Including off-campus students in a positive learning experience

As semester 1 starts, many units are running with online supported learning for at least part of the semester for students impacted by travel restrictions. For many, learning online may be more difficult than doing so in face-to-face classes where they have the personal support of the teachers and their peers. Some of the many advantages of online learning, such as its greater flexibility and the ability of the student to self-pace their learning, may actually be weaknesses for students who are inexperienced in studying with less structure, and are learning in a new style and language:

  • Online students are typically isolated and need more than access to resources. They need the presence of their peers and instructor to help them learn.
  • There is a greater risk of being lost online (not solely in terms of the interface or knowing where to go or what button to push) but in terms of learning content and engaging with activities.

This article discusses some simple and easy to implement principles and techniques that should be adopted in all classes with an online cohort as a first step to ensuring that all students are included in a positive learning experience. It is based on the Level 1 Checklist developed by Educational Innovation as part of the Resource Toolkit available on the coronavirus information Intranet page. As with the partner article on providing learning resources, a Canvas site (self-enrol yourself here) is available illustrating some of the ideas presented here, so that they can be lifted straight into your own Canvas sites.

Building teacher-student relationships

Teaching online is also often more difficult and time-consuming than doing so face-to-face. In particular, educators need to deliberately and continually develop their ‘teacher presence’ – establishing and building connections and rapport with students, motivating them, and overcoming the effects of isolation. Here are some of the essentials:

  1. Add a ‘meet your teaching team’ page (see an example) to Canvas with photos and short, interesting, and friendly biographies at the level of formality or informality that you are comfortable with, tending towards the less formal if appropriate.
  2. Send a welcome announcement (example) – let students know what they need to do first and where to find the resources that they will need.
  3. Help to build regularity and structure by posting a weekly announcement (example), giving everyone an update on the week with links to key resources and a look ahead to the activities of the following week.
  4. Use your first name and active voice, and be friendly and approachable.
  5. Use greetings and students’ first names to add warmth to one-on-one communications.
  6. Be explicit about acknowledging and supporting off-campus students. You could provide a page that highlights FAQs and supports specifically for off-campus students (example), and involve your on-campus students in helping out in this regard (such as noticing when you don’t use a microphone, or pairing up with an off-campus student).
  7. Post a ‘Welcome’ video (examples) on the front page of your Canvas site, introducing your students to the topics they’ll be studying and what they need to do for the first couple of weeks of semester. Don’t worry about mistakes – a rough and ready, DIY video made on a phone or with a webcam* that reflects your enthusiasm and positivity will be more engaging than a overly planned and produced one.

This can be most easily done using Canvas Studio recorder (either using a webcam or screen capture on your computer, or even your smartphone). It’s also really easy to automatically add closed captions and correct any mistakes it makes.

Fostering sense of belonging and community

Students’ sense of belonging is closely associated with their ratings on the overall quality of their educational experience at the University. The transition experience of new students is extremely important in ensuring that they feel part of the University. For those caught up in the travel restrictions, this needs to be achieved online in the first few weeks and then supported in-class for those arriving mid-semester. The relationship-building described above can be combined with other essential approaches to help students belong:

  1. Encourage students to add their profile picture to Canvas – you can send them these instructions.
  2. Open a discussion forum on Canvas for general student questions (example). Make sure a staff member monitors this daily, encouraging students to help each other where possible, or jumping in with a staff response if appropriate.
  3. Post an introduction message and then weekly discussion prompts (example).
  4. Ask students to post their own ‘introduce yourself’ messages; provide brief guidelines (example).
  5. Use some of the tips and tricks available to make your discussion forums vibrant but manageable.
  6. If students will be joining existing tutorials when they arrive on campus, encourage tutors to welcome them and ensure that they are integrated into the class.

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