In my last post on the topic of teaching U.S. history online, I weighed the importance of instructor accessibility and visibility for students. I received some really good comments that have stimulated my thinking even more. I would like to continue with this topic, but this time, I am thinking about the ways that online teaching has made my students more visible to me.
Prior to my first course in a virtual learning environment, I taught face-to-face classes at my graduate university for three years. I think that I did a pretty good job of understanding my students and in maintaining an open door policy that permitted them to come in to talk to me about historical topics that they did not understand or with which they disagreed, grading, or, anything really. Many did. While most students talked to me about their concerns about our course or even their experiences in others, a number of them confided in me about home and personal situations. I knew I was doing okay when more of the students who would never visit my office hours did not immediately shy away when they saw me in coffee shops or on campus.
Nevertheless, and perhaps even a bit ironically, I would assert that it is my online teaching has most permitted me to understand and to truly see my students whether online or in person. Let me explain. At the beginning of every online course, I conduct the usual icebreaker activity that we all usually do, but since things can get stale pretty quickly I usually invite students to provide information about their favorite pastime, favorite historical topic/theme, as well as to choose one category from a predetermined question and tell us about it. Since students seem to really get into it, I have begun to use this model for both my online and physical classrooms.
For instance, I used the following prompt this past spring:
Tell us your:
- Dream car
- Dream Vacation
- Worst/Favorite event that occurred in a history class
- Most memorable field trip
- A New Year’s Resolution
It is always good when students enter into conversation with one another because they would like to visit or have visited the same countries or would like the same “souped up” car even if they want different colors or tires and disagree about engine types. A number of times, my students have also forced me to answer all of these questions as a way of getting to know me better.
As a part of this activity, I then encourage my students to tell us, or to write to me directly, about any other pertinent piece of information. It is through these sort of introductions that I have learned that most of the students in my online courses are students-athletes, students completing internships and clinical rotations, students holding down full time jobs and course overloads, students caring for their parents or their own children, students with physical ailments or mental disorders, or students who were simply afraid or vehemently opposed to U.S. history in the college classroom.
One of my earliest and most memorable cases is a student who had recently picked up work as a full-time construction laborer and could only take online course that semester. She wrote to me at the beginning of class and expressed commitment to the course and excitement for it, but shared that she might have to turn in assignments at the last minute though never late due to job and family duties. Of course, I did not immediately discount her words as an excuse, instead I wrote to her, and later to the entire class to inform them that the 5:00 p.m. discussion deadline was now an 11:59 p.m. one. While I received a number of emails that expressed gratitude, I am happy to report that the original writer turned out to be one of the most thoughtful, critically engaged students I have ever taught.
I am glad that I saw her and that more than ever I see more of my students now. Now, this does not mean that I am the pushover professor—I think that my students would likely tell you that I am far from it. What they do know, however, is that I aim to be fair, that I carefully weigh my decisions, and that I am committed to seeing them and their circumstances when they are willing to share them.
First in the online environment and later in the physical classroom, I have found that my showcasing of these attributes early on is good for student morale and, ultimately, the class as a whole. I have found that when students can judge that I am a real, living, caring, and responsive being that they are willing to show me more of themselves, which means that they are better engaged, willing to talk with/challenge me about historical topics and questions, to write longer, more thoughtful discussion posts and essays, to interrogate missing marks on assignments rather than sulk and mentally or physically check-out, and to put in the work. This makes me a better teacher. Put simply, I think that teaching online has taught me that when an instructor is visible and accessible, students reciprocate. When this comes full circle, students and the instructor both win.
Given the great feedback on the topic of instructor visibility and accessibility, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on student visibility and accessibility and how it has shaped your teaching or thinking. Also, feel free to recommend more ways that I can see my students and potential outcomes of these approaches.