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The New Rules of Engagement

Jessica Su got her first taste of how challenging it can be to teach online when Covid-19 hit in the spring. The sociologist videotaped lectures for her first-year seminar on welfare, and hoped a discussion board could replicate the lively conversations she and her students had held in the classroom.Instead, what she saw felt more transactional. Students responded to her writing prompts. But she couldn’t figure out how to get a conversation going in the discussion forum. Even the comments that students wrote about each other’s posts felt dutiful more than engaging, says Su, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They were interacting, but not in a meaningful way.”While the spring triage fell short of real online education, Su realized that even under the best of circumstances virtual learning requires a different, carefully crafted approach to engagement. It helps that, now, she’s teaching her fall course on poverty and public policy in real time, but that’s not the whole solution. She makes sure to check in with her students at the start of every class to see how they’re doing, and uses online polls to get conversation started. She puts students into “breakout rooms” with clear roles and assignments. And with discussion boards, she tells students she wants to focus on the substance of their ideas, not on the quantity of their words.As a result, she says, the fall experience has been remarkably better. Students are engaging more with her and one another, and her informal midsemester course evaluations came back positive. Yet, she notes, those victories were hard won, requiring intense planning at each step of the way. “I feel in some ways I’m teaching these classes for the first time.”

A lot of students expected it to be back to normal by now, and it’s not.

