I wish you a happy new year. May the year of the tiger bring your strength and energy, I think we all need it. If you are too busy for anything more at the moment, keep the post for another time. Otherwise, I hope you might find something interesting to try out next semester.
A new semester is about to start and, as in traditional university settings, our first contact with the students is important. Just as we put a lot of preparation in the first day of class on-campus, we need to think about our first contact with the students in a distance university setting. I am sure there are many topics you will want to focus on, from the learning objectives to the final evaluation. However, one topic that has come up often in my discussions with the teachers and students is that of interactions. They are as important at a distance as they are on-campus. Interactions and a feeling of belonging are essential to a good learning experience for both academic objectives (expressing complex ideas, checking ones understanding, reading different points of view, etc.) and motivation (to stay engaged in the studies over the long run). However, interactions don’t just happen. Whether on-campus or online, building and sustaining interactions requires effort and planning. I thought I would share a few tips that might facilitate the first weeks of the semester. I am sure there are many that you already use, but there may be something new that you would like to try.
Build trust: to be brave enough to speak out or risk giving a wrong answer, students need to trust you and the other students. Make sure the students know you and each other. Ask them to introduce themselves at the beginning of the module and perhaps share a photo (of their family, their study space, or their favourite place, for example). Make sure all members of the teaching team introduce themselves too, in the same space as the students (a special forum thread, for example). And do comment on students posts to build this trust (“I too went skiing in Flims last year” or “what a lovely view from your window”).
This first, non-academic, exchange also allows new students to test the technology without having to put much effort into the content. Once the first post has been made on the forum, the next one will be much easier.
State your expectations and model what you would like to see. Students know what is expected from them in a traditional classroom. However, learning online is still relatively new, and different teachers have different expectations. It is worth being clear about online interactions: what should they do on the forum, how often should they read / post, what style should they use (academic with citations or more informal), etc. What are your expectations on Zoom (chat, answering questions, etc.)?
Getting to know your students: it is just as important to know your students, their names, their interests, or job in an online environment as on-campus. Online introductions will help. Some teachers also organise an informal Zoom meeting before the first official synchronous meeting just to get to know each other. If your class is small, you could invite students to a short online meeting (as you would with office hours), individually or in small groups.
Informal discussions are important online, too. During synchronous meetings, open the room a few minutes before the class and discuss with your students how they are doing. Stay after the end of the class for questions. In a recent survey, students mentioned that they liked the extra time on-campus to ask questions they hadn’t dared ask in front of the whole class. There is no reason not to do the same online. It works.
Synchronous meetings: start as you mean to continue, get the students to engage from the first class and from the beginning of each class. It will then be easier to get them to continue to be active throughout the meeting. Digital tools make it easier to get the whole class to participate rather than just one or two students: start with a quiz on the reading they were expected to do, ask them to post a solution to the case study in the chat, or one point that is still unclear from the exercises they worked on.
Our EDUDL+ guide on synchronous and asynchronous interactions offers many more ideas, from online icebreakers to how to
I also recommend James Lang's article How to Teach a Good First Day of Class , a well-respected author on pedagogy. He discusses the first day of class on-campus, but the principles are the same at a distance, and you can choose whether to apply them asynchronously or synchronously.
I wish you all the best for the beginning of the spring semester.