I’m flying a jet plane, while repairing it at the same time; at least that’s how I feel with our continual pivot to online course delivery during the pandemic. I’ve been keen to determine how students are experiencing our newly adapted curriculum; to what extent are they meeting course and program objectives by doing the activities and resources that I’ve created or curated for them? In particular, I’d like to know if they’re generating valuable “ah-ha” moments as they navigate through the curriculum versus if they’re stumbling through the content.
Last semester, my own “ah-ha” teaching moment was recognizing that instead of trying to “get it all right” at the outset, I would take a semester-long approach to continually renovate my courses. I’ve discovered that fostering supportive, collegial relationships with each individual student, as well as the class as a whole, is key to enhancing student learning and wellbeing.
To that end, here are three notable interventions I now implement in my online, asynchronous courses that I believe strengthen faculty-student interactions in an online learning community.
Office hours as launch parties
To promote attendance and engagement during my “office hours,” I’ve rebranded them as “launch parties.” I spend the first 10-15 minutes conducting a walkthrough of the latest weekly module that I’ve launched. I use this time to explain how I designed the module and related activities and share advice on how students can be successful. Students can pose questions throughout the launch and connect with me privately afterwards. While a high number of students regularly attend these synchronous sessions, the launch portion is recorded for everyone to review at their own convenience.
When releasing assignment marks and feedback, I send the entire class a message or video describing the most common pieces of feedback I gave when marking the assignment. For instance, for an ePortfolio project last semester, the debrief emphasized the importance of captivating the intended audience with relevant content; portraying oneself authentically to their personal values and style; and being mindful of one’s role and responsibility as a digital citizen. Providing this type of general commentary, in my view, raises the bar for the entire class by helping everyone reflect on their own submission, and further enhances their learning. It also means that I can go into a little more depth about each of these topics in one single video, versus needing to explain this within each individual student’s feedback.
At the end of each module, I encourage students to share their experience of navigating the module; and they have not been shy about providing their opinions. A benefit to facilitating these surveys in an online environment is that students can complete them in their own time and space where they can be more thoughtful; whereas in the past when I have conducted similar surveys in-person, students tended to be brief as they rush out the classroom.
I solicit their perspectives on the most useful component in the module; suggestions to improve the module and their learning experience; and any further questions or comments. I review each submission and generate my list of course renovations. These are:
- quick fixes that I can immediately act upon (e.g., providing more information and resources, addressing technical glitches).
- custom builds that require more time, so I set them aside for the next term or academic year (e.g., creating an entire new module).
- pending items that are either specific questions or comments that yielded follow up questions from me.
Then, I report back on the quick fixes completed, the custom builds I plan to address at a later time, along with advice I have in the meantime (especially if I decide that their suggestions won’t take place until after they have completed the course). I address the pending items – typically a few each week – with a personal email to the student, usually inviting them to come see me during virtual office hours to discuss further.
Ultimately, these interventions are instrumental towards instilling a sense of community and promoting student success. Despite being physically distant during this pandemic period, this is my way to show that we can still be connected and care for one another. Drawing from Stephen Covey’s idea of the “emotional bank account,” I’m making emotional deposits to build trust and strong relationships now, so that when students do find themselves in circumstances where they need advice and support (e.g. during high-stress midterm and final exam periods), they can count on me to be that starting point to help and make referrals to supports and services at my institution.
I will confess: These suggestions take work and time, especially during this period when our bandwidth is stretched beyond our normal capacity. That said, I believe it to be my responsibility as an instructor to set a respectful tone and supportive environment to promote student engagement; and in turn, I expect students to show up and participate collegially.
I truly believe my efforts will result in higher quality courses that are responsive to student learning and needs. This will no doubt pay off, especially when I teach the same courses again in future semesters – both online and when we (eventually) teach in person again.
Dr. Candy Ho is the inaugural assistant professor, integrative career and capstone learning, at the University of the Fraser Valley. She also holds teaching appointments at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s educational studies department and Douglas College’s career development practitioner program. Currently, she serves as vice-chair of CERIC, a Canadian organization dedicated to the advancement of education and research in career counselling and career development.