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Ask Professors: How Can Students Shine in Online Classrooms?

“Everyone kind of assumes that undergrad students are the tech generation and digital natives so they will know what’s going on but that’s actually not true. Students know a lot about social media but don’t necessarily know how to learn online, which requires a lot of time and space management.”

David Davies, Professor of Anthropology at Hamline University

Online classes are a great way for students to access learning opportunities around the globe. They have become an especially useful mode for learning as education providers turn to the industry to connect and communicate with students in the wake of school closures due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As of June 2020, 98 percent of U.S. higher education institutions have moved the majority of their in-person courses online to support the 22.3 million students impacted by nationwide stay-at-home orders, according to OnlineEducation.Org.

While online courses provide flexibility and accessibility for students and communicators to connect virtually, it is important that students be able to set aside and commit time to managing the workload that comes with distance learning.

We talked to a professor teaching online classes in the fallout of the pandemic to find out about challenges in moving to the online education model from in-person classes and how students can prepare themselves to shine in online classrooms.

Meet the Professor: David Davies

David Davies

David Davies, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the East Asian Studies Program at Hamline University

David Davies is a professor of anthropology and the director of the East Asian Studies program at Hamline University, a small liberal arts college in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He has extensive research, fieldwork, and professional experience in East Asia with a primary emphasis on China. In the past, Davies also served as the American co-director at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center in China in 2011, and from 2016 to 2018.

Davies holds a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Washington. He has extensive research and work experience in East Asia with a primary emphasis on China. For the past 25 years, he has published on a wide range of topics from the social memory and nostalgia for socialism in China to the rise of celebrity entrepreneurs in the country’s freewheeling market economy.

Q&A with Professor David Davies Have there been any learning curves to teaching online and the digital classroom environment?

Professor Davies: When I first started teaching back in 2002, I was actually hired to teach two classes online nationwide. At that time, I found online teaching to be very frustrating due to limited technology. This time, when the classes this semester moved online due to the pandemic, it happened pretty easily for me. While there were a lot of faculty freaking out and uncomfortable with the idea, I didn’t really have a problem with it. I found some tools pretty quickly that allowed me to organize groups of students and speak face to face with them in real time as part of the various digital ways I used to keep in touch with students.

While there was a learning curve in terms of finding what tools I needed to achieve class objectives, once I did find them these tools really lent themselves to multi-tiered group work. This is because they enabled a group of students doing group work for the class to connect in multiple ways, and we used these tools in my classes consistently.

I think the biggest thing I was unprepared for was that the experience of the pandemic was not just an experience of students going online but an experience of students suddenly getting their world turned upside down and being thrown into really uncertain circumstances. Some of their parents got laid off, some of them immediately lost their jobs. All of them were suddenly rushed in this sort of situation where they had to deal with me and the university through their computers in an unfamiliar way.

Many of these undergraduate students really need faculty to coach and mentor them. So not only was getting in touch with students important, but also figuring out how to push and motivate them while also being sensitive to the uniqueness of living in a pandemic.

Professor Davies’ Online Learning Toolkit

Tool Professor Davies’ Notes
Zoom So the biggest thing for me was, to the extent possible, keep classes meeting regularly. While some of my colleagues wanted to go to asynchronous classes and let students get the work done at their own pace, that was never something that I considered. It is important for my classes that we meet regularly to stay connected.

We actually would spend the first half hour of every class just checking in and talking about what was going on and how everyone was doing. I would go around to each video rectangle and say, “I want to hear from you, I want to hear from you, and so on.” It was not really free flowing conversation but allowed each student to check in mentally to the online learning space.

Milanote One more secret tool I was proud to find is an online workspace called Milanote, and I want to share that tool with people. It’s a shared collaborative workspace that allows you to do everything from storyboarding ideas to making to-do lists and checklists.

I set up all my students up in the workspace and would use Zoom to break into work groups which allowed them to share their computer screens. This way they could see each others’ virtual workspace in real time while discussing and outlining what they were going to do for the next class. I found it works really well to connect the students to the class and each other.

