Create a Welcoming Online Space for Your Students

Colorful speech bubbles containing Learning at a distance can easily produce feelings of anxiety and isolation for students if instructors don’t take the time to create community and be clear about expectations. In face-to-face classrooms this usually happens organically but it takes a little more forethought online. At CDLI, we offer a number of ways for faculty to create a welcoming and effective online environment. Here are some ideas you might consider for your course:

Build Community

  • Make first contact before the course begins. Send a welcome email message to introduce yourself and provide instructions on how to get started and where they can turn for questions. If you are new to teaching online, feel free to let students know that. It can lower their anxiety when they know you are “all in this together.”
  • At the start of the course, send an introductory announcement that includes a short video message from you so students can get a sense of your personality.
  • Create an introductory activity such as an “Introduce Yourself” discussion in Canvas so that students can get to know each other and feel like they are part of a community of learners.
  • If you decide to use Canvas Discussions, make sure you always engage in them yourself. This doesn’t mean responding to every student, (which can actually stifle the discussion) but rather judiciously responding to a few.
  • It’s a nice idea to occasionally let students post brief video replies in discussion forums rather than text only discussions.
  • Create space for students to contribute resources they have found that are related to the course topic, either via Canvas discussions or simple tools like Padlet.

Provide Clear Guidance

  • Identify your students’ needs and concerns early in the course (via a Canvas Survey so they can remain anonymous.) Then, address those concerns in a video announcement that clearly outlines how the class will work, what they can expect, and where they can turn for help.
  • Provide low-stakes assignments in the beginning of your course to let students get comfortable with submitting assignments online, posting to online discussions, or using any other tools you are requiring.
  • Make sure you provide links to help guides whenever technology issues might arise.
  • Scaffold your activities so that students gradually build up to more and more complex problems using assignments that build off each other.
  • Offer online office hours via Zoom.
  • Create an “Open Question Forum” in a Canvas discussion where students can post questions and other students can provide answers. (Hint: Use the Allow Liking feature in Canvas Discussions.)

Add in Some Variety

Long sessions in Zoom can start to drag for everyone—yourself included. Consider periodically shaking things up with some of these suggestions:

  • Introduce Humor. It works just as well as it does in the face-to-face classroom and lets people reset and refocus afterwards.
  • Use Zoom Breakout Rooms where you can send students for small group discussions and Think-Pair-Share activities before reporting back to the main group.
  • Take a quick five to ten-minute (The Zoom room will stay open.)
  • Use Canvas discussions to extend classroom discussions and follow up on some of the more interesting ideas that emerged during the Zoom session.
  • Assign an a small, end-of-session reflection that students submit via Canvas such as:
    • One-Minute Paper where students write for one minute on a specific question, which might be generalized to “what was the most important thing you learned today?”
    • Muddiest Point, which is similar to the One-Minute Paper activity above but asks for the “most confusing” point instead.
    • One-Sentence Summary in which the students summarize the topic into one sentence that incorporates all of who/what/when/where/why/how creatively.

Provide Timely Feedback

Effective and timely feedback is important in any course, but especially online. Canvas affords a number of ways to do this:

  • Use a rubric combined with audio feedback. This has the advantage of making your expectations clear (rubric), and your grading quick, (rubric in Speedgrader). But it also feels very personalized. Students report high satisfaction with their instructor’s audio feedback in Canvas Speedgrader.
  • Create practice quizzes or low-stake homework checks that immediately show students their right and wrong answers with explanations.
  • For drafts, consider using the peer review function in Canvas. Giving peer feedback in the draft stage of an assignment makes students more aware of assignment expectations and encourages them to self-evaluate.