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Moving Your Course Online: Fostering Connections (FAQ)


While onsite classes revolve around planned meetings of everybody gathered in on one room, online classes follow a wider variety of rhythms, depending upon how the instructor conducts the course. In a face-to-face class, students gain a lot from interacting and learning from one another. This can still happen online! Leveraging strategies like online peer review and low-stakes collaborative activities can help students engage with peers in meaningful ways. It starts with the instructor developing a pattern of regular online communication with students

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How do instructors maintain regular communication with students?

Online learning can feel isolating for students and instructors. It is important to establish and maintain regular communication with your students throughout the semester.

You can do this by setting up a schedule of communication. For instance, if your class would otherwise meet bi-weekly, you can send out regular communications to students twice a week (e.g, Mondays/Wednesdays or Tuesdays/Thursdays). Then, at each interval, you can communicate with them using a course announcement, a class email, a video message, and so on. Most LMSs have an announcement function, but if you have access to students’ email addresses through your course registration system, you can also email students.

In these communications, you can review upcoming deadlines, respond to recurring questions, or reinforce course content with quick reviews. It is important that these recurring messages are not unnecessarily long, so be concise when you create them.


How will you hold office hours?

Office hours provide students with an important opportunity for one-on-one assistance. However, when you teach online, it is unlikely that every student can drop into your physical office. Instead, you can hold digital office hours. Digital office hours can give students the opportunity to type, talk, or video conference with you. Some video conferencing technologies like WebEx or Zoom allow students to use a web-enabled address to connect with you over the internet or call in using a telephone. If your students don’t have access to phones or stable internet connection that can support video, a chat space can give them the opportunity to type to you in live time.

Technologies that support these efforts include Google Hangouts, Zoom, WebEx, or GoToMeeting. There are some free scheduling apps, like Calendly (example) or Doodle, that allow students to “claim” a meeting time, helpful for irregular online office hours. Your LMS might additionally support you in scheduling and holding digital office hours, so be sure to ask your Teaching and Learning Center or Office of Technology.


How important is one-to-one communication?

You will also want to develop one-on-one communication with students whenever possible.

You can do this by responding to emails in a timely manner or arranging one-on-one virtual meetings with students during virtual office hours. Giving feedback on low-stakes learning assignments is another way to gauge a student’s progress and make them feel like their individual learning is being seen and validated.


How do you give students feedback?

Instructors typically give two kinds of feedback: formative and summativeFormative feedback is given mid-process and helps the student continue to develop their assignments. Summative feedback is given at the end of the assignment.

When giving students feedback on assignments, you want to make sure you are following federal, state, and institutional regulations on student privacy. Make sure that students receive graded feedback through secure channels. If you have an LMS, using feedback and gradebook features within the LMS is one instance of a secure channel. If you do not have access to an LMS, you’ll want to be sure that graded feedback is delivered through a secure and private channel. Keeping FERPA in mind, particularly, email may not be a secure channel for graded feedback, nor is a shared class space like a course Google Docs or Google Drive folder.

You also have options for the way you format your feedback. Online learning can certainly support typed, written feedback, but instructors can also make feedback videos or audio messages that share feedback with students. If you and your students have shared availability, online instructors can also use one-on-one conferences to provide students with substantive feedback--this is particularly helpful with larger assignments that include revision.


How are peer reviews conducted online?

Online peer review can provide students with peer feedback, but also help them gain knowledge of how their peers are approaching different assignments. Like the face-to-face peer review, you’ll want to focus the online peer review on specific goals: maybe students are checking the assignment for essential elements, raising questions about content, applying evaluation criteria to a draft, or evaluating how the writer uses sources, for example.

Some instructors allow students to choose how they give one another feedback while others specify a particular feedback mode. For written feedback, students can exchange drafts on a course discussion board and insert comments and changes using Microsoft’s track changes or comment feature. A collaborative technology like Google Docs allows students to do this work on the same document file, which means they can engage in conversation with each other over the draft. Students can also use video conferencing technologies like Google Hangouts or Zoom to hold a live digital meeting wherein they discuss drafts, or they can record feedback videos for their peers. Reflective writing prompts can help online students process feedback and think about how they will apply the feedback they have received to their future drafts.

Eli Review is an online peer review management system. It links with some LMS systems. As a platform, Eli Review allows instructors to design peer review protocol, assign and manage peer review teams, and then view analytical data that reviews how the class did on the activity. Eli Review has a free grace period of two-weeks or a single peer review; however, during the COVID-19 outbreak, it has allowed instructors disrupted by the pandemic free use of its system for Spring.


How do students give presentations online?

Presentations can take multiple forms in the online classroom: instructors can make presentations to help students learn content and students can make presentations to show their learning to their peers and instructor. In either case, you can use any of our video recording technologies (see our list of video production resources  to facilitate this process. However, knowledge can also be represented visually through the creation of charts, infographics, or informational flyers.


How are discussions conducted online?

Online discussion can increase peer interaction and engagement that is flexible for students with different schedules.

To design an effective online discussion, you want to be sure students are equitably sharing discussion responsibilities and one student is not dominating the discussion activity. As Dan Seward suggests in his paired OLOR and ROLE pieces, it may help to orchestrate some interaction to ensure students are engaging with a wide range of classmates. And if your students are not familiar with online learning, they may need you to set expectations for online discussion and monitor it closely. You will also want to be sure to design a discussion question that is specific and answerable, yet challenging. 

To facilitate discussion, instructors can use discussion boards through their LMS wherein students type a written response with the option to reply to another person’s response. You can also place students in small groups and ask them to discuss on a collaborative platform like Google Docs. If students have similar schedules, you can ask them to use a conferencing technology to have a synchronous discussion with the requirement that they turn in a summary and reflection to you afterwards.


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