Multimedia University in Selangor, Malaysia, moved all its classes online 18 March to protect students, staff, and faculty from COVID-19. Since then, life has never been the same for Saravanan Muthaiyah, an information technology professor who has taught many accounting and finance students about topics such as blockchain and virtual banking. Now, instead of speaking with them in the classroom or hallway, he's answering at least 140 emails daily from students, who are craving some sort of human connection.
"In general my students don't like it," Muthaiyah said, referring to remote learning. "They like being with friends, hanging out on campus, the socialising aspect. And one of my students told me that he's very sad that he cannot see me face to face."
Among all the challenges the pandemic has created, two of the most pressing that students face are their feelings of isolation and their lack of in-person relationships during what would often be the most social time of their lives. In a survey of college students by Active Minds, a not-for-profit focused on mental health, 80% of students reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their mental health, while 85% said that focusing on school and work amidst distractions has been their biggest challenge during stay-at-home orders. Students are dealing with stress, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness, and some have suffered a financial setback, the organisation reported.
Finn Kinserdal, a state authorised auditor (the Norwegian equivalent to a CPA), associate professor and head of the accounting, auditing, and law department at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, Norway, has observed a lack of engagement in his classes. Since March, when the school began holding all classes online, Kinserdal has used various teaching strategies in his remote courses to connect with students, including asking questions and seeking responses. Only around "15% to 20% were engaged" in answering these questions, he said.
He then established small chat groups in Zoom's online platform where students could converse with each other in small teams. "I thought that was a brilliant idea," he said. "It didn't work." Only a few students chose to participate in the group chats. Overall, he summarised, "the engagement level is low."
Still, students notice when faculty take the time to help them stay engaged, connected, and supported, said Erika Smith, associate professor and faculty development consultant at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
"Students understand that this is not business as usual, but they appreciate all of the efforts that educators are putting in to make their experience as meaningful as possible," she said.
Muthaiyah, Smith, and Kinserdal offer the following tips for connecting with students on both an academic and human level during this taxing time:
- Embrace low-bandwidth communication. Students can suffer from what Smith calls "Zoom fatigue", where their energy wanes after spending too much time in videoconferences. They "get kind of zapped and worn out", she said. To avoid this online burnout, offer students alternatives to synchronous classes. For example, provide "anytime access to activities such as recordings or text summaries of videoconference presentations", Smith suggested. "The goal is to not overuse high-bandwidth, real-time activities that are taxing technologically and cognitively." Kinserdal has established discussion forums for his courses, where students can interact with him and their peers as well.
- Be flexible and compassionate. While students struggle to adapt to remote learning, professors should reassess their policies and ensure that they are reasonable. For instance, if students are not in attendance for a particular online session, there may be a valid reason, such as a technology glitch or family issue. A penalty may not be in order.
"One of the key things for faculty to do is to be proactive, and think about those problems that students might face," Muthaiyah said. "You have to be a bit more flexible with the students in these circumstances." Faculty can help students find the information they need by creating a list of frequently asked questions for students, and uploading these questions and answers onto the school's learning management platform, he said.
- Insist students engage. Don't just lecture students and expect them to respond. Have them "prepare things or present things" to keep them stimulated, Kinserdal said. Also, he advised, establish communication channels such as live chat functions while teaching. Kinserdal now keeps the chat function on in Zoom when he is teaching online, so he can interact with students, who often want to immediately pose questions. This strategy has bolstered student engagement in his courses significantly, he said.
- Be creative. What worked in the classroom may not work online, so "instructors need to improve their mode of delivery" of their courses, Muthaiyah said. He engages students by including short games with their assignments. These games make learning more fun and appealing. "Instructors have to make the content more interesting for their students," he noted.
Professors can also have students "work together solving a problem that a real-life company is facing today”, Smith said. This can help students see the relevance of course material.
- Find new ways to be responsive to students. To feel more connected, students are reaching out to professors via email more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty have found they have had to be more responsive to help students cope with challenges. "Normally I'm strict about not having too many chats with students, but I had to open up so I had literally hundreds of emails per day," Kinserdal said about the period from March through June.
To cut down on the amount of email they receive while still interacting with students, some professors use the chat function and group discussion forums on Canvas or connect with students via Facebook, Kinserdal said. He holds sessions on the Teams and Zoom platforms where students can ask questions.
Since students’ emails often involve questions about using remote learning technology, provide some brief tips via text or short videos to help students navigate the learning management system, Smith suggested.
Online office hours or one-on-one online consultations can be another way to interact with students. Smith holds virtual office hours "where students can bring their questions and discuss items in real time over audio- or videoconference", she said.
Muthaiyah has remote conferences with individual students, who, he noted, may not feel comfortable asking questions in online public sessions. "Emails can sometimes be misunderstood, so instead of writing too many emails that might not at all solve the problem, the online consultation approach helps a lot," he said.
Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien.