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Establishing a healthy learning environment is key to teaching. But opportunities for making personal connections and relationships with students are greatly reduced in online classes. Thus, online instructors need to make a special effort to foster relationships in their online courses. Start class with a live meeting I always begin my classes with a live Adobe Connect meeting. I use my webcam, which allows students see my face, hear my voice, and have an opportunity to get to know me as person. I share a little about my life, including the seven-year-old child I have who will occasionally (supposedly accidentally) pop his head in during the middle of class. Prior to that meeting, I have students post a little about themselves (including a picture) in a discussion board in our LMS. This lets me use that information to make connections with students in the meeting. For example, I mentioned that a student’s superintendent had been my principal in one of my first administrative positions. In addition to providing my background, I review the course assignments and explain them in greater detail. I often set up polls in Adobe Connect to determine what time students prefer to meet, if a specific activity was beneficial, if they are interested in learning more about a topic, etc. Students appreciate the opportunity to get to know the professor, ask questions about the course structure, and learn from the questions of others. These live meetings are recorded, and those unable to attend are able to watch the recording when it is convenient for them. Have students post a bio I have learned the importance of putting a face with my students’ names, and so I have students post a picture of themselves along with background information in a discussion board. Students make connections with one another, and I get a better idea of who is in my class. Another option is to have students create a video on Flipgrid where they answer a question about the course. For a course in educational leadership, I would ask students why they want to become an administrator and who has been the greatest influence on their professional career and why. This is an excellent way to pre-assess student knowledge and put a face with a name. Offer a menu of options While I’m certainly not proposing that our courses can be everything to everybody, we should be offering options to our learners so they can choose what best meets their needs. Provide writing prompts and allow students to choose among them. For example, I might provide the following prompts following a discussion on communication and ask students to choose two or three to respond to:
  1. John hit another student in Mrs. Smith’s class. You have assigned him to one day of in-school suspension, and you are calling his mother (Mrs. Jones) to let her know about the incident and discipline. Write a paragraph about how you would begin the conversation.
  2. You just observed a teacher whose students were quite disrespectful to her during the lesson. How will you address this with her and why? If you plan to speak with her, write down some things you will say. If you plan to email her, write your email.
  3. Two students were arguing in the hallway, and you brought them to your office to discuss the situation. Write a paragraph describing how will you begin and lead the conversation.
  4. You just received an email from a parent who is quite angry about her daughter’s math teacher. She has requested that her child be moved to another class. Write your response email.
Students who are comfortable speaking with parents will likely choose option 1. Others who aren’t as comfortable speaking with parents may choose option 1 as a way to practice their skills and get feedback in a safe environment. Option 2 provides students with a choice of how to respond: verbally or in writing. Students may like having the choice and select this option, or they be nervous about selecting the wrong method of communication and not select this option. Students who are comfortable dealing with student conflict would select this option. Option 4 would be selected by students who are comfortable writing, but perhaps aren’t as comfortable with their verbal communication skills. Alternatively, they may select this option to practice their skills and get feedback in the safe environment. Get (and use) feedback Over the years, I have discovered that there’s a lot to be learned by talking to your students. They will tell you what they want, what they need, what they like, and what they hate. Your job is to ask them! When you try a new strategy or project, ask them what they thought. If the grades on an assessment aren’t what you expected, ask them why. As a former statistics teacher, I encourage you not to ask for verbal feedback or to ask for optional feedback due to voluntary response bias. Your best bet is to ask for feedback in the form of a well-developed survey that all students complete. I use Google Forms and create simple three- to five-question surveys, gathering a mix of quantitative and qualitative data. Then, once you have the data and feedback, use it! I once had a Google document with five questions about the reading. Students were asked to choose a question they wanted to answer, click on the link in the Google doc which opened another Google doc, and answer the question. After they answered the question, they were asked to go back to the original document, choose another question they were interested in and read the responses to that question. They could add to the conversation or simply read the responses of others. After the activity, I asked students the following questions in a Google form: I wasn’t going for statistical perfection; I just wanted to hear from the students. If they hated the activity, I knew I shouldn’t repeat it. If they chose a question because they were very passionate about the subject, I knew I could spend more class time discussing it. I learned that they enjoyed the activity, particularly the option to choose their own question to answer. I also learned that they enjoyed being able to read the responses of others to a question they may not have felt comfortable enough to answer themselves. I also learned which questions were not often responded to, which helped me understand that those questions were either not thought-provoking or were not well understood by the students. Amy Ballard is an educational consultant in South Carolina.