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Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part III: Managing instructor-student communication and presence

Whenever student enrollment capacity dramatically increases for an instructor, there are a number of common questions and concerns: How will the increase in grading load be managed?  How can instructors facilitate a discussion among 100+ students? How will students receive meaningful feedback? Here are some best practices and considerations for managing high-enrollment courses that have been successful in our ASU Online courses.

This article is the third in a three-part series:

Part 1: Managing student expectations, leveraging quizzes, and reducing grading load

Part 2: Managing groups, peer review, and other peer-to-peer interactions

Part 3: Managing instructor-student communication and presence

Building Instructor Presence

Online instructor presence takes many forms, but it can be roughly defined as the extent to which students feel that the instructor is present to support them on a personal level.  Supporting students efficiently and effectively in a high-enrollment course requires planning, leveraging analytics, and approaches that allow you to reach multiple students simultaneously or proactively meet their needs without instructor intervention.  Here are some best practices to maximize your impact and presence:

Offer Scheduled Office Hours using Zoom: This is one of the easiest ways to help students feel supported and to connect with students looking to engage and converse in real-time.  As an added bonus, even for students not able or interested in attending, it demonstrates the instructor’s willingness to take time to connect with and support students.  For large classes, instructors typically schedule two sessions at different times (for instance, on Tuesday evening and Saturday morning) to accommodate various schedules, plus the Zoom tool allows you to record your session for any students unable to attend.  If a large number of students attend, consider muting everyone, taking questions through Zoom’s chat window, and then unmuting as needed. Be sure to have interesting discussion questions on-hand to fill time if there’s a lull in conversation or ask students to prepare something specific for the conversation, for example, the topic they’ve chosen for their final course project.  

Preemptively handle student questions with a FAQ page: At the start of their course, some instructors create a Frequently Asked Questions page for:

  • Any questions frequently emailed to instructors/TAs or posted in a community forum
  • Any questions that students have answered incorrectly in the past for other students
  • Any questions instructors think students should ask

This can make for fewer student misunderstandings, lower response workload for instructors, and less frustration for students. Frequently, students may be waiting for an instructor response before doing work, and if the instructor needs more than 24 hours to respond, this can greatly impact a student’s ability to succeed in the course. Here are some good general questions to start with.  

  • What are the most common reasons students receive lower grades on assignments?
  • What’s the policy for late assignments?
  • How will this course be relevant for my career in [Insert major here]?

Even if these are mentioned in the syllabus, it’s not a bad idea to be redundant for higher visibility. You might even consider adding syllabus quiz questions based on the important FAQs.

Use analytics and tools to reach out to those most in need: Canvas offers a robust dashboard of statistics at the course level as well as statistics for individual students. When facilitating a high-enrollment course, more of your assessments may be auto-graded with less instructor evaluation of individual work and ideas, so in these cases it’s critical to use these statistics to identify under-performing students and reach out as early as possible to offer support and help them get back on track.

Use video introductions, video lectures, and weekly video announcements: Seeing the professor and hearing his or her voice helps students feel connected to the course when they may otherwise be feeling like an anonymous user in a sea of other students. When possible, mention specific students by name in videos, to show that it is a video made especially for that cohort. 

Student-to-Instructor Communications

How and why do students reach out to you? What guidelines, if any, do you ask them to follow? What do you currently spend the most time responding to?

Use a community forum for students to ask questions: For any questions not answered by the FAQ, use a discussion board for students to ask questions. This will reduce duplicate questions delivered by email, and students can read others questions to clear up misconceptions they may not have known they had. If instructors are discouraged by too many students posting in one discussion board, consider expanding the FAQ or dividing the board into groups of students.

Leverage forms for tasks that require specific information: To expedite and organize the process of receiving specific requests, such as a grade dispute or a letter of recommendation, consider using a Google form or other tool to request certain information. For instance, for a grade dispute, you could ask the student which assignment it was, when it was handed in, what grade they received, what grade they think they should have received, and a detailed explanation why. In the case of Google Forms, all requests are then sent to a spreadsheet log, and you can enable automatic email notifications when a form is submitted.

Student Presence

As enrollments increase, students aren’t the only ones who may be affected by the lack of communication and connection on a personal level. To increase instructor satisfaction and engagement, here are some simple supplements to your curriculum to consider that also benefit students:

Connect with Students via Office hours: In addition to the benefits of instructor presence when offering office hours, holding virtual office hours creates an opportunity for instructors to meet the people behind the names and submitted assignments and have natural conversations with the type of debate, humor, and compassion that is often lost in text-only communication.  Many face-to-face instructors describe the “aha!” moments as their favorite part of teaching, and this is a great opportunity for online instructors to experience these moments in real-time.

Include Opportunities for Reflection on Assignments: Consider adding a reflection prompt or two to an already-existing activity or assessment. This can make grading more enjoyable when you see how you’ve impacted your learners. Additionally, students are often more motivated to learn—and retain more information—when they understand how your content is relevant to their lives and connects to their personal and professional goals. This will help students connect to the content in a powerful way and make learning sticky. 

Create a Space for Student Introductions: To promote networking and a sense of community, many instructors add a discussion board where students introduce themselves, their interests, and their goals. To take your discussion board to the next level, ask students to share a favorite podcast, to take a picture with an inanimate object that reflects their feelings about your course topic, or other fun/interesting items that will motivate other students to read their peers’ posts.  Additionally, consider using media based tools like Flipgrid or the Canvas media recorder for a more personal experience. Additionally, Flipgrid allows you to set a timer for the recordings, limiting the amount of time you need to commit to catch-up on the conversations.  

Special thanks to Mary Loder, DeAnna Soth, Marisa Ruiz, and the instructional design team at ASU Online for sharing their thoughts and expertise on this topic.

9 Proven Ways for Instructors to Address Online Student Retention

With accessibility to online education increasing, the retention of online students has become a concern of academic leaders in higher education (Allen & Seaman, 2015). As a result, many universities have launched initiatives to improve course completion, program completion, and student support services (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015). Although many causes for students withdrawing from an online course are beyond the realm of instructor control, retention and attrition can be reduced through various means. Continue reading