Showing Empathy and Communicating in Survival Mode: Managing Your Online Presence While Teaching During Coronavirus

You, the instructor, play an important role in shaping your students’ learning experience. As courses across the world move online in light of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting discussions and engaging and encouraging students become all the more challenging. How do you support your students and foster learning in a virtual setting?

Northern Arizona University’s Flower Darby, Delta State University’s April E. Mondy, and Grand View University’s Kevin Gannon set out to address this question in Managing Your Online Presence, the second in ACUE’s series of Effective Online Instruction seminars. In partnership with The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), The American Council on Education (ACE), The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), and The National Association of System Heads (NASH), the series addresses a variety of topics to help instructors effectively transition to remove learning environments. This webinar was moderated by Kim Middleton, academic director at ACUE.

Mondy stressed the need for effective communication during these tumultuous times. “We’re in survival mode,” she said. “Communication should be transparent, empathetic, proactive, and consistent.”

She also reminded participants of the importance of flexibility during periods of uncertainty. “We need to be flexible, patient, and understanding with students, and they need to be flexible, patient, and understanding with us.” 

To that end, she encouraged faculty to convey understanding and a willingness to work with, not against, their students. This, she said, includes anticipating and proactively addressing questions and concerns from students before they arise. It also means being consistent, such as sending emails and announcements at the same time every week. 

Darby, too, pointed to the need for communication. “Emphasize ‘one-to-many’ communication instead of one-to-one,” she said.

She presented the Community of Inquiry framework, noting three presences necessary, including cognitive, social, and teaching. The presences all intersect at deep learning and include such factors supporting discourse, setting climate, and selecting content. “Emotional presence should suffuse the whole thing,” she concluded. 

Darby urged faculty to ask students to share challenges they might be experiencing outside of class with them through a survey or other means. 

Gannon, too, believes check-ins and surveys can be effective. “It’s important to signal we’re aware that these are weird times for everybody,” he said.

He also proposed creating a “parking lot” to post items that may not come up in class discussions but need to be addressed. Via a discussion board or other channels, instructors can post topics, and students can ask questions. Gannon simply posed the prompt, “Got a question?” to encourage students to chime in.

Creating a low-to-no-stake space, he said, is essential, as is showing transparency and empathy.

During the Q&A portion, participants wondered how the experts might address a situation in which students weren’t willing to cut their instructor some slack. 

“Sometimes, students have a tendency to put us on a pedestal,” Mondy said. “They need to be reminded that this is something we’re all dealing with. Say, ‘I’m trying to be flexible with you, and I need you to be flexible with me.’”

“Our students may be communicating less skillfully than they usually would with us,” Gannon added. “Give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“The more we’re willing to be vulnerable and let students into our lives, the more forgiving they’ll be,” Darby suggested.

Other participants asked for suggestions on communicating with students who had limited technology access.

“Don’t compromise the integrity of their learning, but be more flexible at this time,” Mondy said. As an example, she told an anecdote about a student who was unable to complete an assignment because he only had access to a tablet, not a computer.

“Ask yourself, ‘Could I do this on my cell phone?’” Gannon proposed. “That helps you think of ways to create alternate means of completing assignments. Are there ways to limit materials we want them to access?”

“Most students have some kind of smartphone,” Darby said. “Offer ways to communicate, whether it’s one-to-one with you, in a small group, or to the whole class.”

“We need to work through challenges together,” said Mondy.

To ask a question, add your own thoughts, watch the webinar or read a transcript, or access plenty of online teaching and learning resources, visit the Managing Your Online Presence webinar page.

“It’s About Connecting”: Welcoming Students to Your Online Environment

ACUE  launches a six-part Effective Online Instruction webinar series

When she’s not teaching her courses, Flower Darby teaches pilates at her local gym. Once, when she was running to class behind schedule, she noticed a woman standing outside of the studio carrying a yoga mat and looking a little apprehensive. The lights weren’t on, the music wasn’t playing, and she wasn’t sure if she was in the right place at the right time.

