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Podcast: Build Better Student Connections by Avoiding 4 Pitfalls

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenFaculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities

Connecting effectively with students in the online classroom is a huge challenge for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen addresses four common complaints that students have about online classes. Learn how online teachers can improve the way they use technology, communicate more clearly, enhance students’ social and emotional experience, and improve student engagement in the virtual classroom.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen:
This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Hello there. Welcome to the podcast, today. I’m so excited to talk with you about four pitfalls I came across in online education.

Before I do that, I’d like to introduce myself just a little bit in case you’re new to the podcast. My name is Dr. Bethanie Hansen. I’m a professor at American Public University. I’m also a Faculty Director there. I’ve been an educator for 25 years, and I also coach professionals and educators.

I really enjoy working with individuals of all ages. My latest experience has been the past 10 or 12 years in higher ed leadership. However, I have taught children ages K-12 — that’s five to about 18, 19 years old. I’ve taught a lot of university students and I also, as I mentioned, coach adults.

Start a degree in the School of Education at American Public University.

As I do these things, there are common things that I notice. There are also common themes that others have noticed. When you learn about these things as an educator, you can save yourself a lot of trouble, a lot of headache, and a lot of stress.

Why It’s So Important to Connect with Online Students

You can also connect better with your students and help them to feel like you’re really there, especially in online education. There’s such an easy disconnect there. One just comes from the screen itself, of course, and another comes from the fact that students really do have to be more driven and motivated. They need to log on, not get distracted by online things, feel engaged, and push themselves through this experience even more.

They don’t have that physical classroom they’re walking into, where they can sit down and the world is outside and they are really triggered to think about their learning in that moment. It’s going to stay with them because they’re going to go back to that room regularly through your class.

So in the online world, it’s so critical to make better connections with students. And I personally am always looking for ways that we can see our students better, connect with our students better and thus help engage them. And bring them through this learning experience in ways that satisfy them and help them to truly learn what they’re after.

[Podcast: How to Increase Your Confidence and Connection in the Online Classroom]

Today I’m going to share with you an article I came across. It was a post about student feedback about their online learning experience. I loved this post because it distilled the four major pitfalls that a lot of faculty have. We hit these at one point or another, whether it’s the words that we type or say to our students, or maybe it’s even the way we think about things.

So I’d like you to think about it. Do any of these seem relevant to you? Have any of them come from your experience or have you ever experienced these? And as you’re thinking about these today, we’ll discuss what would be some ways to overcome these four areas.

Now, this was a K-12 student survey. It shared the student’s impressions of their online learning experience. And whether you’re in primary, secondary or higher education, this feedback is relevant to what you’re doing. People really do have the same complaints and same frustrations at various levels of education in these four areas.

The four areas came from Peter DeWitt’s original publication, and it was called “Students Provide Feedback on Four Areas of Focus During The Pandemic.” It was published in July 2020 on Ed Week. Even though it was sometime ago, by the time you’re listening to this recording, it is, again, still relevant at any time in online education.

Improve How You Use Teaching Technology

The first area of complaint students had in this blog is technology tools. They noted four specific problems.

Know How Classroom Technology Works

The first is, “Teachers knowing how to use apps or platforms they’re using to assign us the content.” Now, this one is a really big area. As an observer of faculty and also a manager and supervisor, I give a lot of feedback to faculty about what I observe in their classroom. And occasionally I do come across the comment where a student is asking the faculty member how to do something in the classroom. Or if there is a tool that’s being used, maybe it’s Prezi, maybe it’s Flipgrid, maybe it’s some other interactive thing, could even be PowerPoint.

Sometimes a faculty member will respond with a comment like, “I didn’t write the course. I’m not really sure. Please reach out to classroom support or tech support.” Of course, it’s always a great idea to get support, but you’re the student’s first line of communication. And they’re hoping you’re going to guide them in something that you’re teaching.

So before you start teaching the class, find out the basics about the technology tools and be ready to answer students’ questions. This is part of teaching presence. It reassures students that there’s someone there guiding them and giving them a positive experience in their learning.

Use a Variety of Technology

The second area of technology tools is using other technologies that are available. Students don’t like it when you’re not using those technologies. So if you take the approach of just the straightforward teaching and the very basic parts of the LMS, many of them don’t enjoy that. And they would like it if you tried new technologies.

Use a Video Platform So Students Can See You

A third one is that students actually want to see their teachers and they would prefer to see them in a video platform. The comment from the blog was that teachers need to use Zoom for a real-time classroom. If you have the opportunity to connect with technology tools like Zoom, like Google Classroom, like any kind of live video, or even a recorded video of you guiding something through the classroom, this is a great way to overcome this complaint students have about not using technology.

Don’t Overuse PowerPoint or Learn How to Enhance Your Slides

And the last one is too many PowerPoint slides to read. Now that’s something I’ve actually suggested several times in the Online Teaching Lounge podcast is to use PowerPoint, to try technology tools, to bring those visuals in. And when you compare this to just typed text, definitely PowerPoint is a step up. But there are many things you can do other than just scrolling through the PowerPoints.

If you are really stuck with PowerPoint and you want to use it, and it’s your go-to for teaching, you can try something like Knovio. That’s spelled K-N-O-V-I-O. Knovio is a platform where you can put your PowerPoint slides up there and record a video of yourself talking about them next to the PowerPoint. And it’ll move forward through the slides in time while you’re teaching and talking and illustrating. That makes the typical PowerPoint so much more engaging and it also bridges that gap I mentioned previously where students really want to see your face. They want a connection to you.

