Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Faculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities
The holidays can be a difficult time for everyone, but especially for online students whose coursework continues over the holiday break. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen offers suggestions for how online educators can incorporate flexibility and sensitivity into course design to accommodate students who may be struggling. Also learn about scaffolding assignments and other accommodations to help students succeed during the holidays.
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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 Hanson. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
At the time of this recording, it is December 2020, and we are in the midst of a pandemic. Online students everywhere are preparing for the holidays, which might include a break from online classes, or it might not. If you’re at an institution like mine, you have classes that overlap the holidays. So students will still be working and learning and submitting assignments throughout those holiday breaks that others might take for granted.
Today, we’re going to talk about how to prepare students for the holiday break or the holidays working through assignments, either way, in three ways. The first one is through some flexibility and sensitivity to your students’ needs. The second will be scaffolding assignments and other interactive activities. And the last one will be special considerations in three areas of physiology, focus and connection. So let’s jump in.
Why should we think about preparing our online students for the holidays? This year, the year that this was recorded, there are some special considerations around the holidays. Now, we all believe that the holidays are a time of celebration, a time to connect with others, as well as a time of loss for some people who have been significantly impacted at this time of year. For whom those memories and experiences come back again and again.
Regardless of what your students are experiencing right now, the whole world is in a tense and stressful situation with COVID-19 and this pandemic adds a lot to what is going on. Online coursework can be challenging anyway, because there is a lesser degree of connection. However, your students are in good hands with you at the helm, because you will be able to be flexible and sensitive, scaffold the work, and also help them in three special ways.
Build Sensitivity and Flexibility into Classroom Communication
The first area of flexibility and sensitivity is an important one when working with adult learners online and with a variety of other groups. Knowing that for some, the holidays are a time of celebration, while for others, it’s a time of loneliness and loss, you can exercise a lot of sensitivity in working with your students.
You might consider asking them what they are thinking about for the upcoming holidays. Maybe ask them if they are going to be able to be at home. If they will have a chance to connect with others. If they have anything planned that they would like to share, and so forth.
There are a lot of reasons why students will reach out to you about the holidays. And some of those might include just sharing what they’re experiencing. I know I’ve had online students occasionally reach out to me to let me know so that they are having a struggle. They’re not able to get through the work as usual at that time of year. Maybe things slow down for them and they’re a little depressed.
Some of them have so much going on with family and friends, that they’re also torn between their school commitments and their other connections. And they have to figure out a way to balance that.
Either way, sensitivity can be in the way we communicate with our students, either through our videos or our typed messages to them, the frequency of our communication and the word choice that we use. Consider a variety of circumstances your students might be facing as you communicate about the upcoming holidays with them.
Secondarily to that is the flexibility. Some students will just need a little bit of extra time. They might need another day or two. Other students might need an entire week to submit an assignment under these kinds of circumstances.
Some colleagues and I were speaking together the other day, and we were talking about how maybe COVID-19 hasn’t impacted one or more of our homes specifically, but the stress of the ongoing pandemic adds a lot to our emotional palette anyway.
Consider this as your students are struggling through this time of year. They might also be dealing with seasonal issues, inclement weather, cloudy skies. A lot of things can pile up to create an emotional climate that makes it very difficult for them to work as usual.
Flexibility might include giving a little extra time, choosing not to deduct late points or late deductions you might normally include, and other kinds of accommodations that might work for your students and sound reasonable to you.
Although, it might be difficult to be in tune with students’ emotions when you’re working online, we have had occasions where faculty members experienced students in distress. A student might actually tell you that they are not feeling up to doing anything, that they are feeling depressed, or maybe even that they are feeling suicidal.
If those kinds of things come up as you’re teaching your online class, be sure to reach out to the appropriate services at your institution to support them, the suicide hotline or the local police, if that is appropriate. Follow through on those things students say and take them seriously.
Scaffolding Assignments for the Holidays
A second area I want to talk about is scaffolding the assignments up to the holiday period. As a holiday is approaching, some faculty members just extend an assignment a few days, or maybe even an entire week. When you do this, students feel that they have the appropriate time to complete the work.
This might require adjusting the class before the course even begins to make sure your syllabus lines up with the calendar. If you haven’t done that, you could simply move the due date out and post announcements and reminders to let everyone know you’re giving them a few extra days.
One word of warning there, students do not appreciate the extra time, when they have already submitted the work. So it’s very helpful to tell students upfront, to give them a little bit of notice when you’re going to extend a timeline and also to help them understand when things are due and what is included in that assignment.
To scaffold assignments up to the holiday period, you might consider giving them some kind of advanced organizer to help them think through the work that is coming up. As I mentioned with the added stress of the pandemic and the holidays combined, many people find it difficult to perform up to their normal level of standard for themselves, and also find it difficult to think clearly as they would like to do.
When you scaffold an assignment, what you’re doing is giving a preparation to help people think. Maybe you’re taking the big assignment and you’re breaking it down into some smaller pieces, so that they’re a little easier to complete. And then they can be combined together, to submit as that final assignment.
