written evaluations) and informally (through messaging). But again, it doesn’t do anyone any good if you get burnt out. My tip is to focus on being there at key moments, such as helping contextualize course material at the weekly kick off, clarifying upcoming assignment expectations, and guiding them to cross the finish line for big assignment deadlines.
I recommend that online faculty remind students that you’re there for them at every point of contact. I remind students at every touch point that I’m here anytime they need me, all they need to do is message or call. If you’re worried that you will be bombarded with calls, don’t be. In my experience, students simply want reassurance that you’ll be there for them if needed, but they aren’t looking for daily contact. The perception that you are there goes a long way for building social presence and satisfaction online.
4. SHOW SOME PERSONALITY
In my opinion, learning should be fun. Students are motivated when they are engaged, interested, and feel curious, so don’t be afraid to show your personality as an online instructor – your students will love it.
There is no need to take every minute seriously. Use humor, make a joke in an announcement, throw in some emoticons or an LOL to let everyone know they can relax a little, and most importantly, be human. When appropriate, disclose a few personal details. Perhaps post something about your background and experience in a discussion. Throw in a reference to pop culture. Use a trendy phrase or two. Let students know it is okay to take chances and be themselves.
5. BE SPONTANEOUS
When you know students have a lot on their plate, such as a big upcoming assignment deadline or work over a major holiday, show some compassion and don’t be afraid to change things up. Surprise them by cutting down on a course requirement or requiring them to comment on only one classmate’s discussion post instead of two, or maybe require no peer responses at all! I promise you that the learning will be the same in the end, but students will greatly appreciate your flexibility.
Every time I take this approach, students publicly message me to say thank you. It builds camaraderie and community, and shows that I’m on their team to help them cross the finish line.
In the end, a sense of community and engagement between faculty and students is not limited to the brick and mortar classroom. No matter where the learning happens, students are eager to learn when they are given engaging course material, clear and direct feedback that is relevant to their lives and goals, and they perceive their instructor to be engaged, knowledgeable, and caring.
To learn more tips on teaching in the online environment from other online instructors, visit our resources page.