Click on the title to read the earlier posts in this series: 1 (Going Big, Online); 2 (Backward designing your large online class); 3 (Designing for and with Accessibility); 4 (Online Assessments that Engage Them…and You). Again, apologies for a longer-than-usual post.*
So you are teaching a large class in an online environment! This means that you will be communicating almost if not entirely online with them. So what are best practices?
Frequency of communicating with your class
How often should you be in contact with your students? Are you using a learning management system (LMS) to—at least in part—communicate with them? If so, consider doing the following:
Write a welcome email to the class. It is usually possible to email your class from your class registration software (e.g., “Banner”)—if so, use that for this first communication. BUT, this is important—students will add and drop from your class, so save the email and post it to the LMS, as a Word/PDF document in a “Welcome Module.” [Yes, you’ll want a Welcome Module!] You’ll go crazy trying to figure out which are newly registered students and only resending it to them, etc.
This email should have the basics (your name, title, office if you will be in it regularly; the full name of and number of the course; a brief course description; any text you are assigning that students have to buy [ideally in advance] or which they will need immediately at the start of the term; the URL for the class in the LMS (even if they cannot access it yet); the date when they can access the LMS; how to access the LMS (especially important if your fall class is primarily first-year students; and just a bit from you, about you and them as a teaching-learning team.
Set up a communication calendar. Consider the following as you create it:
-Do you want notifications to be sent about the following: a module about to open or close? An assessment about to open or close? One week before a major assessment is due (test, major assignment—by major I mean worth 10% or more of the final grade)?
-Do you want notifications to be sent one week in advance, then 72 hours, then 24 hours before any synchronous, required activity for the course? The emphasis there is on both synchronous and required.
-Do you want to make scheduled announcements or emails, say at the start of every week to walk students through what to read, what assessments there might be, what videos to watch or presentations to go through, etc.?
-Do you know if your students are using other social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook? Do you want to make notifications there as well?
I used a Facebook class page and made all announcements/notification there as well as in the LMS. It was useful—some students would see an announcement/notification and share it with students who didn’t log in to the LMS as often (either in face-to-face interaction in another class or that they were on social media with each other). So the Facebook page was the second layer of communication that only those students who wanted to join the page received, but they were able to magnify the communication.
I sometimes used my professional Twitter account in the same way but found that only about ten students either were on Twitter or followed my account, and so over time, I stopped using that social media to make class announcements.
Note: If you want to use Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram in this way, I strongly urge you to use software that will let you post once and it will push the announcement/notification out to all those social media accounts. I use Hootsuite (www.hootsuite.com) or TweetDeck . That way you are writing the announcement once but most or all those social media will “get” it. You can also write the posts and schedule them in advance. So Sunday afternoons I would write the weekly announcements and schedule them in the LMS and in Hootsuite and know they’d be sent out no matter how busy I got. Remember to download this to your phone, in case you are away from your primary computer (if it is not your phone!) but need to put out an urgent notification.
3) Decide on an emergency policy that will prevent you from having to make many emergency notifications/announcements. What do I mean? Given the significant increase in online usage, it is possible that the campus network might go down. Create a policy that tells students that, for example, “If the campus network goes down, once I learn about it, I will go and extend any assessment due in 24 hours by X amount of time. You do not have to write to me to ask, assume this will happen.” Put it in the syllabus and consider including it in every assessment’s directions. I asked a small group of students to write to me, who were on the class’ Facebook page, to write to me there if the LMS went down on campus. That way I would be checking for when it went up and could go in immediately and make a change in the time the assessment would be due. Did every student remember this policy? No. But instead of 300+ students writing to me about the LMS going down, only about 20 did instead. That for me, was a communication “win.”