“I think many times when students click into our online classrooms, they might feel that same way,” said Darby. “The lights are not on. The music is not playing….But let’s think today about how we create that ongoing sense of welcoming, so every time a student clicks into your online learning environment, they feel welcome, supported, valued, and appreciated. They see the lights are on, they hear that music playing, and they know they’re in the right place at the right time.”

Higher education has been forced to make an extraordinary transition to online learning in a matter of days, and many dedicated faculty are searching for guidance on how to make this shift as seamless as possible. In collaboration with The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), The American Council on Education (ACE), The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), and The National Association of System Heads (NASH), ACUE is offering a series of six webinars featuring nationally recognized experts in online teaching and learning to discuss best practices for ensuring quality online instruction for student success.

Our first webinar, Welcoming Students to your Online Environment, featured Darby, director of Teaching for Student Success at Northern Arizona University and author of Small Teaching Online; Michael Wesch, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and author of “Teaching Without Walls: 10 Tips for Online Teaching;” and Kevin Gannon, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and professor of History at Grand View University and author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. Carmen Macharaschwili, regional academic director at ACUE, served as moderator.

Darby, Wesch, and Gannon engaged in a lively discussion, sharing how they strive to make students feel comfortable in an online learning environment. Wesch, for example, demonstrated how he uses a selfie-stick to hold his phone while teaching, walking through his home and pointing out his son and cat to humanize himself as an instructor. He urged fellow faculty to “find your why” and ask themselves “Who are my students? What do they need? What are their purposes?”

“Remember,” Wesch said. “It isn’t about you; it’s about your students. It’s about connecting.”

“Think about it from a student’s perspective,” Gannon agreed. He focused on how to invite students into online spaces, wondering, “What makes a space welcoming?” Pointing to a picture of the interactive children’s room at a museum in Washington, he noted that the layout is open and encourages people to play around. This, Gannon said, could serve as a guiding metaphor for online learning.

“Think of ways to curate the learning space,” he said. “What can they read, encounter, and engage with? The space has to be accessible.” Gannon’s suggestions included asking students to use actual photos instead of avatars and considering how to leverage audio and visual feedback rather than written for assignments. 

“What are we saying to our students even when we’re not saying anything at all?” he asked.

During the Q&A portion, many participants asked about personalizing learning when teaching a large group. Wesch noted that one way he tackles this challenge is by using “low-level” assignments to allow students to express themselves, such as having students attempt to break a habit over the course of 28 days. This, he said, “ties into a larger discussion about who we are as human beings.”

Participants also wondered what they should do when students are disengaging. 

Gannon urged instructors to use a “one size fits one” approach, such as reaching out to students personally and asking if they’re encountering problems and how the instructor can help. “Many students are not experienced online learners,” he noted, much as many faculty are not experienced online instructors.

To assist students with learning or access challenges, Darby reminded participants to “think about the complexities,” such as students who were sharing their computer with their family. “A lot of times, online students feel like they’re invisible,” she said, explaining the importance of discussing students’ needs based on their backgrounds and learning preferences.

Ultimately, the presenters agreed that despite the challenges, this transition would present plenty of opportunities. “Think about what the possibilities are,” Gannon said. “Think in different ways.”

Head over to our Welcoming Students to Your Online Environment resources page to watch a recording or read a full transcript of the webinar, join in the discussion, and discover more resources to help you transition your courses to an online environment, including the ACUE Online Teaching Toolkit.

Creating a Culture of Caring

Student mental health is a growing issue at colleges and universities. According to research, nearly 7 million students nationwide meet the criteria for a clinically significant mental health problem.

While most are not clinicians, faculty can play an essential role as helpers, supporting students through practical approaches. Now more than ever before, there is a pressing need to provide faculty with the tools and resources to support students in coping with mental health challenges.

ACUE and Active Minds, the nation’s premier nonprofit organization supporting mental health promotion and education for young adults, have partnered to release Creating a Culture of Caring: Practical Approaches for College and University Faculty to Support Student Wellbeing and Mental Health. This report will serve as an important resource, complementing institutional resources, for faculty.

