Avoiding Awkward Silence – Planning for Student/Instructor Interaction

A drill sergeant leans in close towards a young man.

USMC-02659 by Staff Sgt. Thomas Perry, Public Domain.

Creating a Conversation

According to Michael Welsch an online course should feel like a conversation.  In his opinion, meaningful dialogue occurs when one engages in responsive teaching practices (integrating student questions and observations into lesson materials, using video introductions, etc.).  This builds a sense of trust and comradery amongst classmates and leads to higher engagement.

Looking at my own course it feels more like an awkward family supper with the in-laws.

Essentially, Welsch is emphasizing relationships, which is hardly a revelation to any veteran instructor.  So why is it so difficult to transfer these practices into online spaces? Why do I find planning a blended course so difficult?

That old sinking feeling

I am far more adept at connecting with people in person given my nearly twenty years of conventional teaching experience.  Call it familiarity, or call it the fear of the unknown, but I don’t feel comfortable with most features of my chosen LMS (Google Classroom).  But more than this am I have a more fundamental worry: I don’t know if my course will be engaging enough.

The purpose of my online course is to help students credit complete a failed class.  Mercifully, due to luck and circumstance (I don’t use those terms when my principal is around) I don’t have many students that flunk.  This creates a unique situation – effective models of online learning like OCL require rich student-to-student interaction, but my community of learners may only consist of one or two students.

How do I build a community amongst my learners if I only have one person taking the course?

It feels like being picked last for dodgeball all over again.

A man sits alone looking out of a window.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash.

Possible Solutions – Possible Problems

  1. Building Social Presence – It is important that students feel a part of something when they take an online course.  With only a handful of students working through my mathematics unit it will be incumbent upon me to step up (more so than someone with the luxury of creating sub-communities within their class).  My initial plan was to post short discussion questions in Google Classroom with students typing out 2-3 sentence responses (to maintain engagement).  Instead I think it would be better if students recorded short video answers to which I could respond with my own videos.  This will help students feel that they are authentically interacting with the instructor and provide an impetus for them to return to the course website frequently.  These short video clips will require clear goals and expectations (length, content, what is appropriate to discuss, etc.) both in written and video form (how can one teach how to respond in video form without making a video themselves?).  Creating an exemplar conversation between myself and a teaching colleague (playing the role of a student) would be helpful.
  2. Structure learning materials to support discussion – As Bates cautions our teaching materials, videos, and readings should be chosen with the explicit purpose of supporting student discussion.  In his view discussion is not an optional addition, it is the core around which all other activities are built.  This means my quizzes and questions in Google Classroom need to generate conversations, rather than being mere summative tools.  Thus after a quiz I will need to post a discussion question asking students to expand upon what they have learned, something to the effect of “After watching the videos and completing the quiz pose one unanswered question you still have.”  Circling back to student engagement I could then use one of these as the next major topic for video discussion (see number 1 above).  This would validate student contributions and make them feel that their input is valued.
  3. Create a relevant resource section – Part of establishing social presence is creating openings for learners to show what they have learned.  To keep students engaged I will create a message board section of my course (or a place on the main newsfeed in Google Classroom) where students will post news articles, or websites that are related to classroom activities.  In particular I would like students to share links to places where they have found information for their final projects.  To keep things simple I will provide examples of what I expect (A sentence describing the website, the link, and why they feel it is relevant to what we are talking about) and respond in either video or text format to encourage their participation.

I am wrestling with the idea of how this should be evaluated.  I would like student responses to flow organically from the material and peer discussion, but I am not sure how to get away from extrinsic motivators (i.e. “is this for marks”).  Obviously as part of my expectations I will have to have some sort of marking scheme (I am thinking about utilizing a rubric, but part of me feels like explaining what I liked about student responses in video form may be more effective – encouraging excellent work and asking questions when work is not hitting the mark), but I am not sure how best to do this.  If I had multiple students working through the course I could ask them which discussion answers they appreciated most, and factor their responses into student grades (perhaps using a google form?).

In short I am very open to your suggestions and feedback.

4 thoughts on “Avoiding Awkward Silence – Planning for Student/Instructor Interaction

  1. Hi Matt,

    We are both in the same boat right now. How do we engage our math students so they are interacting throughout the course? If I know high school students well enough, they will definitely ask you if it’s worth marks or not. And if you say no, then they will probably kibosh the interactive component.

    Not sure if this helps you or not, but am creating an “online assignment” component to my course syllabus. This will be worth x% marks. The online assignments can be designed however you feel fits your course planning best. I think I am going to do “weekly” tasks (for example: a discussion question that all students have to respond to, or a case-study that students are required to breakdown and share with others (video or text), or creating their own math question that other students will respond to, etc.).

    Even if you only have 1 person in the course, they can still complete the online assignments… however, it will just be you that responds.

    • I will create a rubric for the online assignments component so students know what I am looking for. Still need to figure this out, but I will have to create it so it fits with a variety of assignments/tasks that the students will complete throughout the course.

  2. I am also in a similar boat! How do you engage students online when you might only have one or two? I think your ideas so far are good though. I’m struggling as well with how to evaluate the online engagement. Professors are very leery about engaging in such things when they’re enrolled in the same classes as their students….so the engagement may perhaps be optional or worth extra credit (which could entirely defeat the purpose, who knows). I need to give it much more thought. As Sarah said, a rubric will be important (which also needs much more thought). Treat the course as a work in progress though. Nobody is saying it has to be (or will be) perfect when it’s first implemented. Take the honest feedback and adjust as needed.

  3. Hi Matt,
    I love your honesty that your course feels like “an awkward family supper with the in-laws”. I can totally relate! I find that with creating online content, I am never fully satisfied with the end result and that I am constantly challenging myself to come up with new and creative ways to make my course better…..and more specifically, about how I can connect more with my students. I really like your idea of a message board but getting students to buy in is a challenge and furthermore, how can we assess their participation? I think that is the question we are all wondering.
    Thanks for sharing, Matt!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *