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Fostering Connections in Online Learning Environments

Karen Flammer, Ph.D.


April 23, 2021

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The hallmark of a successful learning environment, whether it is face to face or virtual (remote or online), is engagement. Students need to engage with the content, engage with the instructor, and engage with their classmates. In traditional face to face courses, students have opportunities to engage with the instructor during class by raising their hand or staying after class to ask a question; they engage with classmates by chatting before and after class; they often form study groups to engage with the content collectively.

The physical separation of instructors and students in remote and online learning environments poses challenges for fundamental activities of learning, including building relationships, establishing authenticity and personal connections. Research shows that key influencers of engagement are the social connections. In remote and online learning and particularly during COVID when students are self-isolating, learning takes place independently. This requires the instructor to intentionally create a much greater sense of social engagement.

The University of California Undergraduate Experiences Survey (UCUES) 2020 solicited feedback from students across the UC campuses on their experiences with remote learning due to COVID. The biggest complaint from students was the lack of interactivity and engagement in their remote courses. Students expressed wanting more interaction with other students. They experienced a loss of casual contact they got before and after an in-person class. A majority of students reported feeling isolated and lacking a sense of belonging. Overall, the lack of engagement caused difficulty in staying connected to learning.

Surveys and consultations with instructors also indicated their challenge connecting with students and helping them connect with the instructional materials remotely. Below are some recommended practices instructors can use to enhance the remote learning experience and contribute to student success.

Help students get to know you and each other

  • Introduce yourself and make it personal. Share a photo, a brief bio and describe your passion for teaching.
  • Ask students to introduce themselves in a discussion board, or in a live session. Have them share a picture (optional) and describe something about themselves.

Establish a teaching presence.

  • Set clear expectations for the course in the very beginning. Provide guidance on how students should be participating, engaging with the material, interacting with their peers, and progressing towards the learning goals.
  • Stay active on the discussion boards. Respond to questions about the course, provide feedback to student responses, acknowledge students who are participating.
  • Send out announcements often.At the beginning of each week, post an announcement to recap the last week and prepare students for the week to come. Remind them of deadlines and due dates, offer encouragement and let them know how to seek support.
  • Consider providing video or audio feedback to students. One way to connect on a more human level with students is to upload audio and video files alongside text when responding to a student submission.

Foster opportunities for students to interact with each other synchronously.

  • Schedule synchronous virtual office hours and encourage students to attend.
  • Assign group projects and peer review activities which give students opportunities to collaborate.
  • Encourage informal group sessions. Facilitate a time for students to watch pre-recorded videos together so they can work through the instructional media together.

For more resources and strategies on successful teaching in the remote environment, please see our website, keepteaching.ucsd.edu.

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