In the face-to-face environment, student-to-student, student-faculty, and student-content interactions occur synchronously and often develop organically (Moore, 1989). The challenge with online education is how to create opportunities for interaction that yield effective and rich learning experiences.
This resource outlines researched-based best practices for meaningful interactions in online courses.
Developing a communication plan will provide clear instructions on how you will be interacting with students and how they can interact with you. Removing ambiguity regarding communication will reduce unnecessary work responding to student questions via various channels and enable students to focus on the critical aspects of the educational experience.
- Determine your preferred method of communication (e.g., email, Zoom, Teams, phone).Compliance Tip: If emailing with students, use your official Johns Hopkins University email account to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
- Be clear, concise, and consistent about instructions, assignments, assessments, due dates, course pages, and office hours.
- Determine your response time to student communications (e.g., respond within 48 hours).
- Establish communication expectations and requirements for students. For example, queries about assignments posted in a public discussion forum.
- Add the communication plan to the course syllabus. See Appendix A.
In online environment, students benefit from regular opportunities to connect with faculty and peers in a live synchronous environment.
- Structure meetings to provide appropriate engagement for learning and community building.
- For example: One-on-one meetings working on problems serve to both help students who are struggling and to build relationships of support.
- Group meetings can serve as ways for students to connect with each other so that they can also support each other outside of these meetings.
- Encouraging or incentivizing students to attend at least one such meeting, even when such meetings are voluntary, can break down the barriers to participation by making this engagement familiar.
- Create a weekly virtual office hour.
- Tech Tip: Use Zoom to conduct online live meetings.
- Poll students on the best dates/times for meetings with you and/or other instructors/teaching assistants (TAs).
Building community in the online classroom is a vital aspect of education. Designing the online course to intentionally build connections between students and with the instructor provides a sense of belonging and support. Such bonds help combat the sense of isolation that is inherent in online learning, particularly when other tasks demand your time and you don’t have time to spontaneously check in on your students.
- Collaborative student work during active learning (perhaps in breakout room in Zoom) or project work (possibly offline) can build a sense of community. It may be helpful for instructors and TAs to explicitly describe or model the collaborative problem-solving process the instructor expects students to enact. Don’t assume they will intuitively adopt the norms you have in mind.
- Providing expectations for the kinds of collaboration the instructor expect on homeworks, projects and other assignments and assigning or assisting students in forming diverse work-groups can lower the barriers for students who may feel themselves to be outsiders (international students, underrepresented minority students, women in majority male classes, first-generation students).
- Use a modern communication platform for interaction and community building. Students prefer applications that are mobile-friendly.
- Create a personalized bio and statement that welcomes students to the course in text or video format.
- Ask students to share a personalized bio, video introductions, or other ways to introduce themselves at the beginning of the course.
Online students depend on your timely and meaningful feedback for an authentic and personalized learning experience. Studies have shown that feedback is most effective when it is immediate, not delayed (I.e., several days, weeks, months later). Feedback that is constructive, specific, balanced, and collegial supports students in their learning more than generic feedback like, “Great work,” which is positive but not helpful.
- Be consistent with your stated communication plan. If you are not able to respond in a timely manner, communicate that to students.
- Proactively address problems as they emerge and be responsive to student concerns. Student problems can include workload conflicts, concerns about fairness, performance anxiety, interpersonal difficulties with teammates, extenuating circumstances like sickness, and clarity of expectations. You may address and support students in these matters yourself, or make the appropriate referrals to undergraduate and graduate affairs.
- Provide meaningful individual feedback and course-based feedback. For example, students should receive exams back in a timely manner and be able to interpret from the grading what topics they have mastered and what areas of their learning need to be revisited so as not to undermine their progress.
- Offer constructive feedback. Constructive feedback goes a long way to motivate and inspire students.
- Be specific. Think about how the feedback will help students reach a goal.
- Provide guidance on what they did well and what they may work to improve.
- Involve students in the process by providing them with ample information to help them succeed.
- Update grades frequently and provide opportunities for check-in on grade status. For example, you may consider providing a pro-rated grade starting after the first major assignment or exam, i.e. what their final letter grade will be if their performance continues as it has so far.
- Make grades easily accessible by posting them in a timely manner.
At the highest levels of learning, students are creating or putting elements together to form a new coherent or functional whole. Students are reorganizing elements into a new patterns or structures. Authentic assessments support the highest levels of learning. They require students to apply what he/she has learned to a new situation and determine what information and skills are relevant and how they will be used.
Asynchronous, text-based discussions are one of the most common ways students interact in online courses. But asynchronous, text-based discussions are not all created equally. The discussion prompts must contain some basic elements in order to promote student engagement and interaction.
- Create thought-provoking, open-ended discussion prompts that are related to the learning outcomes.
- Is the prompt so easy as to not present a challenge?
- Is the prompt so hard that the only reasonable way a student is likely to make progress is by obtaining the answer from the instructor or another source rather than generating it by applying learning?
- Determine whether students will be required to post and respond in a discussion.
- Does the discussion assess learning related to the course objectives?
- Will you grade the discussion responses?
- Will you grade participation in the discussions?
- Does the discussion prompt encourage interaction between students?
- Where appropriate and with clear guidelines, promote collaboration on homework questions or parts of assignments within a discussion.
- Public participation supports positive interdependence (i.e., members of a group who share common goals and success depends on the participation of all the members).
- Further, you can review these discussions to reveal misconceptions in learning.
Synchronous live discussions occur at the same time in one location such as on a Zoom meeting. These discussions can stimulate lively conversations around learning topics. You can use breakout rooms in Zoom to facilitate active learning and small group activities.
- Consider what students will be doing in live discussions and meetings.
- Use breakout rooms in Zoom for small group activities.
- Have students present on topics to add to the discussions.
- Pose questions that are open-ended and related to learning outcomes (See Best Practice 5-1).
- Let students know how they can interact during the discussion.
- Is it ok to unmute their mics?
- Can they use the chat function, and will you be monitoring it?
- Consider starting the meeting with an icebreaker or question to “warm” everyone up to the discussion.
- Consider a “muddiest point” at the end of the meeting to review any student misconceptions.
- Record the discussion for those who may not be able to attend.
Creating opportunities for students to collaborate on assessments offers opportunity for peer-learning, building relationships and communities, and innovation—all of which, align with essential skills for the 21st century.
- When creating groups, consider diversity, geography, and time zones.
- State clear expectations for collaborative group work. See Appendix B.
- Recommend technology tools to support group work.
- Tech Tip: JHU’s Office 365 subscription includes collaborative documents (e.g., Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint) and is integrated within Microsoft Teams.
These practices were derived from the following sources:
- Several main theoretical frameworks for course design and teaching:
- Social constructivism
- Moore’s three types of interactions
- The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education
- Quality Matters Course Design Standards
- Survey feedback from Johns Hopkins Engineering for Professionals (EP) faculty (n=94) and students (n=327). Survey results were coded using open coding protocol.
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