For example, if a student is writing an essay, you might give an advanced organizer like a brainstorming chart, so they could break down the topic, solicit their sources, explore options, and even give you an outline ahead of time to have it briefly checked and given some feedback.
Scaffolding assignments really is twofold. The first is to break it down into smaller chunks that are easier to do. But the second is also to have easier pieces building up to the more complex parts, so that students can think through each step clearly, and then have a pleasing whole at the end.
Encourage Physical Activity
The last area I want to share today when you’re preparing students for the holidays, is considerations that are in the physical or physiology area, focus, and connection.
In the physiology area, it’s helpful to make suggestions for your students and for yourself to get up and change locations regularly. The more we stand up, take a little walk, stretch, even get some exercise, that will really help us to be focused. To be able to be on target when we’re doing our online work. And also to be able to endure the long stretches of work time that we tend to be under, either as the faculty member or as the online student.
Many people sit in the chair in front of that computer and they might go for hours without a break. This is going to slow circulation. It’s going to lower the mood and the overall effect and make it easier to feel sluggish, less clear thinking as well.
The more we make suggestions for small physical movement or encourage people to get up and just stretch and walk around, the more we help them to shake off that stuck state that they might be in, being in front of the computer. And it’s a great suggestion to offer your students as well.
I myself have a treadmill desk. If I need to be in a meeting where I don’t have to be on video, I can set my computer on the treadmill and I can take a walk while I’m in the meeting. Your students might be able to do the same thing.
Many of them are online students right now and also working online. So there’s a lot of sitting around that can add to a deflated mood and more sluggish thinking, as well as lower circulation. So suggesting physiological changes will help everyone to be able to get through the holidays with a little bit more energy and a method to interrupt stuck thinking.
The focus area of this triad of the physiology, focus and connection piece, is about what people are thinking about. Our students might be thinking ahead to when the course is over and they’re going to need to celebrate the holidays. Or maybe they’re going to not be with their family; maybe they are going to be with their family.
Students are already starting to project forward to the holidays themselves, even though they might be in the middle of a class with you. As they’re doing that, a lot of added stress can come with that, especially if their plans have changed because they’re not able to travel or they’re not able to connect with the people they love.
If you find that’s the case with your students, you might help them to focus on the present, what they can do to stay present in their course. And also to think about those things that they do have and those times that they have been able to connect with others, to foster a sense of gratitude.
This brings the idea of abundance, instead of the focus on what we’re lacking, and it can help generate creativity, innovation, ideas, and the sense of being present to complete the work they needed to do. To keep learning and to also do well at their studies.
Lastly, the connection piece. I was at a virtual party the other day, I wasn’t really sure would be like a party. And I was surprised at the degree of planning that went into this virtual event. And I was also surprised at the great connections that happened at this online party.
There are a lot of ways for us to connect with other humans, other people, whether it’s our family, friends, or our fellow students, or our classmates. We really want to connect with other people around the holidays, but it can be very difficult when people are physically separated or largely just know each other in the online environment.
One of the suggestions I’d like to make for connecting during the holidays when people are working online and being online students is to use a video platform, to plan ahead for the day and time, to even create an agenda and consider including some interactive technologies.
The party that I attended had a spinning wheel where some prizes were given out that were virtual gift cards that were delivered by email. Each person’s name was put on the spinning wheel. And they were able to spin it online during the party and then it would stop on its own and a person would win here and there.
There was also the opportunity to share ideas through the Mentimeter platform. That’s a really great way to vote, to collaborate on ideas, to create word clouds. This might even be a good tool to integrate in your online teaching generally. But if you decide to have some kind of a live gathering, it’s especially useful.
So you can suggest connecting with each other, but you could also have a class gathering. A holiday gathering of some sort using virtual means with your students might be just the ticket to wrap up the semester nicely and also wish them well as they wrap up the year that has passed.
Consider these ideas, the flexibility and sensitivity, the scaffolding the assignments, and also the physiological, the focus and the connection pieces that students are going to need as they wrap up the year and whether they are taking a break or not, as they wrap up this month as well.
Lastly, I’d like to encourage you as the online educator. There’s a great podcast that was done, where I interviewed Dr. Lisset Pickens, and she shared some great ideas for balancing your work and home life.
If that’s an area you’d like to work on in the month ahead, definitely check it out. Some great suggestions in there about shutting off the work-life and turning on the home life at the end of the workday were made. And those suggestions are incredibly valuable.
I’d like to also suggest doing the things that you love, that go with holidays. For example, if you’re a person that likes to decorate at the office, decorate the classroom, and if you’re working from home right now, go ahead and decorate that space you’re working in. Go ahead and wear your holiday sweater or your holiday blouse, that you might have worn to the office or the classroom.
Taking those little extra steps to celebrate what’s important to you is going to add energy to what you’re doing. And it’s also going to give you a sense of normalcy in a very difficult time. Thank you for being here and I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week. And happy holidays!
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.