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Education Online Education

4 Ways to Connect With Students in a Virtual Classroom

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.

Categories
Education Online Education

3 Simple Strategies for Promoting Equity in a Remote Classroom

How to address the digital and social divide remotely

We all know that teaching remotely is hard. But what about learning remotely? How are students coping? Are they learning? 

I always start my lectures with a simple question: “How are you coping?” During the first weeks of lockdown, I received mostly a “meh”. I guess the situation was so unique that students were almost amused to have their classes moved online and their exams canceled. What a relief. But then, after the first week went by, the ambiance changed. Stress and anxiety took over. Isolation started to look serious. And well, some students just disappeared. 

This fall, things didn’t get any better. Going back to normal is not on our agendas anymore. 

As an educator, how do you meet the diverse needs of each student? How do you promote equity in an online classroom? How can you ensure each student has the same opportunities to learn and thrive? How do you address the digital and social divide remotely?

In this post, I will go through three strategies to promote equity in a virtual, remote classroom.


#1. Start with Empathy

Everything starts with empathy. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Like us, students are going through uncertain times. Many are struggling, and learning is not on their top priorities. Others are trying to stay focus and on track, but distractions keep coming their way. 

This pandemic hasn’t been easy on them. Graduations were canceled. Transitions from one school to another were dismissed. Goodbyes were moved to phone calls. Nothing was smooth, and we have no idea when and how things will move forward. 

When I ask my students how they are coping and how they feel about remote learning, most of them express anxiety. Many feel lost. “It’s hard to concentrate”, “my connection is terrible”, “I have a hard time with the software” are some feedback I frequently get from students. 

Before we can address any learning, we need to care. We need to show our students we are here for them. We need to remember that not every student has the access to technology, or to a quiet study room, or to the needed materials. Some of them have to take care of their siblings while their parents work. Others have to work to pay their rent, meals, and education. Some of them might be going through traumatic or post-traumatic situations, they might have lost someone to Covid-19, their parents might have lost their jobs. 

The last thing these students need is more homework, more applications to manage, more strict deadlines. They need empathy. 

We, as teachers, need to imagine the entire story. Before we frame a student for laziness, we should reach out and try to understand and support them every time we can. 

Having an empathetic approach is not only essential to learning and promoting equity in a classroom, but it also encourages students to develop empathy for others. Empathy increases the sense of community and fosters relationships based on trust and tolerance within and outside the classroom.  


#2. Provide Different Opportunities to Learn

Remote learning can be exhausting and annoying. I know, from experience, that having 3 straight hours of a virtual lecture is painful. I, for example, cannot bear more than 20 minutes of a webinar without doing something else in parallel. Why should I expect more from my students? 

Remote learning shouldn’t mean 100% screen learning. There are plenty of opportunities to learn (and to teach) remotely that don’t involve screens. Also, there are a plethora of activities that can be carried asynchronously.

If we want to promote equity in our classroom, we need to provide students with different opportunities to learn. This means that when we plan for activities and assessments we have to think about learning styles, access to technology, and technical skills.

Some students learn better through visuals. Others learn by practicing. Some rely on memory to absorb knowledge. As educators, we need to think of alternative learning approaches to ensure every student grasps as much knowledge and skills as possible. 

Instead of asking students to hand in an essay on a topic, suggest different ways for achieving the learning outcome. I usually give students the possibility to choose the format of their work. They can choose between writing, making mind-maps, recording videos, or recording podcast series. 

You can imagine also having multiple activities, both synchronous and asynchronous, to convey the same idea. You could, for example, host an online quiz on a topic and also ask students to reflect on the topic by recording a video or writing a blog post. Use different content and vary the assessment methods. The possibilities are vast. The more occasions for learning your students have, the more likely they’ll actually learn. 


#3. Ensure Technology Access and Knowledge

Not every student has the same access to technology. Not every student has the same technical skills to manage those technologies. 

Is not because they are digital natives that they can quickly adopt new software or applications and be at ease. 

Some students don’t even have a laptop or a stable internet connection at home. Many rely on one computer for the entire household. Others are constrained to follow their classes on their phones. In these circumstances, how can you ensure technology access for each student?

While there are some institutions and governments equipping low-income students with laptops, there are still many that don’t have access to any financial aid. And even when the equipment is provided, many students don’t have the technical skills demanded by the different software and applications used in the virtual classroom.

I truly believe in the potential of technology for education, but I also know that it can cause more isolation and disparity in the classroom if not addressed properly. 

When choosing the technology and virtual tools for your classroom, make sure you check this list:

  • It is available at no cost for students, or the institution can pay for students’ licenses. 
  • It is compatible with all operating systems and devices.
  • It integrates easily with other applications and technologies used by students and the institution, like the LMS from your school, the video conferencing tool you use, etc. 
  • There is an installation and getting started users’ guide. Otherwise, create a short and simple one for your classroom. 
  • Students have access to video tutorials and technical forums.
  • It runs with slow internet speed or no internet connection.

Once you check these, make sure the technology you choose increases the student learning experience and skill development. Ask yourself how these technologies help you and your students achieve their learning goals? What is the added value for you and for them? 

I also recommend devoting at least one session at the beginning of the semester to help learners familiarize themselves with the applications. If you are afraid it takes too much of your class time, you can prepare some getting-to-know-the-tool activities to complete in asynchronous before class. 

I, for example, give students access to the tools one or two weeks in advance. I usually send them preparatory activities just to get used to the applications. So when we use it in class, they don’t discover something completely new. While not every student will do the assignment in advance, those who did can help others, this facilitates the initiation with the tools.


Final Thoughts

Effective remote learning and equity in the classroom rely on empathy. The more we put ourselves in students’ shoes, the more we can imagine better opportunities for learning. 

It is important that, as educators, we promote a fair and welcoming remote learning environment for our students. We need to think about accessibility, empowerment, engagement, and students’ special needs. 

Learning remotely is challenging, but there are avenues to make it better. It takes only a few simple tweaks of mindset but a lot of care. We need to make it better and accessible to all our students. 

For sure we won’t be able to control everything, especially the injustices that subsist outside the classroom, but we can provide scaffolds and support systems that help students learn and thrive.


If you, like me, are interested in making your online classes more engaging, then I’d love to hear what are your strategies and tools you are using in your classroom. Drop your comments with ideas or questions here below.

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