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Anxiety is in the air.  So, too, is anger, depression, bewilderment, and disappointment.  With their lives in limbo, college students, with good reason, fear that their family’s finances, their academic plans, and, indeed, their future have been upended.  Insecurity is rampant.

For those of us who will teach large online classes in the fall, the challenge is clear:  We must design and deliver courses that are engaging, interactive, well supported, and responsive to the times.

Here are some simple, straightforward ways to ensure that Round 2 of online learning is measurably better than it was in the Spring.

1.  Build a personal connection with your students.
Instead of simply introducing yourself, consider conducting a student survey.  Then share the results with your students, while inserting your own responses to the questions.  

An anonymous survey can provide many insights into your students’ current circumstances, their assessment of how the Spring semester went, and their thoughts about how online education can be improved.  It can also help you understand students’ motivation for taking your class, their expectations for the Fall semester, their special areas of interest, and the kind of support they’d find helpful.

2.  Motivate your students.
Motivation is a key to effective learning, and perhaps the single most important contributor to motivation is the course’s perceived relevance. Thus, it is important to discuss the course’s utility, value, and applicability from the outset.  Help your students understand the ways that your course provides an essential foundation for more advanced courses, how it will help them acquire particular skills, or how it addresses issues that the students find particularly interesting.

3.  Help students maintain focus.
A major contributor to student failure in online classes is an inability to focus, a challenge that the current health crisis has exacerbated. 

The problem of focus exists on multiple dimensions.  Lacking the structure of a traditional school day, many students find it difficult to concentrate, prioritize, organize their time, and stay on track.  Thus, it’s essential to provide them with the structure that they need.

Here’s how:  For each week, spell out the tasks that students must complete.  Make sure your directions are easy to follow. Prompt students repeatedly to remind them of activities, assignments, assessments, and due dates.    

Other students find it hard to maintain their attention during an online class session.  After all, attention spans are limited and distractions and interruptions abound, interfering with their ability to concentrate or think clearly.  

Help your students.  Make sure each class session is purposeful.  Let students know each session’s goals and structure and your expectations for them.

Also, organize each class session around shorter sequences and activities (polls, breakout sessions, questions).  Interrupt the class frequently to pose or solicit questions.

4.  Create a sense of community
Help students get to know one another.  Split a large class into smaller units. Within the smaller breakout groups, have the students participate in icebreaker activities.  The breakout sessions share also provide opportunities for students to share their opinions, knowledge, and experience.

Be available before and after synchronous class sessions.  Students are far more likely to reach out to you if you are easy to reach.  Stay online after a “live” session ends.  Solicit questions and comments and other forms of feedback.

5.  Make discussions meaningful.
Whether a discussion takes place orally, within a breakout sessions, or by text, either through chat or a discussion forum, make sure that the discussion genuinely contributes to students’ learning.

Here are some strategies that work:  Brainstorming sessions, where students present a variety of ways of approaching a topic or a problem; comprehension exercises, where students help one another understand a complex topic;  critiques, where students challenge a particular argument or interpretation; diagnoses, where students deconstruct a problem; and sharing activities, where students reveal their own experiences or perceptions.

6.  Increase student engagement.
Since motivation tends to flag over time, it is necessary to sustain student enthusiasm and interest.

During individual sessions, check on student comprehension; conduct polls; and pose questions.  Give students opportunities to actively participate during the class session, for example, by asking them to pose a question in the chat, or respond to a question.

Provide active learning opportunities.  Have students research the answer to a question; have them analyze a case study; ask them to analyze a text, a document, a video clip, or some other form of evidence.

Even in our socially-distanced environment, project-based learning is not impossible.  Students might, for example, contribute to a class blog, create a podcast, a video story, or a poster or infographic, produce a policy brief, research and respond to a controversy, undertake genealogical research, or conduct a study of something in their immediate neighborhood.

7.  Address equity issues.
The shift to remote learning has exacerbated issues relating to equity.  Not all students have equal access to technology or to reliable, high speed Internet connections or to a distraction-free study space.  Be mindful of the challenges students face, recognizing that students vary markedly in their comfort level with online learning and some are located in different time zones.  Many worry, not without reason, that their classmates are cheating.

Be flexible about how students participate in the class, for example, by including both asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities.  Allow students to access course resources in multiple ways -- allowing them to download PowerPoint presentations or view videos at a time of their convenience or take quizzes on their cellphones.  Provide chances for students to earn extra-credit points. Shift your assessment strategies to include more authentic and project-based assessments.

8.  Identify and support struggling students.
During the current crisis, our students are struggling in many ways.  Some need academic support; others, technology assistance.  Many, perhaps most, need non-academic support.  Many mental health needs are going unaddressed.  Still others need help in balancing their responsibilities and priorities.

What can you do?  You can monitor their engagement.  You can undertake regular check-ins and checkups.  You can reach out proactively or send alerts whenever there are signs that a student is falling behind.  You can send out alerts. 

Empathy has rarely been as important.  Encourage your students.  Provide them with scaffolding: rubrics, check lists, sample responses to test questions, background information, glossaries. Offer some flexibility on deadlines and opportunities to re-do assignments.  And provide prompt feedback.

We owe it to our students to ensure that Virtual Learning 2.0 is far superior to what it was this past Spring. 

With a return to normality nowhere in sight, we need to recognize that for the foreseeable future, much of higher education will consist of virtual education.  We can lament this all we want, but we have a professional responsibility and a civic duty to ensure that students learn just as much this Fall as they would have in the pre-pandemic past.  Let’s rise to the challenge.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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