In the wake of stay at home orders and economic collapse, many online students–despite being well versed in Zoom, familiar with the format of online discussions, and already adjusted to learning online–are starting to show strain. Even in the best of times, it is difficult for students to maintain enthusiasm and passion about their learning, but in our era of coronavirus, it is now almost impossible. Compassion in online learning is now more important than ever, and in order to express the necessary compassion and care from a distance, the following practices are critical to online instruction.
Invite sharing. In a face-to-face course, students often chat about their own lives and experiences in the moments before and after a class starts and ends. This water cooler talk serves as a valuable release for students, and helps them relate and receive support from their peers and instructor. Mimicking this sort of informal sharing space in an online course is vital. This might look like starting a Zoom session 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled time, or creating an ongoing course chat. The goal is to create an unstructured time and space in which students can share day-to-day struggles and triumphs with others who can relate and respond. On a consistent basis, this practice can help students feel a little more connected and a little less alone in their struggles.
Be vulnerable. Instructors focused on cultivating a sense of stability for their students must also remember that it is acceptable to share in the strangeness of this experience. While there are limits to what an instructor can and should share in the classroom, it is possible to acknowledge the uncertain, tragic, and absurd aspects of this time. When students express their worries about the world and their lives, the instructor can acknowledge that what we are all facing together is unprecedented. Share stories about toilet paper scarcity and making your own face masks. Let your cats wander onscreen so everyone can say hello. Students will benefit from knowing that their instructor is experiencing everything alongside them.
Share resources. While many instructors habitually make students aware of the resources available to them, now might be a time to share or collect that information in a more meaningful way. Make sure students know who to contact for financial assistance, psychological services, and disaster relief. Put it all in one place that students can consult as need arises. If a particular student’s need becomes apparent, do not be afraid to reach out on an individual basis.
Create warmth. Now more than ever, creating a sense of instructor warmth and presence within a course is paramount. The key to doing this well is to be authentic, consistent, and student-focused. You could share lighthearted stories and bits of advice in emails to students, or reach out to them individually with encouragement if they are struggling through a particularly rough patch. You could also share memes, create silly polls, and hold additional office hours. How an instructor creates warmth depends on personality, mood, context, and more, but creating that warmth week to week, reaching out continually, and treating students as individuals helps students feel acknowledged and supported in a trying time.
In this era of uncertainty, instructors cannot tell their students when it will be safe to return to normal life or when the economy might stabilize. However, even in online courses, they can tend to their students’ emotional well-being along with their learning. Offering compassion in online learning can combat some of the discouragement, worry, and exhaustion students experience—and give them the boost they need to keep striving.
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