Overcoming my Existential Dread of Teaching Online: Developing Virtual Class Culture

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Teaching Online with Ellen Ensher

As teaching online becomes a reality for many professors and learning and development professionals, many of us are beginning to reflect on how we can create a supportive environment in the digital world. This past semester, I had the advantage of seven weeks of in-person class culture built up before I had to take my class online.

However, we professors, teachers, and Learning and Development professionals are now tasked with a bigger challenge this fall. Namely, how do we create an engaged, authentic, and fun class culture online from scratch? My first reaction when I pondered this question was honestly, I have no idea and I found myself feeling overwhelmed and hoping things would just go back to IRL and normal! I think the accompanying photo of me as a “Zoombie” kind of says it all!

Since class starts in a few short weeks, I am transforming my dread to curiosity and can-do. Since now is the time to get a conversation going on this. I would love to hear your tips and tricks! Here are a few of mine:

Here are some tips I will be incorporating into my digital classroom this semester:

1. Be Direct & Intentional
It is much easier to create a healthy and positive class culture in an in-person class setting than it is teaching online. This is because body language, seating arrangements, and class activities can all give clues about the culture a professor wants to create, without the need to expressly state it.

However, when class is being held exclusively online, there is a greater need for direct conversations with students about how the class culture should be defined. Rather than arrive in the virtual classroom Day 1 with a rigid picture of how the class should go, instead be prepared to lead an open and honest conversation with your students about what behaviors they see fit. This will ensure everyone feels comfortable. We have to remember that this is a new experience for most of us and we can learn a lot from our students.

2. Create Cohorts
One of the biggest elements of the physical classroom that is missing from the online class is the social and academic support from classmates. While last semester students were able to chat with those sitting around them prior to class starting, chatting in the Zoom room before the professor begins can feel awkward and unnatural.

As a solution, professors may consider creating cohorts of around 4-5 students who will meet virtually during class time. Breakout rooms can be used to assign in-class activities for the cohort to work on, allowing them the ability to chat, socialize and work in smaller groups.

The small groups can also be encouraged to meet outside of class. Rather than assigning a group project to the cohort, which can add an element of stress, consider encouraging the small groups to work on homework or fun activities together. This can add a social element that is a crucial ingredient in a positive class culture.

3. Behind the Scenes
Checking in with students has always been important, however the online classroom has made it a non-negotiable. Checking in via email can be a great way to begin communication. This can provide more introverted students the opportunity to share updates about themselves and how they feel the class is progressing without going too far outside of their comfort zone.

In addition, consider implementing Zoom check-ins as part of the syllabus. 2 or 3 one-on-one conversations with each student can foster a culture in which each person feels heard and supported.

4. Culture Checks
Adaptability is most important when it comes to this new challenge. Despite the best intentions to foster a supportive and healthy culture, it is important for us as professors to listen and be willing to make changes. Culture checks provide students the opportunity to share their feedback on how they believe the class is going. It can be done through a quick survey distributed at the midpoint of the semester.

I think the real key is behind our Zoom boxes, we are still here- real people with feelings, emotions, and the desire to connect. While my dread is still present, so too is my curiosity and that feeling of excitement that comes with a new challenge. Fall of 2020- yep we got this! Go Lions!

If you have any tips and tricks to combat the challenges of teaching online and feel like conversing about them, you can contact me here.