Milton W. Wendland (J.D., Ph.D.) is a professor of instruction in the Department of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at the University of South Florida, where he specializes in equitable and inclusive online education. He regularly teaches Queer Film & Television; LGBTQ+ Cultures; Gender Sexuality & the Law; Intro to Women’s & Gender Studies; and related courses in online formats.
COVID made online instructors of all of us—whether we were prepared and experienced or whether we were new and nervous—yet many of us still struggle with how to create and teach online courses that support connection and communication between ourselves and our students, both in synchronous online courses and in asynchronous courses.
COVID also challenged many traditional ideas about pedagogy and inspired lots of instructors to focus on pedagogies of care, attuning their teaching and course design to students as full humans with needs and obligations beyond the course syllabus. Although many educators had already been practicing various forms of pedagogies of care when working with students with disabilities or nontraditional students, COVID ushered in a wider awareness that all students face challenges of various sorts that can make the online learning environment more challenging.
Here are some ways to humanize online courses—and the bonus is that these can work for face-to-face courses, too!
Reminder Emails: Most LMSs allow instructors to send out reminders to students who have not yet submitted an assignment as a deadline draws near. It is important that these emails be encouraging rather than chastising. Avoid terse, distancing language like, “This is a reminder that the deadline for this assignment is tomorrow afternoon.” Aim instead for connective, motivating language: “I’m sure you are on schedule, but I wanted to send a friendly reminder that this assignment is coming due. If you have questions about the assignment, just drop me an email.”
Rewarding Effort: As instructors, we are used to reaching out to students who have fallen behind schedule or whose performance in class has dropped off, but do we acknowledge our students who are on top of their game? Throughout the semester, I like to send compliment emails to students who submit assignments well before the deadline. Each semester I do this, I get dozens of emails back from students telling me that this is one of the first times an instructor has reached out to praise their work or their time management, which proves that this kind of communication is worth my time. Try something like, “I noticed that you submitted this week’s assignment well before the deadline. You must manage your time well, and that is going to be a great skill not only in this course but as you move forward toward graduation and into your career.”
Video Variance: The use of chunked instructional videos and announcements is standard in online education, but too often instructors make these videos too professional and too instructor-y, which in the mediated online environment can be distancing and frankly, boring. Often this stems from the feeling that as instructors we must appear a certain way or we aren’t being “good professors.” But just as we choose a variety of learning materials to appeal to students’ different learning preferences, so too should the videos we post vary in style. For example, some of my chunked videos are serious, content-laden, and aimed specifically at providing certain information. But most of my videos are much more casual in terms of setting, appearance, and formality.
- Try filming course videos outside under a tree, sitting on your couch holding your dog or cat, or even while biking.
- Consider your appearance and perhaps wear a T-shirt, hat, or button that connects to the material you are discussing.
- Spill your coffee or sneeze while creating the video? Let small glitches stand and even make fun of yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to be lighthearted or to be passionate. Students respond well to course material when we enliven it with emotion.
The Human Instructor: If you have ever taken an online training or enrolled in an asynchronous online course, you know that it can be isolating: just you and the computer. But the human instructor reveals their own vulnerabilities and life challenges (within reason, of course!).
- For example, in your weekly announcement post or video let your students know that you are having a stressful week because your dog died, your partner has the flu, or because you yourself have a looming deadline. Whatever is going on in your life.
- In videos connected to course material, share your own frustration with difficult material: “Okay, everyone, I have to be honest. This reading is a tough one to get through and that’s coming from me, and I’ve read this dozens of times! But in this video I’m going to give you some signposts to help you make your way through and I’ll highlight some of the key sections that you should spend more time on.”
- Similarly, when students email me for any reason, I always add a more personal note to indicate that I care about them as more than just a name in my roster. Closing an email with a simple question like “How are your other classes going this semester?” or “Last time we emailed you mentioned you were taking the GRE. Did you do that? How did it go?” gives students the personal interaction that we would offer in a face-to-face course when we chat with students before and after class.
Now that COVID is not disrupting our teaching and learning so directly and dramatically, it can be tempting to return to business as usual. However, continuing to incorporate practices like these that humanize our online (and face-to-face) courses helps students connect more fully with course learning materials and with their instructors.