4) Consider writing the class a short summary email after you finished grading each of the major assessments (e.g., tests, projects, etc.). Tell them what went well and help them to understand if there were frequent errors. Don’t just tell them about the error, but give examples of how to correct those errors. Keep it brief. You might want to create a module called “Follow Ups” or something like that, and post each as a Word/PDF document too, in case a student accidentally deletes an email, etc. Students can use these as study tools if some of your assessments are cumulative. This could also be done via a discussion board, which would allow students to comment if they still have questions, etc.
Consistency of communication
I learned this the hard way. I had this wonderful idea (it really was!) of doing a flash mob on campus with my large face-to-face Introduction to Sociology class and we would analyze reactions to it using sociological theories. Most of the class would learn the dance, which was created and taught to us by the advanced Jazz Dance class at my institution. Other students who didn’t want to dance would interview the crowd who (we hoped) would gather, asking questions the class created. Others worked with campus leaders (e.g., police, the administration, etc.) as we planned this event. The Jazz class came and taught us parts of the dance over a series of four visits. We also had Friday practice sessions at noon in the Student Union and had our only “everyone has to show up” rehearsal the night before. But we found we needed to post videos for students who could not make these events. Soon the LMS was crowded—there were about 40 sort dance videos plus all the assessments, readings, etc. I didn’t use modules or any kind of an organizing tool–I just posted a file, with a name and a date. It was a mess.
The only critique students had from that semester was that I needed to think about organizing the class page in the LMS. And they were right. So—modules will be your pedagogical friend—use them! There are several ways to consider the use of modules:
-Weekly: Put all the readings, videos, URL links, and assessments in the module. Clearly label it by date and perhaps week number, if you use that in your syllabus. Think about when you want to open the module and when to close it. This will become critical to think through now—you might even want to get a policy from your campus administrator. Will students who might become infected be allowed to go back and complete work which has “passed its due date”? Will you open up a module (or parts of it) just for that student?
– Sections of the class: This might mean putting the content of two or three weeks in one module (submodules might come in handy if the section is too large!). So for example, I had a section of the course, based on learning objectives, which focused on how groups shape individuals and how individuals can shape groups. Another section was about “thinking like a sociologist” and covered course content about theories and methods used by our profession. Think about how you could divide up your class. One suggestion though—these sections should not just be in the organization of modules, but should be reflected in your syllabus. Your goal is that all parts of the class fit together seamlessly.
-Consider creating some modules that will remain open the entire term: Consider a “Welcome to Our Class” module, containing your welcome message(s), any explanation of required technology, and documents like that; another module that might be good to have open consistently would be a “FAQ” module (Frequently Asked Questions) which contains an open discussion board for students to ask questions, copies of technology documents in the Welcome module, perhaps edited so that you have several, each about only one type of technology, a link to the LMS class calendar, and so on.
If you start with the modular approach to designing the course, stick with it for the entire term. That is the consistency students will need to succeed. Similarly, if you open the first module on Sunday, open all of them on Sunday (unless pedagogically impossible). Keeping to patterns will help students to know what is expected of them, and when. This is especially important if you are teaching first-year students or students who are not used to online learning.
One more thing about consistency—if you write long messages, you might start with an “executive summary” for those students who are in a hurry. Also, think about bolding key points or writing them in a different color font. Teach students what your patterns will be, so that they know how to look for key information and then consistently follow that pattern. If for some reason you have to vary it, alert them at the beginning of the message.
Have regular office hours, which are on the class calendar, and can be easily “found” by students. Include a link to the online location in the directions for each assessment. You might poll students for the “best” times to have them but have them. I used to use the “chat function” in the LMS, but something like Zoom might work even better because it would be more of a conversation with humans I can see! Rarely did I have more than 10 students come visit me during the routine Monday evening chats; that number increased significantly (to about 50) the week of a test. Consider also having brief office hours 48 hours before major assessments are due. I didn’t make those routinized; I would just announce them a few days in advance, but now I have rethought that idea. Routinize that “I’ll be here to ask questions” idea so that your students don’t feel as alone in those last few hours, when many of them are focusing on the assessment. While I didn’t want my students to do that kind of procrastination, it happened and if most of their courses will be online in the fall, it will likely happen more, not less. So lean into it.
