“It’s About Connecting”: Welcoming Students to Your Online Environment

ACUE  launches a six-part Effective Online Instruction webinar series

When she’s not teaching her courses, Flower Darby teaches pilates at her local gym. Once, when she was running to class behind schedule, she noticed a woman standing outside of the studio carrying a yoga mat and looking a little apprehensive. The lights weren’t on, the music wasn’t playing, and she wasn’t sure if she was in the right place at the right time.

“I think many times when students click into our online classrooms, they might feel that same way,” said Darby. “The lights are not on. The music is not playing….But let’s think today about how we create that ongoing sense of welcoming, so every time a student clicks into your online learning environment, they feel welcome, supported, valued, and appreciated. They see the lights are on, they hear that music playing, and they know they’re in the right place at the right time.”

Higher education has been forced to make an extraordinary transition to online learning in a matter of days, and many dedicated faculty are searching for guidance on how to make this shift as seamless as possible. In collaboration with The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), The American Council on Education (ACE), The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), and The National Association of System Heads (NASH), ACUE is offering a series of six webinars featuring nationally recognized experts in online teaching and learning to discuss best practices for ensuring quality online instruction for student success.

Our first webinar, Welcoming Students to your Online Environment, featured Darby, director of Teaching for Student Success at Northern Arizona University and author of Small Teaching Online; Michael Wesch, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and author of “Teaching Without Walls: 10 Tips for Online Teaching;” and Kevin Gannon, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and professor of History at Grand View University and author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Carmen Macharaschwili, regional academic director at ACUE, served as moderator.

Darby, Wesch, and Gannon engaged in a lively discussion, sharing how they strive to make students feel comfortable in an online learning environment. Wesch, for example, demonstrated how he uses a selfie-stick to hold his phone while teaching, walking through his home and pointing out his son and cat to humanize himself as an instructor. He urged fellow faculty to “find your why” and ask themselves “Who are my students? What do they need? What are their purposes?”

“Remember,” Wesch said. “It isn’t about you; it’s about your students. It’s about connecting.”

“Think about it from a student’s perspective,” Gannon agreed. He focused on how to invite students into online spaces, wondering, “What makes a space welcoming?” Pointing to a picture of the interactive children’s room at a museum in Washington, he noted that the layout is open and encourages people to play around. This, Gannon said, could serve as a guiding metaphor for online learning.

“Think of ways to curate the learning space,” he said. “What can they read, encounter, and engage with? The space has to be accessible.” Gannon’s suggestions included asking students to use actual photos instead of avatars and considering how to leverage audio and visual feedback rather than written for assignments. 

“What are we saying to our students even when we’re not saying anything at all?” he asked.

During the Q&A portion, many participants asked about personalizing learning when teaching a large group. Wesch noted that one way he tackles this challenge is by using “low-level” assignments to allow students to express themselves, such as having students attempt to break a habit over the course of 28 days. This, he said, “ties into a larger discussion about who we are as human beings.”

Participants also wondered what they should do when students are disengaging. 

Gannon urged instructors to use a “one size fits one” approach, such as reaching out to students personally and asking if they’re encountering problems and how the instructor can help. “Many students are not experienced online learners,” he noted, much as many faculty are not experienced online instructors.

To assist students with learning or access challenges, Darby reminded participants to “think about the complexities,” such as students who were sharing their computer with their family. “A lot of times, online students feel like they’re invisible,” she said, explaining the importance of discussing students’ needs based on their backgrounds and learning preferences.

Ultimately, the presenters agreed that despite the challenges, this transition would present plenty of opportunities. “Think about what the possibilities are,” Gannon said. “Think in different ways.”

Head over to our Welcoming Students to Your Online Environment resources page to watch a recording or read a full transcript of the webinar, join in the discussion, and discover more resources to help you transition your courses to an online environment, including the ACUE Online Teaching Toolkit.

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