The report offers four key recommendations for supporting students with mental health concerns:

1. Normalize the need for help

2. Actively listen with Validate, Appreciate, and Refer (V-A-R)

3. Embed courses with wellbeing practices

4. Practice self-care and seek resources when needed

For each recommendation, the report outlines steps for implementing the practice, examples, and more. By following these student- and faculty-informed recommendations, instructors can take appropriate action to support students’ wellbeing and academic success.

Download Report

Read Press Release

Broward Biology

Getting Creative with Biology

Broward College’s biological sciences professors get creative in response to COVID-19

Classroom instruction is challenging enough to transition to remote learning. But how can you recreate a virtual science lab?

That’s the concern that first came to mind for Idelisa Ayala, an associate professor at Broward College, when she first learned her college would transfer to a virtual learning environment in light of concerns over COVID-19.

“If I can be honest, my first instinct was complete panic,” Ayala explains. “I wasn’t worried about my lectures since I already use online components. My main concern was how we would handle our labs.”

She wasn’t alone.

Ayala, along with colleagues in Broward’s biological sciences department, including Vanessa Hormann and Lisa Burgess, assistant professors of biological sciences, got to work. 

“I was grateful we had that week to regroup and make a plan,” Hormann says. “Our team pulled together to share resources, ideas and figure out the best way we could support our students and one another.”

“We had to think through how to mimic our labs online and find interactive activities that correlate with what we’re teaching,” Ayala says. Now, a typical virtual lab course for Ayala’s students involves meeting in Blackboard, a digital learning environment, where she can share her screen, interact with one another and provide activities to supplement the instruction.

For instance, for a biology class for non-science majors, Ayala had her students utilize a virtual microscope to examine slides, take screenshots of their findings and share with the class. For another class, she found a program where students can run pH scale simulations online. She’s found that she enjoys the challenge as much as her students.

“I had to play with these tools like I was a student myself in order to figure out how to make it work. Our team is finding digital resources and websites that we didn’t know existed before this, which is helping our teaching skills to evolve during this difficult time.”

By the Numbers

By March 23, Broward had transitioned 3,563 classes to remote learning, serving approximately 90,000 students and held more than 90 training sessions for 800+ faculty participants to assist in the transition to remote learning through the college’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Learning (CTEL) and Instructional Design teams. The science department alone transitioned 327 classes – including labs – serving 6,641 students. 

Burgess, who, in addition to teaching, also serves as the college’s faculty facilitator for CTEL, says while the transition has come with challenges, it has also provided her additional time to reflect on her ability as an instructor.

“I’ve been able to implement a lot of the techniques I learned through ACUE – such as breaking the material down into small pieces and building relationships with my students,” she says.

Burgess shared some of these techniques during a recent webinar hosted by the American Federation of Teachers to explore effective practices for taking online subjects in the arts and sciences.

Hormann, who will complete the ACUE program in May, says she finds herself going through previous modules that relate specifically to online learning.

“We’re now in the third week of remote learning, and we’re getting into a groove,” Hormann says. “Through this crisis, we’re seeing not only our teaching styles evolve but also our students’ learning styles.”

Lisa Burgess is an ACUE-credentialed assistant professor of biological sciences at Broward College, where she also serves as the faculty facilitator for the college’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Learning. Burgess has a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Florida Atlantic University, and master’s degrees in pharmaceutical sciences and biological sciences from the University of Florida and Johns Hopkins University, respectively.

Vanessa Hormann is an assistant professor of biological sciences at Broward College. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biological sciences, as well as a Ph.D. in integrative biology, from Florida Atlantic University, 

Idelisa Ayala is an ACUE-credentialed associate professor of biological sciences at Broward College. She has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico and a Ph.D. in biophysics from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

Resilient Faculty Series

We’re inspired—but in no way surprised—by the countless stories of faculty going above and beyond to help one another and ensure students keep learning.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be highlighting the extraordinary leadership of educators from every region in the country, to honor and celebrate the amazing work of #ResilientFaculty.

We want to hear from you! Send in your stories on social media with the hashtag #ResilientFaculty or tag @ACUE_HQ. You can also email us at [email protected]. Or, directly contact a member of the ACUE team.