Interaction with Students

One of the biggest challenges in teaching an online class is creating a genuine community where the students feel connected to the instructor and to their fellow classmates. In my face-to-face classes, the interaction is self-evident; I can see the students’ expressions and body language, and gauge what’s resonating. Creating an environment online, though, where students readily interact and engage is a challenge to even the most seasoned faculty member.

Like any good instructor, I did my research before diving in to the online world of education. Using university resources like my campus Learning Management System (LMS), I created a virtual meeting space for my students to log in and check for recent announcements, find their latest assignments, check grades and feedback, and participate in discussion forums. Using discussion forums as a possible engagement opportunity, I included high-level learning activities and encouraged students to give constructive feedback and ask for help. The result? Minimal responses.

My students just weren’t that compelled by the online discussion process. So, I dug a little deeper, and I began to suspect that my students found the process of using the discussion forums overly burdensome. Because the LMS worked best on a computer—and not on the student’s mobile phone—they had to go to a PC, log in to the LMS, navigate to our course and then find our discussion forum before they could even start to enter their question or concern. I had wanted to create spontaneous conversations with and between students, and it just wasn’t panning out. Since I wasn’t able to gauge their confusion and/or frustration in person, I knew I needed to find a way to remove as much of the system friction as possible if I was going to get them to interact like they did in my face-to-face classroom.

The Best Way to Interact with Students

The solution I had come to determine needed to minimize user confusion and serve as a collaborative virtual space–something that most importantly would work with the students’ natural communication processes, i.e. on mobile.  For me, the instructor, I needed the system to notify me on whatever device I was currently using, as soon as my students posted a question or requested help.

I also needed a system that let me quickly gain access and respond without delay, as well as notify my students when I was online and available to answer their questions.

Team-focused Tools

I began looking at the different team messaging and collaborative tools and selected as my classroom collaborative tool. It has completely changed the way in which I interact and communicate with my students. Now, I often:

  • See a student post a question and, before I can even respond, another classmate has already replied with a “shared experience” where they include their own step-by-step solution to the question.
  • Have daily interactions with my students as they work through the course.  In addition to text-based conversations, the Slack interface makes it very easy for us to share screenshots, screencasts, code snippets, and other digital artifacts.  This is invaluable when I’m trying to help troubleshoot a problem they are having or trying to figure out a more complex concept.
  • Create a Slack channel for the formal topic discussion assignments and then just sit back and watch students engage in true, honest discussions, posting multiple times with their classmates over the duration of the discussion assignment.
  • See my students actually return to their Slack site to check in, post questions, and share their experiences even after our course has ended.  This would never happen within the LMS because it locks out any further activity after the end date.

Simply put, Slack met all of the previously listed requirements and even brought additional benefits to my online classroom.

In addition to Slack, several others have joined this application space and new ones continue to come on scene. These include:

Each of these tools are found outside of the Higher Ed realm and are actually used by employees in a wide variety of companies. Using one of these real-world tools gives my students one more skill that they can include in their LinkedIn profile and resumé.