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Faculty share online teaching strategies that create meaningful connections in support of student learning

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence (ATLE) reviewed strategies for substantive contact in online teaching at its meeting Sept. 19. 

Cori Schmidtbauer (STaR) and LaQuana Smith (Nursing)
“Cori Schmidtbauer gave me great ideas for making my online pharmacology class interactive,” nursing instructor LaQuana Smith said. “She suggested online games, unfolding case studies, and using Blackboard Collaborate to record small groups. Thanks Cori!”

Dr. Liz Pierce, associate professor and chair of the Department of Information Science, Dr. Kristen McIntyre, associate professor for the Department of Applied Communication and director of the UA Little Rock Communication Skill Center, and Cori Schmidtbauer, instructional designer for Scholarly Technology and Resources (STaR), shared their techniques with other faculty in attendance, stressing the goal of creating connection.

Pierce explained that the Information Science department built a student profile to understand the characteristics and needs of students in their program. They found that most of their students prefer courses offered in the late afternoon or evenings on Mondays through Thursdays. 

“Our students arrive to class time around 5 p.m.,” Pierce said. “Holding class toward the end of the day works great, even for international students participating online from places like Singapore. The difference in time zones turns out to be very compatible when we schedule classes this way.”

Students also prefer lively, engaging interaction and the ability to ask questions, even in an online experience. Pierce encouraged everyone to design a space that enables them to interact with their students and to make use of experts in the STaR office.

“Students want to feel connected to their peers and the teacher,” Pierce said. “We use tools like multiple webcams with pre-set angles and on-screen chats so that students have both audio and text options for asking questions during a lecture. We want to give them a window into the classroom as if they were sitting in the front row.”

Many classes are being offered in a “mashup” style. As McIntyre explained, in some classes, about half of the students are in the live classroom, while the other half interact online with peers and the instructor through Blackboard discussions, peer reviews, and other opportunities for connection.

“I use low-threat activities to encourage peer-to-peer interactions that build community,” McIntryre said. 

Some examples McIntyre shared include encouraging students to create a social media connection outside of class, assigning peer reviews, hosting small group workshops online after 9 p.m. or on-campus during evenings and weekends, and inviting online students to participate in her on-campus version of a class anytime they want.

“Facilitating opportunities for students to connect with one another requires low effort on my part and pays big dividends for student success,” McIntryre said. “I also require that they meet with me in-person or online within the first two weeks of class, just so we can get to know each other and kick start our connection. They can meet with me alone or in a group.”

Schmidtbauer encouraged everyone to create a robust instructor presence in online courses as a way to engage students and avoid student isolation.

“Humanize yourself to help students not feel isolated at their computers,” Schmidtbauer said. “Share your hobbies and interests. Post your photo and use 3-to-5-minute audio or video lectures to create a positive tone for the class.”

Schmidtbauer suggested instructors maintain a sense of presence by using the many collaborative tools in Blackboard, using “SMART” (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) goals to achieve teaching objectives, providing timely feedback to students, and using both individual messages and announcements to engage the class.

All faculty are encouraged to take advantage of the professional development opportunities offered each month through ATLE. 

“I love ATLE events,” said Cynthia Johnson, accounting instructor. “You never know what tidbits you’ll pick up. I’ve implemented ideas received at ATLE events that have improved my syllabus, class management, communication, and Blackboard site design. ATLE offers great help, atmosphere, and comradery.”

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