Student Needs, Key to Making Online Classes Successful | Thomas Nelson Community College

Student Needs, Key to Making Online Classes Successful

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08/03/2020 - 1:55pm
July 2, 2020
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Moving college classes from an in-person setting to an online setting isn’t easy. A lot of things have to be taken into account, but Thomas Nelson professors, instructors and staff said it all starts with putting the needs of the students first.

“There’s a lot of work to be done moving things online, but probably one of the most important things you can try to preserve and maintain, beyond the assignment and the exam, is to keep the student’s perspective in mind,” said Amy Anderson, an associate professor who teaches law.

For Lynsey LeMay, a geology instructor, listening to students helped.

“They’ve got such great ideas too on what works for them and what doesn’t,” she said. “So being adaptable was really important and really stuck out to me.”

Working with students can help instructors answer the many other questions that arise when shifting to an online environment. Among those questions: Will classes be synchronous, asynchronous or a combination? Will students have access to a computer at home? Will students have Internet access at home? How is their life being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic?

LeMay said hearing from her students early on was key.

“I wound up with having students who, in some of my classes, had no computer initially and no access to Internet, to those who were on the computer all the time,” she said. “I had some students who were working 60 plus hours a week some weeks because they were essential workers and their schedules had changed.”

Among the accommodations she made were posting a short weekly video (about 3-5 minutes), providing an overview for the week in as detailed fashion as possible, and not making changes midweek.

“I made sure on Sunday night the Canvas module for that week was open, and they had all week to work on it,” she said. “I didn’t add what I would call drop-in assignments, something that just showed up midweek. That was something they really stressed was important to them, not to have those types of drop-in assignments so that they could figure out what their schedule was and work their personal schedule alongside their school schedule. That was really valuable information to get for them.”

LeMay, Anderson and adjunct history instructor Kimberly Renner said other keys are communicating with students, being visible and being available.

“The students told me they liked to be able to see me,” said LeMay, who had live online office hours twice a week for each class.

LeMay said not being able to interact with her students face to face is the hardest part of moving classes online.

“The other stuff, I was able to make it work and run with it,” she said. “Not being able to see them and to check in with them, to figure out how they were really doing, that was really hard, particularly for those students who weren’t attending any of the live sessions. Just to know how they were doing academically is a part of it, but also just personally. Were they managing through the crisis?”

Renner agreed checking in with students is important.

“If you have a student who is going through a challenging situation, it’s harder to pick up on that virtually until there are red flags, like when assignments are really behind,” she said.

It’s easier, Renner said, to pick up on clues in face-to-face classes, and some students would come up to her after class to discuss problems or ask for guidance.

“That’s going to be more challenging to keep a close eye on the students and try to see what their needs are and to help meet them,” she said.

Looking back on it, LeMay said she may have taken for granted how much she learned from personal interactions with her students.

“It really stuck out to me how important, in an online environment, it is to make sure those things happen,” she said. “They got to see me as a person. They knew I was checking in with them.”

As for assignments and lessons, LeMay had to make changes there, too. She thought about each assignment and what she wanted students to get out of them. She tried to avoid having them do busy work.

“I realized right away that what I would do in a regular class I couldn’t do online,” said LeMay, who has taught online classes before but it has been a few years. “Online teaching is different than face-to-face. That’s where thinking about student outcomes helped me to narrow the focus for assignments, to streamline it for students.”

As a geology instructor, she has a lot of hands-on assignments, as do many other professors. She admits making new lesson plans was time-consuming, but wasn’t that difficult.

“I will say pretty much every assignment students have had once we went online was different than what I would have done had we been in class,” she said.

She said in lieu of a field trip to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester to collect samples and meet with scientists, she held a Zoom meeting with one of those scientists.

Instead of collecting data, we had assignments that looked at data that was already collected,” LeMay said. “So you miss the collection piece but the data piece was still there.”

She’s considering what is becoming known as reverse videos, where students video themselves doing assignments, such as collecting data, and submit them to the instructor.

“That type of thing, I think, would work really well,” she said.

There still will be opportunities for group work, and she and her colleagues are considering more activities that focus on collecting data, and incorporating virtual field experiences to use in the classroom.

Anderson said group assignments might even help the students in this environment. She said it can “connect them to each other … and not just in a discussion-board typing. They have to call and you hear another human voice.”

Often in those situations, students learn about one another and discover things in common. They learn there might be other single parents in the class, others who are working and going to college, others who are struggling.

“The minute you’re not alone in this big, massive scary thing called college to start with, let alone online college, let alone online college with COVID and race riots and all kinds of stuff … That keeps them going,” Anderson said.

Anderson, who has about 10 years of experience with online teaching, likes to use the whiteboard at the front of the class, prompting interaction with students as they discuss concepts and debate issues.

“For law, legal analysis is really important,” she said. “Here are the facts. Here’s the law, let’s mash them together. What’s your conclusion and how did you get there? Back your point up. Now take the other side’s view. That’s harder to capture online, so that was a change.”

What she tries to do instead is take advantage of other tools. She uses PowerPoint more often, and has more Zoom meetings. She also puts together clips from legal movies to substitute for attending a local courtroom to observe, since many of them are closed.

“The more difficult part is shifting into the mindset of how do you try to make a rigorous experience where someone will feel engaged and get the same materials and get the same kind of attention as you would in a classroom?” she said. “It was a whopper of a shift.”

Renner hopes to incorporate more multimedia into her presentations. She’s been using platforms that allow for a video and discussion to be embedded into a presentation.

“We watched parts of several documentaries as part of a homework assignment. They can actually have a chat and discussion and respond as they watch something,” she said.

LeMay said getting the same learning experience as in an online class is important.

“I would say that was a pretty consistent challenge, at least from those who I heard from,” she said. “How do you translate that online and maintain the same integrity?”

Renner said some of that will require patience on the part of the instructors.

“In the online experience, it takes time for students to find that comfort level and being able to open up,” she said. “You have to guide them, asking questions and also responding. The professor can’t just interact every once in a while. The professor has to keep the students motivated and responding. … That helps to springboard further discussion. Sometimes they’re hesitant.”

For the instructors, there have been positives.

“It definitely stretched me in some ways, squeezed me in others, gave me opportunities to see (my) true self,” LeMay said.

Said Anderson: “I think that has brought to light just how many students really do have basic needs and insecurities. How many of them don’t have access to transportation, food, computers, Internet access. … That has brought up some awareness of things we talk about.”

Taking those situations into consideration is just as important as what materials and lessons to have for class.

“Make yourself available as best you can. Have phone conversations and talk with them,” said Anderson. “The more that you can humanize it, and sometimes it’s just little things, but those little things go a long way.”

One of those for Anderson is preparing as if the class were in person.

“It might be silly, but if I’m going to be talking to students on Zoom, I’m going to brush my hair and put my face on and get dressed,” she said. “Whether they feel that or not, it puts me in a frame of mind that I’m not lying on my bed. I don’t have the dog on my lap. I’m not eating a bowl of chips. It’s class time. They’ve paid for it. I’m here for them. I still want to be professional.”