Moving Online – connecting with students

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With the rapid transition that has been necessary recently due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a large number of colleagues are looking for ideas, alternatives and suggestions for developing their learning and teaching approaches online. This series of blog posts are aimed at supporting staff looking for ways to incorporate more blended or online learning teaching whether for the short term or long term.

What do we mean by connecting with students online?

As teaching begins for some for the summer term or students are preparing for their online exams coming up in May, it’s important to think about how we’re keeping connected with our students and helping them to connect with each other. Students can gain much from the informal, social learning that accompanies the formal learning activities that we create within the curriculum and when moving online it becomes increasingly important to consider how to create and foster those opportunities for informal interaction. Connecting with our students also helps with motivation and keeping students on track with activities. In addition, we are all wanting to look after our mental health and having regular connections with both friends, classmates and colleagues can be invaluable in helping us keep well as part of looking after our mental well being.

What are the benefits of connecting with students online?

The rapid move online has been a massive shift for staff and students alike. We often assume that students use digital technologies all the time but student’s online communications experiences can vary hugely depending on a variety of factors and we need be mindful that we challenge our assumptions in this regard. But primarily, building in opportunities to connect with students online in formal and informal spaces allows students to discuss ideas or concepts, ask for help or share useful information both with you and with their peers. It’s about maintaining a rapport with students and being active about designing in to time spent connecting online.

How can I move this practice online?

There are so many different digital learning and teaching technologies that can facilitate opportunities to connect with students. At the university, we have some key communication technologies in place. Firstly, within Blackboard there are opportunities to use the Announcement tool and discussion boards to facilitate communications with students. These are useful for those ongoing conversations which take place over a period of time with students dipping in and out of the conversation as their studying at home practices allow. Discussion boards also provide ‘walled-garden’ safe spaces for students to feel comfortable discussing issues that they not be willing to discuss in more public fora such as social media. You might also like to look at Yammer, which is part of the Office 365 suite of tools.

Blackboard Collaborate and Microsoft Teams are both video/audio meeting facilities allowing face-to-face communications that need to happen in real-time. Seeing a friendly face helps students to connect with everyone. Beyond using these tools for formally delivery of sessions, these can be great for hosting ‘drop-ins’ where students can log-in to discuss any particular study issues with the module/course tutor.

Sometimes, it can be something as small as a little ‘check-in’ survey using MS Forms to help students give you a sense of how they’re doing.

Of course, there are also plenty of social media applications out there you can use in your digital learning and teaching and depending on your students you may feel comfortable hosting a ‘tweetchat’ or setting up other collaboration spaces such as Padlet. And finally, while students engagement with it varies, email newsletters can also be useful way to keep in touch and communicate with students about what’s happening.

With all of these digital learning and teaching opportunities, it’s about finding a communication approach that works for you and your students and it’s usually a combination of communication tools rather than just one technology that helps keeps those connections going. Here are some questions to consider when thinking about an approach to connecting with your students.

  1. How comfortable are you, colleagues and your students with using a range of digital technologies?
  2. How are you currently connecting with students and how often? Building a communication approach that expands on current digital practices will help everyone develop from a place where they are comfortable but also starts to stretch their digital capabilities

Where do I begin?

Gilly Salmon’s five stage model was designed to support these types of connections and is ideally suited to support you in developing a communications approach to connect and engage with your students. The model consists

  1. Access and Motivation: Becoming more comfortable and confident in accessing digital learning and teaching technologies, e.g. being able to access the discussion forums on Blackboard or accessing a BB Collaborate session.
  2. Online Socialisation: Feeling confident and comfortable engaging with each other. e.g. posting regular updates and responding to students comments help them engage with the process as well as the tool.
  3. Information Exchange: Starting to take the online digital learning and teaching further by sharing more. e.g. by creating more online activities and fostering dialogue between students online.
  4. Knowledge Construction: Using digital learning and teaching and technologies to develop more opportunities for learning online and providing students with greater scope for sense making and being a community of learners together e.g. encouraging group work and setting up group collaborative spaces such blogs or wikis.
  5. Development: Students are confident learning and sharing online and are building on their learning to apply in their own context. They can demonstrate the application of their learning through a range of online assessments.

Further Information

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Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

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