21 July 2021

Forging connection during an online lesson

By Cassandra Lau Lin Yin

It has been approximately one and a half years since COVID-19 hit globally. The pandemic has greatly affected and revolutionised the way lives and businesses are managed. Many sectors have tried to survive by engaging the use of third-party software, apps, and social media to reach out to their customers to ensure sustainability and survival of businesses.  

The education sector is not spared from this revolutionary impact. During the lockdown, teachers and educators from early childhood providers to the tertiary level were scrambling to learn the latest technology to provide some form of formal learning so that no students were left behind.    

I came across some comments from both learners and teachers, which are listed here: 

My teacher gave us (the classmates) 19 pages of worksheets to complete online in one day.”  

“We spent so much time typing down the answers and saving the worksheets, it is frustrating.” 

“The online class is over 3 hours long.” 

“The class size is over 50 students.”

“When I called out, students did not answer.”

“I am not even sure if the students are there.”

“There is always one or two students who will be online even when the class is done and they do not respond when called.” 

“I don’t know whether the students are focused when I am speaking, they may be elsewhere or checking their social media or playing games.” 

These common grievances could be lessened if students and teachers forged a better relationship with each other. 

Creating a sense of belonging in a live session

Although issues to online teaching can range from volatile internet connection, availability and suitability of gadgets, asynchronous and synchronous content design to creating a community of learners, one key aspect to consider is the role of a teacher who creates a sense of belonging among learners in an online class.  

In any learning environment, there is a three-pronged continuous communication between a teacher with students, students with teacher, and students with students. With online teaching, getting students to communicate and engage in content is proving to be a challenge.  

With an online interface, teachers’ non-verbal cues are not evident. Facial expression, hand gestures, and body language which we take for granted in a face-to-face setting are somehow lost in transition.  

The only visible connection to the content is the voice factor which includes fluency, pronunciation, volume, rhythm, pace, and pitch. The lack of non-verbal cues prevents teachers or learners from having effective real-time responses and prompt feedback during online lessons. Even though videos can be turned on, they are usually turned off to maintain a stable connection during lessons.  

The learners themselves are also adjusting to the remote engagement. Many of them do not know their peers well as they are not given the chance to experience real-world connections with each other. Their relationship with each other is confined to the invisible world of digital intricacies. 

Although online teaching has weakened the teacher-students-students engagement, a teacher is still the key person to create and draw out the affective aspects, the sense of belonging where allies and pacts are formed, and where trust and accountability are exercised.  

Learners on the same journey know that they are on a similar learning path where they face similar challenges and thus, provide support and spur each other on. The safe environment which the teacher creates will make the learners feel that their voice is valued, their identity secured, and failure a step for growth.

One strategy I find useful during the first online lesson is to conduct ice-breakers that include social and emotional activities involving learners and teachers. The activity does not need to be complicated; it just needs to make sure that all students have a chance to speak out. 

Another strategy that I find useful is to set consensus with the learners on the norms used during a live session. Teachers and students agreeing on when to turn on videos, when to mute, when to use emojis, thumbs up or down, when to raise a hand, etc.

Students who might not feel comfortable turning on their cameras due to fear of invasion into their privacy or homes can choose to use chat box so that they can participate actively in any discussion.  

Creating clear, authentic, and meaningful activities to promote thinking

It would be futile to attempt stimulation of a face-to-face classroom experience since online media does not make this viable. Instead, a digital live session should be flipped into a space for growth, thinking, and collaboration where students could actively engage with the content, respond to the teacher and with each other. 

To do this, teachers should be confident to make bold decisions on what to include and what to exclude in a live session. Lessons could be divided into “chunks” or “bite-size” with a specific focal point which learners can master easily.  

Authentic tasks can be divided in the breakout rooms where smaller groups can discuss in a less intimidating setting. Partnership and solidarity are formed and the collaborative product belongs to the group which can be called their own with pride. 

Software tools can be used to increase engagement of students during discussion, reading and writing in which students can participate by clicking or typing down the answers.  However, be careful not to overuse tools that take too much waiting time.

Much has been said about how to better engage learners in the online class; technology may aid in the continuum of learning but it takes a teacher with a human touch to transcend the barriers of technology and to inject life into lessons. After all, our learners are humans, not robots. 

Cassandra Lau Lin Yin is a lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at celau@swinburne.edu.my.