When we teach online, don’t forget the personal!

So you’ve set up small groups to work online. You have created discussion forums for students to post their small group work or to contribute their individual ideas and questions…

But… have you remembered the personal?

This sudden shift to online teaching at Monash has made me think back to my past online teaching experiences. Not as far back as the distance education ‘send a weighty study guide in the mail’ era  but, more so, to when online learning on Moodle became possible and I taught fully online units.

It has made me recall the design moves I made to encourage participation in discussion forums, fuelled by the values I hold about learning through dialogue. I am reminded of the productive frustration I experienced at those times when I had dug deep to design creative online learning,  sought to encourage learner voice, yet these attempts were sometimes met with learner silence: Were students ‘listening’? Were they there? Was I posting too much? Was I too present?

Stumped, I turned to students and asked them how it felt to be on ‘the other side of’ Moodle. They were students younger and older, undergraduate and postgraduate, and with varied language backgrounds. More than one confessed how hard it felt to speak out in an online space, where one’s words seem to stick like superglue, and where they felt the pressure to craft a response that would not cause (what they perceived as) their public humiliation.

And so, to complement their online learning, I would send a short email to every student about two weeks into their unit. I would check in with them, affirm their participation and remind them that I was available by email if they needed. Short and sweet, private and personal… but this went a long way.

These recollections brought me back to the power of the personal in encouraging learning in the online space - where we can’t see a smile, watch for confusion on students’ faces and we can’t act immediately on the expressions we see. Reaching out to individuals is a pedagogical investment that could pay off later. There are ways to ‘automate’ this if needed or to distribute this task among teaching teams. But it is worth the effort.

Reaching out personally might be even more needed at this point in time when our teaching and learning routines have shifted so suddenly and our world is not as it was.

Reach out to your students as individuals. Teach in the personal space and provide reassurance. 

What ideas can you add about personalising learning in the online space?