As educators, one of our primary jobs is to create environments that challenge students, encouraging them to step out of their comfort zones and then providing the help, support, encouragement, and guidance they need to find success. That’s true for both the English teacher who assigns a Dostoevsky novel for the first time, and the swim coach who challenges a student to compete in a 400 yard individual medley for the first time.
It’s also true when we ask students to take an online class for the first time. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes, this discomfort manifests itself as the student saying, “Online classes aren’t for me.” What they are really saying is that they need help navigating an uncomfortable experience.
Just as the English teacher doesn’t assign Dostoevsky right at the start of the year (let’s ease into Russian literature with some Pushkin, maybe), and the swim coach doesn’t challenge the student to swim a 400 IM (without having done a 100 and 200 IM first), online teachers can’t start with the assumption that students are ready for an online class just because they signed up for one. So, how do you prepare students for this new type of learning? There are three key elements: connection, choice, and comfort.
Immediately, an effective online course connects students to their teacher and to their classmates, in order to build trust and break down any preconceived notions that the online learning space is impersonal. This happens in a number of ways. Students and teachers alike create a graphic journal to introduce themselves and share their personalities (think pictures, favorite YouTube clips, songs, text, etc.). They see each other in video discussion boards. Most importantly, they meet one on one with their teachers.
When students meet with their teachers one on one, they have a conversation about the student’s goals for the year, immediately giving students a way to choose their own path to grow. Students also talk with their teachers about their learning profile, noting strengths and areas of challenge and discussing approaches for learning and applying course content. In collaboration with teachers, students learn about sustaining a growth mindset and the power of “yet.”
Another purpose of students meeting with their teachers is to become comfortable with their teacher. We create other elements in the orientation and first week of the course to help students become comfortable in the online space: student expectations are clear and explicit; course modules follow a regular and reliable flow, ensuring that students can’t “get lost” or miss an assignment; help and instructional videos abound; support and help are always visible for students, both from their teacher and for any technology needs. We lead students through a series of opening assignments, allowing them to “get their feet wet” in the online space when the stakes are low, to prepare them for the work ahead.
Focus on connection, choice, and comfort does not mean that every student will feel that she is ready for the challenge of online learning, though. There are extra supports necessary for some students regardless of how we prepare them for the experience -- just like there are at a face-to-face school. I’ll write about that next month.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)