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4 Ways to Connect With Students in a Virtual Classroom

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Remote doesn’t have to mean distant

In times of physical distancing, it’s hard to build connections. While online learning is probably the best option in today’s context, there’s nothing like face-to-face lectures to make connections.

Who doesn’t miss the classroom, the campus, those coffee breaks to mingle, the lunch hour to catch up with friends and colleagues? 

We all do. But despite how much we want to come back to our classrooms, the pandemic is still here and there’s no choice but to keep classes online. Now, does it mean we may better forget about connections? 

Well, not quite. I think it’s time we make peace with the challenges of remote learning and start looking at opportunities to make it work.

Learning is a social process. So relationships are crucial.

In this post, I’m going to talk about 5 different ways to connect with your students and how to encourage learning in a remote classroom.


1. Build a community 

Creating a sense of belonging and a safe, nurturing, supporting environment is crucial for learning. Learning is mainly a social and emotional activity.

It doesn’t take the latest technology or complex activities to build a positive learning community. And it doesn’t matter much whether your courses are online or in-person. Creating a sense of community is way easier than you think and is full of benefits for both learners and educators.

Remember that community is built over time, and mutual sharing and trust are essential.

Researchers identify 4 essential elements that create a sense of community:

  • Mutual interdependence among members: show students how their behavior and attitudes impact other members of the community. Show them how they can work as a group towards goals and how they can support each other. Rely frequently on peer-learning and group work to create interdependences and encourage a sense of belonging.
  • Connectedness & trust: students need to learn to trust you and each other. This is crucial for learning. Give your students space to mingle and get to know you and their classmates. Use storytelling techniques and make time for introductions, sharing fears, emotions, and expectations. 
  • Interactivity: give students opportunities to interact with you and with each other, both during lecture hours and beyond. Plan for group activities and learning games. You can also use back channels and forums to maintain the interaction even after class. This creates interdependency, trust, and helps fight the feeling of isolation.
  • Shared values and goals: give students the opportunity to set up their own shared goals, values, and agreements at the beginning of the course. These common goals are crucial to building trust and connections among students, and developing a sense of responsibility.

More on how to create a sense of community in your classroom here.


2. Use social media

Before the pandemic, I’d never thought at my 34 years I will enter the world of TikTok. I mean, Instagram was already new enough for me. Until my young sister convinced me. And I’ve to say that it’s an amazing way for connecting with your students.

My social accounts are mainly for teaching. So, I publish nothing too personal, but I share a part of myself in every post I make. From funny TikToks to short explainer posts, I use social media to connect with my students beyond the classroom’s ‘virtual’ walls. 

Social media channels are an effective way of creating connections with your students because it’s a place where they feel at ease. It’s a great tool to create less formal conversations with your students and to share your human side.

You can use Instagram to post beautiful visuals related to the lecture topics; Visuals are a great way to engage your students and are effective for learning and remembering concepts.

But the most interesting feature of both TikTok and Instagram is the 15 to 60 seconds videos to explain a concept, give real-life examples, or recap on a specific topic. Whether it is only you speaking or an animated slideshow to explain a topic, videos generate more engagement than pictures and are more valuable for teaching. Funny TikTok videos that explain a concept are probably more relatable to students than your slide deck. As a result, they get to laugh and learn at the same time. 

You can also hold live sessions on both TikTok and Instagram, which is an excellent alternative to office hours or Q&A sessions. You can just go live at a planned schedule and your students join to ask their questions. Unlike Zoom or Meet, there’s no need to send invites or give conference access codes. They just need their phone and internet connection to join. 

Other significant features of Instagram are the quiz and polls. While you cannot expect to do a final exam using these functionalities, you can use them to do in-class or out-class fun challenges. You can invite your students to answer your story quiz while they are supposed to be studying for the final term. This can help them study, but what is most, it improves their confidence so they freak out less for the exam.

Social media is a great tool to connect with people remotely. So, why couldn’t we use it for connecting with our students?


3. Keep the conversation going

Most of the learning happens outside the classroom. So remember to keep the conversation going even after lecture hours. 

And I’m not talking about sending emails to your students, but giving them an appropriate space to share their thoughts, doubts, questions, feedback or comments they may have after or before the lecture. 

You can use backchannels as an informal way for students to interact with the educator and their classmates as an online forum designed to complement classroom activity. But you can also create specific channels to discuss topics that are not directly related to your lecture, but that are crucial for students like mental health, stress, or specific struggles.

You can, for example, use slack or discord to communicate with your students during and beyond lecture hours. You can create discussion channels about different topics and invite students to share their thoughts. 

Sometimes it takes just a short encouraging message to let your students know you’re there for them to help them overcome the challenges of remote learning. Check up on your students regularly, and make space for discussion about their mental health, struggles, expectations, doubts, and aspirations. Remember that like you, they miss the connection, the touch, the warmth of socializing.


4. Use video recaps or introductions

Sometimes, remote learning is all about asynchronous activities and there’s brief space to get to know your students or for your students to get to know you. And even when lectures are held completely on Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms, there’s never enough time to make proper introductions and create connections.

It’s difficult to connect with your students, and that your students connect with you and each other when they’re all with their mics and cameras off. And while I truly hate talking to the black squares, I also know that some students are really struggling behind those squares, others are hiding, and many don’t have the proper equipment. Is not just a matter of disengagement.

Thus, an excellent way to create space for connection and for interaction is through video introductions and recap. Think of it as video discussions and threads, you post a short but engaging video in your preferred platform and ask your students to react and post their reactions in the thread.

There are plenty of platforms that can be used for this. I use Flipgrid, a free social learning app, to create and share short and exceptional videos. Each grid has a unique code that you can share with your students so they can access the topics and the videos being posted by the professors and classmates. It is a magnificent tool for reflective learning and for building solid learning communities within your classes. As an educator you can post discussion prompts and students may respond with short videos, whether they are learning in class or at home.

But you can also use your institution’s LMS, both Canvas, and Moodle support video assignments, and it works similarly to Flipgrid. 

I often start all my lectures by posting an introduction video where I introduce myself, the class topic, the primary goals, and the teaching approach I use. Then I ask students to respond with a video, introducing themselves, sharing their expectations about the course and one or two things they would like to address in class. 

Doing this before starting my zoom lectures is really beneficial because I get to know my students and they get to know me and get a hint about what they’re about to learn. 

Now, this video activity can be held all throughout the semester. You can transform traditional written assignments into oral video discussions. This reduces the feeling of teaching to complete strangers and being alone in the journey. 


To sum up

Connecting with your students remotely is not a simple task, and it’ll probably never replace the physical connection. But, with some creativity and minor adjustments to your mindset and teaching approaches, you can make your lectures more welcoming and favorable for bonding. 

Remember that learning is a social process, connection and trust are essential.

As an educator, our job is not only to pass on knowledge and give access to learning resources but also to ensure that the environment is safe and auspicious for learning to happen. 

Remote doesn’t have to mean distant. Virtual doesn’t have to mean computerized. Let’s not forget about the human component of learning. No matter the channel we teach through, we are teaching humans, and humans need connections.

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