Google Drive Google Drive was useful for students to share documents with each other and myself. I created a shared drive space on the platform for students to post their projects and return assignments. Do you see a difference in students’ engagement and learning via online platforms vs traditional classrooms?

Professor Davies: Yes. So teaching online is very different from in person in some important ways. Some were better and some were worse.

In-person classes can often help undergraduates be accountable to the classroom, the professor, and their classmates. But a lot of that falls away when you go virtual. So when moving classes online, it helps to change assignments so that students are accountable to other students and that the work that those students collectively do is accountable to the class. This way you give the students connection to the class across different layers.

A lot of students also reported problems staying engaged because their workspace was gone. Many of them were back at home or with roommates. Many of them were trying to work on the same couch that their roommates were using to watch Netflix on where their brother or sister were playing video games. So the collapse between the space of home in the space of class was a real problem for a lot of them. They couldn’t find a place to work or a time to get work done.

So by making them responsible to each other as well as the class and then to me as the professor…I think [it] gave them more layers of investment and connection to the class.

Another thing different about online learning is that because everybody was a rectangle on a screen and everybody was in the same situation there was kind of democratic leveling to the class that doesn’t happen in person.

Everyone felt uncomfortable participating online because it was new for everyone so the experience felt shared. Furthermore, you didn’t see the usual situation where one or two students always talk; it was much more no one wanting to talk because they were unfamiliar with learning online. This also extended to group work, which was also leveled as a playing field because everybody was working in this shared virtual space.

It became quickly apparent that you need to participate in the class or you disappear. In a physical classroom if I’m sitting there quietly, I’m still physically present being quiet, whereas in a virtual work environment if you’re not actively participating or talking you kind of slip away. And so students made a lot more effort to maintain their presence in the classroom.

Another interesting aspect is that with Zoom and other online tools, students can send private messages directly to the professor. So students who may be uncomfortable asking a question in a bigger classroom could just send me a side message asking, “Hey, can you talk about this?” And that was kind of a unique strength of online learning I would potentially add to in-person classes.

The last thing I’ll say on this topic is while half the class would be freaking out about being in a pandemic, on the flip side since everybody was in the same boat people did have this sense of being together even in an unfamiliar environment. So we shared a camaraderie or connection through that that will be memorable for years to come. How can students shine in the online classroom and get the most out of their distance learning experience?

Professor Davies: So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot and there are a couple of things—some of them are small and some of them are rather large.

First, students need to figure out how to go online and learn online very quickly. We read about that a lot and educators sought out answers to how to achieve this quickly. But no one really thought about preparing the students.

Everyone kind of assumes that undergrad students are the tech generation and digital natives so they will know what’s going on, but that’s actually not true. Students know a lot about social media but don’t necessarily know how to learn online, which requires a lot of time and space management.

To excel, students need to establish a space for study and work—a couch won’t do. Establishing a routine is also critical: get up at a regular time, shave, and get dressed. They need to mentally prepare and get ready, so some of those rituals will help prepare them for class online.

Another important aspect is that students who really rely on faculty to hold them accountable to get their work done or be in class are going to have the biggest problem because that all just falls away with online learning. Many students will have to mature in ways they may not have ever had to do before really fast. They need to get up, turn their computers on, and be present in class. For some students in my classes, that was really easy; for other students, it was really a challenge.

Students in an online environment need to put forward a lot more effort to get the education that they might have otherwise just been given. For example, a professor can lecture, but students need to reach into their computer and be active learners the way that faculty always dream they would be in order to really grasp the course material through online learning.

The last thing is that students need to give themselves a break when adjusting to online learning. Anecdotally the students that had the hardest time were the “A” students—the really detail-oriented and I-need-to-get-everything-in-on-time students. From what I saw, those students had the hardest time adapting.

The students that were most resilient were the “B” students. They were the ones that tend to be good at balancing work, life, and school. So students need to realize that they need to give themselves a break in the adjustment period to working in an unfamiliar and virtual space.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.