Improve Your Communication with Students, Provide Advance Notice When Possible

So the second area is a longer one, and I’m just going to read these without a lot of elaboration. These are various comments the students have made about teacher clarity. And of course, in any kind of teaching or communicating, the more clear you can come across to your students, the more they have a good chance of learning what you’re trying to do teach. Here are the comments:

  • Better directions that are not so wordy. Sometimes someone else has to help me read and decipher the instructions.
  • Easier access to my teacher. I can only get answers between 9:00 and 10:30, and I have to wait for answers.
  • A way to get more help to do work I don’t understand.
  • More clear and effective communication from every single person working in that school.
  • More contact from the teacher with more virtual lessons taught before the assignment.
  • If teachers post the time they are going to meet a day or two ahead of time, instead of the morning, they’re going to meet.
  • Let me know ahead of time if I need to print something.

These of course are various pet peeves students have, but they do communicate a bigger problem. If you’re planning your online course ahead of time, and you know what you would like students to do and achieve, you can definitely give them some advanced notice. If you’re going to have an office hour, if you’re going to have a live lesson, and if you’re going to ask them to meet with you and have something printed out. The more clarity you can give in your assignment instructions, the more students are likely to complete that assignment with success.

Even though as an instructor and a faculty member in higher education, we don’t always realize the anxiety students are having to produce that assignment, we can still remember that everyone needs clarity. It’s even better if we remember that most students are very anxious. They want to be pleasing in their work. They want to get it right. They want to also be able to master the content and learn it. That’s why they’re there. So think about ways that assignment instructions could be clearer and also those notifications of various gatherings could be communicated ahead of time.

Enhance Your Social and Emotional Connection

The third area is the social emotional connection. And remember, these were K-12 students who wrote these comments and they said they don’t need anything improved, they just want to be physically in school rather than virtually attending. They would like some kind of social gathering, more time to chat with their friends.

They want other kids’ parents to get them to behave online, which is truly a problem for a lot of the younger children who are sitting all day in front of the computer or in front of Zoom. They want more teacher check-ins and they want to get back to the normal school routine. It’s just not the same to look at a screen. They miss books, physical things, and the presence in the classroom.

We can take this to the higher ed level, if that’s where you’re at, by talking about how we can really help students connect with each other. How we can promote that atmosphere in our online classroom of focus on the content and on really moving into the subject matter in ways that are relevant, real life. Applying the subject to the things our students know about, and also really communicating with our students often. If your online course is asynchronous, that idea of having more teacher check-ins is a really big deal. It could be a video at the beginning of the week, one or two announcements throughout the week, and a lot of engagement and interaction in the blog or the forum.

You might also consider how fast you turn around your grading, because even when a student submits an assignment and you’ve returned it five or seven days later, this is an eternity to a student. The more you can turn that around with some quality and some connection to your students quickly, the more they’re going to feel that connection with you as well.

Ways to Improve Student Engagement

And then the last area shared was student engagement. And I’ll just read all of these. Some are good things, some are suggestions for improvement:

  • Less busy work, more interaction, shorter videos, more excitement and enthusiasm.
  • Small groups are good
  • Less busy work, fewer worksheets.
  • Having my own laptop would be an improvement.
  • Actually having a virtual class would be good.
  • Sometimes teachers have been posting a lot of content and assignments and some take me 10 minutes to do.
  • Have more Google Meets learning or Zoom calls so it feels like I’m in a real classroom instead of alone. I want to ask questions.
  • If all my classes were more often, or at least at the same time of day, since I have them once a week.
  • Educational games that I can do to quiz myself on the content or with other classmates
  • Less review and more learning

Now some of those really are specific to live classes or to the K-12 system. But think about how in higher education as well, some of these things are wanted, needed, and helpful. The idea of having less busy work and more work that is relevant. Shorter videos, of course, can help students to engage faster and sample these bite-sized pieces of knowledge or instruction. And anything we can do to add excitement and enthusiasm to our teaching, that’s going to help all of our students.

Summary of 4 Common Pitfalls

In summary, the takeaway from this feedback about online learning that was shared in Ed Week back in July of 2020 by Peter DeWitt, it’s very informative at all levels of education. We can think about mastering our technology tools and presenting ourselves as a helper to our students. And when we do connect them to someone like tech support or classroom support, we can do it in a way that is encouraging rather than a sense of abandonment that sometimes can come across.

Teacher clarity can also, of course, be improved in the way we write things in giving informative, helpful announcements, instructor videos, and writing assignment instructions clearly so students know what to expect.

We can build that social, emotional connection by promoting ways students connect with each other, connect with the campus groups and the campus, whether they’re online or live people they can talk to. And also by helping ourselves to show up in the online course with presence that feels real, tangible, and human.

And then lastly, the student engagement piece. We want to bring our students through this experience in ways that help them connect to each other, learn something, be transformed by this educational experience and feel that their work is relevant to what they’re supposed to be doing. So reviewing things for busywork and weeding that out, while engaging content can be added or interactive assignments that will make it interesting and also help students to be engaged. And also if there’s an opportunity to have a live meeting of any kind, students look forward to that and they want to experience it.

Thank you for being with me for the podcast today. I hope these tips and ideas are useful for you. For those that are relevant, try them out this coming week in your online teaching. And with that, I wish you all the best in the online teaching week ahead.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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