Jessica Su got her first taste of how challenging it can be to teach online when Covid-19 hit in the spring. The sociologist videotaped lectures for her first-year seminar on welfare, and hoped a discussion board could replicate the lively conversations she and her students had held in the classroom.
Instead, what she saw felt more transactional. Students responded to her writing prompts. But she couldn’t figure out how to get a conversation going in the discussion forum. Even the comments that students wrote about each other’s posts felt dutiful more than engaging, says Su, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They were interacting, but not in a meaningful way.”
While the spring triage fell short of real online education, Su realized that even under the best of circumstances virtual learning requires a different, carefully crafted approach to engagement.
It helps that, now, she’s teaching her fall course on poverty and public policy in real time, but that’s not the whole solution. She makes sure to check in with her students at the start of every class to see how they’re doing, and uses online polls to get conversation started. She puts students into “breakout rooms” with clear roles and assignments. And with discussion boards, she tells students she wants to focus on the substance of their ideas, not on the quantity of their words.
As a result, she says, the fall experience has been remarkably better. Students are engaging more with her and one another, and her informal mid-semester course evaluations came back positive. Yet, she notes, those victories were hard won, requiring intense planning at each step of the way. “I feel in some ways I’m teaching these classes for the first time.”
Su’s experience is a familiar one, as professors wrestle with the challenge of creating a sense of community in their online courses. Relationships are the foundation of good learning, teaching experts say. Feeling comfortable with classmates, wanting to engage in debates and share ideas, having a sense of belonging — these are all critical components of a vibrant classroom, and something particularly challenging to create online. Virtual classes can seem awkward and communication forced. Many students struggle to secure reliable Wi-Fi access and quiet places to learn, which may limit their ability to engage with classmates.
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– by Beth McMurtrie, The Chronicle of Higher Education