Su’s experience is a familiar one, as professors wrestle with the challenge of creating a sense of community in their online courses. Relationships are the foundation of good learning, teaching experts say. Feeling comfortable with classmates, wanting to engage in debates and share ideas, having a sense of belonging — these are all critical components of a vibrant classroom, and something particularly challenging to create online. Virtual classes can seem awkward and communication forced. Many students struggle to secure reliable Wi-Fi access and quiet places to learn, which may limit their ability to engage with classmates. Faculty members also worry about how to thread the needle between keeping expectations high for their students and adapting to their circumstances. From a distance of hundreds, or thousands, of miles away, in a politically and economically fraught time, it is hard to develop and maintain connections.“We’re fighting multiple things,” says Courtney Plotts, national chair of the Council for At Risk Student Education and Professional Standards. “It’s not just the design of the class. It’s the world as a whole. A lot of students expected it to be back to normal by now, and it’s not.”In one survey this spring that included more than 22,500 undergraduate students at five public research universities, 76 percent said they lacked motivation for online learning. Another major obstacle, cited by 64 percent, was a lack of interaction or communication with other students. And the sense of connection they need is undermined further by burnout, distraction, worry, and uncertainty. “For those externally motivated students, they’re just completely done,” says Plotts. “As an instructor, it’s hard not to take it personally.”So what can professors do?Teaching in virtual classrooms requires new rules of engagement. Unless professors find alternative ways to create that sense of place, foster connections, monitor attention, and generate useful feedback, virtual learning can be reduced to a series of transactions: Do this, respond to that. That’s why, teaching experts say, students may do the bare minimum in a class: They don’t feel they’re part of something larger. Rather, they see their coursework as a collection of tasks to complete.A physical classroom, online-teaching experts note, provides a sense of structure and shared space. In person, connections are developed and strengthened through small talk and hallway conversations. Students can gather around a table to work on an assignment together, fostering communal learning. Professors can easily read body language and see when students start losing interest or are confused by the material.Plotts, a psychologist who works with colleges and other institutions in supporting culturally diverse students in online classes, believes that a sense of community is so fundamental to learning that, like papers and exams, it too needs to be “graded” by the professor. Creating those bonds, she notes, is particularly important for students who come from communal cultures, which place more emphasis on interdependence than independence. In a physical classroom those students find people who look like them, and perhaps ask questions they might not want to ask the instructor. Those relationships don’t happen naturally online: They need to be encouraged. She suggests that professors begin by talking about these rules of engagement with students, and explaining what they will be looking for, week to week. How vibrant and civil are discussions, whether through Zoom, in a chat function, or on discussion-board posts? How thoughtful are students’ responses to each other’s contributions? How frequently does the class talk about how well things are going and what might need to change? Instructors can also set up “neighborhoods” for their students, or online discussion groups where students can go to continue classroom conversations in smaller settings.Faculty members must also acknowledge their own roles in creating community, she says. For example, professors should ask themselves, How often do I bring something a student has written into my classroom discussion, to show that I am paying attention to their work?“It’s something that takes a lot of time, effort, and energy,” says Plotts. But “if you’re not intentional with what you’re doing in an online space, it’s not going to happen.”Even before the emergency pivot online, John G. LaMaster had a steep hill to climb.He knows that his students, many of whom struggle financially and are the first in their families to attend college, are not in his college algebra class because they love math. They are there because they have to be. Some doubt that they even belong in college, carrying a sense of insecurity that runs so deep, he says, they’d rather get the answer to a problem wrong than ask a question about it in class.“The big struggle for many of my students, especially online, is just to lurk,” says LaMaster, a senior instructor in the mathematics department at Purdue University at Fort Wayne. He believes a sense of belonging is a crucial step in priming students to learn. But sometimes “they don’t want to engage at all. So how do I overcome that wall?”That challenge, along with the exhaustion he felt in getting through the spring, led LaMaster, who, as course coordinator, oversees 10 other sections of algebra along with his own, to enroll in a summer program called Camp Operation Online Learning. He calls it a lifesaver, as it enabled him to create a course in which students feel welcomed.He builds community through small but meaningful gestures. At the start of each class, which is taught in a hybrid setup, he shares an interactive online chart to take attendance, in which every student puts their name on a “seat.” The chart signals that he considers them all part of the classroom, whether they’re in person or online. He also plays music at the beginning of each session to relax the students. When studying linear functions, for example, they were greeted with Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” For a lesson on domain and range, he played Gene Autry’s “Home on the Range.”He also encourages students to work collaboratively, through shared documents, for example, which allows them to solve problems together, as well as share ideas and study tips.He spent time this summer creating a checklist for students, with frequent reminders and checkpoints to help them stay on track and measure their progress. Such guideposts are necessary, online-teaching experts say, because it is easy for students to get lost as they toggle among different classes on different platforms, feel overwhelmed by their workloads, or simply forget what comes next.LaMaster says he wants students to know that no matter how many roadblocks get thrown in their way they can still complete the course. After all, on any given week, a student could end up attending class on his phone, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, because his Wi-Fi went out.Finally, he frequently asks what’s working and what isn’t. Once, he says, a student asked why he gave them repeated chances to redo homework problems but was stricter with quizzes. After he explained that he was trying to prepare them for what it would be like to take their exams, students came around. “Eyes were open to, ‘Oh, he’s not doing this to be a jerk, he’s doing this to help me learn,’” LaMaster says. “I’m so delighted that they can put that out there, and I can help them be part of understanding the learning process.”Only a few weeks into the semester, LaMaster found the class going well. Just two of his 18 students did poorly on the first test, in what is normally a high-fail course. He thought the upfront effort to create a well-designed and inclusive online course made him a better, more engaged, teacher. “Faculty sometimes think, if it isn’t related to content, should we use it? I tell you, it adds a dimension to the learning that is a necessity, not a luxury.”Online learning during the coronavirus pandemic has proved to be a particular challenge for some lower-income students and students of color, whose communities have been hit hardest by the virus. Technical and personal challenges can make it difficult to connect with their classmates, literally and figuratively. If students are logging on with data plans and phones, have little privacy, or are caring for others, turning on cameras for online classes can be awkward, even impossible. Almost two-third of the students at Roosevelt University, a private institution in Chicago where many students are Pell eligible and first generation, reported difficulty focusing on learning when classes moved online in the spring, says Mike Maly, associate provost for research and faculty success. The college has offered course-design training and convened faculty members to talk about equity.

There’s a way to have rigor and fidelity to your outcomes while being flexible in the moment.