I also decided that each week, I would spontaneously interact with ten percent of my students each week. In a fifteen week term, that meant that every student got an unplanned, encouraging private communication from me. Sometimes it was after a great assessment or a brilliant comment in a discussion board, etc., and each week I worked through the class list. Don’t just go alphabetically though—they figure that out quickly!
Tone of communication
I believe that the best communication reflects the person doing it. So be yourself. When adding voice to a presentation, talk as you would in class or in your office. Don’t make your language more complicated than it needs to be – the content might be complicated, but your explanations don’t have to be.
One thing I know about myself is that I have an “auctioneer mode.” Students say that I could cram a lot into, say, the last five minutes of class, if I felt that I was behind. Since you are teaching online, time is of less concern, so slow down. I made a sticky note and taped it to my monitor when I was making voice-overs for slides to remind myself that slowing down is good pedagogy.
What about you? Do you have any habits like that, which might impact how students perceive you as they listen to you? Something else that people sometimes do when they first begin teaching online is to exaggerate their voice. I did this at first, because I was trying to “make up” for the loss of my hands. Yup, I gesture a lot. I think I have written previously about how students told me that if I pounded the podium, that was a “tell” that that content would definitely be on the next test. I thought that having my hands be invisible to students meant that my voice had to do all the work. But I learned that using my hands—gesturing in my office, to myself—helped me to pace myself and helped me to mix intonation in more interesting ways. Using other software, like Zoom, which allows students to see you as you teach, can allow a more natural communication pattern. But still—practice, practice, practice so that you are happy with how others might be hearing you. Ask a few friends to listen/watch your first presentations and take their feedback to heart.
Another aspect of tone is how you communicate when you are frustrated. Trust me, there will be those times! But sending off a quick notification/announcement when that is your emotional “temperature” probably will backfire on you. So pause, walk away, wait a few hours before you hit “send.” If you feel the need to say something, send a “give me a few hours and I’ll get back to you” message. Your goal is to support your students’ learning.
I think it’s important to be sure that I start and end communications with students—be it audio or audiovisual presentations, written messages, etc.—with a “check-in.” I’d do it in a face-to-face class (e.g., I’d chat with many students individually as they came in and I’d start off with a “how’s it going?” kind of comment). Many of my large classes were part of learning communities and I knew the calendars of those other classes, so I’d ask how the chemistry test went, and so on. If I had a cold, I might apologize for a hoarse voice, etc. And I’d try to end class with a similar “human-to-human” interaction. Just because you are teaching online, doesn’t mean students don’t need this kind of interaction. In fact, I might argue they will need it more—so will you.
Honesty in communication
I hope this is a given for you, but let me talk a bit about why I think this is important. Lots of people on my campus thought I was a “techie”—which my husband thought was hilarious. I’m not. Yes, I was willing to be a pedagogical tech pioneer (about some software, about “clickers”/audience response systems, etc.) but I definitely do not know much of the science and mathematics of the software I used. And I can become frustrated, very easily, when software doesn’t work as it is intended.
So one of the things I tried to do is tell students that about myself. I’d ask a couple of students who self-identified as “tech-savvy” in their introductory discussion posts, if I could ask them for assistance if I got stuck. I wasn’t saying they had to solve the problem, but would they be willing to brainstorm with (and for!) me about what I might want to try. They loved being asked. In an online environment, I think I would create some “Assistance Points.” Students could earn them by answering another student’s question about the class on a discussion board and how it works or help me if I needed this kind of tech assistance. Make it be for just a few points, but it routinizes that helping each other is a value embedded in the class’ interactions with each other.
