By Lurene Kelley
Dr. Juliette Paul is no stranger to giving digital life to words on paper. As an assistant professor in the Department of Literature and Language at Christian Brothers University, she specializes in Digital Humanities — a form of scholarship and pedagogy that applies computational tools and methodologies to printed works.
For Dr. Paul, online teaching is just an extension of her interests.
“I enjoy the opportunity to reach students in a different way, to create a different learning experience for them,” said Paul. “I believe online courses enrich their semester’s face-to-face work. For myself, I’d lose something, even in depth and versatility of my own teaching, if I wasn’t teaching online.”
Paul’s first online teaching experience was at a community college in Chicago. Since arriving at CBU in 2016, she has taught an online course every semester. She has also participated in OLET’s faculty training. In this time, she’s developed practices that she believes enhance her students’ experiences, as well as her own.
Communicate Early and Often
The conversation in one of Paul’s online courses begins before it ever opens in Canvas. Two weeks before the start of class, Paul sends an email. She introduces herself, reminds students of the first day of class, sets expectations and shares information about resources they’ll need. Paul does this to let students know she’s already anticipating their arrival and to increase chances that students will have the resources they need once class begins. This is especially critical in abbreviated, 8-week courses where waiting for a book to arrive can mark early failures for a student.
But her proactive email relationship doesn’t end there. Throughout the semester, Paul sends an email out every weekend welcoming students to the upcoming week. She writes about what will happen that week and how it will build on what they’ve already learned. Paul says these regular class emails are written more personally than her instructions in the modules and that this constant, more informal style of communication helps build participation and relationships with students.
The first few assignments in Paul’s “Introduction to Literature” online course this Fall have nothing to do with the assigned novel this semester. Her earliest ungraded assignments involve showing students how to navigate her course. She takes them through a checklist of looking at the first module, watching her “welcome video” and clicking on the course overview. Another early, ungraded assignment is one many professors require — a discussion forum encouraging students to introduce themselves. Paul gives detailed instructions regarding what she wants to see in the introduction and models that by introducing herself.
Paul sees this seemingly mundane assignment as vital to building relationships over the course of the semester, because it can be mined for information that is important to the student. In the introduction, Paul learns the name the student prefers. Just as it happens in class, the name that is officially associated with CBU credentials may not be what the student uses. Paul says she makes sure to use that student’s preferred name in any responses throughout the semester.*
She believes that this simple introduction assignment and other early exchanges, if used intentionally by the professor, can produce more engagement.
“My goal early in the term is to make students feel really welcome,” said Paul. “And also let them know, ‘I see you’ – I see you logged in, you did the assignment. I also say things like ‘Did you hear that ‘so-and-so’ had a similar idea?’ to really work to create connection between myself and students and among students, just like you would at a party! I look at it as a social environment.”
Paul also creates a graded assignment requiring each student to meet with her one-on-one – either in her office or via an email exchange. You could also add a WebEx meeting to this assignment.
“Online learning can feel more depersonalized than face-to-face or advising,” said Paul. “I’ve come to learn that many of our students are even more eager in online to have regular contact with faculty members. Giving students feedback more frequently is more important to my teaching style online and important to the student’s success. When I teach online courses, I am engaged in a different way than face-to-face, but not less so.”
* Author’s note: Professors could also make it a practice to specifically ask all students for preferred pronouns in the introduction instructions. This could feel welcoming to students who identify as gender non-binary and would give the professor and classmates the opportunity to use the student’s correct pronoun throughout the semester.
Scaffolding for Online
Professors often worry that online students might feel less connected to each other and their professor, and also that the limitations of an online platform lessen the quality of the course. Paul believes the engagement and quality can be there, they’re just different.
For example, in a traditional classroom, Paul may require students to write an 8-10 page research paper. She may ask for less pages for her online students, but that doesn’t mean they’ve written less. That’s because she has “scaffolded” the project by requiring more pre-writing assignments on a rigorous schedule that are smaller, but actually enhance the final project.
“The assignments for online are different than face-to-face, but they’re the same quality,” said Paul. “I want students to demonstrate the same skills that face-to-face would lead them to, but by way of the social and research-based learning activities that digital environments tend to afford online learners. Although I don’t require less, in order for students to reach their potential, we all have to work more slowly and deliberately.”
Blurring Digital and Physical Spaces
Paul also uses Canvas regularly in her traditional classroom courses. The Canvas shell in this case, becomes a repository for class readings and videos, as well as a place for her students to participate in graded online forums between class meetings and contribute to reflective journals. Even in her traditional classes, Canvas is a virtual environment to bring students, teacher and resources together.
Paul admits that teaching online has challenges and that, like in the classroom, her efforts aren’t always successful. But she believes that looking for new ways to engage with students in Canvas and in the online environment, as a whole, can open up our understanding of how and where students can learn and thrive.
Lurene Kelley is the Online Student Success Specialist for Christian Brothers University’s Center for Digital Instruction. She holds a Ph.D in Organizational Communication from the University of Memphis and is a former college professor and journalist.