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Connecting in the virtual college classroom

Photo of student taking an online class
Photo: Flux Factory / Getty Images

Connecting in the virtual college classroom

Digital learning experts at the GSE share tips to help instructors build community and collaboration while teaching remotely.

As Stanford prepares for the start of a virtual spring quarter, instructors are hustling to get up to speed on the university’s online platforms and translate their courses to the medium. At Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), a team of digital learning specialists on staff have been working with GSE faculty and other instructors on ways to make the most of the technology.

Here, they share some tips on how to connect with students, encourage collaboration and help build a sense of community among students who may now be dispersed around the world.

Find out what home looks like for students

“As an instructor, you want to understand the conditions your students are working under,” said Shawn Kim, director of digital learning solutions at the GSE. She recommends having students fill out a technology accessibility survey before the quarter begins to find out what kind of devices they own, and whether they have a reliable wi-fi connection.

She also suggests asking questions about their home setting: Do students have young children under their care? Are there multiple family members working from home? Is there limited personal space? Students’ time zone can also affect participation in live class sessions, as they may have moved home to a city across the globe. “Asking about these issues gives you information about what they’re facing, and it gives students a chance to express any concerns,” said Kim.

Get personal

Being vulnerable at the beginning of a course can get relationships off to a strong start and help students feel more supported, especially during a time of crisis. Kim suggests that everyone introduce themselves on the platform before the course begins, either in writing or by uploading a short video. “I know instructors have a lot to do to prepare for online learning, but a very casual welcome video can add a personal touch," said Kim.

Students and instructors can take the opportunity to talk about their interests, activities they do for fun outside of class and even how they and their family are doing during the COVID-19 shelter in place. Another possibility is to share a photo of an object in their home that has particular meaning for them, posting it along with an explanation of what makes it special. 

Set classroom norms

“The virtual classroom is a new environment for a lot of people, so it’s important to establish how communication should work,” said Josh Weiss, an educational technology specialist at the GSE. For example, be clear about how students should ask questions during a live class. Should they use the “raise hand” feature in Zoom and wait to be called on? Post their question using the chat function—directly to the professor or a facilitator, or to everyone? Unmute themselves and jump in?  

Keep the feedback coming

It’s hard to read the room when you’re not in an actual room. Is your pace too fast or slow? Is anyone still confused about a concept? Make a point of encouraging students to use the nonverbal feedback feature to indicate “yes,” “no,” “go slower,” and so on. Zoom even has an option students can click to request a coffee break (under “more” on the nonverbal feedback menu). “If you see a critical mass of those requests, you’ll realize that maybe your students could use a short time-out,” said Weiss.

Consider asking students for specific feedback via Qualtrics or Google surveys throughout the quarter to help inform tweaks in content, pace or instruction.

Combine real-time togetherness with offline work

Weigh your ideal mix of synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (on-their-own) learning. “A blend allows students some flexibility to learn on their schedule, but also provides structure and helps to build a sense of community,” said Leslie Cook, an instructional designer at the GSE.

The “right” ratio will vary, said Cook, depending on the nature of the course and what works for the instructor. Because the switch to online teaching was fairly abrupt under the current circumstances and it can take time to develop materials for students to work with on their own, the first few weeks of a course this spring might be mainly synchronous, with asynchronous lessons layered in later in the quarter.

Break it down

To promote collaboration, assign small groups of students to breakout rooms in Zoom (or have the platform create groups randomly). Besides using breakout rooms for group work on a topic during class, consider scheduling routine sessions at the beginning or end of class for small groups to check in with one another informally, either to solidify learning or to share how they’re doing personally. If that time is scheduled for the end of class, students can stay in the “room” and connect with each other for as long as they like.

Instructors can also set up study rooms in Zoom using permanent, designated links, and encourage students to use apps like Slack, WhatsApp or Padlet to collaborate outside of class.

Maintain office hours

Just like on campus, your virtual office should be stable and easy for students to find. Set up a dedicated Zoom room for office hours rather than using your personal conference room link, and make sure it’s easy to locate on Canvas. Activate the waiting room feature to signal when the next appointment has arrived so that students won’t interrupt a meeting in progress.

Be patient with each other

The transition to remote learning on this scale is unprecedented and likely to present challenges for instructors and students alike. “This is new for all of us,” said Marlee Burns, a Knight-Hennessy Scholar and master’s student in the GSE’s Policy, Organization and Leadership Studies (POLS) program. “It’s been really nice to see professors who’ve been transparent about saying this is new for them—that we’re all adjusting and working through how to do this, and we’re going to figure it out together.”

See more resources and commentary from Stanford GSE on the impact of the novel coronavirus on education. 

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