As online coordinator for UA’s First-Year Writing Program, one issue I consistently face is how to create a positive classroom environment in online classes. Unlike face-to-face classes, where teachers can casually chat with students before and after class, get to know them during conferences and office hours, and gauge student interest by reading body language and facial expressions, online teachers communicate with students primarily through writing. After an initial discussion board, where students and teachers introduce themselves in an effort to get to know one another, most of the teacher-student correspondence is restricted to one-on-one emails or messages, public announcements or group emails, and grading feedback. Interactions usually remain tightly focused on the task at hand, lending an impersonal and sometimes automated feel to the online classroom environment.
In her presentation “Be the Change You Wish to See in the Online Classroom” at the Teaching Professor Technology Conference, English Professor Deidre Price offered several helpful tips for making the class more personal and meaningful for both online students and professors. She focused on three questions:
- What should my online classroom look like?
- What should my online classroom feel like?
- How should it work?
Online classes at the University of Alabama all have a similar look, due in part to the design process at the College of Continuing Studies and the UA branding process. Teachers can personalize their classes by providing quality visual and multimedia elements that represent both the discipline and the instructor. They can encourage students to post pictures and videos; instead of always asking for a written response on a discussion board or homework assignment, teachers might ask students to record their ideas on a phone or webcam. Teachers should also allow for some flexibility as the course progresses, based on students’ interests and questions. This includes providing supplementary materials and handouts, adding to an evolving FAQ section, and mentioning students by name when they do something well.
To create a positive “feel,” teachers should also encourage their students to participate in an active learning environment that goes beyond the pre-loaded content. Even more than in face-to-face classes, teachers must strive to create a warm, welcoming tone in order to encourage students and invite questions. Dr. Price suggests using two “voices” in the online class: a more formal tone for instructions and a more casual tone for announcements, reminders about office hours and availability, and other interactions. I would add that grading feedback should seek a balance between a formal and a more informal tone. Remaining too formal all the time can make an instructor seem unapproachable and discourage students from seeking the help they need.
Online teachers should also make their classes “well oiled” by understanding the Blackboard vocabulary and tools used in their online classes, by having a plan about when and how to make announcements, and by offering plenty of examples and support. As Dr. Price pointed out, online students often feel alone or that their instructor is a robot, rather than a real person. Encouraging them throughout the semester, rewarding them for participation and good work, and making the class feel real and meaningful can all lead to a positive online class experience.
Natalie Loper is the assistant director of the First-Year Writing Program and the online coordinator for the Department of English.