For many educators, 2020 has brought a shift in delivering content from face-to-face to using a Learning Manage System (LMS) such as Canvas. Some find the change exciting and exhilarating. Some find it scary and frustrating. Regardless of how you’re feeling about the shift, learning how to add an element of humanness to your course is a good return on investment. What are the top three things you can do to humanize your online course? Why is it important? What Canvas features support humanizing learning and how can those be easily implemented?
As I was contemplating the contents for this blog post, the age-old adage of “People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care” kept popping into my mind. For many, this seems easier to accomplish in a face-to-face class. How can our students know we care about them when we’re facilitating an online course? First, we need to bring our authentic selves to the online course so they can get to know us. Second, we need to connect with our students in a meaningful way. And third, create opportunities for students to connect. One of the best ways for students to connect with their instructors is through the inclusion of videos. This can be done in several ways. Some instructors like to give a virtual tour of their courses ensuring that students are clear where to start and how to navigate the course. Other instructors choose to record a heartwarming greeting from their backyard, kitchen, or home office. To create a great video:
Another way to introduce yourself to your students is through a Welcome Discussion. This is one of the items on the Course Evaluation Checklist v2.0. As with the video, keep the tone conversational and keep it real. I like adding pictures of myself, family, travel adventures, etc. By doing this, students often feel more at ease and follow suit, connecting with both the instructor and their fellow students. Plus, you might end up with a few more items on your bucket list! I’ve gotten quite a few travel recommendations over the years. Sharing weekly messages via announcements is another way to bring your presence into the virtual classroom. If you’re going to use announcements regularly, consider showing recent announcements on your home page. And did you know you can delay announcements? I had a friend who, as an elementary teacher, would schedule birthday announcements for all of the students in their class -- a fun and easy way to bring personalization into your classroom. An important element of instructor presence is setting reasonable and clear expectations for your students in terms of communication. How quickly should they expect a response from you? I find it helpful to let students know that I typically respond within 24-48 hours but take the weekends to be present with my family.
Student surveys allow you to connect with students privately. We all know that learning has shifted online quite rapidly and it can be a hard transition for both teachers and students. Canvas Surveys are a great way to stay connected. By using the essay-style quiz question, students may reply with text, audio, or video. This can be a mental health check-in where students can drop in and ask questions or just chat about what is going on in their lives. If you choose to use this, be sure you reply personally to each student via the SpeedGrader. Submitting such a personal assignment into a black hole leaves the student feeling ignored. On the other hand, a personalized response leaves students feeling heard and supported. Another way to increase the teacher-student connection is with personalized feedback. As teachers, we are busy! Sometimes it is easy to get in a rush and provide blanket responses to students like “Great job!” Instead, try to personalize the message by using the student’s name and specific feedback about the student’s work or survey responses. If you find yourself needing to repeat the same feedback, consider using free-form comments (and saving for reuse), freeing up time for more personalized and meaningful feedback. Did you know your SpeedGrader feedback can be done with audio and/or video? Sometimes our intention is lost when we rely on words on the screen and I love the opportunity to change things up a bit. 🙂 SpeedGrader makes giving GREAT feedback easy. In the Grades area of your course, you can enable the Notes column (which is only viewable to the teacher). I love having this quick and efficient way to help me remember things about my students and help me be more aware of my students’ unique situations. Often we’ll get tidbits of information at the beginning of the course that will be useful to have on file. The Notes column is a perfect space. When I’ve used this with my Canvas courses, I found myself making deeper connections than usual and keeping their personal situations at the forefront of my mind. I love offering office hours for those students who want to connect synchronously. The virtual face-to-face time is certainly an investment of time, but I’ve found it pays off huge dividends. There are a variety of ways this can be accomplished. If Scheduler is enabled for your institution, you can create appointment groups. Combine that with your favorite webinar tool such as Big Blue Button, Zoom, Hangouts, etc. and you’re set. Remember, the Teacher-Student connection doesn’t need to just happen one-to-one. Communicate and connect with your students as a whole group, in smaller groups, or individually. The important thing is being present with your students.
