Online teaching and learning are just as much of a transition for professors as they are for students. Using new tools and platforms and without the benefit of face-to-face connection, many instructors feel disconnected from their students. Are they engaged? Is the information landing? Absent the social queues we normally rely on, it’s easy for things to feel disjointed and even isolating. In our latest #ProfChats, we asked educators how they maintain a social presence and build connections with their students, wherever learning takes place.

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Shifting your POV

Adjusting to a world full of webcams and technical glitches can be unnerving. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of Zoom fatigue. Dr. Tazin Daniels encourages educators not to take it personally when students aren’t engaging in class the way you might expect. If your expectations surrounding participation are clear and flexible from day 1, you allow students to participate in class however makes sense for them.

Dr. Matthew Farber encourages his students to use online tools with low barriers to entry to collaborate and connect. Using these online tools and platforms, students can share ideas, ask questions and clarify course concepts without the need to have all cameras turned on.

Paula Patch asks her students to add a small touch of personality to their video screens like a photo of a pet or their favorite TV show character. Students can connect over common interests and build more informal connections that pave the way for better collaboration.

Building virtual connections

Students feel more motivated to learn when they feel a sense of belonging in the classroom. To replicate the community connection online, Dr. Jennifer Honeycutt holds short one-to-one meetings with each student at the beginning of the term. This way, Honeycutt can address concerns about the course and answer questions. She also encourages students to develop actionable learning goals and check-in on their progress midway through the course.

Thomas Tobin encourages students to build connections by finding a ‘study buddy.’ Tobin shared a framework from Penn State University, which developed a program designed for students to establish individual relationships with both peers and instructors. This allows students to ask questions, voice concerns, collaborate with peers and meet more of their fellow students regularly.

Maintaining a social presence from a distance

To bring her authentic self into the classroom, Jasmine Roberts shares personal anecdotes with students about her mental health journey. Roberts makes it clear to students that she teaches with mental health in mind. By showing vulnerability, she’s found students are more comfortable approaching her when they need support or accommodations to engage in class.

Dr. Jenae Cohn recommends educators bring their whole selves into the classroom. Engaging in conversations about hobbies, pastimes, family, pets or current events, has helped lower the barrier between herself and her students. It doesn’t have to distract from class time, either. Cohn takes advantage of office hour conversations, discussion threads and shares photos and videos in course announcements to build connections.

Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette is open and honest with her students about her “on” and “off” hours for answering questions and responding to emails. Bessette encourages students to establish similar boundaries of their own so they can unplug and disconnect from screens and their studies. When provided with this option, students can be “on” during class time while still taking the necessary time to recharge.

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