By Martha Kershaw, EdDc, RN
Assistant Professor of Nursing at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y.
Teaching in an online environment might conjure up the need to use fancy technology in order to connect with students, but this blog is not intended to review technology for engagement because engaging students in the online environment does not have to be complicated and does not need special technology. Students simply need to know that you, as their teacher, are there and that you want to support their success.
Faculty can make their presence known by setting the tone within the course and creating an environment where students recognize that the faculty member supports their success is part of setting the tone. Regular interaction inside and outside of the online classroom between faculty and students also communicates to students that the faculty supports their success. Now, this in no way means that you need to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to students, but keeping open lines of communication will be key.
In General Standard 1 from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 6th Edition, there is a need to set the tone for the course. One way to do this is by managing expectations, which includes the availability of the faculty member. Students also like to get to know the faculty member. Next, set up an online classroom with strong explanations for the students and clear expectations from the faculty member for the students. Timely feedback and follow through from the faculty member will also improve student engagement. Students are more likely to engage in the course if they know the who, what, where, and when of the course. Here are six different ways you can set the tone in your online classroom:
1. Managing Expectations
Managing expectations is woven throughout setting the tone but there are some things that can be done upfront to communicate with students. As a faculty member, provide students with the best way to contact you and when they can expect you to be available. In the online environment, this is not limited to virtual office hours but also includes how quickly the student can expect a response to an email or text, depending on your preferred method of communication. I list email as my preferred contact method and include that I will respond within 24 hours. I primarily teach adult, nursing students who work shifts which might involve being up in the night. I want to make sure that the students know that I do not answer email between 9 pm and 5 am because I am sleeping. I add a little personality by making a joke about being in bed super early. The students know I will respond but they also know not to expect a response in the middle of the night. I have set the tone through managing expectations.
2. Introduce Yourself
I find that students want to know who you are and in many ways why you are qualified to teach this course. I am a registered nurse and I have been for 25+ years, so I have experience in the field that I am teaching. I am currently a doctoral candidate so I have shared the experience as a student. With teaching adult students and being a student myself, I recognize the difficulty of managing family, work, and school. A simple introduction may provide answers that are of interest to the students. This is a time when I might use technology – nothing fancy – just a short recording that allows the students to see you and hear you. I also have included a short introduction paragraph in the opening course announcement. I include relevant education, a short piece on experience, and I include my experience teaching online. I do not include a great deal of personal information in the introduction but I do often speak about my family in discussions.
3. Provide Strong Explanations
One way to ensure that students know you support their success is by providing the tools to be successful in the course. Such tools would include strong explanations for accessing resources, instructions for assignments, and use and accessibility for any technology. If an assigned reading for the week is an article that can be accessed from the library online, include the link directly to the article so the students do not have to search. For assignments, provide detailed instructions of what to include in the assignment and specific grading criteria. If you are asking the student to use technology, make sure that you provide many different resources to support the use of that technology. A step by step written guide or a video showing how to use the technology would be helpful to students.
4. Provide Clear Expectations
This point goes along with providing strong explanations. Clear expectations of assignments including how the student can expect to be graded are as important as providing strong explanations of the assignment. A grading rubric is helpful as is a sample of the expected assignment. I do not provide a sample of someone else’s work but rather the format of the assignment with prompts for the information that should be included and where it should be included. I also provide information on when and how the students can expect me to interact in the discussion board. I do not respond to each student each week and in some cases, I want the students to interact with each other through sharing of experiences. My input might interrupt that interaction so I may not be part of the active discussion. I do want students to know that I am monitoring the discussion even if I am not responding. Include due dates attached to each activity or even a quick calendar in the Learning Management System (LMS) is helpful for an at a glance look at what is due and when. An idea of what is expected each week could also be included in a course welcome video.
5. Provide Timely Feedback
Feedback is another area where student expectations need to be managed. At the beginning of each semester, I share with students that I do not grade discussions or assignments until after the due date. My rationale is that they can make changes to the assignment up to the due date. Grading after the due date prevents the expectation that if they would like to improve their grade, they still have time to re-submit. At the beginning of each week, I tell them when they can expect their grades for the item they submitted at the end of the previous week. Discussions may be a day or two but papers and presentations take a week depending on class size and other faculty responsibilities. The important piece is to let the students know what they can expect from you.
6. Follow Through
If you say you are going to do it, do it. Follow through ties back to managing expectations and providing timely feedback. If your availability says that you will respond to student emails within 24 hours then you need to respond within 24 hours. In some cases, I just send a quick reply to acknowledge receipt and indicate that I will get back to them with the information they have requested. The opposite is also true. If you say that you are not available on Sundays, you may not want to reply of Sunday. If you do, you have changed the student’s expectations. If you provide a timeframe in which grading will be complete and you are unable to meet the timeframe, communicate the change. If you do not communicate, you have undermined your credibility.
It's important for students to hear from you. This can be as simple as messaging about upcoming deadlines, checking in, or reminding the students that you are there. The three items discussed here are all related but each has a separate purpose. Let's dive deeper into these regular interactions:
1. Simple Course Reminders
An online course can involve more moving parts than a face to face (f2f) class, and while we do want to support student independence, a well-placed reminder never hurts. A message through the course announcements sent via email can provide a quick reminder to the students that there is something due in the course the next day. I usually send course reminders the day before something is due. I title the message “Reminder” and include the course number. In the body of the message, I include specifics about what is due and when it is due. I also remind the students of any resources available to help with the assignments. I end the message with a line to remind the students to contact me with questions. These messages are not long but they provide a quick reminder to keep the students on track.
I sometimes miss the interaction of the f2f classroom and feel disconnected from the students. If I am feeling that way, I worry that the students are also feeling disconnected. This is an opportunity to send a check-in to see if students need anything. I send this as a message through the course announcements and also via email. The message is titled “Check-in” and I include the course number. In the body of the message, I simply tell the students that I am checking in and hoping that their week is going well. I also use this as a reminder that I am here to help. Because of the way our LMS sends emails, students sometimes think that I have contacted them directly. That adds a personal touch that I hope makes a difference. I may include information in these messages related to what is coming up but often I do not because I want this to be a standalone check-in to let them know that I am there for them.
3. Reminders that I am available for the students
I have mentioned this in both the course reminders and the check-ins. I end every message with a reminder to contact me with questions or a reminder that I am here even though they cannot see me. This ties back to follow through. If you say that you are available then you need to be available. The students may not pay attention but even if one student contacts me because I said I was available, the message had value.
4. Follow up if students are falling behind
When I begin to grade for the week, I look at who has not submitted the required work for the week. I contact the students with missing work directly and offer up any assistance I can provide. The student is not chastised for being late with a submission but rather offered support if they are struggling with the work. By offering help, they do not need to ask. In most cases, the student forgot or had extenuating circumstances that prevented them from being on time. I then ask for a date when they might be able to submit the work providing the student some control in correcting the oversight.
The ideas listed here to encourage student engagement in the online classroom may seem like they take a great deal of time but once you have a process, it is fairly simple to let students know that you are there and that you support their success. The other piece that is important about this information is that there is no need for fancy technology. These suggestions are as simple as sending an email or providing a grading rubric for an assignment in the course. The longer that I teach online, the more I appreciate these strategies. And I see the student appreciation for these simple strategies in my course evaluations at the end of each semester. These strategies translate to availability and support. Students who were worried about taking an online class often comment on how these strategies improved their experience. Just simple communication can make a difference.
Standards from the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 6th Edition. Quality Matters. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/