Although group work poses challenges (some students are opposed to group work, equal distribution of workload, less visibility for the instructor, etc.) but the positive benefits can make it worthwhile. What are some of those positive outcomes? Students learn from each other and deepen their understanding of the content; it’s a great opportunity for students to practice soft skills; students tend to be more engaged; and, one of my personal favorites, fewer assignments to grade. There is a myriad of ways to create collaborative opportunities for students in Canvas such as group projects, group assignments, discussion groups, reading groups, and peer review groups. Be sure and watch the “3 Ways to Bring More Humanization into your Online Courses” CanvasLIVE session from September 9, 2020, with Dr. Kristy Bloxham as she shares some of her lessons learned with graduate students and group work.
Use a fun, low-stakes ice breaker to promote student connectedness within the first week. The opportunity for students to engage with each other, the content, and the instructor is invaluable. I love this article, “Social Connectedness through Digital Peer Learning,” by Jared Stein. You’ll find some valuable ways to leverage the student-student connection.
One of my favorite things about online teaching is the return on investment. Yes, it takes effort getting things set up the first time around but I think that’s true regardless of the platform. Perhaps, like me, it’s been a while since you were a first-year teacher and you’ve blocked those memories. Here are some of the things I wish I had known to implement after I was familiar with Canvas basics.
One of the brilliant things about creating an online course is the ability to quickly and easily improve each iteration. I like to keep an unpublished page in my course where I track notes of things to change the next go around.
I like to provide tips for Canvas course success (either through a document or video).
I poll my students to get their feedback for course improvements (for both content and facilitation). Being vulnerable and letting your students know this is a new experience for you can reap immeasurable benefits. Try using this approach, “I’m fairly new to online teaching and want to make this a positive experience for everyone. If you have feedback that will help me improve the course, please share it with me. If you find a mistake, let me know so I can fix it.”
Creating a consistent experience for students, week by week or unit by unit, provides a solid foundation so they can focus on the content versus guessing how the next module will be laid out. This also aligns with the principle from the Canvas Course Evaluation Checklist 2.0. Check out that document for other ways to optimize your course. I certainly wish I had that when I was ready to implement best practices for online course design.
One of the biggest downfalls I’ve seen with the transition to online learning is trying to replicate the face-to-face classroom experience in an online format. My recommendation is to find what can be done better online and leverage that. My 11-year-old daughter is in a university-sponsored choir and it warmed my heart to hear her rewinding a trickier section of a song, listening to it over and over again, singing along until she got it right. These are the types of things we can do online that we can’t do in person. Stay tuned for my blog post next month that shares other favorite ways to optimize online learning. Until then, share your authentic self with your students and continue to increase teacher-student connection and provide opportunities for student collaboration.
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Thank you for sharing so many wonderful ideas for how to humanize the online classroom! I really loved your statement that we should find out what works best in an online format instead of simply trying to replicate a traditional f2f class. I know I have spent much time trying to do exactly this and never succeeding. Instead, I need to remember that online isn't the same as f2f and shouldn't be approached in the same manner. I appreciate the time you have taken to thoroughly explain ways to make deeper connections with our online students. I will definitely be using many of your tips!
Great blog. Thanks. Wanted to share two thoughts that came to mind while reading. (1) Teachers need to be somewhat cautious about things like posting birthday announcements. There could be privacy issues and more like discomfort by some students. (2) We often encourage teachers to post short videos. It came to me that it could be a really good thing for teachers to encourage students to post videos when they have questions. Most of us know that we can say in words something much more efficiently than typing out the words. A short video would allow a demonstration of the problem area, a screen shot of a certain course area. And, in short, be more like classroom interaction. I had just never thought of this approach before reading this blog.
I like the idea of delayed announcements for personal messages as opposed to just instructional messages. It would take a load off my mind to know that I'm not missing kids or my teachers' birthdays. I provide a Google forms survey that asks in advance for their birthday and if they are comfortable with me sharing/celebrating it. Your comment on consistency is on point. Sometimes I get too consumed by the bell and whistles and my teachers/students are confused about where to find things. Thank you for the insightful comments.