Honesty can be hard, but it’s a value I want to have embedded in my classes. That flash mob (mentioned above) involved one of the most difficult moments in my teaching career. Campus videographers were to record it, including from the tops of nearby buildings (one of our hypotheses was about the size of groups who stopped to watch, so we needed to see the event from a higher elevation) and give the class access to all camera angles, for our analysis. Five minutes before the dance started, they told me they decided to film only at ground level. That decision meant that we lost most of the data we had wanted. Students were on such a high after the flash mob ended. Four hours later, I had to write to them and tell them—after all their extra work to learn the dance, etc.—that it was for naught.
They were mad and disappointed, but they worked through it faster than I did. Within two hours, a large segment of the class started a discussion board/petition to let them write a different paper than we had planned (testing hypotheses). Instead, they wanted to write about how the campus was congratulating them for a job well done (campus administrators, the local paper—lots of people were doing this) when they knew it was a pedagogical failure. It was a perfect example of the social construction of reality. It wasn’t what I’d planned and several learning outcomes had to be reworked on the fly, but they made lemonade out of lemons…faster than I did. I was and am proud of them, to this day. The discussion board that day was not the easiest to read—there was a lot of honest emotions, some using language I didn’t completely endorse—but students poured out their hearts and then figured out what to do next. I was on the board for hours, commenting when I thought necessary but mostly supporting students’ honest emotions with my own. We all learned a lot about each other, sociology, and learning that evening.
The pandemic, the economic freefall, social injustices laid bare–these will be “students” in your class too this fall. They will be impacting your students’ lives, their work (or their non-work)–and yours as well. Creating a culture where a student can share their truth with you privately, or for some or all of the class to process these feelings will be something you need to plan for, prepare for, and be ready to be an honest communication partner. How trauma should impact grading, I’ll be talking about in another post. But honesty involves accepting and valuing the human(s) on the other screens. And right now, they and you, are hurting.
Humor in communication
I’m not the funniest person (my husband makes really bad puns frequently in class); alas, humor takes a lot of work for me to do. But I believe that it is crucial, especially in an online course. So I make the deliberate choice to add humor into many of my presentations. Trust me—I didn’t say it was good humor, but it’s humor!
What do I mean? When I am defining “status” and “role” for the first time, before I show the definition of “role” I have a slide that just has a cinnamon roll on it. And I’ll say, “No, not this kind of roll, but this kind…” and the slide forwards to the definition of “role.” In my face-to-face class, there are usually one or two students who get it during the “pastry slide” and snicker. If I wait, a few more will groan or laugh. Finally, after about a minute, I’ll say something like, “Come on, that was one of my better jokes!” and nearly everyone would laugh. There were two reasons that I wanted some humor built into that presentation. First, it was an easy one to pull off for me! But even more importantly, the differences between statuses and roles are what I call a “course tripwire.” Many students lose points on tests and other assessments about these concepts. Having humor that they can recall has helped many of them to cement the differences in their minds.
Much of my humor is planned—I work hard to find appropriate places in my online presentations where humor will fit. Others will have the interactional skills to have humor happen spontaneously (I envy you!).
A caveat though: we are in a time where social values, cultures, and norms are rightfully being examined. Humor is rooted in culture and so often can be perceived as “edgy.” Be sure planned moments of humor build unity and not create emotional or pedagogical barriers between individual students, groups of students, and yourself. Be even more aware of this if you use spontaneous humor.
Teaching a large class online requires you to routinize much of your communication so that you can spend more time focusing on those wonderful, unplanned moments that will occur between students, between groups of students and you, and in one-on-one interaction with a student and you. Knowing when and how often you’ll communicate the mechanics of the class minimizes their stress. Knowing that they can trust your communication to be honest and focused on their learning and success builds a sense of trust crucial to online pedagogy.
Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual pedagogical consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.
*Note: I realize that good pedagogy, let alone good online pedagogy, requires that content should be “chunked” into smaller amounts. I had to balance that versus trying to get all my thoughts about teaching a large class online completed before the start of Fall 2020 begins–which is why this post is not chunked. I still have 3 more posts in the series (software; testing and grading; and pedagogical failures).