From Jared Del Rosso, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology & Criminology
Pursuing Meaning & Community in Online Classes
In my limited experience with online teaching, the biggest challenge has been to “adapt” meaningfulness and community from the face-to-face class to Canvas. Given the unprecedented quarter we have ahead of us, meaning and community in teaching feel ever more vital. And yet they’ve perhaps never felt so beyond our reach.
Thankfully, Flower Darby and James Lang’s Small Teaching Online (2019, Jossey-Basey) offers a number of high impact, but “small” and, so, manageable strategies to promote these. The authors of Small Teaching Online don’t ask us to redesign courses. Rather, they suggest that we can pursue authentic learning with our students by attending to the details around the edges of our courses.
Pursue Meaning & Say Goodbye to Busy Work
Darby and Lang promote “backward” course design. Faculty start their course design by identifying objectives: the things we want students to know and be able to do by the end of our courses. With those objectives in mind, we design assignments, assessments, and activities that support those objectives. We schedule content to do the same. All other work? Consider eliminating it, as it doesn’t support the overall objectives of the course. Backward design, then, means that we eliminate work that students are likely to experiences purposeless. This is the “busy work” that many students rightly complain of in end-of-quarter evaluations. If you are simplifying your courses for the spring quarter, backward design provides a pedagogical compass for doing so.
But eliminating busy work and affirming meaningfulness requires two other small changes to our courses: that we consistently communicate purpose to our students and that we ask them to engage with that purpose. To do the former, Darby and Lang simply recommend that we regularly include a sentence or two of explanation, in course modules and assignments, of why we’re asking students to do something. This explanation should link course work back to the larger objectives of the course. In our face-to-face classes, we often offer these explanations organically, in classroom discussions about assignments. Online, we have to make them more direct, planned, and explicit.
To encourage students to engage with the course’s purpose, Darby and Lang recommend that we ask students to engage in a small stake, perhaps even ungraded, reflections about course objectives. Early in the quarter, ask students to review the objectives in your syllabus. Then, ask them to produce a written or recorded reflection in which they say which objectives most interest or concern them or which they find most valuable. Nearer to the end of the quarter, students might bookend the course with self-assessment. Ask them to return to that early work and assess the intellectual distance they’ve traveled since week one or two. What did they achieve? What helped them achieve it? What difficulties did they face? And what might they have done differently, if they had anticipated those difficulties?
Among the most rewarding things about the face-to-face class is the sense of community, collaboration, and shared accomplishment among members of a class, faculty included. Darby and Lang go so far as to suggest that a sense of community is, for most people, a pre-requisite of learning. To pursue community in an online course, they emphasize the importance of the present professor, as virtual as that presence is.
To create this presence, Darby and Lang recommend that faculty build a biographical page for themselves. This page should convey our excitement for the course; when appropriate, it might also share a story about how we became interested in our field or the topic on which we’re teaching. They further recommend that we share a bit about ourselves and who we are beyond the classroom, using stories and photographs to do so.
But presence must be maintained across the quarter, and Darby and Lang have some “small” suggestions for this, too. They tout the value of video recordings (or, at least audio recordings) of professors. Mid- and end- week announcements, they recommend, might take the form of a brief recording. Video recordings bring “more” of the faculty’s humanness into the virtual interaction than do written announcements. The latter also tend to go unread, forming a vast pile of wasted content (and, from the faculty perspective, work). Recordings need only be a few minutes (and probably should be no longer than five minutes). And they don’t need to be perfect. Small hiccups, such as a prolonged “umm” or a mispronounced word, are endemic to the face-to-face class. They’re fine, too, in the online class.
Darby and Lang also suggest that feedback on assignments take the form of audio or video recordings. They highlight a study that suggests that audio feedback on work promotes learning in ways equivalent to written feedback. However, students tend to view audio recordings as more personalized and complete than written feedback. (Canvas allows faculty members to directly record video or audio feedback in Speedgrader. See this guide from Canvas @ Yale.)
To be clear, Darby and Lang aren’t simply telling faculty to provide more feedback, though they do suggest that regular contact with students is a prerequisite of a functioning and meaningful online class. Rather, they suggest that faculty give relatively less written feedback and relatively more recorded feedback. They further suggest that students complete brief assessments, such as low stake quizzes or reflections, of important recordings, such as mini-lectures, in order to ensure engagement.
For more on Small Teaching Online, including an excerpt, see the publisher’s website.
 Susanne Voelkel and Luciane V. Mello, 2015, “Audio Feedback—Better Feedback?,” Bioscience Education, Volume 22, Issue 1, 16-30.