This entry focuses on the care in mentorship we professors have the duty to provide students participating in our online courses. From the professor’s viewpoint, starting at the time of the beginning of the course (or before) we can open the roster of grading page and see our list of students. If we have a Discussion Board thread where students introduce themselves, their brief writings about themselves, and perhaps a photo and favorite YouTube music cut (suggestions from one of my colleges), are nice ways to get to know the students beyond the grading page of just their name and grade progress. The grading page is still the place I go to most often in my course pages, as verification of material progress is still a main role of mine even while students go through the materials I have positioned or prepared for them for the basics of learning. So we get to know our students somewhat amid these various means; how then do we mentor, and be about as effective as if we were all together in person?
There are several angles worth exploration. The first I’ll address is “rescuing students;” for online, how to help them finish an online course when they stop participating, which will usually lead to an “F.” The effect is similar to a student ceasing attendance in a brick-and-mortar class, and it takes an equally sharp eye to catch in an online classroom. As you grade others’ weekly or modular work, you realize there’s a short blank line of cells where the indicator of submitted work should be. For some online course pages, you may be able to see the last time the student opened and viewed it. What makes this detection even more complex is in courses where students may turn in work late; it is hard to tell when they have really stopped efforts in your course.
Sometimes you cannot do much; institutions often require a student be dropped if the student did no participation in the course in its first week, among other reasons as a measure to minimize possible financial aid fraud. But if the institution site includes your student rosters with their phone number, you can call them at appropriate hours to speak to them – or, if there are no numbers available to you, an email advisory. If several drop anyway but you save one or two students who were about to drop the class, it is worth the total effort. After the first week, professors can continue to pursue students who “fall off,” though if students have dedicated academic advisors, I email the advisor to ask them to contact the student.
More frequently, students want and appreciate help with only slightly lower stakes; clarification and encouragement that they can succeed in earning a grade reflective of their mastery of the material in the final, end-of-course project, or the overall course itself. We designers of the courses tend to forget sometimes that there will be those who lack confidence and feel for a while that they just can’t do what you have structured for them. Others are not sure why assignments, or even the course itself, are structured as they are. Indeed, the course may make more sense to the scholar who has had a chance to explore associated literature on the topic or field, and for students, this usually has not happened yet, except in other courses. For these reasons, and to effectively answer questions or clarify minor points of all kinds, I recommend the following that I try to do: answer/respond/open a dialogue quickly.
When a student email arrives, I seek to find the answer (it is best to check what you think that is!) and reply in the same day, often immediately so I do not move on to other activities and forget. If an exam malfunctioned, I will not go away from my computer until I have cleared it or otherwise fixed it, and sent a reply – the student may be pressed for time and waiting. For courtesy’s sake in general, I answer queries of all kinds, including career advice if asked. I do the same with calls – my goal is to resolve an issue that I assess should be rapidly, and confirming what I did. These are not novel ideas, but in fact guidance from all my institutions where I work to serve well the students and help them have a fair opportunity at taking on the course’s challenges.
These offerings all pertain to when the course is underway. Of course, before the course’s start date and while preparing, a professor can design professor’s notes, announcements, add videos that carry a point, and sort what is presented to the student on the course pages with the strategy of maximizing the chance of a positive reaction and motivation to explore what is offered within the course. All of these techniques of effort, deliberate or on-the-spot (virtually), support the value that our students deserve the most conscientious learning experience we can provide – we just have had to learn how to do this online.