As an instructor, it’s important to establish a respectful, inclusive and positive learning environment that sets your expectations for students. It might seem more difficult to build trust, empathy, and shared values in an online environment without the face-to-face interaction and body language you can see in a classroom setting however, there are many things we can do in online classroom spaces to promote a positive learning environment. In some cases, online mediums can even present new opportunities to connect with your students!
Here are some things that you can do to cultivate a respectful online classroom:
Be self-reflexive in thinking about how you design your course and what you can do to be proactive in creating a positive environment. For example, you can address some of the reasons that students might feel the need to dispute their grades by providing a grading rubric in advance so that evaluation criteria are transparent.
Establish a collaborative virtual community agreement early in the course. In Zoom, you can use the whiteboard tool to help facilitate this with your entire class, or you can split students into smaller breakout rooms and ask them to discuss. A community agreement might include things like not having side-chats during live classes, no screenshots or unauthorized recordings, no sharing offensive images, not talking over each other and giving space to others to contribute. This will help students feel ownership of their learning space and remind them that this online space is distinct from other online spaces they patriciate in. Begin each Zoom class with a slide that has a summary of this agreement and post it in a prominent location on Brightspace.
Help students understand how they can participate and communicate. This is especially important in online courses where the norms are less established for new online learners. For example, in synchronous Zoom classes, would you like your students to use the ‘hand up’ feature when they have a question, or use the chat box? Would you prefer they add their input throughout the class with the chat box, or hold off until discussion moments and use their mic? Establish these guidelines at the beginning of the course and gently remind students when they forget. If you are finding that some students are dominating the discussion however, you can try assigning rotating roles during live classes such as the summarizer, the questioner, the documenter, etc. This will signal to other students that there are different ways to engage and take collective ownership over their learning.
Develop positive relationships with students. Online learning offers different opportunities to get to know your students and these can be done in a meaningful way. For example, you might ask your students to share a photo of their pet, hobby, or their favourite chair or spot at home. You can share yours with them as well! You might also ask your students to change their profile picture to something that represents them, add their pronouns to their Zoom name, or let you know how to pronounce their names properly in discussion board post or survey in Brightspace. This lets your students know that they are important to you and creates a community environment within your course.
Provide students with multiple avenues to engage and participate. Online courses can actually open up more options for students to engage such as using polls or the whiteboard feature in Zoom. These are great ways of democratizing the learning space and create opportunities for students to get involved in ways they might feel more comfortable with.
Check in with your students regularly with quick ‘temperature checks’ to allow students the opportunity to express any challenges or frustrations they are experiencing. When students feel heard and respected, they are less likely to have frustrations build up. This will flag issues for you early and allow you to make adjustments to your course or to address issues before they become bigger problems.
Check your student’s understanding regularly with Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) and low-stakes quizzes as the course progresses. CATs are an easy mechanism to use at the end of a lesson to check students’ understanding of key concepts. For example, at the end of a Zoom class (using the whiteboard tool) or Brightspace module (using the survey tool), you might ask students to anonymously submit the muddiest concept from the lesson, which you can then follow up with in the next class. With both CATs and low-stakes quizzes, you are checking students’ understanding continuously so that gaps in their knowledge can be addressed immediately. You can also set up learning support groups (on Brightspace, Microsoft Teams or Zoom) in conjunction with this to help students help each other and succeed.