As many of us prepare to start the school year fully or partially online, know that your students may come with a broad range of skills—some with virtually no experience using technology for academic work. Here are our top tips for supporting first-time students in your online classroom:
Start the year with mini-lessons about submitting various types of assignments.
At first, students may have a hard time navigating where and how to submit each assignment. For example, in VHS Learning courses students encounter three different formats: discussions, uploaded assignments, and blogs/wikis. You can think of them like commenting on Facebook posts, saving files to DropBox, and writing group documents using Google Docs. These assignment types are consistent throughout the school year, so it is well worth our time to teach students how to complete each type at the beginning. Lauren Dolinka, a Site Coordinator for Online Judaic Studies Courses said, “They cover this material in the orientation, but my students didn’t fully grasp the process until they had to begin submitting their coursework. If you spend some time reviewing the submission process, your students will be able to navigate the online classroom fluently early on in the course.”
Provide checklists at the start of each week.
Giving checklists with the week’s assignments guarantees that students are aware of upcoming deadlines. Time management skills—including planning, prioritization, and organization—are important to succeed in an online environment, and some students may not have these abilities when they arrive in your class. This is a good opportunity to practice and develop these skills which will serve them the rest of their lives. We recommend students print the checklist or write it down to help them visualize and physically keep track of their work. You might even add reflection questions and make it a short assignment.
Build a sense of belonging.
For many students, the biggest concern about online learning is feeling disconnected from their teacher and classmates. In face-to-face classes, students and teachers might make small talk during transition periods, laugh together, and become comfortable with everyone’s presence in the room. Online, we must make a conscious effort to build that rapport and connect in other ways. Add a picture of yourself (not just your Bitmoji or your cat) to your profile and encourage students to do the same. In an asynchronous class, show you are active every day by posting a video of yourself, commenting on a news story that connects to class, posting grades for an assignment, sharing resources or fun facts. When students know that their teacher is present, they are more likely to be accountable to the class and to engage with the activities. Students can also benefit from an informal meeting place that they can gather to socialize—either opening synchronous sessions 10 minutes early or creating a discussion board where they can all “hang out.” You want to build community, but if students only see each other in the classroom, they may be too focused on catching up to be fully present in their learning.
Reassure students that you are available for help.
Reassure students that they can reach you with questions or challenges throughout their course. Let them know how they can submit questions, how soon they can expect a reply (i.e. “I’ll always respond within 24 hours”), and if you will set any “virtual office hours.” The length of time it takes you to respond and the length of your response will send a message about how approachable and friendly you seem as a teacher. Some students may never need the help! Others may reach out only when they need clarification or are stuck on an assignment. Still others may reach out seeking connection in this difficult time. Simply reassuring your students that you are available will put them at ease as they navigate a new academic experience.
Meet weekly with students who need or request support.
Once you understand each student’s ability to manage their work independently, you can focus on supporting students for whom online learning is more challenging. They might benefit from weekly check-ins over Google Meet or similar chat services. If they lack high-speed internet, try calling by phone instead. Again, knowing that there is a “real” teacher at the other side of the relationship can be motivating to students.
This is a challenging new endeavor for most students! If you have to repeat instructions for downloading a Google Doc as a PDF fifteen (or fifty) times, that’s okay. Know that, eventually, your students will navigate their online classroom with ease.