Teaching in Disruptive Times


Healthy two-way communication has always been a vital part of teaching in the face-to-face classroom.  The recent widespread conversion to remote and hybrid instruction using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous discussion participation modes hasn’t changed its importance. We still have to ask ourselves “What information do my students need to be successful?” and “How can I keep them engaged?” The new version of a student sitting in the back row may be the student with her camera turned off. Physical cues are easy to miss or misinterpret in the virtual classroom. At times it may feel like you are actually communicating more often with your students than before and this may require a different kind of boundary-setting. There’s a lot of “do this, not that” content out there. This section is designed to help you sort through it.

One essential in any teaching environment is establishing rapport with students. Your goal is to help students see your virtual classroom as a community and you as a real person, not just a face and voice on a screen. To increase the human connection in online or hybrid learning:

  • provide consistent, positive communication through texting, email, videochat, prerecorded video or audio, social media, and LMS announcements,
  • personalize communication whenever possible. Make your virtual teaching space pleasant and inviting by sharing facts about yourself (research interests, how you got into your field, hobbies, etc.) and providing opportunities for students to do the same,
  • identify and reach out to struggling students,
  • let students know how to contact you during your virtual office hours, and
  • provide prompt feedback on students’ work.

Here's a curated list of resources where you can learn more:

Make your syllabus a visually pleasing, easy-to-read document enhanced with color, ample font size and line spacing, and frequent use of headings and subheadings. Consider supplementing text with colorful graphics depicting course structure and organization, connections between assessments and course objectives, student learning outcomes, and other pertinent information. Avoid dry academic language. For online or hybrid courses, provide:

  • explicit expectations for online behavior (“netiquette”),
  • technology requirements and instructions on how and where students can get technology assistance,
  • information on navigating the online learning environment,
  • assignment descriptions and due dates, and
  • an explanation of online participation and assessment standards.

The syllabus should tell students how they can communicate with you individually. It should also include a personal statement about your teaching approach that establishes a safe and inclusive learning environment in which student questions and critiques are welcome.

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You can easily schedule office hours as video conferences in which you work one-on-one with students or answer questions from a group. Scheduling can be done in Google Classroom, Blackboard Collaborate, Moodle, Zoom, or your school’s preferred platform. Consider setting up a Zoom link at the start of the semester that can be used throughout the term. Students could drop in virtually and be placed in a waiting room and admitted one at time. Consult your distance learning department for details.

Remind students often about your office hour schedule and how appointments will be handled. This information should be conspicuously placed in your syllabus, in your LMS course dashboard, on your office door, and at the end of your presentation slides and handouts. Because many of today’s students must balance education with employment and family responsibilities (a situation complicated by the pandemic), consider scheduling some meetings at night and on the weekends. Whatever system and schedule you put in place, be consistent. To discourage no-shows, ask students to send confirmation messages ahead of their appointments, along with the question or topic they would like to discuss.

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Camera management in the virtual teaching environment involves camera position, lighting, and background. A common error is to position the camera too low. This causes you to look downward, creating a “double chin” effect. Raise your laptop on books or a stand. You should be framed on the screen as in a photograph—centered and with a small amount of space above your head. Don’t sit too close to the camera. Students should see your entire face and shoulders. Avoid strong backlighting, which creates a silhouette effect, and strong lighting from directly above or either side, which causes harsh shadows. For best results, the predominant light source should be directly in front of you, slightly above eye level. Natural light through a window is ideal as long as it is not too strong. It’s acceptable for students to see bookshelves and other ordinary objects in the background. Most instructors prefer that students also use their computer’s webcam but be willing to be flexible. Before requiring students to turn on their webcams, be aware that they may have poor internet speed, be multi-tasking (e.g. caring for children, sick relatives), or be working under conditions they would rather not display. Consider starting the course with a student survey to gauge their comfort levels with being on camera, speaking on the microphone with their camera off, and typing in the chat.

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