By Ali Arya, Associate Dean (Planning and Awards), Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs & Associate Professor, School of Information Technology

Working from home and taking online courses are not new phenomena, but the COVID-19 global crisis made them household topics for all of us. Online courses saved our winter term (thanks to the great collaboration between instructors and students, and support from the university), and they are going to stick around for the summer and possibly fall terms. They might even become a more significant and permanent part of our educational system. As we try to solve all logistic issues to move our courses online (and turn off our video streams to hide our messy hair and pyjamas), we might overlook something essential: the need for human connections and interactions.

The university community is planning and sharing experiences on how to run our courses online. Among many suggestions, one being raised increasingly is to avoid synchronous sessions. It is a good one that I have advocated myself. We should not assume that students are physically and mentally available on fixed schedules during the pandemic times. Even beyond the pandemic, one of the main points of online education is to be self-paced. This becomes more important if we consider the issue of time zones and students who register in courses while not living here.

One thing that is not being emphasized as much, though, is the fact that students need interaction, even in an online course, and particularly during hard times such as a pandemic. A class is not just about available content; it is a social experience. And for new online course instructors, it is easy to forget about the “people” who are taking the course. When we don’t see them, students can turn into a file submitted for an assignment or a set of answers to a quiz. We might forget that beyond the screens of our computers, there are real people with real social and emotional needs. These people frequently seek interaction, both for their academic and social challenges. Sometimes they want to ask a question that is too hard to explain through back and forth emails or present their work to a live audience instead of a black void; and some other times, they just need to chat, hear another person’s voice, or see a friendly face.

A successful educational experience is the result of a relationship of trust between two people: student and instructor. For this to happen, both need to see the other as a real person and have the ability to interact with them. While synchronous interaction, especially running full lectures online, should be limited, the personal connections should not get lost. Without any doubt, designing and running online are difficult tasks and courses require significant institutional support, but here are some suggestions for individual instructors to consider to achieve a better connection to students:

  • Limited synchronous sessions (such as office hours, group meetings and short introductions to topics)
  • Revising the course content and tasks to show you are being responsive to what happens and how things are progressing
  • Customizing assignments and projects based on each student’s strengths and needs
  • Discussion boards with timely responses
  • Meaningful and fast feedback for submissions
  • Group work
  • Regular (e.g. weekly) announcements that are not generic and reflect on what happened and what is coming up
  • Reflective assignments where students get to talk about how they feel and think about their experience
  • Anonymous surveys followed by the discussion of results and plans to address the concerns
  • Short social online activities (synchronous and asynchronous)

The internet is supposed to be a means of connecting to people, not a wall hiding them. There are human beings out there, even if we don’t see them. And we all need each other. Now more than before.