Marjorie Jolles, who runs Roosevelt’s honors program, says she is allowing students to miss up to eight live classes this semester, given that they have so much going on right now. She is also leaning heavily on teaching strategies that foster relationships among students, like peer review, and using breakout rooms where they can discuss and debate the design of their honors theses. “I think there’s a way to have rigor and fidelity to your outcomes while being flexible in the moment,” says Jolles, who reports close to 100-percent attendance in her two courses so far this semester.At Wayne State University, which has a similarly diverse student body, Karen Myhr, an associate professor of biology, has also been thinking about inclusivity. Many of her students are considered at risk academically, she says: Low test scores placed them in her course, called “An Introduction to Life,” instead of in a more advanced biology sequence.Even in normal times, she says, her students have needed a lot of support. To help them build connections, virtually, she has grouped them into teams of their choice, and then put those teams into private channels online. Her five undergraduate learning assistants can enter. But she stays out, knowing that having the professor listen to their conversation could cause some to freeze up.Instead, she monitors their written work, which is done through collaborative online software. A typical online class might include a few minutes of instruction, followed by group work, and a debrief, as she shares examples of what they came up with in their teams. “The students benefit more from seeing what other students did than what I say the answer is,” Myhr notes. “My job is to clarify.”Like many professors, she is averse to proctored online tests. So she reduced the role that exams typically play in her course and asked students instead to come up with creative representations of biological concepts. Podcasts, animation, and T-shirts that map out organ systems are just a few of the ideas students have pitched.While it’s too early to say whether her students are learning as effectively as they would in person, she notes that class attendance has risen significantly. It is above 96 percent, compared with 80 to 85 percent in person.Getting students to pay sustained attention in an online class is a challenge, particularly when so many other worries are competing for their time. But some teaching experts caution against romanticizing how much easier it was to hold their attention in a physical classroom.Students have always tuned out in class, doodling in the margins of their notebooks, checking their phones, or just daydreaming. The student with his camera off may just be the online equivalent of the one in the back of the large lecture hall with his hoodie up, slumped down in his chair, half-listening and not wanting to be noticed.“For too long teachers have thought about attention as the norm, and distraction as the deviation from the norm. Both history and biology teach us that the opposite is true,” writes James M. Lang, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, at Assumption College, in Massachusetts, in a recent essay on distraction. “Periods of sustained attention are like islands rising from the ocean of distraction in which we spend most of our time swimming.”Lang, whose book, Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, comes out this month, had been thinking about the topic long before the pandemic hit. He recalls one incident in particular, when he noticed one of his most enthusiastic students — the kind who always sits in the front row — sneaking glances at her phone.At first he was taken aback: Was technology really such a powerful lure? Not really, he decided. The challenge was in the classroom itself. Attention ebbs and flows. “It’s very difficult for people to pay laser-focused attention to someone who asks them to do hard thinking,” he said in an interview. “We have to be empathetic to ourselves and to students.”So how can professors keep pulling students back into that flow? Lang’s book wasn’t written for the pandemically challenged, but he says that some of the same strategies he has used in person can work equally well online. For one, keep changing things up. You might break a class up into segments: short lecture, group work, worksheets, then a whole-class discussion. The online equivalent could be a combination of breakout rooms and shared Google docs.He also notes that people give their attention to those who pay attention to them. So, call on students. Bring up something they wrote on a discussion board or in an essay, and ask others to respond. Be clear about why you think engagement is important, and reward students for participating in activities in which they’re interacting with others.“There’s nothing radical here,” he says of his strategies. The shift is more in the professor’s mind-set. “Stop thinking so much about trying to eliminate distraction,” he says. “Instead, you want to think about how to support and sustain attention.”Lang isn’t teaching this fall, but one of his colleagues, Elizabeth Colby Davie, has taken his lessons to heart, redesigning her fall classes to create and reinforce connections with her students.Davie, a chemistry professor, got through the spring using the flipped-classroom model, in which she taped lectures and then held discussions on Zoom. It went OK, she says, but she felt like she “lost the middle.” The ones who had talked in the physical classroom continued to contribute in the online version. The quiet ones stayed quiet. But those who sometimes engaged in class seemed to struggle.Because Assumption is offering a two-term semester this fall her class meets online five days a week. To help create a sense of community, Davie has students do a social activity every Monday, like produce a recording of how they created a 3D model of a molecule using household items. Thursdays are for “study hall,” in which students find or design a problem related to the day’s material and create an answer key, all of which they explain on a discussion board. “I’m not sure what they think of it, but I love it,” she says, noting how readily they comment on one another’s work.She also keeps office hours, in which students can pop in on Zoom during a set time each week. She sees many more students this way than she does in a traditional semester.Six weeks in, she says, “I feel like I know them, some of them very well, even the ones who are superquiet. I’ve seen them six times on a short video.”Davie seems to have created those relationships with and among her students that experts say are fundamental to learning. Focusing on making connections, encouraging students to engage in collaborative work, and checking in regularly to hear how everything is going are the basic building blocks of community.Perhaps most important, though, is to be adaptable. When things aren’t working, stop and evaluate, says Plotts, the consultant who works with schools and colleges in supporting marginalized students. “Literally tell them, we need to hit the restart button because something isn’t working. I need to hear from you what’s happening.”“Perfection is like a unicorn,” she says. “Everybody talks about it and nobody has seen it. And that’s kind of what we’re in right now. Don’t strive for perfection. Strive for connection.”

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