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Foster a Sense of Connection

Feeling connected to the classroom can seem challenging in an online course.  The following strategies can help students feel connected to the instructor—and also to one another—without adding unduly to the instructor’s workload.

Send a Pre-Semester Email

To establish connections with students early, before the semester begins, send them an email that does the following:

  • Introduce yourself and the course. Consider including a picture of yourself at a favorite place, with pets, or with the family to help students get to know you and feel connected. Share some of your personality! 
  • Explains the classroom expectations for discussions and class meetings, as well as any online security precautions you are taking, so that students know how you are creating a safe learning environment.  You should share information about student privacy issues and how they can protect themselves and their peers. 
  • Ask students to let you know what technology, such as a laptop, tablet, and/or smart phone they have available to them as well as access to and strength of  internet connection.
  • Provides students with the opportunity to let you know about any concerns they have, accommodations they may need due to disabilities, or any other information they think you need to know.
  • Create a short video to introduce yourself and the course and feature it on Canvas. Provide information about your background, the class itself, and overall goals and expectations for students.

These last two items will help guide you as you make decisions about designing your course and providing links to resources to ensure that all students can participate fully. If a student does not have access to technology that is needed for the course, you can connect them with OIT so that they can get the technology they need before the class begins and won’t fall behind.

Survey Students Prior to the Start of Class

For small or  large classes, you can use Google forms, QuestionPro, or a Canvas survey to create a short questionnaire that will allow you to capture and more readily visualize data on students’ technology and concerns. Then, you can address these in an announcement or video that you send to the class.

Beginning of the Semester: Have Students Introduce Themselves 

As their first assignment, have students create an introduction using video, audio, or text, and post it on the Canvas discussion board. This will help humanize the classroom, allow students to learn more about their classmates and begin making important connections with one another. You can model how you want students to do this in your own introduction.

Facilitate Collaboration  

It may not be possible for each student in the class to connect with every other student in the class, and that’s not necessary in order for students to feel connected to others and connected to the classroom. To help build online learning communities in your class, you might consider implementing groups or teams within the course that focus on specific needs or learning opportunities related to the courses learning objectives. 

Group Work

Group work is important in an online course because it helps promote student-student interaction and social presence.

  • Building such connections can be as simple as having students work together in breakout rooms in Zoom, on problems in a Google Doc, or collaborating in Conceptboard.
  • Giving students opportunities to share their personal experiences and thoughts via a conversation with others in a discussion board can also facilitate feelings of closeness with peers.

Low-Stakes Assignments

Another idea is to develop assignments that are “low stakes” (smaller percentage or portion of their grades), but also intentionally provide students with the opportunity to read, interact with, and learn about one another in important ways. One instructor at Eastern Washington University, uses a personal essay strategy to create a “sandbox” where students can write about themselves, their life’s experiences, and their understanding of course topics and current factors affecting the field. She has received great feedback about this method, and it has been shown to be helpful regarding creating community amongst students when group work or teams cannot be readily employed. 

Maintain an Online Teaching Presence

In a face-to-face course, instructors have a physical presence that promotes teacher immediacy. In an online class, teaching presence takes on different forms. It is established before class begins through choices around course design and organization, and continues through the semester by way of direct instruction, frequent feedback, and other forms of online discourse. Maintaining an online teaching presence is critical for supporting students’ learning, and is the “binding element in cultivating a learning community (Persico, et al, 2010).

Here are some examples of how you can establish and maintain an online teaching presence:

  • Create an introductory video that welcomes students to the course; share information about yourself and what students should expect during the semester.
  • Post short (3 to 5 minute) videos such as “just-in-time” teaching tips or responses to student questions (try to just include yourself and stay away from PowerPoint).
  • Provide audio or video feedback to students using SpeedGrader in Canvas.
  • Post short (3 to 5 minute) videos that introduce a topic or unit, and include information about what students can focus on in the upcoming lessons/s.
  • Use the “Message Students Who” function in Canvas to provide important information, feedback and encouragement to students. For a video on using the “Message Students Who” feature, click here.
    • Regularly post course Announcements.
    • Monitor and respond to students’ questions on the Q & A discussion board in your Canvas site.
    • Hold office hours each week in Zoom.

Check-In Regularly

Taking a few moments at the beginning of selected classes just to check in with your students is a simple yet powerful activity that conveys care and concern for your students.  It can be facilitated in any number of ways. These include:

  • Use Mentimeter to create a word cloud that is composed of words and phrases related to how students are doing. You can discuss with your students the terms that stand out and ask students (who wish to) to share more.  
  • Start the check in with revealing how you are doing and then ask students to share their own feelings.  
  • Put students into breakout groups to share with each other how things are going for them.  
  • For asynchronous online courses, you might have students either share in the Discussion Board or through some anonymous forum such as Padlet or Lino.

Use Announcements 

The Announcements feature in Canvas is a relatively simple and effective way to connect with students. Strategic use of course announcements can help reduce the number of incoming emails and help with time management issues, especially in large online courses. Use Announcements to:

  • Remind students about upcoming due dates or special events
  • Offer a preview of upcoming activities during the week
  • Recognize progress and encourage students 
  • Update or clarify the syllabus or schedule
  • Share information about known issues with technology

Posting regular announcements is also a good way to facilitate teaching presence during the semester. If you plan to use the Announcements function as a regular part of your communication plan, you might also want to include in your syllabus or other tools a message to students about how you will use it.  An example of this is below:

  • “All announcements about the course and any changes to the course will be posted on Canvas through our course Announcements. The three most recent are on the homepage, and previous announcements are on the Announcements page, to which you can link through the class menu on the left of our course site. I may repeat these announcements through the Zoom chat, but the Canvas announcements will be the primary mode of communicating updates and changes.”