Teaching Thursday: Communicating with Students Online
I was invited this morning to check out the work of the Online Teaching with Technology Seminar here at the University of North Dakota. (The seminars have a somewhat underwhelming web site.) I was asked to say a few words on communicating with students using technology. I probably have some idiosyncratic attitudes toward these practices, so I thought I might work through some of them on my trusty blog here.
The first observation that I’ll offer is that I use technology most extensively in my online and large lecture format classes. For my mid-level courses and grad classes, I generally have an open door policy. One other idiosyncratic aspect of my communication strategy is that I no longer have an office phone. When we moved buildings a year ago, my phone was never hooked up. After a few weeks of not having a phone, I found it really liberating and decided just to go with it. So, the two most basic ways for a student to contact me is to either drop me an email or stop by my office.
I find that these one-on-one meetings with students tend toward the inefficient. I often end up repeating to each student who comes by the same things. In a small class, the impact of this repetition is relatively small; for a bigger class, however, one could end up repeating the same clarifications, explanations, or helpful insights numerous times. As a result, I try to find ways to communicate consistently with students as a class.
The most obvious technique to do this is to maintain an updated syllabus that attempts to address the most common student issues. While this generally works, the syllabus is typically a stable medium for communicating with students. The greater challenge comes when I have to make changes to the course or address spontaneous issues arising during the semester. In these cases, I’ve taken to using Twitter to send out messages addressing specific problems as they arise. This allows me to “talk” to the class as group while still being timely. The nice thing about Twitter is that it privileges a certain economy of communication and this forces me (and I suspect my students) to be clear and focused.
Twitter as a primary means of “classroom” communication has several downsides (as I have documented here). One is that it functions in real time. If a students it not paying attention to Twitter when I address a particular issue, they have to sort their their Tweets or my Twitter feed to find the relevant Tweet. I’ve attempted to deal with this through two techniques. First, I’ve experimented with using Twaiter to release scheduled Tweets. This frees me to compose a Tweet on a particular classroom issue whenever I want and then to release it when it will have maximum visibility. For example, I can schedule a Tweet reminding the students that they have 6 hours to complete an assignment exactly 6 hours before it is due. I can also schedule Tweets to repeat or post weekly updates on time.
Some students, however, find it more difficult to follow a Twitter feed than to monitor the classes Blackboard page. I’ve experimented, more or less successfully, with embedding a Twitter feed into the weekly announcements section in Blackboard. I typically post an aggregated feed of those Tweets marked with that week’s hashtag (e.g. #H101Week1, #H101Week2). A student who might not check his or her Twitter account can nevertheless check out all the action from that week right inside Blackboard. The only downside is that the Twitter feed only remains active for a relatively short length of time (typically less than a semester) and will usually only include a fixed number of Tweets.
Another frustration with using Twitter so heavily is that it remains difficult to link to pages within Blackboard. Perhaps this will change with Blackboard 9. I am not a huge fan of Blackboard, but each new iteration becomes easier to use and more dynamic and powerful.
I’ve also found discussion boards are a great way to make communication and assessment more transparent. Each week students are required to post a response to a question on a class discussion board. I have long ago abandoned any hope for a real, dynamic discussion on a class discussion board, but I have discovered that students do read each others’ posts. In many cases, the answers to the discussion question become better (if less original) with later posts. While I continue to grade each student’s work separately, the tendency for students to repeat or (better still) base their answers on earlier discussion posts makes it easier for me to address common problems. Each week, I will make a post to the discussion board highlighting the good and the bad in the week’s posts. The lack of originality in the posts and the tendency for students parrot ideas present in earlier posts makes it easier to use this kind of public, collective comments to address problems and reinforce good behavior. Moreover, as long as the earliest posters in each discussion board are conscientious (and they are most frequently a self-selecting group of conscientious students), then week-to-week the entire class will follow the early posting students and begin to internalize my comments. I understand that this kind of “passive learning” is not in vogue, but I will contend that it is a way to condition students to certain practices of argument by creating an environment that successfully leverages both peer pressure and what we can charitably call “a tendency toward lowest effort approaches to learning”.
Twitter and discussion boards are just two ways that I have used collective communication to replace personalized emails, long, unfocused office visits, and redundant comments on student papers. For longer assignments, I continue to use personalized comments (supplemented with a “common comments” sheet that I circulate to all students). And I do not discourage students from contacting me directly over email for personal problems or problems that are not resolved in more public forums.