Kelly Hinson is an Instructor of Information Technology
Let me be the first to confess that when I started my career as an instructor, I did not see the need for student connections. After all, I had made it through a four-year university and could not recall any significant faculty connection I had made. I am wired to learn and have a keen interest in mastering a topic, only asking questions if I am stumped. But here I am post-pandemic (hopefully), after living through a year of online classes and working from home. Online classes are second nature to me. I did not make any course revisions in the spring of 2020 to accommodate my students, because they were already online.
Well, that last part is not completely true. While the content did not change, what did change was my focus on my students’ welfare. Were they sick? Did they have illness in the family? Did their Internet work? How were they managing their time? Were they overwhelmed with fear? I found myself combing through grades to see how their performance might be impacted. I checked student email obsessively because I wanted them to know I was here for them and ready to listen and refer students to campus resources.
Building Student Connections with Announcements
To manage some of my concerns for my students, the first thing I did was to make use of course announcements and emails. In our LMS (Blackboard), I can post an announcement and email it to students at the same time. This is a way to reach everyone without singling out an individual. It is quick and relatively simple and keeps a record of my contact. I am sure most instructors use this tool frequently. Just make sure to use it for online AND seated classes. Always include your email address and a way to reach you by phone or by a virtual session.
However, too many announcements and emails can overwhelm students also. So, I started picking two days a week to check on my students. While most announcements/emails updated students on what was due that week, they all ended with my concern for them and how to contact me.
Building Student Connections During Virtual Drop-Ins
This leads to my next way to make connections with students, and that is to set up a virtual drop-in time. Pick several days and times and post a link for students to drop in and ask questions about course content or college resources. You can do this by class or topic, or just have an open time for all students to mingle. Again, this can be done with seated classes and online classes. I have found that seated students need online access to instructors as much as online students do. Sometimes they need more because they are afraid to speak up in class.
Previously, I found that most students did not take advantage of drop-in time because the hours were either too early in the week, the students had not looked at the week’s assignments or I had them during the time that they were working. To help with this, I send out a survey by class to see what days and times might work best for everyone. I never made the meetings required, and I never offered them on Sunday. I told all my students at the start of the semester that I would not be available on Sunday as I needed a break. You could do this with any day or days that you are not available. You do not have to do this every week either. Just use what works best. You can record the session so that others can view it if they could not attend.
Instructor Videos Strengthen Student Connections
Another tool I employed was instructor videos. I have always been a fan of these, but I started making them weekly and posting them as part of assignments for the week. These videos let the students see me as I work at home. I did not have professional videos, but authentic ones. In the videos I’ll point out items they need to study, which assignments might need more time and why. I know that this can take a lot of time when you teach at least four or five different courses a semester, but I found that the students really liked to see my face—such as it is. The videos provide a personal experience for online students and a carry-over experience if they’re in a seated class.
I discovered that students liked the videos so much that by Fall 2021, I started posting them with any difficult assignment. Sometimes I just explained the instructions verbally; sometimes I actually completed a similar assignment. The trick was having them available before the assignment week so that students could access them as they were completing assignments. Sometimes I only made them available if the student received a low grade. In other words, adaptive release became my friend and encouraged students to complete assignments early so that they could have access to the video. These videos make connections for both online and seated students. Students can access them even if they could not come to class or if they need more explanation when they were home working on homework.
Enhancing Videos with Comments and Screen Capture
While these techniques help with student connections for most classes, I also teach a capstone class that requires more hands-on guidance from me. For that class, I employed Microsoft Word’s Comments (under the Review tab), and Camtasia to capture the screen as I explained the errors. For each student’s written assignment, I captured the screen through video while I walked through the written work and made comments in Word.
The feedback I received from these students was what kept me going during this Spring 2022 semester. Again, even if I had these students in a seated class, I would still use the online and video feedback for grading. I could post each individual video with the student grade, or sometimes I emailed it to the student. Students felt connected to me and provided better work by the end of the semester than previous students had.
Giving Feedback to Students
Lastly, the most important connection I made this spring was with my programming students. Since I was not in a classroom with them, I once again made use of videos for assignments. But more importantly, I used individual videos for programs for each student who needed one. For example, if a student turned in a program that did not work, I used Camtasia to make a short video of the error and then corrected the program. I would attach the video to the gradebook or email it to the student. This student connection kept several students from dropping the course and helped them proceed to upper levels in the curriculum.
I would certainly use every tool I have used over the last year for online students for my seated students as well. The one thing I was afraid of (which was getting to know too much about my students) never came to pass. I was also not willing to share a lot about my personal life, and that never happened either. What did happen was that more students persisted through the course to the next semester because they could get help from a very present instructor.