It’s not all async or swim with online courses

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While everyone loves the flexibility and independence of online courses, sometimes a sense of isolation can settle in for both instructors and students.

Most communication in online courses is text-based and can be a bit scattered since emails are sent on one person’s schedule and answered during another totally different schedule. We emulate conversations on discussion boards, but there is a void of actual conversation.

But that doesn’t have to be the case for fully online courses. If your institution allows, there are several flexible options that can add some face time to your class. To keep your course schedule flexible, avoid making these activities or events required. Keeping them optional will help your students maintain their personal schedules but show you are going above and beyond to support them.

Tutoring or homework sessions

Designate a time during the week to run an optional tutoring or homework session. Office hours tend to sound more official, like a conference — these sessions can be more like a classroom. Live tutoring sessions can highlight one topic that is part of the lesson for the week or something you are seeing students struggle with from previous lessons. This may pique a student’s interest who may be too nervous to schedule a “meeting” to talk one on one. If you create a brief presentation, you can record it and post the video for the rest of the class.

This article is part of a biweekly series provided by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

This will also encourage students to work together and connect. Students often struggle with asking questions and time management, so this option may be able to help with both. Homework sessions are also an alternative to office hours. Invite your students to log on to your college’s web conferencing tool for a block of time weekly to simply do their homework. You’ll be there to answer questions, brainstorm project ideas or even provide formative or practice activities to help them with the bigger projects. It will also help them manage their schedule better.

In addition, it will also encourage students to work together and connect. You can also multitask and use these sessions as office hours and if a student does need to have a personal chat, hop into a breakout room. The remaining students can keep on working independently.

While a standard weekly schedule would be ideal for you and some of your students, you may want to mix up the days from time to time to add some variety to the schedule and show your flexibility to work with them.

Guest speakers

This classic idea can be enhanced by a virtual environment — now you can invite people from across the country or globe to your class. A simple meeting link can connect your students to someone working in their future profession or author from a text you are using. It can also be someone from your own institution. Librarians and academic support teams will often have workshops or presentations already prepared, and they would probably be delighted to schedule a live (but optional session) for your class.

It doesn’t even have to be course-related — consider inviting advising to share some tips on preparing for the next semester or maybe your health and wellness team to show what service the college can offer. Once again, try to mix up the dates to benefit different student schedules and record the sessions for those who could not attend.

Optional live lectures

This one can be very helpful for students and instructors. Students can get the option of live interaction when working through class materials, and the instructor gets to make a fresh lecture video for each class. Make sure you have other asynchronous lesson materials and media in the course because if these “optional” meetings are the main source of the lesson, students who signed up for an asynchronous course will feel compelled instead of just being encouraged to attend the sessions. You always need to keep your assigned modality in mind when creating options for synchronous events and activities, so they maintain the flexibility students are seeking in online courses.

Student teacher conferences

This may be the simplest and most individualized approach to adding a little synchronous to your asynchronous courses. Identify and communicate a few times throughout the semester when you will provide several options to set up a quick conference or “check-in” with each student. You can go over their grades or projects, but you may also want to include asking them what they need to succeed.

Chances are your online students are not making it to campus and feel disconnected from the services a college can provide. They may not be aware of the progress many colleges have made in the past few years in making many of these support options remote, or they assumed remote support services stopped once campuses reopened.

One easy way to set up student conferences is with the Calendly scheduling tool. This easy app allows you to set potential meeting times based on your schedule. You can post or send a link to your Calendly schedule and students can select a meeting time. You can also include your meeting link in the description of the meeting. Since Calendly syncs to Outlook or Google, it will block students from booking times you already have meetings. Calendly offers a free account that provides one meeting schedule. Set up the times and label it “Meeting Room” for a generic scheduling option.

Flexible and accessible

These options will help you connect to your students and add a little extra teacher presence to your course. But the most important thing to remember when developing live events for your online courses is to make them flexible and communicate to students they are not required. Don’t make them a dedicated part of the lesson so students do not feel pressured to attend. Always provide the resources or video afterward, so students don’t feel left out. Is there a chance you may be the only one in the Zoom room? Possible, but these options show students they are not alone, and you are easily accessible.

About the Author

Brooke Litten
Dr. Brooke Litten is an instructional designer for Rowan College of South Jersey. She is the Northeast regional representative for the Instructional Technology Council, (ITC). Along with working as an instructional designer, Litten teaches critical thinking online with Mercy College and first-year writing courses at various New Jersey community colleges.