Submitted by Stephanie Whalen, Academy Chair, English & Interdisciplinary Studies and Phil Mortenson, Distance Learning Manager
In reviewing the student feedback from the Online Instruction Student Survey that was administered in May, it comes as no surprise that students appreciate communications with their instructors in emails and live sessions as well as the ability to review instructor-created videos as many times as needed.
The theme is clear—students need regular interaction and coaching from their instructors to feel connected to the course, faculty member, and classmates, but how can we make this happen in an asynchronous environment?
Harper College has made the decision to offer primarily asynchronous, online instruction to make learning as flexible as possible for students during the pandemic with only a few courses offered with online sessions scheduled where it was determined necessary due to the nature of the discipline. There are even fewer classes scheduled with on-campus labs where hands-on learning is required for a course to count toward a requirement for accreditation and transferability. So, many faculty and students are left with asynchronous courses where there are no pre-scheduled times to host sessions or meet with students—even though doing so is essential to student engagement.
As faculty, we must figure out how to create interactive experiences in asynchronous courses without penalizing students who cannot attend at specific times. Many students’ lives are strained by circumstances related to the pandemic such as loss, illness, shifting work and family responsibilities, financial worries, and overall bewilderment at the current social context, often compounded by feeling a lack of efficacy and motivation that may have predated the pandemic. As explained by students from the Black Student Union in their recommendations for What Faculty Development Can Do to Help, the students who are most vulnerable will need a strong presence and caring affect from you, which is difficult to convey without hearing your tone and encouragement in a live session. Overall, student success rates (A/B/C) are 7% higher for students in traditional courses as compared to online courses (76% to 69% during AY17-19 when all courses are counted, including those without online counterparts). In addition, the number of students who received a D/F/W in an online course is 7% higher than students in traditional courses (32% vs. 25%). During that same time period, we also see wider gaps in overall success rates in some of our most vulnerable student populations: Black students (65% traditional vs. 50% online) and Hispanic students (72% traditional vs. 62% online). Our most vulnerable students need our support now more than ever, and most faculty find making those essential connections challenging in the asynchronous environment.
From what we have learned these past few months, a highly recommended solution is to build a schedule of opportunities for students to hear concepts explained by the instructor and be able to ask questions into the course from the start with an expectation that students will either attend live sessions, access the recordings of the sessions on Blackboard, or a combination of both.
Here are seven steps to making live sessions in an asynchronous course work:
  1. Make attending or reviewing recordings of live sessions an expectation for the course with participation credit earned for joining the sessions (you can set up attendance tracking in Blackboard Collaborate) and watching recordings (you can use Statistics Tracking to track who has accessed the recordings in Blackboard as well). Even if students cannot attend the live sessions, they can access the recordings at any time. You could even include a required reflection on take-aways or muddy points for you to clarify, a short quiz, or other means of making sure they watched the recording and are actively engaged with the material and aware of their learning; this promotes the regular check-in recommended by the highly regarded Four Connections research and subsequent Drop Rate Improvement Program.
  2. Find out what the best times are for most students through a simple survey at the start of the course and schedule the sessions at the best times, staggering them a bit to make it possible for more students to attend but still creating a regular rhythm (example—module overview on Monday nights, help session on Thursday afternoons, and special sessions before and/or after each major assignment). If you prefer to plan out sessions without surveying the students, this can work as well, but consider offering sessions at different times rather than one time each week so that students have a better chance of being able to make some of them.
  3. Post the schedule of live sessions as soon as possible (within the first few days of the course). If it will take you a few days to create the schedule based on student feedback, mention that the sessions are important and that the schedule is forthcoming in the syllabus and course orientation. Create a schedule of live sessions separate from all other assignments and due dates for easy accessibility and post it with the syllabus and in the announcements.
  4. Remind students via email announcement that live sessions are taking place the morning of the session and include a link to join the session. Preview what you plan to talk about at the session and make sure students are aware that there will also be time to ask questions. Try to make your reminder to attend as compelling as possible by mentioning upcoming assignments and requirements that students may need help understanding.
  5. Make sure to schedule time to talk about the purpose of each assignment, the tasks required to complete the assignment, and the criteria for grading it—learning activities and assignments are much easier for students to understand when you explain them live and address questions just as you would do in the classroom. Also, this application of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching framework has yielded dramatic improvement in student success outcomes, particularly for systemically non-dominant students such as underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities.
  6. Post a recap after each session and list the topics that were discussed so that students can navigate the video to the part they need if they are pressed for time. If you have the time, list time stamps for sections you think are particularly important and useful. Add some encouragement to check out the video and join next time so that students who have not been active will feel inspired to watch the recordings and welcome to begin attending if possible.
  7. Treat the live sessions as an ongoing opportunity to get student feedback on what is going well and where they need more support and resources. You will be much more in tune with what students are experiencing and what their needs are and can add materials, support resources, and more detailed instructions accordingly.

Many faculty who have taught a course asynchronously with no live sessions and then taught it another time with live sessions have found that what they got out of it far exceeded their expectations of the value to the teaching and learning experience. During this time when many students are taking courses online when they would rather take them on campus, the need to create interactive course sessions is even more imperative. Please complete the Online Instruction Support Form if you would like help with any aspect of making live sessions work in your classes.