Best Practices for Online Equity-Driven Education Post-Covid: Cultivating Connectedness and Efficacy with Students
Covid-19 thrust many brick-and-mortar institutions into online education. As the pandemic wanes, many are maintaining the online option as many students desire to remain online. However, online education still presents a deficit in connectedness. Focusing on teaching through engagement (TTE), best practices are discussed for connectedness and efficacy with students.
Online education has been an option for students for nearly three decades; however, it is often critiqued for lacking rigor, being profit centered, not conducive to quality learning, and missing those aspects that only a brick-and-mortar institution can provide such as social connectedness (Hodges et al., 2020; Ruth, 2018). In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic thrust many grounded institutions into online education. After some initial difficulties, many institutions found their footing, and even though many are currently returning to the traditional in-person model, some are maintaining the online option as many students desire to remain online (Hess, 2021; McKenzie, 2021).
Post-pandemic, online education is likely to remain an emphasis in higher education. However, online education still presents a deficit in connectedness (Ensmann et al., 2021; Linton et al., 2021; Syahputri et al., 2020), a key component of psychological health and motivation identified by Deci and Ryan (2017). As educators at an online institution built on a model of teaching through engagement (TTE), the presenters offer some best practices in creating connectedness that have shown the most efficacy with our students.
Open office hours, virtual co-working sessions, and video calls are synchronous opportunities for all professors to engage with students. Open office hours can be offered weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly for students in courses and students who the professor is supporting as a dissertation chair or committee member. These sessions offer access to the professor to ask questions, get clarification, or simply say, “Hi.” The opportunity for the professor and students to engage allows rapport-building and opportunity to know and be known “off the page” as actual humans with real feelings and real personalities, which can attenuate what would otherwise be conflicts and tension related to feedback, grading, and several other emotional processes within the doctorate. Open office hours also allow students to engage synchronously with one another to build community and comradery. Students often exchange contact information and build relationships that might not otherwise occur at online institutions.
Virtual co-working sessions also allow question-and-answer and community-building opportunities like open office hours, but the goal differs slightly. In these sessions, we often have a scheduled time or send out a spontaneous email to tell students that we will be working via Zoom link if they wish to join. We offer and encourage students who want to feel connected and have the professor “readily available” to bring their own work and sit, often in silence, while we all work on our individual academic tasks. Interruptions to the workflow are expected but can be accommodated to some degree. For instance, Topia is one of many online meeting environments where students can be in a virtual world with the professor and other students. Based on the proximity of their avatar to the professor’s avatar, they can engage, listen, and discuss, or remain in silence at a distance in virtual space from the professor and, perhaps, another student discussing an issue that is not relevant to them. Thus, they can remain focused on their tasks, while still feeling surrounded by peers and their professor. While virtual co-working does have downsides, it offers accountability and connectedness to the professor and peers. Pro-tip: Be prepared for virtual co-working to not be as productive as working alone.
One-on-one video calls are, of course, the most engaging and focused form of guidance. They require the most time and energy due to the one-at-a-time approach to student engagement. Among the various options for engaging with students, synchronous, one-on-one video calls are the most personal and focused. We recommend using them in initial meetings to build rapport and during meetings focused on student-specific issues (e.g., student confusion regarding feedback). It is noteworthy that old technology can be modified, and new technology is built to provide an eye-to-eye experience, which can improve the connected dialogue between student and professor. Using a teleprompter to display students’ images in front of a webcam or buying a mini webcam that hangs down onto the screen (e.g., Center Cam), a professor can observe the student while making eye contact. Pro-tip: Having a “Meet the [student’s] Family” meeting early in the doctoral process can create connection and a “family as a team” dynamic. Families gain some clarity about the seriousness of the student’s endeavor, and they meet the infamous “chair” who will likely be praised and cursed throughout the dissertation journey.
Research has shown that students need to see your face and hear your voice to feel connected (Patterson, 2019). There are several ways to engage students asynchronously in ways that are engaging and relatable. Specifically, video feedback on assignments or manuscript reviews allows a professor to summarize or talk through the feedback while inserting comments tracking changes. We suggest that the professor’s face be included in the corner of the screen on one of the top edges, while the document will take at least three quarters of the screen. This facial and written feedback provides humanized feedback with facial expression and tone of voice so that students can hear the professor’s tone and see their mannerisms as they type the feedback. Thus, “cold” written feedback, which is often “heard” by students as harsh and critical can be softened by the professor’s verbal dialogue in accompaniment. The presenters upload each video feedback to a YouTube channel as a private or unlisted video which only the student can access. In doing so, the student can explore and discover other content that the professor may be sharing on the YouTube channel.
Indeed, video tutorials can be hosted on the same YouTube channel or other hosting service. Such tutorials are extremely efficient and useful to the professor and students. By taking the time to script and record tutorials, the professor saves tremendous time and increases access and prowess of information that is often repeated across students. Lectures, helpful hints, or directions for addressing assignment guidelines, or tutorials walking students through sections of a dissertation can be made publicly available and serve to replicate the professor’s message endlessly across students. Such videos need to be well-crafted and should be updated and modified per feedback and change (e.g., best practices update).
YouTube or podcast shows can be hosted similarly to provide other types of dialogic content. For instance, the presenters host interviews with dissertation chairs and students who have recently completed their dissertation. A similar show, Driven to Doctorate, for example, humanizes dissertation chairs, providing a “behind the curtain” discussion for students to watch to understand and find wisdom related to the dissertation process. The audio from D2D is then presented in podcast form under the same “branding.” It is apropos, then, that the second pro-tip be to spend a little bit of time creating or purchasing simple graphics to improve the student experience with the content. Be optimistic and forward-thinking with your videos, imagining that the public ones will be viewed hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the years. With the help of YouTube, you can use Canva, webcam, and low-cost video software to improve the personal and professional framing of the content. So, spend time to create or buy reusable elements (e.g., logos, graphics, animations, audio introductions, and salutations), dress professionally, buy a pair of box lights and a ring light to illuminate yourself, and modify your background to enhance the student engagement experience.
Just as professors can replicate their messaging across students and the video elements that can be reused, we found virtual certificates to be simple, but significant motivators for students. We give an unofficial “PhD Finished” certificate on the day of their completed defense. We often show the certificate to the student during a screenshare in our initial meeting as if to say, “It’s yours. Come and get it. I believe in you.” Additionally, we have certificates celebrating finishing each dissertation chapter and more personalized awards that celebrate any student achievement (e.g., “getting unstuck,” “Longest lit review,” or “working super-fast”) that can be easily created and emailed to students. In a doctoral journey that often feels like a seemingly endless, iterative process, markers of progress, albeit virtual, often tell the student that you have noticed their effort and success along the way. These small tokens of acknowledgement and are often framed or stuck to the family refrigerator.
Finally, attending graduation together is an invaluable experience to acknowledge and process the successfully completed doctorate. In addition to the hooding experience, it is sometimes the only time that an online professor will be physically with their student. Make the most of the time together by scheduling a meet-and-greet with the student and their family. Take pictures with them. Make plans to work with them to publish their dissertation in a journal, to develop new research, or to discuss career opportunities. Connection is essential to the doctoral experience success and to the long-term relationship that a professor and their university’s relationship with the student. Indeed, a solid, healthy relationship between the student and professor, especially when continued post-graduation, can lead to more success for the student and increased likelihood of student’s giving back in the form of scholarships, endowments, and referrals.